When tennis is played outdoors, the weather always is a factor. Sun, wind and temperature affect how the game is played. But unlike the wind and the hot (or cold) weather, rain actually stops play. That makes for some very long tennis days, and some dramatic plot twists.
The first couple of days of the 2017 Miami Open saw two notable rain-delayed matches.
American Christina Mchale was leading No. 6 seed Garbiñe Muguruza 6-0 2-0 before the reigning French Open champion got on the board. At 6-0, 3-2 for
Mchale, the rains came, suspending their match for the evening. Muguruza took advantage, coming back to defeat Mchale the next day, 0-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4.
Equally intriguing was the Elena Vesnina – Ajla Tomljanovic second-round matchup. It was suspended by rain Thursday with Tomljanovic serving for the match at 5-3 in the third set. When it resumed Friday, Tomljanovic had two match points – but was broken. A little while later, Vesnina double-faulted three times to hand Tomljanovic another match point … and the rains came once again. When play resumed, the Croat kept her composure. She needed just one more point to close out last week’s Indian Wells champion.
I spoke to some experienced tennis team members about how their responsibilities change during a rain delay.
First, former ATP Tour player Michael Joyce, longtime coach of Maria Sharapova and newly-minted coach of another former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion, Victoria Azarenka.
TL: What do you tell your players during rain delays ? Is it a lot of trial and error trying to find the right balance?
JOYCE: No question. Everybody’s different in their ability to manage their focus during uncertain weather conditions. Maria was amazing at being able to stay calm during breaks, but never too relaxed. The thing to remember is you’re still playing a match. As much as you may want the match anxiety to be over, you have to manage it, knowing that when play will resume is completely out of your control.
TL: Like dropping the engine from in gear to neutral, but not turning the engine off?
JOYCE: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. Today, with the tournaments being far more technologically advanced, the bigger ones have the weather radar which is a pretty accurate predictor of conditions, though not perfect. It’s way better than how it used to be, though. The tournament referees are pretty good at telling you whether to stay on the court, or give you a “not before” time. But you have to be vigilant. That’s where the team comes in to play.
TL: Did your experience playing the tour help you as a coach in learning how to engage your players during breaks?
JOYCE: Ha. Yes, definitely. In 1996, I was playing Wimbledon. I had a great tourney the year before, making the fourth round. … First round, I get an Italian, Andrea Gaudenzi. We started on a Monday, he ended up beating me in five sets ending on Thursday or something. It was crazy; had to be like a dozen stoppages. I had never played a match like that before.
My mom and dad were there. Every time the rain would come, my dad could get really in to it. I was barely off the court, and there goes my dad breaking it all down for me. The first couple times it was no big deal. By the fifth or sixth break, he was killing me. It was a total up-and-down match. If I was struggling, he would come up with all these new strategies. Finally, my mom wouldn’t let him talk to me anymore!
I learned a lot then, though not to over-coach. Sometimes you have to play mind games. In the Mchale match, she almost needed to come back that next day like she lost the first set and was fighting for her life. It can be really hard when you’re playing really well and then the rains come. So rarely does a player resume play at that same peak level. You know your opponent is going to come back giving everything they have, making adjustments, etc.
But mostly, my best advice is don’t overthink it. If the break is long, you just want to do all the things to make sure your player is as prepared as possible to get back out there to compete.
I also reached out to former ATP trainer Juan Reque, also a longtime personal physio for Maria Sharapova.
TL: When the conditions get wet, how does that affect your working with players?
REQUE: The conditions in Miami these last couple of days are some of the trickiest for physios, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. If it’s a quick, passing drizzle and the players stay on the court, it’s nice for the players to get a little extra rest and they should take advantage of that – but not too much. You can cool down and start stiffening up pretty quickly, so a little rest and then get up and get warm again a good couple of minutes before play resumes.
If they come off the court, that’s different. You want the player to change clothes if possible and then try to stretch down to minimize the tightening up when they cool off – especially if they may have to go right back out there. And you repeat this with every delay.
It can make for very long days. If the break is a couple of hours, the tournaments are good at giving you 30 minutes’ notice, or “not before” times. So then we treat the situation like the match is just starting and go through our normal warmup, gym work, stretching, and do any treatments needed if there are injuries. If the weather keeps coming off and on all day, it turns in to your player playing three or four matches in one day. The idea is to treat each stretch of play like a match, whether it’s 20 minutes or two hours. We have set routines for warming the body up and cooling the body down. These kind of days are tough on nagging injuries, so we really have to be prepared for anything.
Next up is licensed dietitian Jeff Rothschild, who has a Master’s degree in Nutritional Science and who counts Mike Bryan and young American Stefan Kozlov among the players he’s counselled.
TL: How should players prepare nutritionally for long days at an event?
ROTHSCHILD: A lot of it is education. I try to teach the athletes I work with to be prepared for everything. At the elite professional events, good food is always available but at smaller events, that’s not always the case. With rain-delay scheduling often quite erratic, players have to come prepared.
I advocate a lot of small snacking. I don’t want players getting too hungry or too full. Conceivably, on a day with multiple rain delays, you have to be prepared to play your best tennis for an entire day, which is different than the normal couple-hour window. Sometimes players won’t be able to leave the court during a delay. In my opinion, that’s a great time to fuel up for the next run, hydrating and gels and all the modern fueling players today apply.
It may not seem like a big deal, but longer matches get decided by who has more left at the end of a long day. If it’s raining, by definition it’s humid, and likely pretty warm. Players have to be very aware of where they are physically. It’s very easy to relax during breaks and seize on the rest portion of the delay. The best athletes I’ve been around take advantage of breaks to optimally refuel for the next run of play. Often that’s what will be the determining factor in a match over a couple of days.
Finally, former player, author and coach Dr. Allen Fox weighs in.
TL: What’s your best advice for players enduring rain delays?
FOX: As a professional, it’s all part of the game. Sometimes they can work for you, sometimes not so much. What players need to learn is not to dwell on what could have been. If you had a chance to close the match out and it got away from you, you have to detach from that. If you ruminate over it, that never helps. Tennis is inherently stressful already. Do not add to that stress worrying about things no longer in your control.
As for long days hanging around a venue, my best advice is stay calm. Do not over-exert yourself mentally. I played chess one time against some Russian guy. I got all in to it, by the time I returned to the court, my mind was mush.
Seriously though. Just stay relaxed. Don’t do anything not conducive to winning. There’s a proper state of mind a player should seek. A relaxed yet still engaged mindset that won’t burn you out, yet you’re ready to give your best when the time calls.
Everyone is different though. It takes time and practice to find.