A Matter of Fitness

AUSSIE OPEN SEMIFINAL MATCH SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

If you don’t want to know the outcome of the Djokovic-Murray semifinal match, stop reading now!

I watched that match with great interest, especially as it moved into the 5th set.  Both players were looking a bit fatigued, and it was obvious that this match was going to come down to who was the most fit – both physically and mentally.  While Djokovic has traditionally been plagued with physical ailments which caused him to either retire matches or lose them outright, Murray has been plagued with fatigue of the mental sort but has always been a beast physically.  Today was different.  Murray seemed to lose his legs early in the final set, struggling to stay in points long enough to do damage to his opponent.  Somehow, he found a last burst of energy to come back from a 2-5 deficit, but, eventually, Djokovic had a little more in the tank and was able to close out the match 7-5 in the 5th.

Why is this important to note?  Because our junior players are no longer being pushed to their physical limits in tournament play.  Many tournaments, even those at the highest national level, have gone to playing a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a 3rd set and to playing short sets in the case of weather delays.  When our American kids are across the net from their European or South American or Asian counterparts, are they going to be able to withstand the physical – and mental – pressure of playing for three full sets?

And, it’s not just the length of the match that is in question – it’s also the style of play our kids are being taught.  As Greek coach Chris Karageorgiades told me,  “The game in Europe is more physical because their philosophy is different. In the US it has traditionally been about developing players with big weapons (namely serve and forehand). This is changing in order for players to better prepare for what has become a more physical game which is played from the back of the court.  Whether this is a good or bad decision for the future of American tennis remains to be seen.”   If you watched any of the Djokovic-Murray match, you saw some incredible points that involved 20+ shots moving the ball side-to-side and front-to-back.  To stay in that type of point – over and over again for an entire match – takes incredible leg strength, stamina, and fitness.  I’m concerned that our American juniors are not being adequately prepared for this type of protracted battle.

Two-time Australian Open Champion and current junior coach Johan Kriek shared with me the following:  “May I say, that growing up in S[outh] A[frica] on a farm with no TV, no X-box, no video games was a huge plus in my future physical make-up…today’s kids are digital…they need to be pushed, and push I do …the good ones will excel, the wimps will bail!”  Johan puts his players through fitness training every day:  the older kids working out in the gym, the younger ones working with resistance bands.  His biggest worry is that mediocrity is being accepted as normal, which he views as a societal ill that he just doesn’t tolerate with his players.

I know there’s been a lot of talk on the part of USTA about having the junior players train and compete more on clay, taking a page out of the Spanish book.  But, I’ve also heard that our American green clay is very different from the red dirt and that it doesn’t provide for the same type of movement and long points as the red stuff.  If that’s the case, are we wasting our time?  What can we do better?

Johan goes on to say that “Murray and Djokovic are fit, but that does not mean that the mind fatigues as well, and that has equal input in the body not functioning, the two are hugely connected. If you believe you can win ,the mind will push the body beyond human capacities, we see that in tennis and people that had to use enormous courage to survive near death etc, it is not the body that controls the mind, it is the mind that controls the body.  That is what separates the good players from the awesome players, not the strokes, they are all great! But the ‘head’.”

This is not only about being competitive on the professional level because, let’s face it, most of our kids aren’t on that path.  It’s also about positioning our kids to be competitive when it comes to playing college tennis.  They are up against foreign players again and again for scholarships and spots on college teams.  If they don’t have the physical and/or mental fitness skills to fight through long points and matches, how are they going to convince college coaches to give them one of a very few coveted spots on the team?

Q&A with Coach Roy Coopersmith

Over the next several months, I will be doing Q&As with tennis coaches from around the globe.  I hope you will find these articles useful as you navigate the world of junior tennis.  For me, it’s helpful to hear how other coaches do things and what their philosophies are regarding competing, training, parental involvement, college, the pro tour, etc.  Each coach is so different and has a different set of experiences to share with our children and with us.

Today, I’m so pleased to introduce Roy Coopersmith.  Roy played tennis in junior college – spots 1, 2, and 3.   He  played professionally while stationed in Europe in the Army, having two very impressive wins over the number 25 and 38 ranked ATP players.  He was also on the All Army team for 7 years, winning the interservice tournament.  Roy was ranked #1 in the Middle States USTA section in singles and doubles 35-and-overs and ranked 21 nationally after playing only 3 tournaments.  He has coached many top WTA players, including Christina Singer (who lost 6-3 in the 3rd set in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to Chris Evert), former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, and Jamea Jackson, as well as many ATP players ranked 100-200.  Roy also coached ATP player Phillip Kohlschreiber when he was in the juniors.  He gave up coaching on the WTA and ATP tours to settle down as the Tennis Director at Pine Bluff Country Club in Arkansas.  He now coaches his daughter, a top USTA junior, as well as other aspiring young players.  A big thank you to Roy for taking the time to share his thoughts with ParentingAces!

Roy with Jelena Jankovic

PA:  How do you think junior tennis training and development in the US compares to that in other countries where you’ve coached?

RC:  The major difference between USA and Europe and Asia where I have lived (Spain, Germany, Croatia,Turkey, India, Vietnam, Philippines) is college scholarships are secondary to trying to become a pro player.  Training in Europe is much more demanding and much more physical.

PA:  What are some of the worst parental behavior faux-pas you’ve seen and where were they?

RC:  The worst?  In Asia I saw a boy beaten with a belt and in the head with a belt buckle [see photo below].  My friend had to pull one dad away from beating his son with wire while I was coaching in India.  In the USA it’s more just parents showing displeasure when their child loses or plays badly.  I have seen a few fisticuffs here though.  I saw a dad take his son to the doctor and the doctor told the dad the 14 year old boy shouldn’t play tennis for 4 weeks.   So the dad made the doctor give the boy 2 cortisone shots just to play an adult tournament.  Needless to say, this put the boy out for more than 4 weeks.

Welts from being beaten with a belt and belt buckle

PA: What is your biggest challenge being both Dad and Coach to your daughter?

RC:  Hmmm . . . Biggest challenge?  I guess making sure I get back in time to pick up Niki when her match finishes and still ask the right coaching questions about her game and her thoughts on how she played and what happened.  This is because I let her play her match all by herself and leave the facility.  Niki and I discussed how she likes me to observe, and we decided best to let her play free without judgement – meaning her coach is not watching and neither is her dad, so she doesn’t have to worry about what either of them is thinking when she is playing.  Then I revert to Dad role and drop tennis talk and go get a Sonic shake.  Niki loves the whipped cream on the top.  At home I “try” never to talk tennis with Niki unless we study it on the computer.  My wife, a former top 100 WTA player, has to remember Niki has one coach and my wife’s role is as a sparring partner for Niki only.  We prefer she only reminds Niki what I have said.  Too many voices can confuse a player, so we try to keep it to only my voice.  Although our son who is 4 and loves tennis will yell out coaching tips as well!

PAIf there is one thing you want tennis parents to know, what is it?

RC:  I want to educate the parents of kids I coach about technique and tactics.  I tell them what to look for and what to tell their child if a tournament match goes 3 sets because they are allowed to coach during the break.  I explain that I cannot nor will I be at all their child’s matches but they probably will.  This being said, I do request parents not to coach their child while their child is on court with me.  They parrot my coaching phrases without a clue as to why or when I use them.  So best to let the coach coach, and I will allow the parent to parent.

Again, a big thank you to Roy!  If you have questions you’d like to ask, please put them in the Comments box below – I will be happy to forward them to him.