It’s 3:21 in the afternoon on a sunny day at the 2012 U.S. Open, and Bret Waltz is in motion with a frantic urgency. “Gotta recharge my phone!” he yells while rushing out of the players’ fitness center. It’s no joke. Waltz without his charged cell is like Federer without his topspin—serviceable but diminished. Within minutes on any given day, his presence may be required for a warm-up, practice session, strategy confab, meal, workout or competition. Since match times other than the first ones of each day are fluid, all he can do is guess his schedule and hope.
“It’s exhausting, but fun and rewarding,” says the 33-year-old Waltz, a Strength & Conditioning Specialist headquartered at the USTA Tennis Center in Flushing, NY. During last year’s Open, Waltz was primarily responsible for the fitness needs of three Americans—Melanie Oudin, Ryan Harrison and Christina McHale.
“And I was also available for any American player who requested my services,” he says. Such established pros as John Isner, the Williams sisters and Mardy Fish have their own trainers. But if those trainers are not available for whatever reason, Waltz fills in.
Waltz warmed up McHale and Oudin before they practiced on the first Monday of the Open. Performed at the fitness center in the structure that houses Arthur Ashe Stadium, the warm-up entailed dynamic stretching, movement maneuvers, shoulder exercises with a stretch cord, and reaction and footwork drills with cones.
“What we do depends on how much time we have,” Waltz says. “I can tell from players’ movements in warm-up whether they’re nervous. Moving too quickly means they’re anxious. At some tournaments players aren’t focused. But at Grand Slams, they’re totally locked in.”
As he worked with a player, Waltz was mindful of his other responsibilities that day. When Melanie took a moment to relax, he checked his phone messages. Ryan Harrison and his younger brother Christian received a wild card entry into the doubles tournament, and would be playing fourth-seeded Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski of Poland on Tuesday. They’d need warm-ups, practice sessions and meetings with Waltz and their coaches.
“But it was nothing compared to the previous week when we had the qualifying tournament and endless warm-ups and fitness sessions with American players,” Waltz says. “When the Open started, there was less focus on fitness because it was such a demanding event, with hot days and best-of-five-set singles matches for the men.”
While Waltz did no coaching, he was on the court for the practice sessions because they affected how he would train the players. “I’m with the coaches all the time,” he says. “We work as a team, with the goal of improving the players in every way possible. On court, a coach will tell me, ‘She has to work on lateral speed,’ or ‘She’s not strong enough hitting an overhead.’ So I’ll know exactly what to work on in the gym. I tailor workouts for each player based on what the coaches say they need to improve.”
Such intensity makes for close relationships, and Waltz needs to know how much he can push a player. “You need to know what your players respond to and what they don’t respond to,” he says. “They have mood swings, which is understandable in this competitive profession. When they win, there’s relief and less stress. They could be drained from the match but they’re happy. When they lose, their mood depends on how they performed. If they played badly, they’re down. If they felt they played well but just weren’t the better player, then it’s OK.”
As Oudin’s match neared, Waltz more or less became her property. “I have to be with a player when the previous match is being played on the court they’ll be playing on,” he says. “You never know; an injury to one of the previous match players could end the action instantly, and Melanie would have to be ready to go fast.”
Quite the opposite occurred. With James Blake leading Lukas Lacko, 7-5, 6-2, the rains came, delaying action for more than two hours. So it was off for another warm-up. Waltz says that a warm-up only does players good for about 30 minutes. If they don’t take the court within that time frame, they’ll likely need a repeat session. In this instance, the downpour was so torrential that it was obvious there would be a lengthy delay. It is at those times, unless he’s called for something else, that Waltz can kick back a bit, eat something and recharge both himself and his phone.
Oudin fought hard once her match finally began, but she was simply overpowered by Safarova, who never faced a break point in winning, 6-4, 6-0. Oudin and Waltz immediately made the long trek to the fitness center—in silence. “She needed time to decompress mentally,” Waltz said later. “Right then I’m thinking about what I’m going to say to her to ease the pain.”
Oudin mounted a stationary bike and pedaled at a medium pace, which helped to release lactic acid build-up in her lower body. “It was a fairly easy ride; I wasn’t trying to get her heart rate up too high,” Waltz said. “We just wanted to flush out her legs.”
It’s after losing matches that Waltz is more than just a trainer. He briefly becomes part therapist, part friend and part father figure. He stood by Oudin and they talked quietly. In a few minutes, the coaches joined and they surrounded her, discussing the match.
“We asked for her input,” Waltz said. “It’s a good way for coaches to listen and help get her confidence back.”
After a few minutes, the coaches left, but Waltz and Oudin were just getting started. What followed was a fairly vigorous workout, one that would shock those who thought players simply relaxed after matches. Exercises followed one after the other. Stretch cord pull-ins, with Waltz as the anchor and Melanie exerting. Then low pull-ins, lying hip raises, side leg raises and bent-leg raises. Waltz was totally hands-on at that point, kneeling and pressing Oudin’s legs every which way. Hamstrings were stretched next, then they stood and Oudin extended her arms behind her. Waltz grasped her wrists and pulled them in and back. While it appeared torturous, it was just another stretch. “It was all about getting her ready for action again,” Waltz says. When they were done, Oudin was smiling, her mind and body finally at ease.
Even with Oudin out of singles, Waltz’s workload was full. He’d still be working with her daily, as she was the defending mixed doubles champion with Jack Sock. And Tuesday would bring matches for McHale and the Harrison brothers, so Monday night Waltz set his morning schedule as much as possible.
Tuesday dawned with a forecast of perfect weather—if you happen to like 90 degrees with no breeze, that is. Waltz was on the scene before 9 a.m. The Harrisons were second on Court 15, following a women’s singles match that began at 11 a.m. Since it’s best-of-three sets for women, the brothers knew they’d be playing at roughly 1 p.m. Waltz’s other match player, McHale, was up fourth on the Grandstand Court, not before 3:30 p.m. This was problematic warm-up wise, with so much action before hers. In fact, Waltz got a heads-up that it could be moved to another court if the three previous matches, two of which were potential five-set men’s singles affairs, took too long.
After warming up the Harrisons, Waltz stayed to warm up McHale before her practice. When he was done, he was off to watch the Harrisons hit. They were busting it in a set with two other pros, sweating hard for 45 minutes even though their real match wasn’t far off. Waltz then cooled them down, and his phone rang. McHale and then Oudin were practicing one after the other, so off he went.
“Bret knows what I need,” Ryan Harrison said. “It’s a matter of being disciplined, no matter what else goes on. He knows how hard to push so that I’m fit but not sore.”
The first two matches on the Grandstand were over in straight sets, but the third one—the one preceding McHale’s match—was trouble. The 10th seed, Juan Monaco, won the first two sets against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, but lost the next. Anticipating another straight-setter, McHale had a warm-up. Now, with another set to wait, she had a second warm-up. Garcia-Lopez also won the fourth set—hello, warm-up number three. Set five thrilled everyone but Waltz and McHale (and her opponent, Kiki Bertens). It went to a tiebreaker and forced McHale into a fourth warm-up. Finally, the ladies took the court, almost five hours after they might have. Bertens won in three sets. Waltz didn’t know what effect the delay had on McHale.
“I don’t think the multiple warm-ups affected her play,” he said. “That comes with the territory. Players have to be prepared no matter what the situation. They’re used to the waiting game.”
After McHale’s cool-down, it was approaching midnight. Just another day at the office for the fitness guy. As he packed up his gear, his phone rang. Could he be out extra early Wednesday to start preparing Ryan Harrison for his singles match? “No problem,” Waltz said.