By Terence Leong
Sam Stosur has an extensive resume competing at the top levels in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, in fact, being a very rare breed in modern tennis as a player who has won major titles in all three disciplines of the sport. After first achieving success in doubles, winning women’s doubles titles at the French and US Opens and in mixed at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Stosur broke through to reach her first major singles final at the French Open in 2010. Known as one of the most fit women on the WTA Tour, Stosur used her whipping groundstrokes and potent signature kick serve that year to win three straight matches against former world No. 1’s (Justine Henin, Serena Willliams and Jelena Jankovic) to become the first Australian since Wendy Turnbull in 1980 to reach a major final. However, as a big favorite to win the title against Italy’s Francesca Schiavone, she faltered 6-4, 7-6 in the final. A year later in 2011, again breaking through to a major final at the US Open, she over-achieved in her underdog role against Serena Williams and won her debut major singles title by a 6-2, 6-3 scoreline.
Despite struggling with Lyme disease in 2007 and a calf injury that caused her to withdraw mid-tournament from Indian Wells and to miss Miami this year, fitness and health have been a signature attribute for the Australian. Stosur took some time to discuss health and fitness earlier this year with WorldTennisMagazine.com, courtesy of her vitamin sponsor Usana.
TL: You are widely recognized as having one of the best first serves, and potentially the best second serve in women’s tennis. In terms of health and fitness what do you do to maintain your form, while your peers struggle to keep their serve forms?
SS: I’m fortunate that when I was very young, probably 10 or 11 years old, I had a coach that taught me the correct technique to hit the serve the way that I hit it. Now that I’m 29, that’s 18 years of doing it. As I got older, bigger and stronger, my serves got better and better. So it was a combination of having good technique and a coach that had the insight to think that maybe I had the capability of hitting the serve like that. As time has gone on, that repetition allowed getting better at it and staying strong. I have the basis of everything that I need each time in my serve. Having good technical ability eliminates the risk of having injuries down the track as well.
TL: So basically having proper form at the beginning has precluded you from having to tinker with it, and maintaining your form is somewhat just a matter of repetition.
SS: I think so absolutely. For a pro, during the younger ages when you are starting to play and learning how to hit the ball correctly, if you can get it right, in the beginning then you don’t have to change things. There are always a lot of things that you want to tinker with and I’ve certainly done that w all my strengths, but if you have a good grounding of the fundamentals, then it’s a lot easier as you get older.
TL: I’m glad u mentioned it, so you are one of the more mature players on the tour now, with a lot of success, but as you have gotten older, your regimen, the combination of on court training versus the off court fitness, how has that ratio changed for you over time?
SS: It’s probably the last 7-8 years that fitness and strength have become a lot more relevant to me and my game. Earlier on I didn’t really have as strongly defined a plan, and went through different fitness trainers throughout my career. Now I’ve had the same coach for 5 years. We’ve really worked on lots of different things throughout that period but I think it’s all about realizing what you have to do to get better and then take it to that next level. So I’ve really tried to work on my fitness and strength and like I said in the last 7-8 years. The way that I play is an aggressive style. I’ve got to be fast and explosive and not necessarily play really long rallies. Try to get on the point as quickly as possible, and in order to do that you’ve got to be as strong as possible and really hold your ground on that baseline and be moving forward. So you’ve got to have fitness and strength. My overall work, along with my coach, puts it all into place. You’ve got to do it off the court, but then you have to get on the court and make it work for your style and game as well.
TL: How often do you assess changes in the off court fitness? Many of our readers are much older than you and certainly not of the same level as play (chuckling).
SS: (Sam chuckling also) I probably change my gym strength program every 6-8 weeks I. Depending on what surface I am on and what surface I am going to. Depending on where you are at, maybe you have a little injury you’ve got to take care of. Then you start doing different exercises to try and take care of that more. You are always adjusting things to match your current needs but at the same time you’ve got the general plan that you have defined. Whether it’s strength at that period or now I need to work on my cardio and aerobic fitness. Or whatever it is. Tennis has such a wide variety of aspects that you’ve got to have the ability to hit the ball, staying out there a couple of hours per match and be able to recover playing day after day. So there are lots of different elements that you continually work on.
TL: Switching gears to diet and hydration. Do you have any routines pre-match, during match, and subsequent to the match as well?
SS: A big part of the professional athlete is not just what you are doing on court or off the court but it’s what you are fueling your body with that allows you to do that. I think that as I’ve gotten older I’ve certainly realized how important that is. Back when I was a teenager and playing, though I was serious, I didn’t adhere to all these different things. So I’ve really cut out nearly all soft drinks and always try to eat well. Many times at tournaments, we are at the mercy of what is available. You have to be a little bit versatile. Then we travel to different countries with different cultures and food that is obviously from that region of the world but may lack what we require. The one thing that I really take seriously is my health, I was out of the game for nearly a year, and realized without that you’ve got nothing. So now I travel with my Usana vitamins and being able to take those every single day when I can’t necessarily always eat well because you cannot control the menu, although some of it may taste quite good, it’s probably not the best for you. Knowing that I’ve got my vitamins as a backup is always great to know I have everything that I need in that way so then I can play the best I can when I get on court.
TL: During the match, do you have any hydration formula or solids you take?
SS: During matches every change of ends I’ll have a couple sips of water, and then a sports drink. In practice I will as well. I’ve got the sports gels as well and the gooey rollies. I try and take throughout the match to try and keep your energy levels up. After two hours of soaking in the sun you are losing different minerals and nutrients. You realize you have to keep them up and I think that is an important part of still playing as well at the end as you were at the start.
TL: I was hoping to talk about a little bit of the mental aspect of tennis which is certainly a huge portion of the game. At your level do you use meditation or visualizations? Is there a core to your mental preparation that you use to perform at the level that you do?
SS: I have the same routine before each match that goes from a physical warm up, to then going over the game plan with my coach and then reading through some notes of what I’m going to really do out on the court. I think just before a match you’ve got to try and keep it as simple as possible. If you don’t, your head is filled with so many different things, overloaded with A through Z. There are a few key things that you want to keep in mind and then go on the court like that. I use a sports psychologist. I’ve been with her for a few years now. I think as time has gone on I’ve really learned what works for me and what doesn’t work for me to mentally get ready for a match, to get over a loss, or to handle a big win and then you’ve got to back it up the next day, whatever else. I think it’s always something that you’re trying to work on, just like you go out there every day and practice your forehand or your serve. The mental side of things is just as important, if not more important at this level because everyone can hit the ball pretty well, and can move pretty decently. At the end of the day it comes down to handling things mentally and I think that can really make the difference.
TL: Do you set time set aside simply for those mental exercises or does it happen concurrently with the physical aspects?
SS: I don’t necessarily sit down in my room and meditate or visualize a good shot or anything like that. It’s more being aware of what I am feeling out on court and then how that affects the rest of my game. So for example, you are feeling nervous. What are you going to do to handle those nerves? It’s how you handle it. So that is a big part of what I’ve been trying to do with that side of things. Being aware of what I am feeling and how I can use that to not necessarily an advantage but certainly not allow it to be a detriment.
TL: As the season progresses from surface to surface, other than play on those surfaces, is there anything you do off court to prepare for those different surfaces?
SS: Well we’ve been on hard court now for quite awhile. These are the last two (hard court) tournaments Indian Wells and Miami, then we go to clay. Usually when you go to clay you slide a lot more on the court, and are using different muscles in your legs. Typically you get really sore adductors and your groin gets sore. Rallies are a little bit longer and ball is bouncing higher so maybe your shoulder gets a little more overused. You are sore for a couple of weeks until you get used to it. That’s probably where your aerobic fitness has to kick in in playing longer points. Typically I work on a few different exercises at the gym to strengthen up those parts of your body before or right at the start of changing surfaces. From the clay to the grass, you are not sliding at all anymore really. I find that my ankles and my feet and joints are a little bit sore because of that gripping on the grass. Perhaps your back hurts because you are getting lower to the ball, the ball doesn’t bounce as high. Everyone has these little adaptations they have to make from surface to surface. I think it gets easier as you get a little more used to doing that and knowing what type of, not injury, but what part of your body might flare up a little bit more, and then as the years go on you learn those things and you try and do whatever you can before playing too much on that surface to try and eliminate that. So everything’s always changing, you’ve got to be ready to adapt as quickly as possible.