Serving up energy: the seven best foods for pro tennis players
Fueling up for an uninterrupted multi-hour match in warm, humid weather on an unshaded and unforgiving surface requires a specific dietary strategy different from one intended for, say, running marathons, playing in the NBA, or starting a football game. Failing to hit tennis’s narrow nutritional bulls-eye has caused many pro players to suffer on-court (you can still see the online video of Pete Sampras vomiting during the 1996 US Open), and at Forest Hills, sports nutritionists say, even minor dietary mistakes can add up to major losses.
“You’re talking about matches that last numerous hours and can include up to 10 miles of running broken up into short, little sprints, so it’s much different from events like football that have a specific start and stop time,” says Page Love, the on-site dietitian at last year’s US Open and head nutritionist for the men’s ATP Tour. “The caloric expenditure can be quite high, and players are very limited in what they’re able to take in during the short changeovers between play.”
Here, Love and the on-site dietitian at this year’s US Open, Susie Parker-Simmons, share the seven best foods for success at the most competitive tennis tournament on American soil.
1. Pasta. Pro tennis players who avoid carbs—and they do exist on the ATP Tour—won’t get very far at Forest Hills. “In our society right now, it’s all about protein, and carbs is a bad word,” says Parker-Simmons. “But an athlete’s fuel supply comes from carbs, and while there’s definitely some fats involved, protein plays a role of something like only five percent. I’ve seen too many times when insufficient carb [intake] affects a player’s performance.” Parker-Simmons and Love recommend that pro athletes load up on a low-fiber, carb-rich food such as pasta two hours before court time. “It’s a tennis player’s comfort food,” say Love of pasta. “It’s bland, it’s easy to digest, and it gives you a slow steady flow of glucose, which stabilizes energy levels right before you go on the court.” What if a player is gluten-free like top-ranked Novak Djokovic? Love says many tournaments now cater to players with food sensitivities, and those who don’t eat wheat can find gluten-free pasta on site.
2. Energy bars. A player’s pre-match carb intake hardly stops at pasta. About an hour before they’re scheduled to go on court, Love advises athletes to eat a carb-rich energy bar to help top off their glucose supplies. “Many energy bars have the kind of quick carbs players can use, and they’re portable, so they travel well. It’s almost like a bagel in a bar,” Love says. So why not just eat a bagel? “We try to promote real food first, but the reality is, when these athletes are traveling, they want things they’re used to,” she says. The best pre-match bars are high in carbs, not protein, she adds. “Those high-protein bars can be so heavy, it’s like having a whole chicken breast before a match,” says Love.
3. Energy gels. Once a match starts, athletes have only 90 seconds during changeovers and 120 seconds during set breaks to rest, refuel, and rehydrate. That’s why energy gels, or packets of suckable, semifluid sugar, have become clutch to pro players. “Gels provide some electrolytes and more easily digestible carbohydrates in the form of maltodextrin, which is a quick source of fuel, but also has some starch, so it’s not just straight sugar dumping into your bloodstream,” Love says. Parker-Simmons likes gels because they give players another option to traditional sports drinks. “Some people don’t like sports drinks because they’re very sweet, but they’ll take gels because they’re a more concentrated source of carbs, and all you have to do is have one with a little water,” she says.
4. Energy beans, bloks, blasts, chews, and chomps. Chances are, you’ve seen these marvels of modern sports nutrition and mistaken them at first for candy. Beans, bloks, blasts, chews, chomps: Whatever companies call them, these sugar-packed products are made to look and taste similar to jelly beans, gummy bears, or Starburst, but like sports gels, they give athletes a quick hit of electrolytes along with a more digestible source of carbs. And there’s another added benefit to the product category. “There’s a psychological component, because it’s like candy and it reminds these athletes of being a kid,” says Parker-Simmons. “When a player is struggling, that’s when I come out with some energy beans or chews—it’s comforting, and it can actually influence their outlook.”
5. Tomato juice. Hang around gyms and sporting events often enough, and you’ll hear some unconventional beverages like pickle juice or guava concentrate touted as the new way to replace low salt stores or overhaul performance. But Love warns pro players not to swallow the hype, literally—pickle juice is not what you want to chug after a hard match. But there is one exception: tomato juice. “Players lose a lot of sodium during matches, and if you have a really heavy sweat rate, this is a great way to get hydrated afterward,” she says of the juice. “It’s got a little carbs, an excellent amount of salt, and it’s liquid, too.” For athletes who like the thick tomatoey taste, Love recommends drinking the juice 30 to 45 minutes after a match—the drink is too acidic to use before play.
6. Chocolate milk. When you play more than one match in the same day—the fate of many top players at the US Open—your recovery nutrition becomes even more critical. “Recovery is really important if you’re going to be physically active again in the next eight hours,” Parker-Simmons says. Yet as much as players know they need to eat, many have a difficult time wolfing down solid food 45 minutes after a match—your body’s ideal window for muscle recovery. “Liquids are often better because they go down easier, and they’re not as filling—you can just drink them because you’re already thirsty,” she says. This is where recovery shakes like Muscle Milk come into an athlete’s nutritional plan, but both Love and Parker-Simmons say chocolate milk can work just as well to repair tired, shredded muscle. “It’s a great, palatable way to get in protein, which players need right after exercise for muscle synthesis,” Love says.
7. Any complex carbohydrate. Carbs should be the mainstay of a pro player’s diet, both before and after the US Open. “A few hours after players wrap up a match, they need to eat a good amount of complex carbs to help replace their muscle glycogen,” Love says. “And they can really eat any whole grain they like—brown rice, whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta.” Parker-Simmons recommends athletes find a few favorite foods high in complex carbs and alternate them during the week of competition to maximize exposure to a range of nutrients. “I like to see players eat a variety of grains—quinoa one day, pasta the next,” she says.