The secrets of successful senior players

Senior athletes not only have more years in their lives, but more life in their years. Senior tennis players may have lost some zip on their serves and some speed in their running, but their desire to play and win burns just as fiercely as it did decades ago.

Ken Rosewall of Australia plays a backhand during the men’s semifinals against Tony Trabert of the USA at the 1964 Wimbledon. “As a teaching pro and coach, I’m often asked whether a senior player should develop a one-handed topspin backhand. My answer is, not necessarily. Consider how deep, accurate, and consistently all-time greats Ken Rosewall and Steffi Graf hit slice backhands,” Brian Cheney, who represented the United States in 24 international team and individual competitions, says.   -  Getty Images

Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing. — Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Ageing is scary but fascinating, and great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways. — Bruce Springsteen

For age is opportunity no less than youth itself. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Tennis the sport of a lifetime”— the motto of the United States Tennis Association — has never been truer. Both recreationally and competitively, seniors (45 and older) and super seniors (55 and older) are playing in record numbers. Five years ago I watched a sprightly 100-year-old take on a youthful 93-year-old in the New England sectional championships men’s 90 singles final.

These athletes not only have more years in their lives, but more life in their years. Senior tennis players may have lost some zip on their serves and some speed in their running, but their desire to play and win burns just as fiercely as it did decades ago.

READ: Serena hasn't ruled out defending Aus Open title

To find out the secrets of their successes, I consulted the world’s leading senior players and authorities. They shared their expertise and experience on a wide array of topics to help you get the most out of your evolving games and maturing bodies.

What are the best ways for Senior players to prevent injuries and to recover from them?

Ellen Neumann, a German who was world-ranked No. 1 in the 50-division doubles in 2015 and No. 3 in singles in 2016, says: “After suffering from a painful hamstring injury for six months, I changed my off-court training because you have to be flexible, balanced, and highly coordinated to prevent injuries.”

 

Ellen Neumann, 56, a German who was world-ranked No. 1 in the 50-division doubles in 2015 and No. 3 in singles in 2016:

After suffering from a painful hamstring injury for six months, I changed my off-court training because you have to be flexible, balanced, and highly coordinated to prevent injuries. Your training should focus on these areas besides strength, speed, and stamina.

So I start every day with Bob Anderson’s tennis-specific stretching programme to improve my flexibility. I switched from jumping and high-impact movements to smoother Pilates and Thera-band work. Both bring a lot of muscle power without heavy compression for the lower limbs. Equally important, these exercises improve your coordination skills.

 

On recovery day, I prefer light Life Kinetics and balance board exercises. Good recovery is even more vital for senior players. For active regeneration after a match, 10 minutes of low-loaded cycling take pressure off my knees and ankles, which eases my movement.

All these changes have succeeded, but I will not change one training habit. The best way to start recovery is to socialice with match partners by having a beverage. This is as beneficial for mental relaxation as sauna, massage, and Blackroll are for physical relaxation.

In Senior tournament competition, what is more important: accuracy or stroke mechanics?

Brian Cheney, 70, who represented the United States in 24 international team and individual competitions and won 92 U.S. junior veteran, senior, and super senior championships since 1982:

Accuracy and placement are definitely more important than strokes. During my long career, I have seen a lot of different styles and techniques for hitting a tennis ball. The overwhelming bottom line is where the ball goes. In particular, depth — hitting shots that land within 10 feet of the baseline — is key. As long as your strokes do not cause you a physical injury, you should focus on consistency — getting the ball in play — and placement. Accurate placement propelled my mother and first coach (Dodo Bundy Cheney) to a record 394 national titles.

If a change to a two-handed backhand helps achieve consistency and placement, the change is worth the time and effort. As a teaching pro and coach, I’m often asked whether a senior player should develop a one-handed topspin backhand. My answer is, not necessarily. Consider how deep, accurate, and consistently all-time greats Ken Rosewall and Steffi Graf hit slice backhands.

Ten years ago, I changed my forehand grip and stroke from Eastern to Semi-Western in order to produce more topspin. I wanted to take advantage of new spin-enhancing racket and string technologies. I liked the change for consistency. But it took me a couple years to regain the depth and accuracy I needed.

 

In my most challenging matches, however, power and topspin on my forehand did not prevail over my opponent’s ability to consistently place shots deep and then move me to an unfavourable position on court followed by either a winner, or my forced or unforced error.

How can a former Grand Slam pro champion adjust to competing at far less prestigious tournaments and deal with occasionally losing to players she would have trounced in her prime?

Rosalyn Fairbank Nideffer, 56, two-time French Open doubles champion and world No. 15 in singles in the 1980s, 50’s singles world champion in 2012, and five-time U.S. 50’s Hard Court Singles champion:

Anyone who has played on the pro tour would admit that playing senior tournaments is a big comedown from Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam events. But if you love the game and the competition, the challenges remain the same.

My first senior tournament in 2004 proved a rude awakening. I hadn’t played a singles match in seven years and arrogantly assumed I could play my way back into shape. I definitely wasn’t prepared for my semifinal opponent, Tracy Houk, a seasoned senior player with many more hours on the practice court. I thought I could overpower her, come to the net, and put volleys away. My confidence quickly eroded as I realised my volleys weren’t what they used to be. Four hours later my baseline game succumbed to hers.

This loss was a huge blow to my pride, and I vowed to never play senior tennis again. It took five years before I put myself on the line again — at the World Championships in San Diego. Since then I’ve played a few tournaments a year. I changed my attitude to cope with the pressure, recognising that I don’t have to defend my reputation as a former pro player. Now I play because I love the game and enjoy the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits I receive from competing.

Is it too late for a long-time tournament player with grooved strokes and decades of muscle memory to make a major stroke change?

Ron Tonidandel, 84, who has been playing USTA Super Senior tournaments around the country since 1988 and ranked No. 4 in the U.S. in the 80 singles division in 2014:

Absolutely not! In my mid-50s, I started developing a two-handed backhand when a tennis pro friend, Joe Dyser, urged me to do it. This is one of the best changes I’ve ever made in my tennis game, and it’s helped me improve substantially. My two-handed backhand is stronger, more forceful and dependable than my one-handed backhand was. I’m still working on my two-handed backhand and always striving to hit it better.

In my opinion, it’s never too late for a player to make a major stroke change. Jim Curry of Waco, Texas, was in his late 70s when he began hitting a two-handed backhand. In less than five years, it became a formidable weapon. Now he’s ranked No. 5 nationally in 80 singles.

A player should never shy away from making a major change, and this goes not only for groundstrokes but also for volleys, drop shots, serves, etc. It takes a lot of work and the process can be frustrating at times. But in the long run, the change will likely be beneficial—and enjoyable.

What are the best tactics in senior women’s tennis, and why are they so effective?

Judy Dixon, 68, who competed at Wimbledon and the US Open in the 1970s, led the New England 65 team to the National Inter-sectional Team title in 2016, and as the most successful coach in UMass history, was named Atlantic 10 Conference “Coach of the Year” six times:

Your overall strategy should be to move your opponent all over the court to test her movement, stamina, and defensive skills.

Move her forward and backward with various patterns. Drop shot and then lob or pass is the most common tactic. Another tactic entails a simple “deflate-inflate” pattern. Hit a short ball, though not a drop shot, followed by a deeper ball to either side. That pulls your opponent into No-Man’s-Land. You then hit a deeper ball she must awkwardly play while retreating. A third up-and-back manoeuvre is a sharply angled cross-court followed by a deep shot down the line.

Another effective strategy is to control the middle of the court by playing as many balls as possible with your forehand from the center of the court very close to, or even inside, the baseline. The first tactic to execute this strategy is to slice your serve into your opponent’s body on the deuce side. That enables you to play the Serve Plus 1 tactic used by the pros, particularly Roger and Rafa. The second tactic is to slice backhands cross-court and deep until you elicit a relatively weak return. Then, attack it with an “inside out” or an “inside in” forehand. Finally, defuse your opponent’s first serves and attack her second serves with deep down-the-middle returns. That puts her immediately on the defensive and will often create an opportunity for you to belt a middle-court forehand to force an error.

What advice would you give to former tournament players contemplating a return after not competing for 20 or more years, as you did at age 65 after a 25-year hiatus?

John Mayotte, 69, who ranked No. 1 in New England open doubles with Jim Ratliff in 1977 and No. 3 in the U.S. in singles in 2015 when he won the National 65 Grass Courts Championships:

You have to enjoy it and want to improve. And you have to have fun competing. You don’t have to be that eager to play well. You can also enjoy the camaraderie, the venues, and the competition.

You don’t necessarily have to be in the best physical shape. A number of people play with injuries and still enjoy playing a round or two of singles and then playing doubles. Start with sectional tournaments, as I did, to get your feet wet. Then enter some national events.

Take the skills you had as a junior and an adult and re-analyse your game and the psychology of your play. For example, I used to serve and volley all the time; now I occasionally do it. You’re re-inventing yourself. Now you’re not relying on talent as much but more so on hard work to grind out points. Because of that, you can’t allow yourself to get frustrated, as you might have when you were younger. You need a new mentality for senior tennis.

What do you suggest for Senior players — even those who have played tournaments for 40 or 50 years — to help them overcome their nervousness both before matches and during matches on big points and games?

Bob Litwin feels that if you focus on the present and avoid future thoughts, the trigger of nervousness dissipates.

 

Bob Litwin, 69, a good player who couldn’t win until he developed the mental skills, won U.S. National 35 and 40 titles at age 40, won the World Championships and ranked No. 1 in the world at 55, and now is a performance coach and author:

Nervousness is related to concerns about the future, such as winning and losing, the opinions of others, rankings, excuses, and your reputation. If you focus on the present and avoid future thoughts, the trigger of nervousness dissipates.

The key for new and long-time Senior competitors is to practise, both off and on court, the skill of going into — and staying in — presence. Practice can be as simple as noticing a full inhale/exhale of your breath. How often? The more often the more natural. The bigger distractions it can defeat. Once a day, one breath, is a start. Once each hour is better. Several breaths are better. Meditation is another way to practise. Many apps provide the methods. Notice the feeling of your feet hitting the ground as you walk. Feel the wind on your face. Taste your food. Or listen to the door slam as you get in or out of your car.

Other tips can help you. Be more accepting of what is, be non-reactive to the “isness” [the previous point] of the game, be non-judgemental, find detachment, or practise forgiveness. Each of these tips requires practice. Each eliminates counterproductive thoughts. Nervousness fades. Just being increases. Tennis matches turn into an experience like hitting with a friend in the park with nothing on the line.

As with changing the grip on your serve, at first you couldn’t do it. But just about everyone persisted because they believed it would work. Almost everyone stayed with it until they got it. To become free of nervousness, would you do whatever it takes? Start to work on finding presence.

What are the keys to achieving top-notch fitness, both physical and mental?

Glenn Busby, 60, an Australian who ranked No. 1 in the ITF 50, 55, and 60 divisions for nine out of the past 11 years, won six individual and five world team titles, and is director of the Kooyong International Tennis Academy:

In all levels of tennis, a thorough fitness regime is critical to performance. Senior tennis is potentially more so. Seniors try to exert their bodies to levels they had been able to do when younger, but often without sufficient fitness application and knowledge.

Almost everyone in senior tennis has an ailment and or injury that holds them back, and it’s vital to find a fitness regime that works for the individual. Specificity of training is essential. You must train your body specifically for tennis and not general fitness.

I stopped running distances and doing weights eight years ago, and now I’m the strongest I’ve been in 20 years. I needed to develop a better training programme as I was always getting injured. Toward this end, I developed a specific training programme which incorporates trampolining, Thera Band, and body weight training. These exercises are designed to improve my core strength, increase power, prevent injuries and improve court speed. Importantly, the workouts last no longer than 30-40 minutes; they don’t need to. All movements and actions are specifically designed around tennis movement patterns and strength requirements. For the mental side of tennis, I developed a Neuro Linguistic Programme specific to tennis that keeps my mind focused and clear on what I want to achieve. NLP trains the brain to believe and see an outcome, so that when you walk out on the court, you have a total belief in what you are about to do.

What tactical and technical advice do you have for Senior men players?

Jimmy Parker, who ranked No. 16 in men’s singles in the U.S. in 1964, says “the tactical and technical aspects of playing tennis are inextricably linked because your technique affects what tactics you are able to employ.”

 

Jimmy Parker, 74, who ranked No. 16 in men’s singles in the U.S. in 1964, holds the record for most USTA Men’s National Championships (131), ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in every age group from 35 to 70 singles, and is a USPTA Master Pro and Tennis Channel instructor:

The tactical and technical aspects of playing tennis are inextricably linked because your technique affects what tactics you are able to employ. I have always strived to develop in my students and myself an all-court game because that maximises the number of tools in your toolbox. Even as a senior, you have more choices if you are comfortable at the net as well as on the baseline and if you can execute complementary shots such as drop shots and sharp angles. You may not use all of your capabilities in a given match, but they’re there when you need to resort to Plan B, or even Plan C.

The wonderful part of this game is that it can be played successfully in so many ways. No two players play it exactly the same way, and we love to watch contrasting styles pitted against each other, such as Federer versus Nadal and McEnroe versus Borg. The trick is to develop a combination of strengths that capitalise on your athletic abilities, strokes, physical attributes, and mental/emotional proclivities.

Once you’re in a match, your task is to give your opponent less of what he likes, and more of what he doesn’t. So you have to observe what’s happening on the other side of the net, in order for your shot selection to be most effective against your opponent. Too often, players are overly focused on their own technique. If you find that you just can’t produce the shots you need to win this match, use that as feedback to better focus your practices for the next tournament.

You may not get better by tomorrow, but over time, effective practice yields improvement, even for seniors!

The final piece of advice comes from Vic Seixas, the 1953 Wimbledon and 1954 U.S. champion. In his engrossing 1983 instruction and history book, Prime Time Tennis: Tennis for Players over 40, Seixas wrote: “Fellow prime timers, approach the game of tennis with the resolve of the seventy-five-year-old about to marry a girl in her twenties. Warned that the disparity in age could prove to be fatal, he shrugged and said, ‘If she dies, she dies.’”