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Tennis Channel Live: Jennifer Brady interview

For much of the past year, Jennifer Brady’s injured left foot kept her off the tour and away from the practice courts. Fortunately, the 2021 Australian Open runner-up was healthy enough to make it to her garage.

That’s where Brady would put on a VR headset, pick up haptic racquet, and, as she says, “remind myself that I’m a tennis player.” The courts she played on, and the opponents she faced, were virtual. But squaring off against them for half an hour each day helped her sharpen many skills—from her reflexes to her anticipation to her decision making—that otherwise would have languished during her time on the sidelines.

Brady is one of a handful of early-adopter pros who have embraced the VR tennis-training program launched earlier this month by Sense Arena. The company, which has offices in the U.S., Canada and the Czech Republic, is known for helping hockey players hone their games. Now it hopes to do something similar for tennis players.

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“If you want to find ways to challenge yourself, there are lots of hidden gems” among Sense Arena's mental drills, says Jennifer Brady.

“If you want to find ways to challenge yourself, there are lots of hidden gems” among Sense Arena's mental drills, says Jennifer Brady.

Specifically, Sense Arena hopes to hone our minds. For most of us, “mental training” means occasionally urging ourselves to “focus!” or “relax” before an important point. Sense Arena’s VR drills are meant to get us to actively develop and refine our cognitive skills, the same way we do with our serves and ground strokes.

“We’re not focused on technique, as much as concentration and anticipation,” says founder and CEO Bob Tetiva.

“The mental aspect of the sport has been neglected,” believes Yannick Yoshizava, the company’s VP of Tennis. “All of our drills have a cognitive aspect to them.”

Like other VR products, Sense Arena’s offers an immersive environment that’s designed to make you feel like you’re at the center of a stadium, playing against an opponent on a regulation-size court. For $199, you can also purchase a haptic racquet that allows you to use your normal grip and swing.

“It’s not like Wii,” Brady says. “It feels personalized. You can use different spins and change surfaces.”

It’s also, she says, “not meant to be played for hours on end.” Sense Arena is quick to say that their VR products are meant to be tools rather than games.

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What will you find when you enter this virtual tennis world? To get there, you’ll need a Meta Quest 2 headset, which currently goes for $399 at Amazon and Best Buy. The company’s basic program comes with seven drills, for a one-time cost of $49. More advanced versions offer 35 drills, for a monthly fee of either $33 or $25. Most of the drills are performed on a virtual court, but others, done “off court,” train basic cognitive functions like perception and recognition. You can compete with and against friends, consult a coach, play indoors or outdoors, and even make it rain.

“We consulted with high-level players, coaches, and neuroscience professors to develop the drills we have,” Yoshizava says.

Some of the exercises, where you practice hitting reflex volleys, transitioning to net, and making passing shots under pressure, mimic classic-on court training methods. Others teach you to read your opponent’s movements as you swing.

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Linda Fruhvirtova, who at 17 cracked the Top 75 this season, uses a haptic racquet as part of her Sense Arena experience.

Linda Fruhvirtova, who at 17 cracked the Top 75 this season, uses a haptic racquet as part of her Sense Arena experience.

More esoteric drills ask you to do math problems as you play. In one, an equation appears behind your opponent; your job is to solve it and then hit the ball into a zone that contains the correct answer. In another drill, you’re tasked with memorizing a number that appears at the back of the court; after you progress to the net, your job is to volley the ball into an area with that number in it.

What does math have to do with tennis? Haven’t we always been taught to clear our minds and think as little as possible when we’re on court? Yoshizava says these drills help us handle a variety of mental functions simultaneously.

“In tennis, every point, every shot, you’re solving a problem with multiple tasks at the same time,” he says. “The player has to analyze multiple variables, like the opponent’s position, the ball speed, ball spin, strategy, etc.”

According to Yoshizava, the math drills train your brain to process that information, while also continuing to track the ball and watch your opponent.

This type of training “takes time,” he says, but Sense Arena’s hockey players have seen results; goalies who have used VR showed a 10 to 15 percent improvement in their reaction times, according to Yoshizava.

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Will we see anything like that in tennis? So far Brady, Jack Sock, Liudmila Samsonova, Marie Bouzkova, and Linda and Brenda Fruhvirtova have made VR part of their regimens. Martina Navratilova is a member of Sense Arena’s advisory board.

During her downtime, Brady, who hopes to return to the tour in January, has used her VR sessions to work on her peripheral vision, and her ability to sense her opponent’s movement as she’s getting ready to hit the ball. She likes doing the math problems, too.

“If you want to find ways to challenge yourself, there are lots of hidden gems” among the drills, Brady says.

As Brady has shown, VR also offers freedom. If you’re injured, or you can’t find a court or an opponent, or if your local facility has been overrun by pickleball players, it’s no longer a problem. You can still get better, right in the comfort of your own garage.