Play Tennis at a High Level
No Matter Your Age
Ed McGrogan | October 11, 2017
Tennis truly is the sport for a lifetime. To make sure that you continue to excel in the game as you age, follow these tips:
Here’s the bottom line for anybody who wants to play well into middle age, and beyond: be fit, or suffer the consequences. Conditioning preordains much about any player’s game, but it becomes even more paramount with age. Sure, anybody with a booming serve or knockout ground strokes will always have a puncher’s chance – especially in doubles, where there’s less real estate to cover – but generally speaking, staying in top shape allows for the speed, flexibility and power everybody requires on the court.
“Every one of us is fit,” 68-year-old Bob Litwin, former No. 1 in the 55-and-older category and author of “Live the Best Story of Your Life: A World Champion’s Guide to Lasting Change,” said of his top-flight peers. ADVERTISEMENT At 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, Litwin boasts the same height and weight as Top 20 ATP player David Goffin. “People who stay fit play very similarly to how they played at 35 or 40; they just don’t hit as big, aren’t quite as fast, not quite as flexible,” he added.
“Keeping the weight off is huge,” said Joe Perez, 60, co-director of tennis at CityView Racquet Club in New York City. Perez’s own doctor told him to drop 10 pounds with this admonishment: “In a tennis match you take 1,500 steps; multiply that by 10 pounds.”
How one maintains fitness is an increasingly personal decision with age, usually dictated by what sorts of injuries an individual is prone to. Perez, who’s had three knee operations, prefers non-impact biking; light, upper-body free-weight-training; and core work on non-tennis-playing days.
Litwin, on the other hand, prefers to stay fit by playing, focusing his off-court efforts on stretching. “At the gym, I’m fighting against something that’s happening more quickly than I can offset it,” he said.
Similarly, Anne Hobbs, a three-time Grand Slam doubles finalist and former British No. 1 who has her own teaching and coaching practice in New York City, endorses Pilates for its focus on breathing and elongating muscles.
Stretching prior to a match also becomes more essential in staving off injuries. David Slater, formerly of Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., recommends a light warm up (jogging around the perimeter of the court or a few minutes of mini tennis) before attempting to stretch.
“Stretching cold doesn’t do you any good,” said Slater. “It’s like stretching a cold, elastic band.”
Even for supremely fit players, with age comes the necessity to adjust expectations and goals, perhaps even letting go of a results-oriented mindset.
“Winning is on my list of important things, but it’s not the only thing,” said Litwin, whose philosophy adapts that old chestnut: it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. He suggests taking pride in playing well, working hard, fighting back from the brink of a lopsided defeat (even if you lose again) and leaving it all on the court.
Do any or all of that, he believes, and it doesn’t really matter if you didn’t win, especially at the recreational level.
“The ones who only care about winning are the ones whose games change with drop shots and slices,” said Litwin. “They try to figure out how to win instead of how to play.”
Align Body and Mind
With the inevitable decline in speed, strength and stamina come necessary changes in the Xs and Os of tennis.
“As you get older you don’t have the kill shot you used to have,” said Hobbs, who is also a specialist in the psychology of the game. “You have to adjust your brain and look to frustrate your opponent and play smart. This is where high-percentage play comes in; you have to put the ball in the right place.”
“Tactically, you have to deal with the fact that the tennis court has gotten larger, to hit more shots that won’t compromise where you are on the court,” said Litwin, a lefty who used to favor a cross-court backhand that would take his opponent outside the doubles alley. Today, because he’s not as quick, he’s more apt to hit the ball the between the service notch and singles sideline to deprive his opponent of an advantageous angle.
Fitness also becomes increasingly relevant in determining strategy.
“In singles, you have to look at the opponent, to assess if he’ll last longer than you,” said Hobbs. If equally matched fitness-wise, she advocates hitting deep – rather than hard – as a default strategy. “It makes it harder for opponents to take control. Follow through and hit with height over the net.”
Hobbs also advises aging players to recognize that more mistakes are inevitable.
“All you need to do is get one more ball in than your opponent,” she said. “If they try to finish the point early, they may make a mistake.”
Rather than forcing things from the backcourt, Hobbs advocates that older players should wait for a short ball before looking to move in and end the point.
With all this talk of diminished physicality, it’s important to look on the bright side and realize that with age comes wisdom, which is a weapon unto itself.
“As you get older, your tactics and strategy become better honed,” said Perez. “Experience becomes an asset. It doesn’t take you three or four games to know what kind of style you’re playing against. Instead, you can quickly realize that ‘I’ve seen this a hundred times so know what to do.’”
And for those who ridicule the drop shot as the provenance of seniors desperate to win: Many believe that you should get over it.
“A big part of the older game is the drop shot,” says Steve Halpern, a 77-year-old from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., who regularly plays tournaments. “You don’t see a lot of people who rush the net, so it’s considered completely legitimate, and it’s an effective shot.”
Though he admits that some won’t play with him because they don’t want to chase drop shots, it’s worked wonders in competition. It might also have set him up nicely for the future.
“You see guys 90 and older,” he said. “They way they play the game is very interesting. One guy serves, the other hits a drop shot, and the point’s over. This goes on for hours.”
Use the Resources
For optimum performance and comfort, avail yourself of products and be smart about how you prepare your body for a match and how you recover. In his classic book “Winning Ugly,” Brad Gilbert recommends two ibuprofens before a match and two after, water and electrolyte pills during a match, and muscle-relaxing cream to soothe aching muscles.
“If you’re over 35, stop kidding yourself,” he chides the reader.
Fueling up properly before and during a match is essential: a protein shake or other sustenance 30 to 60 minutes before a match and bananas, dried fruit or a sports drink during competition can stave off the dreaded glucose shakes and keep your energy level from lagging.
Living with Injury
Even professional players struggle with short- and long-term injuries, but for older players, it’s increasingly important to find the sweet spot between keeping active and letting the body recover from both exertion and injury.
“As you get older, you don’t need to play as much to maintain your level,” said Litwin, who used to play daily but now limits himself to three times a week – unless he’s preparing for a tournament, in which case he’ll play more. “You need to find the balance between what puts things into your body like yoga, meditation and massage, versus what takes things out of your body.
“The average club player doesn’t know about taking time off. Recovery is huge. It makes us better.”
By the same token, Kimiko Date-Krumm, who recently retired from the WTA at age 46, has said that getting a lot of sleep was one of the secrets of her longevity.
“Listen to your body. You don’t recover nearly as quickly as when you’re younger,” said Hobbs, who believes the benefits of such prudence extend to how you compete: “When your muscles are tired, your mind is tired as well.”
When the body does break down and injuries occur, dealing with them requires case-by-case evaluation. Short-term damage probably merits a break, said Litwin, who will take three weeks off to let a “cranky” shoulder recover, and pays attention to how every decision might impact his aging frame, even what arm he uses to carry his bag.
Conversely, many decide to play through chronic issues.
“I will play injured unless I’m really injured,” said Halpern, who regularly sees a chiropractor. “Two years ago, I had a pulled calf, but played the Morristown tournament. I lost in the finals with the pulled calf. I put [kinesiology] tape on it, and did all sorts of things.”
Every tennis player relishes the intensity of competition, or even of just being on the court, but it’s important to recognize when a serious or potentially serious injury has occurred, or worsened.
“Don’t be a hero,” said Slater. “If you hurt yourself, or feel something is hurt, don’t play through it. Get it seen, rest it up, and live to fight another day.”
Gear can impact any game, but new thinking and greater vigilance are called for as we age.
“A lot of older players reduce the tension in the strings, so you can hit deeper and harder, but you lose control,” said Halpern. “I’ve been reducing over four or five years; when I get comfortable, I reduce it a little more. It’s easier on your arm and you get used to hitting the ball a little bit differently.”
“If I was competing, I would go to a lighter racquet,” said Hobbs. “I would also do it because [as you get older], your muscle tone is not as strong, and a lighter racquet goes trough the air faster, and is less tiring.”
More generally, Slater encourages older players to keep their shoes and racquets current: “If you play once or twice a week, re-string every six months, once before the outdoor season and once before the indoor. And replace your shoes periodically, even if the grip isn’t gone, to be sure you’re getting proper support.”
At some point, it might also be worth giving your choice of court surface a think.
“I won’t play a tournament on hard courts because my body can’t take it,” said Halpern, who believes that all players should eventually abandon concrete. “I play on clay, and on grass when I get the chance.”
Even the pros eventually succumb to age. It’s how we both fight and acknowledge the clock that determines how well and for how long we can continue to play the game the way we’d like. And it’s essential to bear in mind that with its age-based tiers (35-and-up, 45-and-up, etc.), tennis is designed for participation by players of all ages.
“Tennis is that rare sport that as you age, you play a very developed, peer age group,” said Perez. “Even at the upper level you get to play great players at your age, and can be super competitive even with the limitations that accrue.
“That’s why the statement that ‘it’s a game for a lifetime’ is true.”
Ed McGrogan is senior editor for Tennis magazine. For more, visit Tennis.com.