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Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Offseason often a working vacation for tennis players

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

Gil Reyes
Gil Reyes, left, has a simple philosophy: "Get stronger, get better, get ready."

December is here, and although tennis' offseason has officially just begun, it's back-to-work time for the players. After putting away the rackets for a couple of weeks, they're returning to the gym and hitting the practice courts to get ready for next season, particularly the demanding conditions they'll face Down Under in a few weeks.

No player did more than Andre Agassi to usher in the concept of the offseason as a preseason. His punishing runs up the sandhills of Las Vegas became legendary, and so did the results. Agassi's December regimen made him the tour's "Mr. January" -- he won four Australian Open titles, more than any other man in the Open era.

Many players have since tried to follow in his footsteps, but now they can do literally just that. Agassi's longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, was appointed by Adidas earlier this year to run the fitness side of its player development program. The company was already offering its up-and-comers a coaching service headed by Sven Groeneveld that Ana Ivanovic used during her run to the 2008 French Open title.

As part of the program, Adidas-sponsored players can spend periods training with Reyes at his center in Las Vegas. Those who are there during the winter break will do the full Agassi drill, right down to running the hills that he made famous.

Reyes himself is integral to the whole experience, a trainer-philosopher whose intimidating appearance but gentle ways made him a cult figure on the tennis circuit and the core of the Agassi team for the better part of two decades.

"Strong legs obey, weak legs command," he tells his new disciples. "Strong legs obey, they'll do whatever you ask them to do, even in the fifth set. Weak legs get tired and they command you to quit, they command you to stop trying, they command you to stop running.

Offseason exhibitions

This time of year isn't just about holidays and training; most top players also take part in a few exhibitions during their break. Some are of the lucrative variety, while others are for charity. Here are a few that will take place:

Malaga Masters, Dec. 5-7
Almost canceled after Nadal pulled out because of his knee, the six-man event in Malaga, Spain, is going ahead with Carlos Moya, Feliciano Lopez, David Ferrer, Gael Monfils and Marat Safin.

Copa Argentina, Dec. 11-14
Spanish and Argentine players will regather about a month after the Davis Cup final for this annual exhibition event in Buenos Aires. Juan Martin del Potro, David Nalbandian, Feliciano Lopez, Carlos Moya, Juan Monaco, Jose Acasuso, Agustin Calleri, Guillermo Canas and Juan Ignacio Chela are taking part.

Rock n' Racquets, Dec. 12-14
Andy Roddick, Serena Williams, John Isner and Caroline Wozniacki in a three-city tour through Louisville, Ky., Columbia, S.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., to benefit the Andy Roddick Foundation.

Infinite Energy Atlanta Slam, Dec. 13
James Blake, Sam Querrey and the Bryan brothers will play in a fundraiser for the Georgia Tennis Foundation.

Mardy's Tennis and Jake's Music Fest, Dec. 13
An exhibition between Mardy Fish and Andy Murray is the focus of the charity event in Vero Beach, Fla., created by Fish.

Capitala World Tennis Championship, Jan. 1-3
Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Roddick and James Blake all have signed up for the exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

-- Kamakshi Tandon

"They start to connect with your heart, and your head, and you start to quit mentally. … That's not the best of us, not just as athletes but as who we are as people."

He continues with a call to both body and mind.

"If you were a professional race car driver, you would want your car to be well tuned and you would want you car to be the best. Well, you're an athlete, for crying out loud. Why would you not want your body to be strong and fit and the best that it could be?

"You don't come here just to learn how to lift a weight or how to hit a forehand or a backhand. You come here, and we really, really work -- earnestly and sincerely with the best of us, which is deep down inside of us. And you learn how to be a competitor, a noble competitor who respects the history of the sport."

These motivational speeches perhaps lie at the heart of Reyes' effectiveness, providing the fuel that players need to get through the grueling sessions in store.

Workouts are customized for each player depending on age and fitness, with three attending the facility at any one time. During this heavy training period, the days consist of two hours in the gym ("getting stronger"), two hours on the court ("getting better") and an hour running the hills ("getting ready"). That final hour is the hallmark of the regimen, designed to build the strong legs Reyes emphasizes.

One of the more unexpected perks is a pep talk from Agassi himself. The eight-time Grand Slam champ keeps five of his Slam trophies and his Olympic medal at the center -- "Because this is where I earned them," he likes to explain -- and is often seen working out in the gym. "I can't get him out of here," Reyes says, laughing. "He's stronger than ever."

Recent Davis Cup hero Fernando Verdasco, who came to train with Reyes ahead of the U.S. Open, was quite starstruck when Agassi turned up one day to take part in the session and offer encouragement.

Reyes relates that after Agassi left the room, Verdasco turned to him and said, "I need to tell you a story. Growing up in my hometown in Spain, I would go to the mall and I would want to buy all Agassi clothes. And they would say, 'Well, we're sold out -- here's some of the others.' And I would say, 'No, I don't want the others, I want Agassi clothes.' And I would walk away very sad."

"Does he know that?" Reyes asked.

"No, I'm too embarrassed to tell him," Verdasco replied.

"OK, I'll tell him," Reyes said. Agassi was amused and touched to hear the story afterward.

When Verdasco clinched the Davis Cup for Spain last month, Agassi visited Reyes at the gym and waxed enthusiastic about the victory. "He had a big grin, and he says, 'Way to go, Fernando,'" Reyes said. "That's just the way it works. Once you connect, you're part of our family."

Verdasco, already sold on the process, will return to Vegas this month for another stint. (No, girlfriend Ivanovic hasn't also signed up.)

But, as Reyes also points out, simply emulating Agassi's routine is not the answer for most players -- not least because it took Agassi himself years to build up the physical level he eventually attained.

All pros must find their own combination of vacation and preparation (and exhibitions) that allows them to start the new year fresh, yet fit. While Agassi revved up for an intense period of training, for example, his generational rival Pete Sampras focused on recharging his batteries.

"It's a tough balance to manage," said Sampras' former coach, Paul Annacone, currently the head coach of men's tennis for Britain's Lawn Tennis Association. "I wish there was a secret recipe where you just do this or do that, but it just really doesn't work like that."

Players must take into account the number of matches they've played and their travel during the season, as well what suits their individual personalities."I think a lot depends on the person," Annacone said. "I know Jim Courier used to really do an unbelievable amount of hard work in December to get ready for the ensuing year, and Andre did the same thing.

"Pete was very different insofar as he liked to get away from the game, spend time with his family and really shut down the engine."

Sam Querrey
Sam Querrey is one of many who believe in Gil Reyes' offseason regimen.
Sam Querrey has a foot in both camps. He was among the first to sign up to train with Reyes in March, and he describes it as an "awesome" experience. He'll also spend some time in the next few weeks practicing with Sampras at the 14-time Grand Slam champ's Los Angeles home, something he's done regularly during the past couple of winters.

The hitting sessions with Sampras are loose and relaxed, a far cry from the weighty sessions with Reyes. "We just kind of chitchat and talk about whatever. There's not a lot of tennis talk on the changeovers," Querrey said.

But for the most part, the 21-year-old American is trying to develop his own formula for the offseason. Following his last event of the year at the Paris Masters in late October, he took a week off to relax and play golf. Then came short workouts five days a week -- an hour and a half of running or gym workouts, designed to maintain fitness and improve flexibility. December means going up to full training sessions six days a week, ending with a short holiday in Mexico over Christmas. One exhibition is scheduled, in mid-December against James Blake in Atlanta.

"I'm still learning, obviously, but that's kind of the things I've been doing," Querrey said.

With new coach David Nainkin, Querrey also is working on his weaker backhand wing and polishing his volleys -- improvements he hopes will take him into the top 20 of the ATP rankings next season. He ended this year at No. 39.

But, as Annacone observes, one thing players won't be doing is making radical changes to their games in six short weeks. "I think it's mostly fitness and strength stuff," he said. "You want to make sure at this time of year you get a good chunk of time to build up your strength, speed, endurance and things like that. And if there are a few technical tennis glitches you need to work on, you can do that now, too. But most of that is basically maintenance stuff."

And despite frequent grousing about the length of the tennis season, most players are enthusiastic -- even impatient -- to return to competition after their time off. Querrey is already looking forward to going Down Under.

"I've got kind of two months of waiting around, and you're anxious to get down there and [eager] to play, maybe a little more so than you are other parts of the year.

"I'm excited, and I'm ready."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.