It can help develop a young athlete’s motor development, athletic capacities and tennis skills.
When Serena and Venus Williams were 10 and 11, coach Rick Macci predicted their future superstardom, telling the worldwide media, “They’re going to be the two best athletes ever to play the game.”
In his 2013 book, Macci Magic, he explained how he’d make the prodigiously talented girls “even more athletic.” Leaving no stone unturned, Macci had the girls spar with the Florida state boxing champion and the No. 1-ranked US kickboxer every day in a sand pit “to keep their feet moving non-stop.” To help develop their service motion, Serena and Venus also threw a baseball and a football every day. The ambitious sisters even worked with the hula hoop to improve their balance and strengthen their core muscles.
When 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff, the heir apparent to the legendary Williamses, was 11 and 12 years old, she played a lot of basketball and ran track, including 5K endurance races. Coco’s heavy tennis schedule ended her involvement in other sports, but she learned valuable lessons from them. “The years of basketball and track really helped her,” says her father Corey. “She loved tennis more, but she also knows the training and discipline it takes to become a champion.” Coco transferred some athletic skills, such as hand-eye coordination, speed and agility, from those sports to tennis.
A 2015 International Olympic Committee (IOC) report on youth development supports the views of Macci and Corey Gauff. The report stated that coaches should avoid sports specialisation at an early age because “diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity.”
Until the 1970s when the Open Era transformed tennis into a big-money sport that encouraged youngsters to concentrate on tennis at a very early age, tennis champions often played other organized sports first. Fred Perry, a brash Englishman, did not start playing tennis until he was 14 and first concentrated on it at 20 after he became world champion in table tennis in 1929. Perry’s outstanding Continental forehand that hit the ball early and on the rise, quick reflexes at net and rhythmical stroking came from table tennis. “To succeed in all moving ball games, acquiring a sense of rhythm is half the battle,” Perry wrote in his autobiography. “In both games, the spins and counter-spins are the same, the flight of the ball is similar, and so is the parabola of that flight. So table tennis was a good springboard.” Indeed it was. Perry captured eight major titles from 1933 to 1936.
Don Budge, a power-hitting American, achieved a rare Grand Slam in 1938, but tennis wasn’t his first love. “As a left-handed batter, Budge struck the baseball with a smooth low-to-high swing; he applied that same technique to his backhand,” wrote Joel Drucker, in his “Oakland’s Tennis Revolutionary” paean. “Budge likely didn’t know that at the time, but he’d created a motion that would revolutionize tennis.”
Jaroslav Drobny, a lefty serve-volleyer who won the French title in 1951 and 1952 and Wimbledon in 1953, holds the rare distinction of becoming a world champion, like Perry, in two sports. During and just after World War II, tennis balls were scarce in his native Czechoslovakia; hockey pucks were not, so he played ice hockey. “Drob” led his national team to the world amateur championship in 1947, scoring three goals in the final, and he helped the Czechs win a silver medal at the 1948 Olympics. Using field vision and clever angles he learned in hockey to set up and score goals, Drobny created similar point-winning tactics in tennis.
Open Era tennis stars never had the chance to match Perry’s or Drobny’s feats, though Romanian Davis Cupper Ion Tiriac, a child table tennis champion, played as a defenseman on his nation’s 1964 Olympic hockey team before switching to tennis. But if you’re wondering why this decade’s Big 4 — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — boast exceptional speed, agility and resourcefulness, they all honed these athletic attributes earlier as soccer players. In fact, a 15-year-old Murray was invited to train with Rangers Football Club at their School of Excellence. Nadal was a striker who played on a junior team that won a Spanish inter-league championship.
If you wonder how world No. 1 Djokovic glides and slides with such remarkable agility and balance, he credits skiing. Djokovic comes from a family of skiers and started skiing when he was two years old. “I think skiing has affected the flexibility of my ankles, my joints,” said Djokovic during the 2019 Miami Open. “I know a lot of players are forbidden to ski, but I don’t have that in my contract.”
Federer, though, decided the risk was too great and stopped skiing a few years ago. “I am really afraid of getting injured,” he explained.
Many experts consider Martina Navratilova one of the greatest pure athletes in tennis history, but her career didn’t really take off until basketball star Nancy Lieberman began ruthlessly training her in 1981. Long-distance running, wind sprints (“running suicides”), rope jumping and weightlifting exhausted Navratilova. Besides that, basketball workouts against the rugged, and often dirty, Lieberman left Navratilova bruised and bloody. In her autobiography, Martina, she recalled, “Learning a game where the hoop is 10 feet high extended my tennis game tremendously. Reaching for an overhead volley was a lot easier than going up for a rebound against Nancy.” The cross training paid off spectacularly. Navratilova wound up with an astounding 59 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.
Lleyton Hewitt, the undersized 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimbledon champ, likely developed his hyper-competitiveness by playing Australian rules football, a punishing collision sport, until he was 13. China’s Li Na, another two-time major winner, first displayed her racquet talent as a badminton player. And former No. 1 Jim Courier’s baseball-like backhand swing evolved from early baseball hitting prowess.
What other sports can help develop a young athlete’s motor development, athletic capacities and tennis skills?
“Some of the best two-handed backhands I’ve seen have come from tennis players who played hockey,” Macci said. “It’s a sport requiring a lot of agility and dexterity, even though girls are more likely to play field hockey than ice hockey. Another beneficial sport is gymnastics. It has a lot of stops and starts, a lot of agility involved and you have to be highly dedicated. Baseball and softball are in my top five because the two-handed backhand is similar to a baseball swing, especially the way Djokovic hits it. In both sports, your knees are bent and you have hip and shoulder rotation.”
As a former centre-fielder in Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball before becoming a tournament tennis player, I know from experience how much athleticism this “five-tool” sport offers. Sprinting to catch 300-foot fly balls coming at varying trajectories and speeds more than prepared me to side pedal back 20 feet for deep overheads. Throwing from the outfield strengthened my arm and produced the same fluid and powerful throwing motion used in serving and smashing. Stealing bases put a premium on the same explosive starts you need in tennis. And hitting a baseball arriving with various speeds and spins required the same hand-eye coordination, timing and concentration needed to return diverse tennis serves.
“Any sport where you’re competing and taking responsibility and feeling what it’s like to win and lose, that can ripple into any sport you choose, especially tennis,” said Macci, who also coached teenage stars and future No. 1s Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and Andy Roddick. That can include karate, judo and ballet — yet another sport Macci had Serena and Venus practice to enhance their balance, rhythm and flexibility.
Parents, coaches, and teaching pros should heed Macci’s most important advice. “You want to develop the person first, not just the strokes and you shouldn’t think the child has to play 40 tournaments a year,” Macci said. “They have plenty of time. Look at the Williams sisters. They’re still playing at 39 and 40 years old. They and Federer, who’s 39, still have that passion. So it’s 100 percent mandatory to play other sports.”
So, play lots of sports and make variety the spice of your tennis life.