When Serena and Venus Williams were 10 and 11, coach Rick Macci predicted their future superstardom, telling the worldwide media, “They’re going to be the two best athletes ever to play the game.”
In his 2013 book, Macci Magic , he explained how he’d make the prodigiously talented girls “even more athletic.” Leaving no stone unturned, Macci had the girls spar with the Florida state boxing champion and the No. 1-ranked US kickboxer every day in a sand pit “to keep their feet moving non-stop.” To help develop their service motion, Serena and Venus also threw a baseball and a football every day. The ambitious sisters even worked with the hula hoop to improve their balance and strengthen their core muscles.
When 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff, the heir apparent to the legendary Williamses, was 11 and 12 years old, she played a lot of basketball and ran track, including 5K endurance races. Coco’s heavy tennis schedule ended her involvement in other sports, but she learned valuable lessons from them. “The years of basketball and track really helped her,” says her father Corey. “She loved tennis more, but she also knows the training and discipline it takes to become a champion.” Coco transferred some athletic skills, such as hand-eye coordination, speed and agility, from those sports to tennis.
A 2015 International Olympic Committee (IOC) report on youth development supports the views of Macci and Corey Gauff. The report stated that coaches should avoid sports specialisation at an early age because “diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity.”
Until the 1970s when the Open Era transformed tennis into a big-money sport that encouraged youngsters to concentrate on tennis at a very early age, tennis champions often played other organised sports first. Fred Perry, a brash Englishman, did not start playing tennis until he was 14 and first concentrated on it at 20 after he became world champion in table tennis in 1929. Perry’s outstanding Continental forehand that hit the ball early and on the rise, quick reflexes at net and rhythmical stroking came from table tennis. “To succeed in all moving ball games, acquiring a sense of rhythm is half the battle,” Perry wrote in his autobiography. “In both games, the spins and counter-spins are the same, the flight of the ball is similar, and so is the parabola of that flight. So table tennis was a good springboard.” Indeed it was. Perry captured eight major titles from 1933 to 1936.
Don Budge, a power-hitting American, achieved a rare Grand Slam in 1938, but tennis wasn’t his first love. “As a left-handed batter, Budge struck the baseball with a smooth low-to-high swing; he applied that same technique to his backhand,” wrote Joel Drucker, in his “Oakland’s Tennis Revolutionary” paean. “Budge likely didn’t know that at the time, but he’d created a motion that would revolutionise tennis.”
Jaroslav Drobny, a lefty serve-volleyer who won the French title in 1951 and 1952 and Wimbledon in 1953, holds the rare distinction of becoming a world champion, like Perry, in two sports. During and just after World War II, tennis balls were scarce in his native Czechoslovakia; hockey pucks were not, so he played ice hockey. “Drob” led his national team to the world amateur championship in 1947, scoring three goals in the final, and he helped the Czechs win a silver medal at the 1948 Olympics. Using field vision and clever angles he learned in hockey to set up and score goals, Drobny created similar point-winning tactics in tennis.
Open Era tennis stars never had the chance to match Perry’s or Drobny’s feats, though Romanian Davis Cupper Ion Tiriac, a child table tennis champion, played as a defenseman on his nation’s 1964 Olympic hockey team before switching to tennis. But if you’re wondering why this decade’s Big 4 — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — boast exceptional speed, agility and resourcefulness, they all honed these athletic attributes earlier as soccer players. In fact, a 15-year-old Murray was invited to train with Rangers Football Club at their School of Excellence. Nadal was a striker who played on a junior team that won a Spanish inter-league championship.
If you wonder how world No. 1 Djokovic glides and slides with such remarkable agility and balance, he credits skiing. Djokovic comes from a family of skiers and started skiing when he was two years old. “I think skiing has affected the flexibility of my ankles, my joints,” said Djokovic during the 2019 Miami Open. “I know a lot of players are forbidden to ski, but I don’t have that in my contract.”
Federer, though, decided the risk was too great and stopped skiing a few years ago. “I am really afraid of getting injured,” he explained.
Many experts consider Martina Navratilova one of the greatest pure athletes in tennis history, but her career didn’t really take off until basketball star Nancy Lieberman began ruthlessly training her in 1981. Long-distance running, wind sprints (“running suicides”), rope jumping and weightlifting exhausted Navratilova. Besides that, basketball workouts against the rugged, and often dirty, Lieberman left Navratilova bruised and bloody. In her autobiography, Martina , she recalled, “Learning a game where the hoop is 10 feet high extended my tennis game tremendously. Reaching for an overhead volley was a lot easier than going up for a rebound against Nancy.” The cross training paid off spectacularly. Navratilova wound up with an astounding 59 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.
Lleyton Hewitt, the undersized 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimbledon champ, likely developed his hyper-competitiveness by playing Australian rules football, a punishing collision sport, until he was 13. China’s Li Na, another two-time major winner, first displayed her racquet talent as a badminton player. And former No. 1 Jim Courier’s baseball-like backhand swing evolved from early baseball hitting prowess.
Barty’s excellent experience
The most recent case of a two-sport pro athlete involves 2019 French Open champion Ashleigh Barty. After suffering tennis burnout at the unusually young age of 18, Barty, who had already reached three Grand Slam doubles finals (with Casey Dellacqua), surprised everyone by quitting the pro tour. Instead of going back to school or working in another field, this stellar athlete played cricket as an all-rounder for Brisbane Heat in the 2015-16 Women’s Big Bash League.
Barty ranks with Navratilova, Alice Marble, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and Justine Henin as tennis’ most natural women athletes. Like her predecessors, Barty expanded and honed her athletic skills playing other sports, according to Macci, recipient of the 2003 Alex Gordon Award for USPTA Professional of the Year in North America.
“Look at her hands. Look at her racquet skills. Look at how she bends. Look at her calmness when she volleys,” said Macci. “Do you think that came from just playing tennis? No way. That comes from cricket. She also has a lot of intangibles that helped her become No. 1. As a coach, I look at the attributes she siphoned off from other sports.”
Besides the technical benefits cricket gave Barty’s tennis game when she returned in 2016, the 18-month break itself reignited her passion for tennis. Reflecting on her sabbatical after winning her first major title at Roland Garros, Barty said, “I missed the competition. I missed the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and the flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches. They are so unique and you can only get them when you’re playing and when you put yourself out on the line and when you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of…. I love this sport, and I’m very lucky to be in the position I am now.”
John McEnroe, the 1980s superstar who excelled at football as a kid, strongly believes in the physical, mental and technical benefits of playing several sports. McEnroe advises students at his eponymous New York tennis academy not to specialise in just tennis. On “Here’s The Thing,” he told Alec Baldwin, “I sit with parents and I tell them until I am blue in the face, and they don’t listen to me. They sit there like, ‘You don’t even know what you’re talking about.’”
Macci, a leading authority on pre-teen and teen tennis development, strongly agrees with McEnroe. “Basketball and soccer are the best sports by far [for tennis players],” Macci told me. “Basketball requires a lot of anticipation. You have to think ahead, like in a tennis match. You learn to play defence in a ready position, which is also like tennis. Soccer is very beneficial because of the constant movement and change of direction. It also requires a lot of foot-eye coordination. But playing any type of movement sport, any sport that requires agility and change of direction, is beneficial.”
What other sports can help develop a young athlete’s motor development, athletic capacities and tennis skills?
“Some of the best two-handed backhands I’ve seen have come from tennis players who played hockey,” Macci said. “It’s a sport requiring a lot of agility and dexterity, even though girls are more likely to play field hockey than ice hockey. Another beneficial sport is gymnastics. It has a lot of stops and starts, a lot of agility involved and you have to be highly dedicated. Baseball and softball are in my top five because the two-handed backhand is similar to a baseball swing, especially the way Djokovic hits it. In both sports, your knees are bent and you have hip and shoulder rotation.”
As a former centre-fielder in Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball before becoming a tournament tennis player, I know from experience how much athleticism this “five-tool” sport offers. Sprinting to catch 300-foot fly balls coming at varying trajectories and speeds more than prepared me to side pedal back 20 feet for deep overheads. Throwing from the outfield strengthened my arm and produced the same fluid and powerful throwing motion used in serving and smashing. Stealing bases put a premium on the same explosive starts you need in tennis. And hitting a baseball arriving with various speeds and spins required the same hand-eye coordination, timing and concentration needed to return diverse tennis serves.
“Any sport where you’re competing and taking responsibility and feeling what it’s like to win and lose, that can ripple into any sport you choose, especially tennis,” said Macci, who also coached teenage stars and future No. 1s Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and Andy Roddick. That can include karate, judo and ballet — yet another sport Macci had Serena and Venus practise to enhance their balance, rhythm and flexibility.
For decades, serious tennis players have participated in other sports to improve their weaknesses. In The Fireside Book of Tennis , Ken Rosewall recalled 1950s amateur star Tony Trabert, known more for his power than his mobility: “He was outstanding at basketball, yet played on the [University of] Cincinnati team mainly to sharpen up his footwork for tennis.”
Macci believes aspiring tennis players should emulate Trabert, but laments they often don’t. “Unfortunately, players often want to work only on their strengths,” he said. “They don’t really address their weaknesses because they don’t want to fail or they’re embarrassed or they don’t have the foresight or vision. If a player isn’t genetically endowed with excellent footwork because they didn’t have athletic parents, the more they can develop those muscles with their feet to change direction and improve their agility, the more reason they have to start playing basketball or soccer. Even if footwork and agility are your assets, those sports are beneficial.”
Lesser athletes, like Maria Sharapova and John Isner, typically wind up with one-dimensional rallying or power games and their early training can explain why, according to Macci. “Unfortunately today, even though everyone favours crossover sports, tennis parents and coaches think it’s a race to the finish line and everyone thinks players need to spend more time on the tennis court,” said Macci. “But you really need to develop a better athlete.”
Cross training must start early, however, to achieve maximum benefits. “Right now, it could help Sharapova and Isner [who are in their 30s] to some degree, but it really wouldn’t matter [that much],” Macci said. “It’s much more beneficial when you’re a youngster and the muscles and nerves and growth plates are still being formed. That’s when crossover sports are going to have the biggest impact.
“You want to do as much of that as you can starting when you’re very young,” continued Macci. “The problem is that you have only so many hours in the day with school and everything else. Unfortunately, players think they have to hit a thousand more forehands and they don’t realise that maybe if they had taken a thousand more jumps on a jump rope, or a thousand more changes of directions in agility drills, or a thousand more out-of-the way moves in a taekwondo class, then they would hit their forehand better. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are where they are because they have incredible footwork and balance. Their common denominator is that they all played soccer.” As Barty’s sabbatical to play another sport demonstrated, absence makes the heart grow fonder for tennis. “If you stay away from tennis for two days or two weeks, you’ll return with a renewed zest,” Macci said. “When athletes have an injury and they don’t play for a long time, they always say, ‘You have no idea how much I missed the competition.’ An injury is extreme, but until you get it taken away, you don’t realise how much you miss it. So when you have little breaks from tennis, it’s huge because you need to have balance in your life. Balance is the key not only to become a great tennis player but in life in general.
“There’s no question that when you’re hungry in tennis, you’re going to play better,” Macci added. “This is what uneducated parents and even some coaches don’t understand. I call it ‘the ripple effect.’ When something is fun, you’re going to do it more and longer and better. You have to keep your brain fresh. I think burnout comes from failure. It comes from parents. It comes from losing. And it comes from lack of passion. But any team sport gives you a little more mental blocking to help you absorb defeats. Any team sport might prevent burnout.”
Furthermore, Macci believes burnout is overrated. “Actually, the parents get more burned out because they all think their kids are going to Wimbledon at 12,” said Macci, who observed how “bad dads” Stefano Capriati, Jim Pierce and Marinko Lucic abused their talented daughters and derailed their careers. “And then when their kids get their driver’s license or a girlfriend or boyfriend at 16, they see the world through a different lens. The only thing that burns kids out is parents putting too much pressure on them.”
Just as crucial is injury prevention, especially in a sport where joint and muscle injuries are common. Physical burnout prematurely ended the careers of teen stars Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger and serious injuries sidelined Juan Martin del Potro, Martina Hingis and Sharapova for extended periods. An American Medical Society for Sports Medicine study found that children who specialise in sports have a 50 percent greater risk of developing injuries.
Corroborating the AMA’s findings, Tory Lindley, president of the National Athletic Trainers Association, told The New York Times : “Single-sports specialisation is bordering on an epidemic in terms of the risks it can pose, for physical injuries as well as the potential for negative psychological effects.” NATA recommends youngsters delay specialising in a single sport for as long as possible and take a minimum of two days off per week from organised training and competition for rest and recovery.
Coco Gauff exemplifies another trend among juniors aspiring to become champions. She’s homeschooled. “Today people think you have to be homeschooled to make it,” Macci said.
On the potential pitfalls of homeschooling, Macci cautioned, “There’s more repetition, more time, more this, more that. Even though tennis is a repetition sport, you still have to have balance. At home, they’re typically not playing school team sports, like basketball and soccer. So the only sports they can do on a team is unorganised events, like pick-up basketball.”
Parents, coaches, and teaching pros should heed Macci’s most important advice. “You want to develop the person first, not just the strokes and you shouldn’t think the child has to play 40 tournaments a year,” Macci said. “They have plenty of time. Look at the Williams sisters. They’re still playing at 38 and 39 years old. They and Federer, who’s 38, still have that passion. So it’s 100 percent mandatory to play other sports.”
So, play lots of sports and make variety the spice of your tennis life.