When I was playing on the Pro Tour, it was all about getting results in weekly tournaments. There was an offseason at the end of November during which you would get in shape for the new season with a few weeks of training camp. This camp included lots of drills and some practice sets, but focused primarily on fitness sessions, both on the court and in the gym.
The top players always come prepared for big tournaments. To win a major tournament, playing best of five sets for 13 days takes great conditioning and is a result of careful planning of the entire year.
For the most part, once the year started in January, you would travel for three to five weeks at a time, and return home for a rest between tournaments. When you are home, you don’t have time to improve physically. You are basically maintaining your level of fitness, while mentally and physically recharging and prepping for the next tournament.
As a coach to mostly junior players who attend school and have a patchy schedule of tournaments, it is a bit more challenging to build tournament preparation methods, but I try to do so with a few principles that I used in my pro days.
Needless to say, it is important to show up to a tournament well-prepared. There are some simple ways to help get students feeling good about their game and thus increase the chances of doing well consistently.
Here are some of the things I try to do when preparing my students for tournament play …
1. In the pros, the Grand Slams are the four peaks of the year
Everything is geared towards getting to the Grand Slams in top shape. In the juniors, it might be the Orange Bowl, the Nationals, Sectionals, or in some cases, the high school season. The idea is that there are some tournaments that are more important than others. Those are the ones you prepare for and are using other tournaments as a “tune up” for.
2. Prepare a schedule
Make a tournament schedule early in the year with a good balance between playing and resting, and stick to it. When you know your schedule months in advance, you can make a game plan, which helps you see the big picture. In general, I recommend playing a tournament at least once a month during school and before big tournaments, it is wise to play two or three tournaments that month. During school vacations, especially the summer, is when it is time to step up the volume of tournaments. You want to play more matches and get in that groove, gain confidence and improve, but at the same time, you want to prevent burnout, which can happen easily if not monitored.
3. Take a methodical approach
When you have a few weeks to prepare for a specific event, you should work in a methodical manner which allows you to be fresh and ready to go. The main thing that you need to build is the physical foundation—the stamina to play long points, last in long matches and recover strongly from matches. The fitness and conditioning drills are essential for that week before the tournament begins. During those weeks, you should also work on fixing technical flaws and adding elements to your game. When you get closer to the tournament, you want to shift the training sessions to be more point-oriented to simulate real matches. In the last few days before the tournament, you want to bring down the volume of hours on the court substantially. This is very important. I have seen players burn themselves out by overtraining and losing early due to fatigue. The reduction of time on the court right before the tournament will allow the body to recover and absorb all the hard work of the last few weeks. Many players obsess and try to play more than they need to, but they need to realize that hard work has already been done in the weeks before and now it’s all about conserving energy for the real match. If you are going to go deep in the tournament, you will need every drop in your gas tank, so don’t waste it in practice!
4. Get accustomed to your environment
Get to the tournament site a few days before the event to get a feel for the facility. It is very valuable to play on the courts and get used to the surface before the tournament. Once you get to the day or two leading to the tournament, you basically want to play some practice sets and hit a lot of serves! You want to make sure that the student feels good about their serves going into the match, it is sometimes a challenge, but a bucket of serves every day is huge. Maintaining a discipline of fitness is important. You want to make sure that you warm up properly at the beginning and take extra time to stretch at the end. As a coach, I sometimes have to drag the player out of the court early the day before the match in order to keep them hungry and fresh for the real match. You want them to really want to go out there, eager and ready to play
5. Match preparation
The actual match preparation begins the day before, when you know your match time and opponent. When you plan for the next day, you need to make sure you get an early dinner and prepare everything the night before—the rackets, grips, a change of clothes, energy drinks and a jump rope. You should plan to have a healthy meal two hours before the match and arrange a 30- to 45-minute practice hit before the match. The warmup should be short, sharp and point-oriented. It is important to warmup as close to the match time as possible (the five minute official warmup isn’t enough to really warmup). It’s the player’s job to be ready to go from the first point. In some cases, if it isn’t possible to hit before the match, the solution is to jump rope or do a physical warmup right before. A good start to a match is very important, as approximately 75 percent of the matches are won by the player who wins the first set, a statistic worth remembering.
6. The post-match
After the match is over, there is a way to conduct yourself. The first thing, after reporting the score, is to go and stretch for 10-15 minutes to prevent soreness for the next match, and hydrate. Then, you can analyze the match, learn from it and think about the next match.
Once you are in the middle of the tournament, rest is key between the matches. You should isolate yourself from distractions, eat the right food and keep yourself mentally fresh. I used to disconnect myself in between matches, get out of the club and go to the hotel, watch a movie or read a book and just show up for the match. You don’t really want to mingle with too many people, as it can take away some much-required energy.