John Isner, other top pros train for 2016 season at Tampa's Saddlebrook
On the court or in the gym, offseason training allows players to step away from the grind of the tour and focus on both their bodies and their skills. Even if only for a few weeks.
At Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Fla., touring pro director Rene Moller says the offseason serves as a time for players, such as top American John Isner, doubles specialist Martina Hingis and the top French female player Caroline Garcia, to spend ample time working on specific areas of need.
“It differs for each guy with different body types, different needs,” he says. “There is more time on the track and more time in the gym. Some need to lose weight; some need to gain weight. We specialize it for that person’s needs.”
Moller handles a group of about 10 players who call Saddlebrook their year-round home. When they aren’t playing in a tournament, they skip back to Saddlebrook for more training. In the offseason, though, more players stroll into the popular training spot for workouts and the camaraderie and challenge that come with the competition.
As the offseason starts, Moller puts players through two fitness sessions a day, generally with one on the track or the field and one in the weight room. Players may hit the tennis courts for just 45 minutes to an hour each day. By the second week, the two-a-day fitness times may decrease slightly, as the tennis time increases. By the third and fourth week, players are on the court for three hours and time in the gym is decreased to 60 to 90 minutes.
“The gym and track tapers off as the month progresses and tennis becomes a lot more prevalent,” Moller says. “The game has changed a lot, it has become so much more physical and demanding and fitness has become a lot more important for these guys. In general, the majority of tennis players are spending a lot more time in the gym doing fitness and Pilates. They are practicing as much as they used to, but in general most of the players are in the gym more hours than on an actual tennis court.”
That fine line of rest always creeps up in a conversation about tennis training. With an 11-month season, staying healthy and maintaining that health, Moller says, remains the toughest thing about the sport, a struggle for every coach.
But there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Take the 6'10" Isner, for example, who recently signed a sponsorship agreement with Fila and will begin his 2016 season in Melbourne at the Australian Open. “He’s not going to be out on the track running a lot,” Moller says. “His body can’t really handle that. He will be spending time in the gym—his cardio will be on the bike or treadclimber because they are low impact, but he will still be able to get his cardio work in, get strength work in and do shoulder rehab.”
That style of training doesn’t work, though, for American Tim Smyczek. The 5'9" quick-mover needs that track workout to get quicker, Moller says. “The speed and running is a lot more important for those guys.” For example, track exercises that focus on crossover techniques to recover from deep corners—so players aren’t skipping and losing time—proves key for making players better prepared on the court.
Whether the offseason or during the tour’s grind, so much of each player’s routines focuses around recovery. “With the new string technology, we are seeing a lot more guys with rotator cuff injuries,” Moller says. “Shoulder maintenance has become a lot more important. It is all very, very tailored to the person’s needs, their body type and style of play. The training protocols are very, very different. It varies a lot.”
While the protocols vary greatly, Moller says having so many pro-level players in one place provides a little extra something for the player that doesn’t change. “As coaches we can only do so much,” he says. “I like to believe that having these guys here creating an environment to compete and beat each other up is really what is making them better. Us, as coaches, are doing a small part.”
Moller says that during tennis drills, the competition levels skyrocket when the pros compete. The intensity level of two-on-ones or even consistency drills ratchets up. The ability to play practice matches against each other prior to a Slam also sharpens players. “The cream rises to the top in that environment,” Moller says. “Every one wants to outdo the other. Having a healthy, competitive environment is very important. It is one of the keys.”
Once the season kicks off, Moller hits the road to help maintain what players have built and practiced during this short offseason, returning back to Saddlebrook to be there for players as needed. “The weeks back here training, we are trying to build on a change of technique and fitness,” Moller says. “That is when improvement is really happening. On the road, I’m working on game plans against certain players and keeping them happy, trying to maintain the improvements they’ve made.”
With the first Grand Slam of the season just weeks away, players will focus on the hard court, but the fact that Saddlebrook has all Grand Slam surfaces on site makes it a popular stopover point during the season as players make the transition. “It is such an adjustment to make, going from clay to fast, low-bouncing grass,” Moller says.
The grind of tennis tours allows only brief respites, small windows in which to retool and train. Moller has helped turn Saddlebrook into a haven for players. Even if only for weeks at a time.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.