The Golden Age

"The greatest joy of playing tennis as you get older isn't measured in wins and losses but in a better appreciation of the game," says Martina Navratilova. — Pic. AFP-

Playing tennis only gets better as time goes on. By MARTINA NAVRATILOVA.

HOW many people do you know who feel like their best tennis is behind them, that no matter what they do they'll never get the same satisfaction out of their game that they did when they were younger?

Can you think of a more depressing thought? Hitting the court as a pale imitation of your former self doesn't sound like much fun to me. But is it our fate as tennis players?

Absolutely not. While you can't escape the fact that your body will slow down, the joys of playing tennis should only get better with age. But it won't happen automatically. You need to have the right mind-set and game plan.

The first step to enjoying tennis over the years — to say nothing of living life to its fullest — is simple: Don't act your age. Don't obsess about the number of years you've lived. And don't let it define your identity and game. The ball doesn't know how old you are.

I've been playing tennis since I was 5. I loved the game then, and I love it now. Of course, people always ask me, "What keeps you going?" And I tell them it's the same thing that's kept me fascinated with the sport from the get-go — to find out how good I can be.

Isn't that what makes any endeavour fun, rewarding, and ultimately worth pursuing?

You should approach tennis as a game of constant education. Remember that nobody grows old merely by living a number of years; they grow old when they abandon their enthusiasm to learn.

Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to improve and try to master this sport. I didn't figure out how to hit a topspin backhand until I was 26, when I started working with Dr. Renee Richards. And it's been only recently that I've developed an open-stance forehand and a slightly open-stance backhand, as well as gradually moving from an Eastern grip to a semi-Western on my forehand. Even in the past few months I've tweaked my forehand grip to get a little more topspin.

Now here I am, 46 years old, and I think my strokes are technically better than ever. And I can't wait to see where I can take my game next.

It's so important to avoid getting locked into one way of thinking, one way of doing things. You need to be flexible if you want to keep tennis fun. For example, as you get older I think it's important to emphasise quality over quantity. Play an hour five times a week instead of, say, twice a week at three hours a pop. Cramming doesn't work, because you can't sustain your intensity level. If you don't do that, you'll start to pace yourself too much and eventually pick up bad habits. And you know what's next — unforced errors and a diminished sense of enjoyment.

The time you spend on the court should be intense. Give it everything you have, and that goes for matches and practice. Players often think of how they can play better against their opponent without considering what they can do differently in preparing for the match, whether it's new drills on court or eating smarter off it. As Penn State football coach Joe Paterno says, "The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital."

In the end, though, perhaps the greatest joy of playing tennis as you get older isn't measured in wins and losses but in a better appreciation of the game. I'm talking about the pleasure of hitting a shot where you wanted it to go or, better yet, setting up a point and playing it out perfectly, like a game of chess. Or how about conquering your nerves at 5-all in a tiebreaker to win the set? That's a thrill that only gets finer with age.

From Tennis Magazine @ 2003 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndica