Feet are a tennis player’s foundation. We can’t hit any shot effectively unless we’re in the right position to do so, and our feet are the engines that get us there. When we’re moving smoothly, we might begin to take them for granted, although I’ll admit my size 13’s stumble plenty on the best of days. But if we get even a little bit sloppy about taking care of ourselves, they can make their presence felt most painfully. You might think that after playing competitive tennis for over 30 years, I would have taken that lesson to heart. You would be wrong.
My problems began when my trusty Adidas Barricade “Hannibal” tennis shoes, which are nearly as durable as the elephant hide their outsoles resemble, finally wore through in early June after nearly a year of heavy use. I needed to replace them ASAP, because my USTA mixed doubles playoffs were only a couple of weeks away. I don’t normally care much about mixed doubles, the numerous downsides of which I’ve already chronicled on several occasions. But this year Chet Porowski recruited me for the 7.0 and 8.0 teams playing out of his club in Keene (the 7.0 team competed in the 40-and-over category) and both somehow won their respective leagues. Our 8.0 team was composed exclusively of 4.0 players, yet balance and depth had given us the edge against competition that frequently boasted stronger individual talent. So an upstart group that just two seasons ago had been winless in local league play was headed to Districts to take on the established New England powerhouses. There may not have been a bigger Cinderella story since the last Caddyshack movie.
For the proverbial glass slipper to stay on our collective feet, however, I would need to find something to put on MY feet. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find the Hannibals anywhere online: in a tactic used by many companies, Adidas had stopped selling them so that their newer models could gain, well, traction, in a competitive marketplace (I later found out that you can still get them on Amazon, along with just about everything else). So I ordered a newer Barricade model that to my untrained eye appeared similar to the Hannibals, except that the ersatz elephant hide on the outsoles had been replaced by a series of scribbly lines worthy of an abstract expressionist painting. I wore them for a couple of days before the Districts took place in Beverly, MA, and considered myself adequately prepared. That would prove to be yet another mistaken assumption.
My feet are probably flat enough to keep me out of most military services: the foot mapping machine in my local Rite-Aid regularly prescribes me an orthotic lift nearly the height of a soapbox. That means I can’t wear just any shoe and play my best. And after two long matches- both of which my partner and I won in supertiebreakers- on the first day of Districts, I was ready to classify my new kicks as “just any shoe”, abstract expressionist vibe or no, because my feet hurt like hell. I was angry at myself because I had stashed an old pair of tennis sneakers that I had previously played in without incident in my racquet bag as a precaution. I became so engrossed in my matches, however, that I didn’t notice the pain in my feet until I had reached a point where switching shoes wouldn’t have made any difference. But my team won both its matches, 2-1 and 3-0, meaning we only needed to pick up one court in our finale against Woburn, MA the next day to clinch a spot at Sectionals. So I sucked it up and played a relatively clean match against a strong team which came down to yet another supertiebreaker. This time my luck ran out and I lost, 10-8, but our third doubles team of Chris and Anna Fox won their match and punched our ticket to Springfield.
I was traveling for much of the two weeks between Districts and Sectionals and only practiced once during that time. In fact, I tried to keep off my feet altogether as much as possible, but still I stupidly wore the ill-fitting shoes during my daily routine, so healing was slow. The pain eventually began to concentrate in my left heel, but while its location had narrowed its intensity did not diminish. Finally my friend Kathy, who had dealt with similar problems years ago, announced that I probably had plantar fasciitis. I looked that up for myself and the symptoms matched, which actually made me feel better, for it meant I could start treating my foot in ways beyond simply resting. After dealing with this condition for several weeks, I’ve found a few treatments to be most effective, and I wanted to share them here in case some combination of them can help a similarly afflicted reader. Please bear in mind that I’m not a doctor and what has worked for me may or may not work for you (that’s a nice way of saying that you use any of the advice below at your own risk).
Get shoes that fit and that offer you enough support. If your feet are in the normal range, you can probably wear just about anything. If they’re as flat as mine, you’ll have to look a lot more carefully, but I’ve learned that K-Swiss models are generally terrific for low-arched players, and of course the Hannibals have been wonderful for me. I’m actually planning to stockpile a bunch of them in preparation for the next time I need new kicks, kind of like Jimmy Connors buying all of the old Wilson T-2000 racquets he could get his hands on back in the day.
Use orthotic inserts if necessary. You can get custom-fit orthotics at your podiatrist’s office, but those aren’t cheap and except in rare cases you’ll fare about as well by having your feet mapped on one of those machines now available at most pharmacies and then buying the orthotic that it prescribes. Heel cups, which have sort of a padded horseshoe design, are another variation: they are the cheapest and least customized of these options.
As you might guess from their name, AirHeels are like AirCasts for your heel. You tie them to your lower leg as you would an AirCast, but the air unit is positioned underneath your heel where your arch strikes the shoe. Unless you have a really bad case of PF, you’ll probably only want to wear them when you’re exercising.
Night splints come in a variety of shapes and brands, but basically they’re like casts in that they immobilize your foot while you’re sleeping and thereby keep your arch from inadvertently flexing into a painful position. Some find them uncomfortable, others find them unnecessary. My take is this: if something can help you heal while you’re sleeping, with zero effort on your part, why not give it a shot?
Taking anti-inflammatories after you play or otherwise work out is important. From my experience Aleve has been somewhat more effective against PF than Advil, but be careful to take it with food if you value your stomach lining.
Ice your heel after working out as you would other injured body parts. Kathy suggested freezing a water bottle and putting it under my foot. That allows you to roll your foot around and break down the scar tissue of the more severely injured areas at the same time the ice is reducing the swelling. You can also roll your foot without ice using a golf ball or a similar-sized ball that has a hard and somewhat uneven surface.
All the temporary remedies I’ve listed are only that- temporary- so you also need to rebuild strength in your hee. Rather than trying to decipher my labored descriptions of them, just Google “Plantar Fasciitis stretches” and you’ll find a handful that are simple, effective and require no equipment beyond a towel. You can also press your big toe down and lift the rest of your body up so that you’re essentially standing on your big toe. It may sound weird, but do enough reps and it really will strengthen your arches.
All well and good, you say, but how did Sectionals go? Well, as is often the case, not quite as well as Districts. Blessed with strong partners and opponents generally disinclined to lob, I managed to win two of my three 8.0 matches, though my feet felt no better. My team won one of three and failed to advance out of the group stage; the winner of our flight and eventual New England runners-up, Weymouth (MA), had a number of seriously underrated players, but that’s par for the course at this level. I took no part beyond cheering from the gallery at the 7.0 Sectionals, thanks to a flaky partner who begged off at the last minute with a series of flimsy excuses (with the short NH season we had been able to qualify only one 3.0 woman for me to play with). Our top two teams were competitive and I think my partner and I would have been equally competitive on court three, but as it was we ended up losing two of three matches and were once again eliminated in the round-robin phase while Weymouth finished as New England champions. Mixed or no, both teams had excellent chemistry and I really enjoyed the experience, though I drew two sobering lessons from District and Sectional play beyond “watch what you put on your feet”. They were: (1) When you face a team with one player ranked a full point ahead of his/her partner (a 4.5 and 3.5 in 8.0 play, for example), the lower-rated player is almost always a ringer. You rarely see a 4.5 whose true level is anything beyond a low-end 5.0, but the number of so-called 3.0 and 3.5 players who could be competitive on small-college tennis teams is staggering. It’s a joke no one outside of Weymouth is laughing at. (2) The lines get called even tighter than during the regular season, and 80 percent of the time the woman is the one doing the hooking (the true percentage may actually be higher than that, but I don’t want to be called sexist, plus I have to account for the Joe Waldvogels of the world somewhere). When the roving line judges are on your court, people’s calls suddenly revert to what they should be, but this isn’t the US Open, so the linesman sees no more than perhaps 15 percent of any match. To be completely honest, some of the people I play with are just as bad as our opponents, and that can get uncomfortable too. Unless I had a great view of the ball and was 100 percent certain, I rarely reversed a partner’s call, instead telling myself that things would even out since our opponents were probably cheating just as badly- and they almost always were. Maybe that was the right reaction and maybe it wasn’t. I think everybody deals with those situations in their own way, but one thing is certain: for better or worse, they’re as much a part of competitive mixed doubles as turning the score cards on a changeover.
Anyway, as the summer went on my feet made slow but steady progress and I was able to compete in two men’s District competitions in August, the details of which will follow in a future post. I would have saved myself a lot of agony, though, if I had paid more attention to what I was wearing, or just had replacement shoes ready that I trusted. Trust me: playing even one day with footwear that doesn’t suit you can have far-reaching consequences. Remember that, and hopefully you’ll be able to avoid walking in my footsteps!