Strolling The Grounds: It's All About Footwork
Naturally, one must practice what one preaches. Since arriving here at Indian Wells ten days ago, I've spent considerable time roaming the grounds. A few snapshot impressions.
There's a large grass field adjacent to the practice courts where players can be spotted engaged in a wide range of activities. Here's Martina Navratilova, stretching and rolling around on foam core roller. Here's Roger Federer, signing autographs following a practice session where he looked supremely loose and languid. Here's Maria Sharapova, running around playing soccer with her entire camp – father Yuri, traveling coach Michael Joyce. Her legs look even longer in person as she kicks and giggles her way up and down the field. Here's Mary Pierce, stretching her arms, posing for a photo with a fan and making her way to Stadium Three for a practice session. Here's a player girlfriend, navigating the grass in her high heels while her ATP fella hoists his racquet bag and talks with his coach. Here's Kim Clijsters, setting off on a slight job prior to a practice session.
Most striking in all of this is the awareness that tennis is not so much a hitting game as a movement game. Young and fit, skilled and primed for competition, tennis players bubble with energy. Their feet shuffle with focus as they head to the courts. And then, once on the courts, there is perpetual motion – not so much the scampering to balls as the constant bouncing, the little steps, always on their toes, always primed to move. It's a worthwhile lesson for us recreational players: Rather than claim you drilled for two hours when you were in fact mostly hitting and standing, try bouncing on your toes for 15 minutes. Not easy.
Click photo: You can get this close to LLeyton Hewitt warming up on the practice court.
But for pros, footwork is as much a discipline as the lawyer crafting a brief, the accountant preparing a tax return, the chef chopping garlic. Last Friday it was a dry 87 degrees by 9 a.m. The courts were filled – doubles ace Rennae Stubbs and her partner Lisa Raymond dashing through volleys and passing shots, a bevy of shirtless Spaniards ripping groundstrokes, Meghan Shaughnessy practicing serves.
Today, this Monday at 9:15 a.m. , it's a good 15 degrees cooler, and windy enough for the sky to look more gray than its customary blue. The players know this, but their work continues. Court 10: Lindsay Davenport, bouncing just behind the service line, practicing one volley after another. Court 11: Vince Spadea, who just yesterday lost after holding a match point, hitting one backhand return after another from the ad court. Court 12: Elena Likhovtseva, 30 years old, trying to add more topspin to her forehand, is driving one ball crosscourt after another. But it's not always taking, and after two go short and one finds the net, she throws her racquet down on the ground. “Watching the frigging' ball,” she says. (Yes, she really did say “frigging.”)
Saulnier kicks a ball around between matches.
So what's the message of all this? To me, these back courts, these morning practices, this sense of urgency and twitchy energy – that's what tour life is all about. Those glitzy photo sessions and events and all those efforts to make tennis cool are one thing. But the essence of the game is more hot than cool, more austere than people dare imagine.
As Andre Agassi once told me, “A court is a court is a court.” (Pardon my stargazing). These players on these courts, in heat and chill, dust and wind, are forced to work through the same crap as all tennis players. Granted, they're more technically-sound, more fit than us recreational schleps. But work they must, one bloody ball at a time. Added to that is something particularly unique to tennis: Most times you don't even know precisely what time the game starts. The energy becomes that much more edgy, that much more uncertain. It makes those practice sessions all the more critical. And that's the way it goes.
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