As a young sports fanatic, I used to play all sports that were available. In those days (the 1970s), there was no Internet and in Israel, barely any television, so it was either sports or other hobbies (for the rainy days) that filled my day. But since there is hardly any rain in Tel Aviv, it was basically sports. For me, it was first soccer and then basketball, and I only started playing tennis at the age of nine.
As a coach, I have always encouraged my students to play multiple sports. It has been proven that playing multiple sports helps in preventing injuries. I also strongly believe that sports like soccer and basketball are a great supplement to playing tennis. Having played those two sports from a very young age, it allowed me to pick up tennis very quickly and attain a high skill level within two or three years of playing the game.
Obviously, playing a team sport is an attraction, since as a tennis player, you are alone out there and the mental stress of competing one-on-one can be taxing. I always loved being part of a team and enjoyed the social aspect of it. It seemed so much more “fun” than tennis, even though when I had to choose between the two sports, I chose tennis because in the end, I loved the individuality of the sport.
I also liked the different cultures each sport exposed me to. Switching from the soccer field to the basketball court, and despite being pretty short for basketball, I still played every week with my high school buddies up to the age of 40. I ended my soccer career earlier this year at the age of 51.
Over the years, I learned that those sports not only benefit the mind, but also have a direct positive effect on the tennis court. There are many similarities in the athletic movement of each sport, and of course, in hand-eye coordination which is a universal trait of all ball-related sports. I recommend playing all sports, but for me personally, soccer and basketball made the most sense as a tennis player.
I have had the opportunity to watch top professional basketball and soccer players play tennis, and most if not all of them were extremely good for the amount of time they played. Also, as a touring pro on the ATP Tour, we used to play some soccer between tennis matches (mostly with Europeans and South Americans) and basketball (with the Americans). The level of competition was very high and more than a few players, myself included as well as Roger Federer, grew up dreaming to be a pro soccer player, but somehow ended up playing tennis.
Here are some of the similarities:
1. The side step: A very basic movement which is necessary in almost every point in tennis. In basketball, the same exact movement is used to defend.
2. The first step: High level ball sports is a lot about the first step. In tennis, you need it to get to the ball early so you can position the body perfectly to hit a high percentage shot, you need it to recover as well. In basketball and soccer, the first step is huge in beating your defender to create space for a shot or a pass. As a defender, you would need a great first step to out-run the forward.
3. Movement without the ball: The best basketball and soccer players move constantly without touching the ball during a game to make themselves open for scoring or passing opportunities. In tennis, movement without the ball is just as important. Once you hit the shot, there is a recovery movement that needs to happen right away. The point is … you cannot be still for even a second.
4. The split-step: This is used in tennis all the time. In soccer, it is actually the goalkeeper who does a split-step every time they get ready to make a save. It helps to be balanced and dive in the right direction.
5. Touch/finesse/imagination: In tennis, you need to apply touch, soft hands and the ability to improvise on certain shots. In soccer and in basketball, you need the same type of creativity. You often see players scoring goals with chip shots, curveballs and accuracy rather than with power. In basketball, there are plenty of times when a soft hand can help the rim be more friendly (the tear drop).
6. Anticipating different spins and tracking the ball: When I played soccer, I always found that I had an advantage because I was used to playing tennis with a small ball that travels more than 100 mph. The “huge” soccer ball seemed easy for me to track and control after dealing with a tennis ball, and it gave me an advantage in corner shots and with long passes. When playing basketball, my instincts and anticipation from my net game allowed me to be able to make a lot of steals, and in general, helped out my defensive game.
7. Technique: Tennis is a bit more technical in the sense that it’s harder to reach a high level without proper coaching. In principle, the concept is the same … there is a set of skills required and good technique helps to perform under pressure or when tired. The best players in soccer and basketball, much like the top tennis players, have perfected their techniques in all aspects of the game and if they don’t, they will work to improve it. For example, LeBron James improved his jump shot midway through his career. Lionel Messi improved his right foot and Rafael Nadal improved his serve, slice and net game. The similarities are there when you see how methodical and ritualistic the players are about their technique, trusting it in the big moments.
8. Decision-making: Just like in tennis, decision-making is critical to playing a high level. You will almost never see Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal hit the wrong shot. They might miss from time to time, but their shot selection is usually the right one, which is a big part of why they are so good. In soccer and basketball, it is very similar, knowing when to release the ball and to whom or choosing to shoot or pass makes or breaks a soccer and basketball player. There are plenty of examples of players who have great ball skills, but keep making the wrong choices with the ball. In tennis, the equivalent is a player that has great strokes, but doesn’t know how to construct a point well due to bad shot selection. The ability to make the right decision in a split-second, to execute it successfully and most importantly, to do it on a daily basis, is the formula. We can use sports like soccer and basketball to enhance our tennis ability.
The best aspect of playing other sports is the aspect of “having fun.” It takes you away from the grueling tennis world and into the team sport universe, but mainly so we can get back on the tennis court and start hitting tennis balls.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.