Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How to tune out on court distractions

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

Have you ever been in a match where you've been completely in-tuned, focused, and driven when suddenly some clown comes onto the court next to you and starts pulling the curtains and setting up the ball machine? Absolute mental chaos! What's really frustrating is so many of us are pretty good at tuning out silly distractions: music, arguments, players tumbling on the court--the works. So why is it that some external distractions throw us completely for a loop? And how do you manage to pull yourself together and stop the mental downward spiral?

A streaker prances across Centre Court before the men's 1996
Wimbledon final. Talk about a distraction!
On court distractions come in all forms; lessons next to you, viewer chatter, grunting, kids squealing, power outages, water leaks, rain, wardrobe malfunctions, bad string job, lights shattering overhead (yes, that happened), fist fights (also happened). I can go on and on and on--and on and on. The thing is its these distractions that test your mental strength on the court, which can be the difference between a win and loss. The real test is figuring out how to refocus quickly after one of these disruptions attempts to shatter your attention, so here are some quick tips on how to do just that!
  • Drink water and stay hydrated. Being even a little dehydrated will make you feel tired and sluggish, which can make it possible to become easily distracted. 
  • Get enough sleep the night before a match. Lack of sleep makes you tired, irritable and completely disrupts your ability to focus. 
  • Be aware. Yes that person who's obnoxiously cheering for your opponent from the sidelines is annoying the crap out of you, but now that you've acknowledged it you can now regroup and focus back on the game. What tends to happen when we come onto the court without being aware of say darker lighting or that there's a cheering squad for your opponents, is you'll start to notice these things say while waiting on return of serve--you know, moments that really call for your full attention.  
  • Use a cue word, "Calm. Focus. Strong. Control. Breathe." This is actually one of my favorite ways to regroup after a distraction. Of course it only works when you remember to use it, so this is something you'll want to continually repeat before points so that at moments when you really need to be alert, these cue words will eventually become a light-switch to tuning out all the static intruding your mind. 
  • Plan ahead. When you make a game day plan/routine, you are actually organizing your thoughts which helps focus your attention to what's relevant to your game instead of distracting thoughts. 
Like in life, there are some things that are going to be out of your control. Sure, you can try to tell the club manager to cancel all other fitness classes and drills during your tennis match, but I'm not sure how much headway you'll get with that. Instead, redirect your attention to the things you CAN control. I love blaming a bad match on anything but me, but really I knew I should've gotten a better night sleep or I should've left for the match earlier rather than freak for being late. Hey, we're human. The point is have a plan of attack on how to avoid becoming a victim to the next distraction, whatever it may be. So next time you see that ball machine being rolled out onto the next court, you can just tell yourself, "bring it on!"

Monday, January 22, 2018

What is so different about the new Babolat 2018 Pure Drive?

New 2018 models have
Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

The newly updated Babolat 2018 Pure Drive has officially made its arrival and trust me, it's worth the wait! While many are probably wondering if they slapped on a new paint job and called it 'new', there was a little more involved than just giving it a face lift. For the past 20 years, Babolat has been known as THE racquet for players who want more power and are continually looking at innovative ways to further improve on this racquet. So for the 2018 Pure Drive, what's so different about it?

To give you a little refresher, when the 2015 Babolat Pure Drive was introduced it's main feature was more power and finesse with a newly designed string pattern/sweet spot. The feedback was generally positive as it was an easy racquet to use with plenty of control, though some people didn't feel it was as flexible as the older models (flexible as in the feel of getting used to ground-strokes, serves & volleys all in the same manner). So what did Babolat do? They went back to the 'Babolab' and created a new model that provides a better feel, and if you can believe it, even more power with a new concept: Cortex Pure Feel.

Babolat has partnered with SMAC, a company that specializes in high tech custom parts for harsh environments (harsh as in the ocean and space), to create Cortex Pure Feel. That's right, a company that works with technology for space, planes and the military is designing for racquets! Together, they integrated SMACWRAP technology (a thin rubber they use in the aerospace industry) into the 2018 Babolat Pure Drive to optimize vibration absorption. The feel and comfort are unrivaled with other racquets.

On top of better vibration dampening, there is a new string pattern and new diamond grommets with updated FSI technology that provide an improved sweet spot. So even if you are close to rimming it, you should be able to maximize power on every shot. No more accidental winners!

Players endorsing the 2018 Babolat Pure Drive are David Ferrer, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, and Fabio Fognini, to name a few.

Overall, the 2018 Babolat Pure Drive is a powerfully smart update to the Pure Drive series, featuring a more comfortable and controllable feel. You can demo them here at Towpath Tennis Center in the Tour/+/Team/Lite/100/107. Just make sure when you're on court to subtly brag to your opponents that your racquet features technology used in space...just saying.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Become a Better Tennis Player Through Writing

Alex Millar | Towpath Tennis Member

Venus Williams states that, “Tennis is mostly mental. You win or lose the match before you even go out there.” After fifteen proud years at Towpath I have grown both professionally and personally. Creating a strong mental game on and off the court has allowed me the freedom to truly express myself as an athlete and person. As a lifelong tennis player, the most rewarding yet challenging aspect of the game is mentality. In life, its about trial and error and I find the greatest part of the sport lies in the individual challenges, whether on or off the court. In order to address the concerns I began journaling, and through that I achieved a strong and more proficient mentality. 
Longtime Towpath member
Alex Millar encourages play-
ers to strengthen their mental
game on court by journaling.

Journaling in many ways is like playing tennis. You are solely responsible for your performance mentally, physically, and emotionally. You leave your mark on the court and in this case, the page. While in tennis you trade shots with your opponent, journaling requires one to trade the racket for the pen. Rallying your thoughts back and forth between yourself and the page. Think of journaling as the practice match for the mental game of life.  

This is how I think, journaling daily is a mental practice of life and of tennis. My method is to find quotes that challenge, inspire, and motivate me to question, understand and relate them to everyday life. It has helped me become a more critical thinker, concise writer and more importantly a stronger tennis player. The greatest benefit of journaling is allowing me to self-reflect on the person I am. As a new father this is something I wanted to pass onto my children. I want them to have an understanding of what thoughts shaped their father, and an offering the same platform to develop the same skills I have instilled in myself. 

Available for purchase at
As my hand writing is notoriously poor, I found abandoning my journals was not an option. Instead I compiled a journal of my top quotes, the ones which influenced and impacted me the most. After that I created a journal quote book titled, Your Thoughts Through Their Words: Daily Quotation Guide Journaling. The best part of my book is each day for a year the reader is set with a quote and an engaging writers prompt. Allow this book to challenge your mind. Personally, I consider the quote as an analogy for a net, and the opponent is the quote/prompt or both if you feel like playing some Australian doubles.  

Towpath will remain my home for Tennis. As a contributor to the community I would like to extend an offer for all readers to access my journal for personal reflection and mental practice at Towpath. Remember to support the club that supports all in the game of tennis in and around Northeast Ohio. Copies are $15, or 2/$20 at Towpath Tennis Center. Another option is purchasing through Amazon though I recommend supporting the club that supports us all in our tennis, and is foundation for the Akron and Northeast Ohio community.

Alex with his wife, Yuriko, and
their 2 kids. 
My sincere hope is this journal can spur self-awareness, discussion, and give you the edge in your next match whether on or off the court. This journal is your court, and make sure you leave it all on it.

(Alex Millar is a father of 2 toddlers (Anna and Chris), and husband of 7 years to his wife Yuriko. He is a USPTA certified pro teaching all ages for the last 12 years. Alex came up the junior ranks at Towpath and went on to play collegiate tennis at John Carroll, as well as abroad in Japan. His next journal, On Court With Your Thoughts: Quote Guided Tennis Journaling, is slated for publication in 2018.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The best age to start your child in tennis

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

The best age to start your child in tennis...obviously this is open to debate, but a very relevant topic in my household with young children as I'm sure in yours as well. As long as I can remember, I've had a racquet in my hand. I'm the youngest of 5 children that grew up in a tennis playing family. I never had a shortage of players to hit with, I had the option to play singles or doubles, I played against players better than me, someone was always there putting their two cents in how to improve my game (whether I wanted to hear it or not), and we had a tennis court at our house. I was incredibly fortunate to have that pathway as a child. To not play tennis never crossed my mind. But in most cases, families don't have that clear of a route. And now being a mother of 2, I'm now wondering when do I capture the "right moment" in starting hopefully a lifelong interest?
Kids ages 3-5 enjoy a day of Little Tennis.

You can ask friends, family members, teammates, coaches or check out when certain pros began playing tennis, and you will find a whole range of answers. U.S. Open Champion Sloane Stephens didn't start playing tennis until she was age 9 for crying out loud. So great news is my daughters can still be U.S. Open champions if they start later in childhood; bad news is I'd like to introduce them sooner, but how do I know when they're ready? With USTA's new youth tennis program, Net Generation, the guessing game has become a lot more clearer.

What is Net Generation?

In an effort to make the game more accessible to parents and kids, Net Generation has created a platform for parents and guardians to connect to local programs, as well as seek out all of the information about youth tennis around the country in one location. Designed for kids ages 5-18, you will find on their site certified teaching pros, facilities, instructional videos along with other "how-to's" about the game. This is the first time the sport has had one unified brand for kids interested in playing tennis, so whether kids are introduced by a parent, picking up a racquet at school, training with a coach, playing recreational tennis or competing at tournaments, Net Generation has created a development program with a singular pathway in which all children should follow.

The Pathway

As you grow, so will your racquet!
So often do we hear parents wondering, "Is my teenager going to have to take lessons with a 12 year old if they're the same level? How do I know when my child is ready for tournaments? What do I do if my child wants to play high school tennis but has never picked up a racquet before? What racquet size is needed for my child's age?" The great thing about a singular pathway, is you won't hear a range of answers. The Net Generation curriculum will spell out what skills and knowledge each player should have before moving on to the next color ball, court size and level of play. I remember playing a young boy half my size in high school, and while rolling my eyes at having to play somebody younger, he cleaned house! After that, I was more focused on how many games I could get off of this hot shot. To be the best, you have to play the best--no matter what age!

Certified Pros

What's great about Net Generation, is all tennis professionals who join the program are certified and have passed a background check. Safety is the #1 priority, so that parents can sit back and relax and trust that their kids are in good hands.

Progress Reports

One of the best parts about Net Generation is you'll be able to track your child's on-court progress! In 2018, parents will be able to create an account to check out the latest updates on how their child is doing during lessons. So for those times you won't be able to watch, it'll feel like you didn't miss a thing!

To answer the primary question, the best age to start tennis is when your child shows interest! Tennis is not an easy sport. Hand-eye coordination is key. Some kids will have a knack for it and will pick it up a little faster, but for many it'll take time and dedication to get a good grasp of the game. Therefore, the most important factor is and shall always be their interest level. If they're enjoying their lessons, which Net Generation has devoted it's philosophy to into motivating and inspiring kids by making the game enjoyable at all ages and levels, then your child without a doubt should have a healthy career in tennis.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Secret to a winning lineup

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

The Men's 3.0 40+ Team captained by Michael Kramer
reaches the final four at the USTA National Championships
in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

With our summer Men's 3.0 40+ Team & Men's 6.0 55+ Team from Towpath Tennis competing in Nationals this year, we once again applaud their effort for making it among the best of the best in the country. This is the 4th consecutive year Towpath has had teams qualify for the National Championships and we couldn't be prouder. It takes quite a lot of motivation and work to get to the national stage, so it's interesting to take a step back and look at how these teams were able to make it each year. Having strong players is obvious enough, however it's not all about having a few ringers on your team. In fact, you may have the strongest team in the league, but you won't get anywhere if you don't know where to place your teammates. In the past we posted an article on How to create a winning tennis team (check it out). While we still stick to these fundamentals in creating a solid team, we did miss something that is kind of important in making a winning tennis team--that is creating a winning lineup!  So where do you start?

  1. Roster Likable Teammates - Hate to admit it, but one sour pickle can spoil a team's fun and success. They don't ALL have to like each other, but your team should genuinely get along not only to avoid a toxic atmosphere amongst the group, but also to make players interchangeable in the lineup so that they become indispensable when its time to pull out the big guns.  
  2. Singles Anyone? - If you have a full roster with no singles players, then you might have a problem. However, you'll be surprised at who is actually good at singles when they don't even know it. If you have solid singles players then hurray, good for you! But, if you're like many struggling captains who are trying to fill the spot then first look for willing participants, second look for a hacker/backboard player, and third look for somebody with solid ground strokes. Sometimes players might be intimidated to see a young, hard hitter on the opposing side of the court, but truth is younger, harder hitters tend to make more errors and are generally impatient. If you don't think you can find a singles player that will knock their opponent out, then look for someone that will tire their opponent out. Trust me, it works!
    The Men's 55 & Over 6.0 Men will compete this weekend at 
    the USTA National Championship in Orlando, FL.
  3. CHEMISTRY - For doubles, I'm a true believer that on court chemistry among partners is everything to a team's success. Chemistry is not just about being nice and encouraging to each other, it's about moving well together, speaking the same language (I get you), having the same goal and making each other laugh. Sometimes what looks good on paper may not translate well on court so that's why it's important to practice and switch teams around until you find one that absolutely gels. 
  4. The Lineup - Typically, you want to place your strongest doubles team at 1st doubles and then place the rest subsequently after. Makes sense right? Well, if you're able to fine tune your team enough to predict the result (this team has been undefeated, this team has a strong serve/net game, this team can run anything down), then you will have a better idea of where to place your players. 
    1. Second Court - The reason I bring 2nd court up first is that many of the most successful lineups include playing your most solid and valuable singles/doubles team in 2nd position--they're dependable for a win 9/10 matches (in theory). 
    2. First Court - The most 'intimidating/fearless/powerful' singles/doubles team play well on 1st court for several obvious reasons. They might not always get the win, but they'll have a higher probability to come out on top or at least put up a damn good fight.
    3. Third Court - Let me make something clear, being placed on third doesn't necessarily mean it's the 'forgotten/toss up' court. It's just as crucial to get this right since many a time it's the 3rd court team pulling off a win for the match. The difference is you're allowed a bit more freedom when deciding who to play on 3rd. Third court is a great position to play a stronger/weaker player combo, experiment a potential partnership if you're not able to in a practice, or play those backboard/hackers that will make your opponents want to scream in frustration. 
  5. To Stack or Not To Stack? - Here's the deal, I'm not a fan. I understand if you may want to play around with teams in different positions, or even if you place a team with a lower rating in a higher position because you truly feel they are the stronger partnership. BUT, if you play your 1st singles/doubles team that has remained at 1st singles/doubles all season long, only to now play 3rd court against a particular team, then you're not playing a fair game, which isn't great sportsmanship. Play a fair game, and you will be rewarded. 
There you have it! This will certainly not give you overnight success, but with continual practice and a little luck you'll find that your team will be the one to be reckoned with.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The No Meat Athlete Cookbook

Barbara Youel | Towpath Member & Cookbook Author

The No Meat Athlete Cookbook: Whole Food, Plant-Based Recipes to Fuel Your Workouts – and the Rest of Your Life
by Matt Frazier and Stepfanie Romine (The Experiment, 2017) 

One of my favorite doctors is Michael Greger, who highly recommends The No Meat Athlete Cookbook – “a must for active people and athletes at every level who want to perform at their best, while protecting themselves from disease with whole, plant-based foods.”  Dr. Greger is an internationally recognized physician, author and researcher (How Not to Die), who relies on the science for his recommendations ( How refreshing! He is not beholden to any industry – no dairy, no chickens, no big pharma. Yippee!!!

Co-authors Matt Frazier & Stepfanie Romine re-
invent the athlete's diet with this plant-based cook-
This book is a real primer in learning how elite athletes do extraordinary things without animal protein or oil.  Yes my friends, sayonara to chicken wings, Thanksgiving turkey and cheeseburgers. And, adios amigos to olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil and all oils.  To escort you through what may be a painful journey is the authors’ very easy labeling system; each of the 125 vegan recipes is clearly identified:

            FF – fast food
            SF – slow food
            SC – slow cooker
            CL – carbo loading
            GF/GFO – gluten- free/gluten-
            free option
            OF/OFO – oil-free/oil-free option
            XS – soy-free

The spectacular color photography made me want to walk, no run to my kitchen and get going. I am particularly interested in the beet (yup, beet) bourguignon (page 125), Greek chopped salad (page 139), cumin-citrus roasted carrots (page 166) and chocolate-coconut-pecan chewy bars (page 220). Yummmmmm. OK, one more I can’t resist mentioning, the sesame-turmeric oven fries (page 173). Woo-hoo!

Chapters are clearly divided into morning meals, hearty meals, greens and dressings, small plates and sides, recovery foods, flavor boosts and desserts.  Helpful guidance on nutrition, stocking the plant-based kitchen and meal planning are interspersed in this cookbook, just right for those of you newbies to plant-based foods.  

The book’s forward by Rich Roll, a vegan-strong and ultra-athlete, and co-author Matt Frazier’s introduction are worth reading before you dive into the mouth-watering recipes. The two make a solid case for the benefits of a plant-based diet for ALL athletes. If it works for the pros it can work for us amateur tennis players; it is at least worth considering, despite our devotion to the all-meat sub sandwich (which contains such awful nitrates and nitrites, I cannot even go there).

Co-author chef Stepfanie Romine is a plant-based yogi and runner. She has expanded her original repertoire of stews, stir-fries, and bean-based meals to more root vegetables, spices and healthy treats for this cookbook. Her creative recipes have been tested on pros and amateurs alike. Food stylists, registered dietitians and new cooks have all vetted these recipes, giving them a “thumbs up!” Who wants to eat food that tastes like packing peanuts? We all want great taste, satisfying mouth feel, and yes, the visual pleasure of anticipation of a delicious treat coming our way.

The recipe format is readable and easy to follow (most fit on one page) but I am not a fan of the informational colored pages with their mixtures of fonts; however, this is really a minor drawback. Overall, I highly recommend The No Meat Athlete!

* Co-author Matt Frazier is an ultra-marathoner. The No Meat Athlete Cookbook: Whole Food, Plant-Based Recipes to Fuel Your Workouts – and the Rest of Your Life (The Experiment, 2017) is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores and public libraries. 

Barb Youel, author of First
Serve Cookbook
Towpath Tennis Member Barb Youel author of First Serve: 40 Delicious Plant-Based Recipes for a Year of Tennis Grand Slams & Club Matches, (Lean Green Living LLC, 2017). Copies are available exclusively at Towpath Tennis Center for $15.95 or 2 for $30. You can order yours today at 330-928-8763.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Tennis Player Superstitions

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe in superstitions. This past summer season I played a particularly awesome 1st match, so what did I do? Wear the same outfit (granted I wore a team uniform) along with the same earrings and the same socks. First it happened to be coincidental, but then I kept on wearing them. Hey, whatever it takes to win! I had a great season thanks to feeling like my exact same outfit was my lucky charm.

Rafa Nadal's water bottles have to be 
perfectly facing out.
You’ll see athletes from across all sports with their odd and outlandish quirks, like Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky who had a specific order of putting on his equipment and the order never changed, or baseball legend Babe Ruth always stepping on 2nd base on his way out to the outfield, and even Ecuador’s national soccer team calling in a witch doctor to give them extra luck in the 2006 World Cup. Superstitions can be tricky. Sometimes they give you that extra boost in confidence on court, while other times it can be mentally exhausting and detrimental to your game. In tennis, you see this a lot amongst players. It’s not uncommon to see players avoiding stepping on the lines, stepping onto the court with their right foot only, or (like me) wearing the same outfit or certain jewelry for good luck. With the US Open starting, I thought it would be interesting to dive into what some of our favorite pros are superstitious of and see for ourselves if any of these are true. Can you guess which quirk belongs to which player?

No Undies  Realizing he forgot his underwear before his 1st match at the 1999 French Open, Andre Agassi decided to go commando and won against an incredibly tough competitor. He then went on to win in his only French Open triumph and continued to play without undies for the rest of his career.

Lucky Beard  For several years in a row, Bjorn Borg started growing out his beard in the first round of each Wimbledon tournament. He went on to win each year that he did, (1976-1980).

Watching Teletubbies  Goran Ivanisevic made one of the sport's most unlikely title run in the 2001 Wimbledon Championships by depending on his routine. Not only did he reportedly dine at the same restaurant, sat at the same table, and ordered the same exact meal every night for the duration of the tourney, but he began each day by watching an episode of Teletubbies!

Pulling Eyebrows  I don't know if this was really a superstition or a nervous tick, but Ivan Lendl would be patchy and bald by the end of some tournaments.

Twirling on Court  Svetlana Kuznetsova would often spin 360 degrees on her way to returning serve.

King of Quirks  Rafa Nadal will 1) always walk on court with one racquet in his hand. 2) stay seated until his opponent has approached the umpire at the beginning of a match. 3) make sure his opponent crosses the net before he does on a changeover. 4) perfectly align his water bottles facing the court. 5) place his hair behind each ear and fiddles with his shorts (and butt) before every serve.

Dirty Socks – I’ve heard of a few quirks about the 23 Grand Slam Championista, like having to be the first to shake the umpires hand after a match, or requiring every member of her player box to sit in the exact same spot for every match. But, the most notorious/gross superstition from Serena Williams is reportedly wearing the same pair of (dirty) socks throughout her entire tournament run.

Power of 8 – He’s not perfect people! Roger Federer apparently has an obsession with the number 8. Keep a lookout for 8 towel-rubs after a set, 8 bottles of water (Evian only) and 8 rackets in his bag. P.S. He did just win his 8th Wimbledon Championship.

Off the Social Grid – Andy Murray owed much of his success in tournaments by going dark on twitter. He went as far as to blame one particular loss of his because he tweeted before his match. 

No Calls Please - Kei Nishikori chooses not to call his parents until the end of tournaments for fear of jinxing his results.

3 Balls EachJack Sock becomes completely distracted if each ball handler on his side doesn’t have exactly three balls in hand.

Kissing Tennis Balls  Dominika Cibulkova appears to kiss new tennis balls before serving them, but really she’s smelling them. Cibulkova says she loves the smell, but does believe smelling will give them good luck.

Shower Story – Yes, Novak Djokovic is mainly known for his ball bouncing obsession (his highest number of bounces was 38 bounces), but because players will adamantly shower in the same stall during tournaments, Djokovic will not use the same shower twice.

Strict Serving Routine – 1) Turn back on opponents and focus on racquet strings. 2) Take balls to nominated corner of the court. 3) Walk to baseline, bounce on the spot. 4) Brush hair away from face. 5) Bounce ball twice, slowly. 6) Serve, repeat. You guessed it, Maria Sharapova stays true to her service routine EVERY TIME.
In-Betweener – John Isner doesn’t have an obsession over performing in-between the legs trick shots, but he does bounce the ball between his legs before each serve.

Lucky Ball – Richard Gasquet is known for demanding to serve with the same “lucky ball” after he wins a point.

Nixed Her Superstitions  Sam Stosur used to be controlled by her superstitions, until she kicked the habit. “I stopped being superstitious in 2009 after the (French Open),” she explained. “For the whole tournament (she reached the semifinals), I wore the same dress, the same socks, the same hat – it drove me crazy. Every night, I had to put it all in the wash. Everything had to be the same, even my hair. It was enough to drive you around the bend, so I stopped and now I don’t have any superstitions.”

With many of these players ready to get the ball rolling at this year's US Open, it'll be fun to watch their quirks in action. Also, feel free to share with us what kind of superstitions you follow or have been able to kick. Don't worry, you're not alone!