The hyperbaric chamber Novak Djokovic made famous may be the start of a whole new wave of tennis training.
“We have absolutely everything here, you wouldn’t believe it!”
These words of childlike excitement were posted on a personal Web site during the 2010 US Open. Who wrote them, a young tennis fanatic making his first trip to Flushing Meadows? A promising junior who had just been dropped off at the Bollettieri Academy? No, it was someone you might think had seen it all when it came to tennis: Novak Djokovic.
The “here” to which Djokovic was referring with such enthusiasm was the northern New Jersey estate of Gordon A. Uehling III, a 39-year-old former pro who has spent the last decade putting together a multi-site tennis and health complex across the river from Flushing Meadows. Uehling, who founded his CourtSense tennis academy in 2002, met Djokovic through the friend of a friend when the Serb was 16.
The American recognized the player’s potential immediately, and the two became friends. By 2008, Djokovic and his support team were holing up in Uehling’s compound during the US Open, and the American had become a part-time member of his training entourage. You can’t argue with the arrangement’s success: In those years, Djokovic went from semifinal loser to runner-up to champion. Behind the front desk at Uehling’s racquet club, there’s a signed photo of Djokovic. On it, the Serb calls Uehling “Super G,” and writes that they have the same goal: “To be the best in the world!”
Uehling, who never approached best-in-the-world status as a player—his own ranking topped out 924 places lower than Djokovic’s in 2001—sees himself as a “visionary” tennis coach and trainer. He has an eye to the future and to the futuristic, and his place in New Jersey has just about everything a tennis player, professional or not, could want. There’s a green clay court, a DecoTurf court, a DecoTurf II court, an indoor court, and a court made of red clay imported from Roland Garros. His academy has invested in Dartfish video, state-of-the-art fitness equipment, and even a technology that reads your brainwaves and attempts to train them to help you focus better.
But it was another feature of the compound that would briefly make Uehling famous when Djokovic tried it out: his $80,000 CVAC hyperbaric chamber. The Wall Street Journal described the now-infamous “egg,” which simulates conditions at altitude and increases red blood cell levels, as the Serb’s “secret weapon” in his rise to No. 1. Djokovic denies that, saying that he used the controversial machine only a couple of times before the tournament in 2010.
Still, Uehling believes in experimenting. “Why not try something new if it’s going to make you better?” he asks me as we walk through the bustling Tenafly racquet club that he owns. It’s a snowy, slushy, suburban New Jersey day in winter, and it seems an unlikely spot for the future of anything to take shape. But inside the club is warm; it’s filled with mothers and kids getting ready to play. “I wish I’d had the technology and options we have today when I was playing.”
While the tennis courts are busy in Tenafly, Uehling pushes forward with his visions. To that end, he’s launched an intriguing new branch of CourtSense called Magnus. It’s geared primarily toward adults, and the mission is suitably modest: Merely to, as the company’s motto goes, “Expand Human Potential.”
Magnus’ focus is “functional health,” a growing field that counters the long-prevailing “failure” model of health care. The idea of functional medicine is to treat people when they’re healthy, to find and prevent problems and improve fitness, rather than waiting for something to fail and then trying to fix it. Uehling has a functional-oriented doctor on the Magnus staff , as well as physical trainers.
“There’s not enough individual training and treatment, either of athletes or non-ahletes, in this country,” says Magnus’ general manager, Eric Maiss, a certified personal trainer and performance enhancement specialist. “We want to help people find out about themselves, their own brains and bodies. We know that tennis players have specific needs and issues, such as imbalances from one side of the body to the other, that need a specialized exercise regimen.”
One of Magnus’ first clients, CourtSense tennis coach Carlos Cano, was found by Uehling’s functional doctor to be in the beginning stages of diabetes. The routine prescribed by Magnus’ doctor and trainers has helped him immensely, Cano says.
Magnus can help you find out about your body, but, as Maiss says, it will let you inside your own mind as well. This is the most sci-fi element of Uehling’s program yet—more so, even, than the CVAC egg. It’s a program called Neurotopia, and it claims to allow you to train your brain like any other muscle. The technology is new and developing, but the concept is fascinating, especially for tennis players. “Imagine,” Uehling says wistfully, “if you had trouble finishing matches or got tight, being able to work on and improve that weakness, the way you make your backhand better. No more, ‘I hope I don’t choke.’”
Neurotopia’s technology works like this: Sensors are placed on your head, which reads your brainwaves as you take a simple test where you’re asked to recognize signals and push buttons when you see them. From the results, a “profile” of your brain and personality is created. You’re rated in various psychological categories, including stress recovery, focus and reaction time.
I went through Neurotopia’s testing process and received a profile of my brain. It showed that I’m able to concentrate for long periods, but that I have trouble recovering from stress—both of these diagnoses sounded about right. After that, sensors were attached to my head again, and I sat in front of a large computer screen, where a video game with a car at its center materialized. Neurotopia director of athlete performance James Seay told me, simply, to “concentrate.” The car moved. It kept moving. It picked up speed and made turns and went over bridges and crashed into the car in front of it. I wasn’t doing anything, or thinking of anything in particular, and I began to wonder whether I really was moving the car. But when someone in the room with me spoke and I answered, the car screeched to a halt.
The idea is that Neurotopia’s car will train you, unconsciously, to concentrate harder when you need to concentrate—i.e., during a tennis match—and relax at other times—i.e., when you want to sleep. The car I was moving was at the easiest level. As sessions continue, it gets more difficult to move it, and your ability to concentrate fully and get into the right frame of mind for the task at hand is enhanced.
“All of our brains think they’re perfect as they are,” Seay says. “But by training certain waves to work harder at certain times, we can change what your mind considers a normal reaction.”
Hard to believe? It’s true that brain training is in the early stages of its development, and that no one knows exactly where it will lead or what it will reveal. But there’s at least one believer on the pro tennis tours: Mike Bryan has done 20 Neurotopia sessions near his California home in the last year, and he says they’ve helped.
“I’ve felt a difference,” Mike says. “I can hold my focus longer, and I feel like I can turn it on when I need it. I wanted my body to be relaxed, but my brain to be working, and that’s how I feel. Hey, we had our best summer last year,” he says of the Bryan brothers’ two-Slam 2011.
“I wanted to be like Federer, you know,” Mike continues, laughing, “but I needed a little help on that front.”
From hyperbaric chambers to braintraining cartoon cars, you never what the future of tennis will hold. And you never know where it might start.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of TENNIS.