This article has been featured in The Sunday Times but I have also included it here for your convenience.
In a French Open first week where Andy Murray was accused of being a drama queen, Grigor Dmitrov was so agonised by cramp he had to drag himself to a courtside chair like a wounded gladiator and in the same match Richard Gasquet left his lunch on the French Open clay, fitness and durability has again become the prime issue.
So, in this era where the physical demands have never been greater on the top players, we should all stand up to applaud Roger Federer who is not only contesting his 50th straight Grand Slam event but a couple of rounds ago broke Jimmy Connors’ record of the most actual match wins in majors.
On Sunday he will face the Belgian David Goffin who was the recipient of a lucky losers spot when Gael Monfils was forced to drop out injured. If Federer wins it will be singles victory number 236 in Grand Slams. In the past I’ve not always been as fulsome of praise for Federer as many would like me to be but you’ve got to stand up and applaud this achievement.
Some might say Federer is fortunate in that he has never been stricken by injuries, but that is not all about luck. You only get out what you put in and though he never does it in the public gaze, the guy is one of the hardest workers the sport has ever known when it comes to training and preparation. He’s a bit like Bjorn Borg in that he can just go on for hour after hour.
Yet tennis today is not all just about getting out on the practice court and pounding thousands of balls, those lung-burst 400 metres repetitions on the running track or being brutal in the gym with the weights. Sure that is a big part that cannot be ignored but aspects such recovery, flexibility, nutrition and even kinesthetic awareness – thesensory skill that your body uses to know where it is in space – all play a role.
Biomechanics is a whole new science that means sportsmen have to be more aware and look at the way Federer plays the game. He doesn’t fight his body to get around the court, it been said so many times that he just seems to float about the surface and glide around. But it’s proof that he understands his body and the older he gets, he appreciates the more time off the tour he requires to replenish his strength and stamina.
Remember he missed that entire section of the season where Murray did so well in Asia after last year’s U.S. Open. Then he didn’t play in Monte Carlo at the beginning of the clay court season as he took another break. But he wouldn’t have been lying with his feet up, there would have been constant work to ensure his fitness levels didn’t slip.
People are talking about the demanding nature of this summer’s schedule with Wimbledon coming fast on the heels of Roland Garros and then the Olympics coming just before the U.S. Open. I’m not sure I share the same concern because the Olympics are played on grass, a far less damaging surface to the body than the hard courts, and only the final is a best of five sets match. So to me the physical stress will be little more than a tournament like the AEGON Championships at Queen’s. The mental side is another matter.
I wish all this knowledge had been available 25 years ago when I was winning Wimbledon. A question I have often asked myself is how much more could I have accomplished if I was injury free? But I can advise for the future and I was appalled when somebody told me the tale of a promising ten year-old the other day.
The kid had been doing well but his father had been told by a coach working for the Lawn Tennis Association that there was a need to double the amount of court time for the youngster. I think the suggestion of flogging somebody so young into exhaustion is ludicrous because if would cause all kinds of problems on a body that is still developing.
At any level it’s about finding the balance between work and recovery. Right now we are probably looking at Federer having a top flight career that exceeds 15 years and given the stresses inflicted by racket technology, strings and changing court surfaces, to me it is nothing short of miraculous.
I still don’t think we’ll be seeing Federer lift the Coupe de Mousquetaires next Sunday; I think a certain Spaniard from Majorca who today celebrates his 26th birthday, is once again destined for that honour. However Federer is the example that should teach everyone is tennis a lesson.