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Thursday, September 3, 2009
Updated: September 4, 1:08 PM ET
How players get ready for the U.S. Open

Tennis is an individual sport at every level. There are as many ways to prepare as there are players themselves, and every event calls for a slightly different approach.

Tournaments take place in Acapulco and Zurich and everywhere in between, and whether it's a bustling city or a quiet hideaway, location has a strong impact on the vibe of the event. And though all tennis courts have the same white lines marking out the same 78- by 36-square-foot area, they play very differently based on things like surface, balls, weather and altitude.

Take the U.S. Open, which began this week and is one of the sport's four Grand Slam events. It comes about two-thirds of the way through the tennis season and takes place on fairly quick hard courts in a big, bustling New York venue.

The more successful players of the season enter the event battle-hardened but weary, while others are fresher but lacking match toughness because of injuries or poor form.

It's a situation akin to students just before an exam period -- some need only light review, while others must cram madly to be ready in time.

Coach and fitness trainer Roger Rasheed has faced both scenarios. Between 2003 and 2007, he worked with former U.S. Open champ Lleyton Hewitt, who has a very consistent record at the U.S. Open and a famed work ethic. This year, Rasheed is working with Gael Monfils, who missed two months during the summer because of a knee injury and who has played only three matches during the U.S. Open Series leading up to the main event.

"Preparing for the U.S. Open is interesting, it's different depending on the player you have, as well," Rasheed said. "Hewitt … his preparation, and [that of] some of the best players as well, generally is to try to get as many matches as he can through the U.S. Open Series."

If all goes well during those events, there isn't much extra to do once the player lands in New York -- just the usual daily fitness and practice work, plus acclimating to the event conditions.

"The week before is a lot of down time where you're just on the site and you're in Manhattan," Rasheed said. "You make this your home base and try to get a happy feeling about where you are, just get a clear headspace. It's a fine-tuning thing."

But Rasheed's work with Monfils last week was quite different: "Gael hasn't had the matches that we want, so he's had to do quite a few long sessions [on the practice court] and also off the court to deliver a good, sound leg base."

The gym workouts featured long, punishing sessions focused on both the legs and upper body, complemented by practice sessions focused on match strategies and playing points to help make up for the Frenchman's lack of competition this summer.

Tennis' travel demands and unpredictable schedules make planning a vital part of the preparation process.

"At the Australian Open, I've already got the French Open [in June] in mind," Rasheed said of his program for Monfils. "I've got a plan on how we're going to go into the French Open and what sort of training base he needs for that."

Most preparation routines have certain basics in common -- cardiovascular work, weightlifting, running, stretching and on-court drills -- but methods and combinations vary from pro to pro. Grinders whose games rely on outlasting their opponents tend to focus heavily on their work in the gym; power players may prefer to spend more time hitting balls to perfect their timing.

But with everyone on the circuit now able to hit the ball with tremendous skill, players increasingly preach the value of supreme fitness and meticulous preparation. Stars such as Andy Murray and Andy Roddick set aside time to train during the July post-Wimbledon period -- a practice once reserved for the offseason in December.

"It's something I'm doing a lot more and more consistently, and really carving out weeks out of the schedule to make time for it," said Roddick, who uses his home in Austin, Texas, as a training base.

Like Murray, Roddick tries to make these periods a team endeavor from which to draw extra support and motivation.

"Some of it's speed work, some of it's endurance," he said. "We have a bunch of kind of athletes from around Austin. It's baseball players, jujitsu masters, all sorts of that stuff. We all meet out there in our gloves and mittens at 8:00 in the morning. If you're the one that doesn't show up, you better believe you're getting seven or eight phone calls."

One unusual approach is being used by Caroline Wozniacki, who recently took up boxing at the suggestion of fellow Dane and middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler.

"You run a lot," Wozniacki said. "You get strength in your stomach, your back, your shoulders, your arms, all the things that you also need in tennis."

She believes the cross-training benefits her tennis, but she said the training also has therapeutic benefits: "It's just fun to get some aggression out sometimes."

Whatever their specific routines, players always try to time their training and tournament play so that they're ready to peak during a big event like the U.S. Open.

Once the tournament is under way, though, mental toughness and competitive smarts often are the difference between winning and losing. This is especially true at Flushing Meadows, where the energy and chaos of New York spills over into the grounds.

Hewitt, known as one of the game's steeliest competitors, says this is what has allowed him to rise above the rest of the field in the past.

"Probably the biggest difference as the U.S. Open, compared to Wimbledon, is just it's a bit more of a buzz out there on the court and playing with a bit more noise out there, sometimes even during points," he said. "You've just got to be able to block it out for the most part when you're actually out there playing, so you've got to be very focused."

It's one of the reasons why there tend to be few surprise winners at the U.S. Open. Even Roger Federer, who has won the men's tournament each of the past five years, doesn't understate its challenge.

"I think it's one of the toughest tournaments to win out there because everybody is going for the last Grand Slam of the season," he said. "Everybody can play on hard courts -- nobody has excuses that they never played on hard courts, because that's the majority of the surface.

"You rarely see surprises at the U.S. Open, and I guess just because we're into a full season, this is where everybody's 'match tough' and fit, fit to go, and it makes it difficult to win here."

So what makes the difference? "Belief," Federer said.

And building belief, as much as speed or shot-making, is what those endless hours of training are all about.