Sunday, February 8, 2009

Confusing form and fitness

Time and time again, match commentators repeat the statement that Serena Williams works her way into fitness during a Slam. In fact, during the Australian Open, Mary Carrillo and Chris Fowler played an old recording of two previous commentators making this same observation about Serena.

The idea is that Serena starts off a Slam completely out of shape, but almost two weeks later, nearing its end, she somehow transforms herself into a wonder of physical fitness and beats everybody coming and going.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As much as I rag on women’s tennis, it would be profoundly unfair to imply that these professional tennis players are so unfit, and winning a Slam is so easy, that Serena Williams can literally roll out of bed with Common on a Sunday morning say, and show up in Melbourne the next day, not having even bent her knees or touched her toes in the past two months, and somehow miraculously become so fit just from playing in the Slam that she ends up winning.

Think for a moment how ludicrous an idea that has got to be.

I believe that the commentators are confusing form and fitness and are using these two words interchangeably although they are not equivalent at all. Form, in this context, refers to the mechanics of playing tennis. It is improved through frequent match play. If Serena only plays a handful of tournaments per year, and spends perhaps more time away from a tennis court than on it, then her form will suffer. Her strokes will become rusty. Her ability to construct winning points may be a step delayed. Her serving motion may become less than fluid. Her volleys may suck. This all has to do with form, with the manner and mechanics of playing tennis. It is not the equivalent of a player’s level of physical fitness.

Fitness refers to strength and endurance. One can be fit but have poor form. Or one can have good form but lack physical fitness. The ideal tennis player has both excellent form and fitness working in tandem to produce top-notch results.

Which brings me to the second and incorrect assumption that is frequently made about Serena Williams. It is incorrect to say or to imply that Serena is anything other than physically fit. Serena is a Black woman, with a Black woman’s hefty body. Neither of her parents are tiny people. She has inherited a large frame. And yes, she could probably stand to lose 20 pounds, but the fact that she is 20 pounds heavier than the average player on the WTA tour does not mean that she is unfit. There is no equation between fitness and being petite. Serena is a large and very fit woman who maintains her fitness between tournaments. What she loses is her form.

Injuries may result from either a lack of form or a lack of fitness. And, for example, when a player like Tsonga comes back from back surgery, he has to work on both form and fitness in order to start winning again. For most professional players, form is much more easily acquired. Once you know and have practiced for years how to hit a forehand, then hitting a forehand after a period of not hitting forehands will initially result in quite a few shanks -- and then the rhythm of the shot will quickly fall in place.

Fitness is a whole other dimension. I remember when Andre Agassi dropped to 144 in the world during the Brooke Shields period. He had lost both form and fitness. But his form came back first. Form is more easily reacquired. But it took Andre almost a year of brutally hard work, running hills in Las Vegas with trainer Gil Reyes to get himself back to a top level of physical fitness.

Whatever she gets up to between tournaments, it is clear, at least to me, that Serena Williams is never far from the gym, never far from training and maintaining a fitness regimen. But because she plays so little tennis, she starts off a tournament relatively out of form. But once you’ve had form, it is quickly and easily reacquired. Which is why it is more accurate to say that Serena Williams works her way into form during a Slam. Her fitness is always a given.

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