While nearly every player has his own routine, often a guarded secret, Kovacs says players need to consume 200 to 400 calories (roughly 75 percent carbohydrates and 25 percent proteins) within 45 minutes of finishing matches to help their bodies bounce back.
“It speeds the recovery process and helps the body stay in the growth stage rather than the breakdown stage,” Kovacs says. “If they don’t consume that, the muscle breaks down, and that’s not what they want.”
Proper recovery also includes thorough stretching, a cool-down routine and a full meal within two hours of finishing a match.
Still, the sport simply exacts a harsher toll on some players than it does others.
Federer glides around the court with a dancer’s fluidity and sprinter’s efficiency. Rafael Nadal thunders, his every movement and stroke the product of maximum labor. Nadal has twice been sidelined by knee ailments: one caused him to miss Wimbledon in 2009; this year, he was forced to miss the Olympics, U.S. Open and Spain’s upcoming Davis Cup match.
That’s why former coach Brad Gilbert believes that Nadal at 26 is “older,” in terms of mileage on his body and joints, than Federer at 31.
It’s a valid point, Kovacs says.
“It takes more out of an athlete if you’re not as efficient in your movement,” Kovacs says. “It does potentially shorten a career.”
Noted Roddick, discussing his decision to retire at this year’s U.S. Open: “Wear and tear and miles is something that’s not really an age-thing.”
Smart scheduling, conversely, can extend careers. Federer plays in fewer tournaments than most of his rivals. Williams has competed even more sparingly, partly due to injury and illness in recent years. But it has helped prolonged her career and preserved her love of competing, which is as palpable at 30 as it was at age 19, when she won her first U.S. Open in 1999.
“First of all, Serena is an amazing physical specimen,” Navratilova says. “She’s naturally strong, and works at it, as well. She doesn’t wake up that way; she goes to the gym and does her work. And the fact that she hasn’t played that many matches helps her. I played twice as many singles matches at age 30 than she did, so she is fresher at 30 than I was. She’ll be able to play longer if she wants.”