Walk into your neighborhood Y for a pick-up game of hoops, and you’ll find the usual suspects. The aging ballers, their knees wrapped, and extra pounds distending the geometry of their midsections. The young guys, a couple of years out of college, going at it as if game 7 in the NBA Championships were on the line. They stare at you long and hard, letting you know that they can still bring it, even if they spend most of their waking hours in a cubicle.
You won’t see Michael Jordan working on his jump shot. You won’t find Steve Nash on the other side of the gym, practicing his free throws. The pros work out in dedicated training facilities, temples of athletic excellence overseen by the best trainers and coaches that money can buy.
Tennis has its elite training compounds–Saddlebrook, Bolletieri’s–but you’re more likely to find the world’s best ball strikers working out at clubs that are accessible to the general public, maybe on the court next to you. At his club in Manacor, Spain, Rafael Nadal puts his name on the chalkboard to reserve court time, just like any other member. In Dubai, Federer works out at a luxury hotel, Jumeirah Burj Al Arab, whose courts are available to you or me if our wallets are big enough.
In Holding Serve, Michael Chang writes, “Sometimes I booked courts at the Pro Sports Club or Mercer Island Country Club just a few minutes from home. I learned that being a professional tennis player, however, didn’t cut it when it came to reserving a court in advance. After all, tennis is very popular in Seattle. If I called MICC a day or two before I wanted to play, I was often told that the only available time was 6 a.m.” This from the youngest Grand Slam winner in the sport’s history.
In his surprisingly insightful biography, Beak Point, Vince Spadea writes about hitting with an anonymous local at Boca Raton’s public courts. At my own club, I frequently see Lisa Raymond working out during the Pennsylvania winters.
A couple of years ago, one of her hitting partners was a guy a year out of Penn. “I’m teaching lessons and getting ready to play some satellites,” he told me in the locker room. Raymond would run him ragged, hitting hard flat groundstrokes inches from the baseline. At the end of a point, he was a heaving, sopping mess. Raymond was barely winded. These days, Raymond hits with her coach and a local college tennis coach.
On the court next to her, you might see a game of geriatric doubles. Would Michael Jordan put up with this? Waiting for marginal athletes to finish shuffling across the court so that he could train for the game’s biggest trophies? Of course not. But this is tennis, still the most accessible of the great sports.