NEW YORK—The story of the 2011 U.S. Open thus far? It’s got nothing to do with Maria Sharapova's latest shriek or Petra Kvitova's first-round defeat. In fact, it’s not about any player or human at all. It’s about an egg.
When the Wall St. Journal reported this past weekend that Novak Djokovic has spent time in a pressurized, egg-shaped chamber, tennis took a trip into sporting science fiction. The egg, made by CVAC systems in California, simulates conditions at various altitudes and, according to the company, may allow athletes to absorb more oxygen. They get the benefits of exercise while sitting still, and they’re bodies recover faster and adapt to various conditions more easily.
On a snowy day this past winter I had a chance to see the egg in question, when I took a trip across the Hudson and spent an afternoon with Gordon Uehling, III, a former pro who is in the process of building a high-tech athletic academy, called CourtSense, in the area around his family’s home in Alpine, N.J.
Uehling, who worked with Djokovic at the Open last year and coached Christina McHale before she left to train with the USTA last season, has big ambitions for CourtSense and spares no expense to try to fulfil them—he’s a likeable, intelligent guy, and I came away impressed with his enthusiasm for tennis and for experimentation and systematic training in general. He has an indoor court and one made of Roland Garros clay at his family’s compound. He’s taken over two local indoor clubs and staffed them with his own pros, including their director, former touring pro Geoff Grant. And he’s brought a holistic, futuristic method to training young tennis players. He breaks down strokes with computers and hooks his athletes up to a machine that reads their brainwaves, to help them understand their reactions on court and combat negativity. (I’m planning to make a return trip to have my brain read after the Open.) Uehling even told me he helped Djokovic with his balance on his service motion last year.
The now-famous pod is in a training center at CourtSense, and there was someone sitting in it when I stopped by. At 7 feet long, it looks small and claustrophobic; Vince Spadea, who has spent some time there, told the Journal he wouldn’t go near it. Grant said it was like being in an airplane at take off; his ears popped. “It’s weird, it’s definitely something from the future,” he said.
The question today is whether the pod should be legal. If it does what CVAC says its does—boost red blood cells—then it’s akin to blood doping, and if you can get the benefit of hard-core exercise while sitting and talking on your cell phone, it’s a competitive advantage. Five years ago, WADA addressed oxygen contraptions like this by labeling them against “the spirit of sport,” but didn’t ban them. The next question, of course, is: If you do ban them, can you detect their use? There’s obviously no substance to test for. Either way, now that an athlete of Djokovic’s stature has said he’s been in one, WADA should make a definitive statement on the egg’s legality.
That said, it should also be made clear that this was not the reason for Djokovic’s surge over the last year; it’s not a “secret weapon,” as the Journal called it. Uehling told me that Djokovic used it a few times at the Open in 2010, and Djokovic said the same thing when he was asked about it yesterday. It’s not even clear what its effects are; some athletes swear by it, and Grant said he did think he could recover faster after trying it, but CVAC’s claims for it are still just claims.
Djokovic now says he’s not going to hop into the egg this year, because he doesn’t want to break his routine. And it will remain in New Jersey when he flies home after the Open. But, as he said yesterday, Djokovic wishes he could take it with him on the road. How long will it be before this athletes’ dream comes true, before players in all sports are having their hotel rooms outfitted with an egg in each city? All the more reason to find out what these things really do, and for WADA to rule on whether a professional athlete should be allowed inside one of them.