Increased elasticity can help tennis players become more explosive movers, sustain less injury and enjoy enhanced recovery from demanding matches.
Approximately five years ago I began noticing a pronounced decrease in my overall flexibility. Being encumbered with the typical male brain, I took the expected immediate action by audibly voicing the words, “I gotta do something about this,” after which I immediately set about procrastinating. I raised doing nothing to greater heights than ever before.
A year passed without me finding sufficient motivation for change. My joints continued to stiffen.
In mid-winter, about one and a half years after initiating the lofty level of disregard for an obvious state of decline, a singular mood-altering event occurred.
Having laced up running shoes in preparation for a thirty minute jog, something I hadn’t done for an extended period, I noticed that I could no longer execute a routine stretch that all runners do before and after a run. It’s the one in which you lift your left foot behind you, grab it with your right hand, pull it all the way up to your butt, hold ten seconds and release. You then repeat with the other hand-to-foot combination.
The primary sticking point was that I couldn’t even reach the damn foot. I almost toppled over while doubled over grasping in vain for it. That irritated me. I swore at the uncooperative foot, lifted again and was just able to grab my pant leg before the offending foot could allow gravity to snatch it back towards the ground. “Hah! Gotcha.”
I pulled for all I was worth but could only get my leg about three quarters of the way up. At that point the left knee violently protested by sending an urgent message to my brain, “Hurt him!” So I was forced to let go after an eternity of about seven seconds. The other hand-to-foot affair worked only marginally better.
That did it. I repeated my prior 18-month-old admonition but with the word really inserted: “I really gotta do something about this.” This time I swore an oath to that effect.
A friend made a present of a yoga mat and some kind of ball. After an exhaustive search I found the mat. I still haven’t found the ball but never mind, I can’t imagine what it’s for anyway.
After convincing her that I was serious, the friend gave me my first yoga class at her home. It was tough but revealing. I needed work, lots of work.
Despite being totally inept, I enjoyed the session. It was abundantly clear that any improvement would benefit my tennis greatly. Over the next few weeks, I continued sporadically to perform some of the moves at home but it was clear that I needed more structure to continue. I put yoga on hold.
Fast forward three years. This time I signed up for a yoga class at Ballys, the club at which I play and teach a few indoor tennis lessons.
I had hoped for a large class packed with people in similar states of deterioration as myself but there were only six others. They were in various stretching positions when I arrived so I proceeded to the very back of the class, unrolled my mat, removed my shoes and started faking some elaborate stretch. Naturally someone had to make the observation, “We have a new guy this morning.” Thanks a lot lady, as if I wasn’t already self conscious enough.
The instructor arrived, and wouldn’t you know it? She came straight to the back which, to my dismay, turned out to actually be front of the class. She was about six feet away from my position. “Shit!” I couldn’t just grab my mat and go careening towards the real back of the room. I was stuck there. She looked me right in the eyes and said, “Good morning.” I gulped and nodded.
That woman tortured us, well me anyway. I stole occasional glances around the room. I couldn’t do ninety percent of the stuff the class did. Worse yet, I felt as though all eyes were riveted on me.
I faked postures, leaned against the wall to do the balance stuff and dripped perspiration like a horse. When the hour ended I was exhausted. A young woman who must have been days away from delivering either a very large child or twins asked, “Well, was it what you thought it would be?” “Yes,” I gasped, “And much, much more.”
I was amazed at how supple she was, even while carrying one or more humans in her protruding belly. As she uncoiled herself from some ungodly position, she asked, “You coming back next week?” “Of course,” I lied. She smiled knowingly. I must have involuntarily cringed because she smiled again and said, “Yeah, right.”
Uh oh. Her “Yeah, right” was like throwing down the gauntlet. I’m going back for sure now. I’ll show her. I’m getting flexible if it kills me. I just need a couple of weeks to recuperate.
Novak Djokovic is the most flexible male tennis player I’ve ever seen. He happens to be the best player on this planet at this time in history. I’m convinced that his extraordinary flexibility plays a huge role in his success. I’m also convinced that yoga can help us ordinary tennis players become considerably better. It’s certainly worth a try.