Showing posts with label beta post. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beta post. Show all posts

New balls, please!

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will brush up if there's interest]

TL;DR: In 2019, still can't go wrong with the Wilson US Open Extra Duty or Slazenger Wimbledon. You know how to shop...

Since a friend asked me about this the other day, here are some quick thoughts on the state of tennis balls in 2019. There surely are a lot of options on the market - but subjectively, tennis balls seemed to have been getting worse for some time...

Mainly, I'm thinking this because of my fond memories playing with the original Dunlop Tournament ball in Germany, e.g. back in the 90s. It felt and still feels like the only "normal" ball you needed. It played great and lasted pretty long. Size, weight, felt, and pressure felt just right.

Overall it had a very solid but still comfortable feel to it. It took on spin (i.e. it would land in the court when it should), you could hit winners with it, and after a short break in during warmup in wouldn't degrade much over the course of a long match. In other words, it wasn't limiting your play and experience.

In comparison, apart from different feel, I thought some other recent kinds of balls would consistently fly long. And these days, you often need to pop open a new can for the 3rd set! In some tournaments that's even mandatory... Other balls are so hard, it literally hurts.

As for the Dunlop Tournament, it was just unfortunate that it was so expensive. In your local sports shop it would cost the equivalent of up to $5 / 5€... per ball! When assessed in "cost per enjoyable contact" the ball would get a bit more price-competitive, but still you really had to think hard about when and how many to purchase. One of the successors, the Dunlop Fort Tournament, has gotten a tad cheaper for all the common reasons (e.g. online, competition), but it's still expensive.

It's worth a quick mention that there are also some regional (continental?) differences. While balls in Europe seemed to have been built to last, most balls in the US would be OK for one hit. Pricing was set accordingly - 1 ball in Europe = 1 can of 3 in the US. (So when your US court time is expensive, don't show up with just 3 balls!)

So now, how to pick a ball in 2019? First, thinking of the main use cases, I guess those would be match practice, live-ball practice, dead-ball practice (with partner / coach or ball machine. The more hits, the more wear of course, with a ball machine adding a multiplier there. Ideally there'd be one ball for everything, same or similar to the ones you'll be handed at competitions.

Especially for practice, the more balls the better. Well - at around 200 it might get a bit crowded on court... But still, apart from being enjoyable to hit, they'd need to be somewhat affordable and lasting. Even though I'm still reminiscent of the Dunlops, the better ones are still twice as expensive as pretty good alternatives.

In the US, my favorite ball after trying most used to be the Pro Penn ATP Extra Duty. Another 5.0 tennis friend used to describe them as "friendly", which stuck with me as fitting. You could have a great hit and still put them in a basket for a few more practice sessions. Currently it's not clear to me if they have an official successor after losing the ATP sponsorship to Dunlop. Haven't done much research here since the following 2 meet my current needs:

I've also always liked the Wilson US Open Extra Duty. They're not as light and shaven as some of the other hard court balls. While they can be a bit rocky for the first ~100 contacts, they become enjoyable and stay that way for a comparably long long time. PBI for example uses that one as worldwide practice ball, even on clay, which inspired me to follow suit. I tried them for ball machine use as well, and they seem to manage that much better than the mix of other balls in there. Even though they're officially designed for hard court, they've worked well for me not only on clay, but also on carpet. Guess for cross-surface compatibility it mostly comes down to having enough friction, so that the ball doesn't slide as much on bounce...

In addition I've been enjoying the Slazenger Wimbledon, which is a similar-playing half-priced alternative to the good Dunlops. For ~3 sets they hold up pretty well. Then they turn a bit slow-playing but maintain their size and felt, so generally still good and comfortable for practice. At times these characteristics could actually be exactly what you want - for example for practicing longer rallies at the beginning of the clay season. Or making things more comfortable for beginners. I've also found the Slazengers very if not most enjoyable on hard court - which goes counter the Wimbledon branding's association with grass.

Other balls I had recently tried after shortlisting were

  • 2019 Dunlop ATP balls - seemed a bit too soft, at least in Europe.
  • Balls Unlimited Black Code - liked them for a while too - initially somewhat comparable to the Slazenger, however they went flat pretty quick.
  • Head Championship - hard as stone at first, then become OK for X months / hours, then suddenly die. They smell really bad, so don't leave them in your car or in a room where you spend a lot of time.
  • Tennis-Point branded Premium - felt a little harsh and are not really playable after their first use

Bottom line, the above-mentioned Wilson and Slazenger balls seem like good all-around options. If money is less of a consideration, you could also try the high-priced Dunlops or the second-grade Dunlop Trainers (1 out of 4 tends to go flat pretty quickly). 

Finally, if you're about to play competitively, don't forget to pick up the kind they'll be using there for at least one hit before your first match!

Warm up & cool down routines

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will build out if there's interest]

A friend asked me the other day for some pointers regarding stretching for tennis, so I might as well publish what I sent him. Disclaimer that I'm not a physio - the below are exercises that have worked well for me over the last decades, maybe some of them work for you as well!

First and foremost, cold-stretching before play probably does more harm than good, so first I usually do some light off-court warm-up, then some dynamic stretching, and after the hit some static stretching for recovery, injury prevention, and flexibility.

The basic warmup

I first like to do some light jogging or cycling, then go "through the motions". That involves jogging backwards, heel tappings, knee lifts, sidesteps, crossovers, shoulder / arm rolls, self-hugs (alternating the top-arm), maybe some careful upper body rotations (standing twists?), and shaking out arms and wrists, and bending the fingers (e.g. making and releasing a fist). I also like taking 2 racquets and swinging through the main swings. You could also put a weight on one racquet.

That's the warm-up-the-body-part, maybe 5 easy minutes if you don't rush it. That can already get the body ready for a mid-intensity hit. If you feel ready to get started, you can then adjust the warm-up hitting on court to your light pre-hit regime, e.g. by starting more slowly and consciously adding motions that you haven't warmed up - maybe take a few bigger last steps towards the ball or gently exaggerate your upper body rotation.

If you want to prep better and also want to do your body some good, and/or your on-court endeavor is about to get intense quickly (e.g. matchplay after those allotted 5 minutes of warmup hitting), it's probably a good idea to also add some...

Dynamic stretching

For dynamic stretching (after warmup and before the hit), the most important exercises are probably lunges, knee hugs, Frankensteins (straight leg up, carefully), mobilizing the hip, and gently pre-stretching shoulders as well as forearms and wrists. A deep squat has become my favorite stretch to create some mobility and breathing room for the lower back - that one stretches a bunch of stuff at the same time, e.g. the glutes.

If you worry about your heels (e.g. if that's your weak spot, and/or you're over 30, and/or you play on hard court etc), you can do a few slow heel lifts and stretches, on a step or similar. For those, I found that there's a thin line between warming up and 1) strength-building (takes away energy and tightens calf muscle / increases pull on the tendon), and 2) deep stretching (relaxes and thus tires muscle). You'll get a feel for it - maybe try 5 on each side first. Another option could be going into a downward facing dog pose,  and alternately pushing your heels backwards - that actually feels quite good after a few reps. Good to do at home too...

Serious folks also like to do resistance tube stuff for the upper body. If you measure resistance and reps right, you'll get a bit of a workout without tiring your muscles too much - so that's some toning and more importantly stability you can feel. Might be fun to have one tube to grab onto in the house? I like the orange-level resistance, burgundy might be good for warm-up too. And you can always adjust the level (i.e. length) of pull.

Update: here's a fitting video that the USTA came out with at the beginning of 2018:

After the hit is before the hit

Afterwards, you have the opportunity to speed up recovery and increase flexibility, thus also prevent injury and improve performance for next time. Plus you're already out there and warmed up, so might as well make use of that flowing energy...

You can do some static stretches, maybe as you chat or grab a drink so that the whole program doesn't feel too heavy. If you've been exposed to hard court impact, the lower body might be a tad more important, especially calves / heels, maybe also glutes.

For the calves, you can step onto something elevated and carefully let the heels drop and stay there for 5 breaths or so. Then repeat once or twice.

For glutes, holding that deep squat I mentioned earlier feels good to me (make sure the knees are positioned comfortably), or doing some variation of the pigeon stretch.

I usually go through a whole top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top routine, sometimes in the shower. You can probably first pick a few stretches for whatever tends to get tight and go from there...

To soften tight muscles, electrolytes and that massage stick I have been using come to mind.

Closing thoughts and some more visuals

Over the last decade or so, I've started to see this kind of work more of an opportunity to maintain, improve, and future proof the body, so it's great when it's anchored on a fun activity and some social interaction!

Here are some videos I found, for inspiration:

Novak (very advanced and a lot of static stretching in there, so you probably don't need / want to do the whole thing before playing!)

Maria (gets into those heavy medicine ball stuff pretty quickly)

Some good dynamic stretches, for me warming up only with those would probably not get the blood flowing / sweat going enough - you can skip around to get a visual for some of the exercises I've mentioned above. Exercises start at 1:06:

Playing with seeing aids

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will build out if there's interest]

Some of the questions addressed below

* What happens to my tennis game if seeing / vision improves?
* Reversely, if I don't see well, what happens to my game?
* Should I play tennis with glasses or contact lenses?
* What happens when I start playing tennis with glasses?
* How does the magnifying effect affect my game?
* How do I go about finding the right seeing aid?

Seeing & tennis

For most of my tennis life, I have felt that 1) I had more of a "global perception" (is that an infinite extension of triple vision?), and 2) never really looked at (picked up?) the ball. After a bunch of thinking and research on that topic, I'm still not really sure if those are skills or deficits - or maybe a bit of both? But, when I recently found out that I'm farsighted (i.e. I can use some help seeing near), I thought I should try playing with seeing aids and see what would happen.

Up to this point, I've adjusted with "accommodation" - basically using eye muscle power to bend the lens. That's quite exhausting over time, and tends to get harder as you get older. Also, on court you probably want to keep your eyes relaxed and put that energy elsewhere...

To improve as a player, I'm constantly trying to assess elements of my game and benchmark it against others. In more recent years, I've been trying harder to demystify skills and find out why people have become good at something. For example, here are some things I've been wondering about that might relate to eyesight:

  • How do some other players put away balls with much more assurance, even though I have the determination, technique and practice to do so?
  • Why do some seem much more balanced?
  • Why do some appear much calmer, and why does the timing seem so much better?
  • Why do they seem more consistent in general, day in, day out?
  • Why do they seem to handle misbounces much better?
  • How do others pick up what the opponent is doing, e.g. for poaching?
  • Why do I seem to have a more of that "global perception" on court, and subjectively 0 focus on the ball?
Trying out seeing aids seemed like a good way to get some answers. I though I'd give both of the usual suspects a try, glasses and contact lenses.

Playing with glasses

Being far-sighted, the biggest change playing with glasses was the magnifying effect. Everything was suddenly nice and sharp, but also huge! For my values of roundabout +3 dioptrics, everything seemed 20-30% bigger. On court, that was the biggest adjustment to make, probably because brain & body were trained for decades to measure & react to distance of oncoming objects without that magnifying effect.

After a few practice sessions I did feel it would be net positive to play matches with glasses, rather than without a seeing aid. In the matches, I found that I was handling normal-pace balls pretty well, but often when I had to react quickly I'd make contact too early. The magnifying effect made my brain think that the ball was already there. There were a few frustrating and outcome-affecting situations, such as putting sitters on top of the net straight to the bottom. Returning fast first serves was tricky too. What helped me was triangulating the distance to the ball with other objects in my field of vision - such as my other hand, my neon-colored string, and maybe even the tip of my cap's visor. And of course a lot of repetition, especially where reflexes where needed (e.g. volley-volley).

Things people warn about in regards to playing with glasses are limited field of vision, the frame obstructing that field, and the glasses fogging up. The first two I didn't have problems with - probably because my head does keep turning towards the ball until its trajectory is locked in, and when the ball gets very close you can't really see it anyways. For months I never had a problem with fog, until of course I played the National Championships on indoor HarTru. That surface needs a lot of water, so humidity was pretty high. Every 10 seconds or so the glasses would fog up, and I could not see much at all - not fun. To counter, people seem to recommend anti-fog spray or keeping a layer of liquid soap on the glasses, which I haven't tried yet.

A positive experience of playing with glasses was being able to see really well what the other player was doing, even from one baseline to the other. So that meant earlier prep, improved anticipation, and with that better movement, timing, and balance. I felt how most of the microadjustments I had made over the years started to go away. I probably got looser overall too.

Bottom line, the brain does adjust over time and it's been nice feeling more stable and hitting the ball very cleanly. I find that magnifying effect bothersome though, and also would not like to get into another situation where the glasses fog up during an important match.

Outside of tennis, the magnifying effect bothered me too. For example, I did not like that the car gauges, a basketball, or even people's faces suddenly looked so huge. For working on the computer or watching TV it was pretty nice though, since everything was sharp, and in a sense you get a screen size upgrade.

Playing with contact lenses

Out of the gate, most people would recommend contacts for sports. I wanted to experience both though - out of curiosity, and to see what works better for me.

At first, I had trouble putting the contacts in, probably because our natural and often reinforced instinct is to protect our eye from foreign objects. In addition, the first couple of lenses I tried were not that comfortable.

The biggest problem though was that my local optometrist, part of a major chain, gave me weaker lenses compared to my glasses. After talking to a few others and doing research, you're supposed to do that for nearsighted folks. So those contacts helped a little bit, but neither felt effective nor natural. If you're far-sighted (again, you can see well into the distance and need help closer up), you'll at least need the same dioptrics numbers as you do for glasses.

A different optometrist gave me a demo pack of Bausch & Lomb's PureVision 2 in the right strength - in my case same as the glasses. I immediately saw great, and after a few seconds did not even notice wearing them anymore.

If optometrist and/or eye doctor agree, you can leave those 30 lenses in for 30 days straight, day and night. Looks like experts recommend taking them out for activities like sauna, swimming, or anything else that could affect hygiene, oxygen exchange, tear fluid etc. I'm surely not an expert here, just pointing out a few things to be cautious about.

Being on court felt pretty natural again, will have to play some more and see what happens. Jumping into a match right after playing with glasses for a few months was a bit tricky though. I expect the readjustment to take some time, however less than adjusting to playing with glasses :)

Takeaways, for now

In hindsight, I should have gone straight to (the right) contact lenses. Maybe go to 3 optometrists, see what they recommend, compare, and try things out. Demo packs seem pretty common too, so it probably won't hurt to pick up a few different contacts and see which ones work best.

Before playing with a seeing aid, it looks like I had taken on a bit of a Dare Devil challenge. Since vision was handicapped, I had to amplify my other senses. For example, I think I triangulated ball position and point of contact by picking up that oncoming trail of yellow, by sound and rhythm, and by building up a lot of experience over the years. Maybe that's also one of the main reasons why I can tell if a racquet 1 mm or 1 gram off, if the grip is 1 mm too thick, or if the string job did not turn out perfectly.

Tennis (and the rest of life) is definitely a lot more fun when you can see well. My hypothesis is that most players on top of their respective game have great vision - as seems to be the case with Roger Federer or Timo Boll.

Overall, playing without and with different seeing aids were valuable experiences. In theory those should have added some differentiated learning for brain & body, and will hopefully pay dividends in the long run. I'm curious and cautiously excited about feeling more comfortable on court, especially in matches. Will provide updates here once I learn more...

What are pro racquets like?

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will build out if there's interest]

Now that we have somewhat of an overview of mainstream racquets, it's probably interesting to compare that to what the pros are playing with.

Most top level pros use frames built upon proven basis, so called "pro stock" frames. Those are then build up to the pro's liking. As a final step, they receive the paint job of a current mainstream racquet that needs endorsement.

That established conduct is quite misleading (unethical?), and *maybe* apart from the RF97, you cannot really buy a racquet similar to what your favorite pro is using. (There's also the underlying question if that racquet would be best for your game...)

So what are pro racquets like, roughly? In summary, they tend to be a lot heavier and a bit more headlight, resulting in a hefty swingweight premium over mainstream racquets. The frames are also significantly softer, i.e. bend much more on impact.

Here are the averages of key properties, based on information I have gathered across the web and from conversations over the years - probably directionally correct:

Male pro racquets / ATP

Weight: ~370 grams, +/-15 (vs. 309 grams across all mainstream)
Balance: ~315 mm, +/- 10 (vs. 334 mm)
Swingweight: ~360 kg cm²  (vs. 317 kg cm²)
Flex: ~60 RDC, +/- 10 (vs. 66) (guestimate, few data points)
Beam width: ~20 mm, +/- 2 (vs. 23.7)

Female pro racquets / WTA

Weight: ~327 grams, +/- ~30 (see averages above)
Balance: ~344 mm, +/- ~25
Swingweight: ~342 kg cm², +/- ~50
Flex: ~60 (guestimate, few data points - might be a bit higher than the men's)

So if you want to get a mainstream frame close to a pro frame without plastering it with tungsten or lead tape, there are not a lot of racquets to choose from. The closest mainstream frames are probably the RF97 (although that one is pretty stiff), or the 330g Yonex VCORE Duel G 97.

You may be able to somewhat emulate the pro racquet feel by building up something like the Prince Tour 95, a heavier Head Prestige (e.g. the Pro), or some of the other thin Yonex beams (e.g. the VCORE Duel G 97 (310g). Prince's old Rebel 95 might have actually been quite close, as it was quite hefty, headlight, and noticeably bent back on impact.

Handles are sometimes customized too, accommodating the pro's hand. Leather grips are still popular. Some pros then add the overgrip in unique fashion - Richard Gasquet for example only wraps it halfway up the handle. The overgrip that seems most noticeably on tour is still the original, light blue Tourna Grip.

Pros also tend to opt for tighter string beds to better control the ball at high speed. The most popular string jobs are hybrids of natural gut and a poly (often a Babolat VS in the mains, and some Luxilon string in the crosses), or a full bed of a firm poly such as the Luxilon Alu Power or the brand's 4G. The Solinco Hyper G is worth a mention too, as Sam Querrey for example chooses to play with the string without getting paid for it.

The softer and heavier frames make these relatively stiff poly strings easier on the arm than a firm and light mainstream racquet would. Due to strings having become stiffer, I would triangulate that the average tension has probably dropped a couple of kg's from 25 to 23 kgs (roughly 51 lbs).

Finally, if you'd like to have a frame built to your preferred (pro's) specs, take a look at Head's and Vantage's offerings.

Practicing for the long run

[BETA post, wanted to get the content out, happy to rework and/or go into detail later if there's interest.]

As we get older, we tend to get wiser, but unfortunately also slower, less endurant, and might not be able to practice as much. So besides from staying in shape and working to overcome the downward trends, what else can we do to maintain our level of play, and maybe even evolve as a player? How to keep the game as enjoyable, or make it even more so?

To get there. I'd assume the 2 most important factors are optimizing energy input vs. output, and creating a solid base level of performance that you can count on even with little practice. Here are 5 top of mind pointers that might help you with both:

Technique: Is there any stroke you can simplify? The more complicated, the more energy is needed, and the more prone to inconsistencies, errors, and injuries. Back in 2003, I invested a winter season to change my forehand grip from close to Berasategui-style to a more neutral one like Roger's. Very glad I did. Now in 2016, I'm working on removing a step and a good chunk of back-bend from my serve and cleaning up the swing path. If you like to hit standing sideways, you might also consider practicing open-stance strokes to save a couple of steps per shot.

Timing is crucial to ensure that most of the energy you build up goes into the ball. Also, over time you might be less able to step into the ball, so practicing both stepping in and waiting for the ball might be helpful. You can practice this by repetition and also paying close attention to where along the swing bath the ball really takes off. Also, a bunch of throwing and catching should not be underestimated - alternating hands, balls, height, speed etc, and focussing on a really clean catches.

Game style: Over the decades, drop shots, slices, volleys etc will become more important than heavy topspin hitting from the baseline. Even if you have a defensive game style now, you might not enjoy being pushed around in the later stages of your tennis life. So it might be a good idea to practice how to dictate play and effectively neutralizing when you're under pressure.

Positioning: Related to a more offensive game style, you might want to move closer to the baseline so you need to move less, can dictate play, and take time away from your opponent. This is where simple technique and good timing will come in very handy as well. For example, practice playing points while standing inside the baseline and not stepping back over it.

Anticipation, the art and science of knowing where your opponent is going to hit the next ball, can save you many steps and a good deal of time. You can derive cues by figuring out patterns of play, or paying attention to stance, point of impact, or where they look etc. Boris for example used to indicate by tongue where he would serve :P You can also practice this by watching tennis, in-person or on the screen, and predicting where the next ball is going to go.

Remember, people tend to practice the most what they're already good at, so if we want to evolve, we need to work on the other things that make sense for our games and feel a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. You can find some thoughts on effective practice here.

How to choose a tennis racquet

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will build out if there's interest]

1. Narrow down the options

Pick up as many racquets as you can (e.g. in a store), move them around, go through your swings, and then select a substet that appeal to you. And/or ask all your tennis friends who you can get a hold of if you may borrow one of their frames.

Pay attention to grip size too - they can feel different between manufacturers, models or even model years. In terms of size, factor in the overgrip if you use one.

If you're planning to identify a set of demos online, either start from the racquet of specs you know you like, or eliminate what you surely won't like - huge head size, super heavy, super light, dense string pattern etc. Tennis Warehouse for example offers a Racquet Finder (which I wish was a bit easier to use), and also shows similar racquets on each product page (RF97 example).

2. Try your favorites

Pick your favorite frames to demo, and maybe pick up 2 extremes that you think you won't like, just to get a sense for the spectrum and question your initial impression.

Any self-respecting tennis store will offer a demo program. You can also order demos online, e.g. at Tennis Warehouse, Tennis Express, or if you're in Germany for example, there's Tennis-Point.

3a. Found a clear winner?

Go for it. And enjoy it for the time being - if you discover that you don't like something, you can always adjust later. At least you got on court in the meantime :) If you just like to tweak your racquet a bit, you can find an idea here. If you're looking for a more drastic change down the line, select your future set of demos based on your current pick and adjust the spec(s) you're no longer fond of.

3b. Not in love yet?

Note weight, balance, swing weight, head size, string pattern, and any other spec that stood out to you. Even better, measure what you can. From there, figure out what you liked and what you didn't.
Then pick the next set of demos by keeping what you liked, and changing what you didn't. If you want to keep track and rate your demos, there's a template here's that you can adjust and use.

Hope this gives you some ideas so far. If you're an advanced player, here are some other things to pay attention to:

* When buying multiple racquets, get them matched to what you like and to each other. Over the years, I wrote a few posts about my matching woes - here's an example.

* If you're sensitive towards the grip, remember that there are different butt caps (somewhat easy to change) and grip shapes (not easy to change).

* If you know exactly what you want, you can order a custom racquet, e.g. at Head or Vantage. Fun playing around with this the Head customizer in any case :)