The fading fortunes of American tennis may be the result of a paradox: The players train too much and spend too little time enjoying themselves.
That's the opinion of coaches and top players from foreign countries who have witnessed a drastic American decline at the 2006 French Open. Of seven U.S. men who qualified for the main singles draw, only one, James Blake, got as far as the third round. Of 11 U.S. women, only two, Venus Williams and Shenay Perry, got past the second round.
Joyless Regimen Hampers Matches
While Williams remained a contender on the red clay of Roland-Garros Stadium, Americans are not a dominant factor in a sport now populated by scores of better conditioned players from elsewhere in the world.
"I think they (Americans) train too hard," said Barbora Strycova, a 20-year-old Czech competitor on the women's tour. "I spent a month in Bradenton (Florida) and saw the training," she said. "It's different but not as effective."
The reason sounds paradoxical. Within the global culture of sport, hard work is always believed to be rewarded, but not in this instance.
"They overtrain. It's crazy," said Martina Navratilova, the Czech émigré to the United States who has won 341 singles and doubles titles and nearly $21.5 million in a career that continues at age 49. "There's no joy in it," said Navratilova of the American training regimen.
Navratilova has written a book, Shape Your Self, which emphasizes the importance of cross-training in many athletic skills, including basketball and non-contact ice hockey. Most coaches order lengthy stroke drills on the court and rigorous strength conditioning off the court. Navratilova says kids at 10, 11, and 12 years old don't do other sports in America for fear of losing their tennis skills. "They don't do enough other sports...it's stupid. [The other sports] make you a better athlete."
Shenay Perry, born in Washington, DC, was one of the last two Americans in the women's singles field here. She suffered a knee problem, lost four months of competition and was advised to cut back on conditioning. "I probably did overtrain," she told ABC News. "Anything running-wise, I don't do." She credits her strong showing in Paris to her decision to ease off physical conditioning and "just wait for (her knee) to heal."
Red Tide Rising
If Americans don't know how to train, who does? The answer appears to be: 1) the Russians, 2) the Czechs, and 3) the Chinese. "It's a Red Tide," says Josef Brabenec, a transplanted Czech player and strategist who coached the Canadian Davis Cup team and served as Canada's national tennis coach. He says American efforts to develop top players are "pathetic." From a population of nearly 300 million, "I don't know how the U.S. generates so few."
One problem, Brabenec says, is the failure of many American coaches to develop a team atmosphere in which four or five top competitors train together. Today, many of the best American players train alone with a single coach, fitness trainer, and a hitting partner or two.
Another missing ingredient of training camps, Brabenec adds, is a "match environment," in which players must perform or suffer consequences.
Example: Brabenec orders players to make at least 9 out of 10 consecutive serves in order to hit a single spot on the court. "If you don't do it," he tells them, "the whole group will have to do pushups." The tactic has the intended effect of sharpening the players' focus.
Today, despite a relatively small population of 10 million, the Czech Republic's players are among the best trained and conditioned athletes on the men's and women's tours.
At 23, Iveta Benesova of Prague is lean and fit. She has played five years as a professional, earned $824,517, and ranked as high as 26 in the world in doubles and 33 in singles.
"When you are weak, you must get stronger," she said. Benesova began her physical training at age 10 and has worked for the last 18 months with Peter Pech, who also trains Barbora Strycova, Benesova's doubles partner. Strycova has already earned more than $377,000 in nearly four years as a professional.
The players toss heavy balls, run sprints and then longer distances, up to one mile. "If your heart rate is too high," Benesova said, they stop running and relax.
Strycova and Benesova were happy with their play at the French Open. They reached the third round by defeating Americans Amy Frazier and Vania King, 4-6,7-5, 6-2, and upsetting the 14-seeded Chinese Ting Li and Tiantian Sun, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4. The duo were finally beaten by another Chinese pair, the fourth seeds, Zi Yan and Jie Zheng, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. They earned $21,800 for little more than a week's work.
Was it superior conditioning?
"We are more talented, maybe," said Strycova with a smile, but then quickly admitted: "If you are not working off the court, it shows in the match." Americans, take note: Working, not slaving, is the key difference, according to coaches and players who have watched them train.