Another great U.S. Open has come and gone. Congratulations to Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal on going into the record books with another impressive Grand Slam singles championship.
Yet receiving almost as much press as the victors was the fourth-round ousting of Roger Federer, one of the greatest male players in tennis history. In a four-set folly, fans witnessed the 17-time Grand Slam champion commit 43 unforced errors.
This comes off a second-round drubbing at Wimbledon for Federer at the hands of the world’s 116th ranked player. Not surprisingly, sports writers, columnists, commentators and bloggers have started to loudly call on the 32-year-old Federer to retire.
I hope Federer stays in the game a little longer. Playing at the pro level in any sport is hard, and in tennis it’s particularly easy for the chinks in the armor to show due to the one-on-one nature of competitive singles play. Chronic injuries and aging are often the culprits exposing subtle flaws that mean the difference between being ranked in the Top 10 or falling out of the Top 100.
Russian Anna Chakvetadze, a former Top 10 player, retired recently at age 26 due to chronic back injuries. She was ranked 577 when she announced she was leaving the game. American John Blake, once ranked No. 4 in the world, has been out of the Top 100 for well over a year. The popular 33-year-old player, who lost a five-set match at this year’s U.S. Open, no longer plans to compete at the pro level.
Yet there’s no reason to believe any player will totally give up the game – they just won’t be playing it competitively. Tennis is for a lifetime – that’s the UTSA motto. But as we age, modifications to your game are important to keep it fun and healthy.
Whether it’s the type of equipment you use, the surface you play on, or adapting new techniques or strategy to help make up for slower reaction time and/or power, there are a number of things you can do as you age to keep playing.
Preparation Time: As we age, soft tissue becomes less flexible, so it’s important to take time to warm up and stretch, and not just the legs. Your back takes a pounding from twisting and those powerful overhead slams, so stretch the lower and upper back. Lying flat on your back, bringing your knees toward your chest and letting them slump toward your right hip, then toward your left, is a great stretch for those lower back muscles.
If you have suffered knee or elbow injuries, you may need to take time for braces or wraps to provide extra support and warmth.
The Equipment Edge: In golf, older players who lose swing momentum tend to play with more flexible clubs to help them hang on to distance. It’s the same in tennis. As power fades, a more flexible racquet can help make up some of that difference. Don’t try to swing harder and faster as that can lead to shoulder and elbow injuries. Let the racquet do the work. Adjusting string tension is also a smart idea – taking it down so the ball gets more recoil action.
Strategies for life: If you love the excitement of serve and volley, of charging the net, you don’t have to give it up. But if you start to see your reaction and speed are slipping, it’s time to learn the joys of playing more on the back court. Take some pace off the ball and start mastering the position game. Make your opponent do more of the running while you look for the right opportunity to charge.
Finally, keep in mind that there are always exceptions to the aging rule – at least for a little while. Canadian doubles player Daniel Nestor just played in his 21st U.S. Open. At 41, he is the oldest regular player on the men’s tour, and he plans to play through next year. Maybe the answer to tennis longevity is in sharpening up your doubles game.
See you on the court.
Dr. Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff, a former professional tennis player on the WTA Circuit, heads the Non-Surgical Center of Texas, focusing on non-surgical alternatives to relive pain and repair injuries. Learn more about her at www.drzmd.com.