NEW YORK — Only three men over the last seven years have won the U.S. Open, so what will it take to knock five-time winner Roger Federer or returning champ Rafael Nadal off their lofty perch in Queens this year? To listen to the men’s players assembled in Flushing Meadows this week, clearly there’s a new sort of performance enhancer: diet overhauls.
Just as the women’s game is now dominated by plug-your-ears-up-because-I-can’t-stand-it-style grunting, top men’s players want to talk food and calories: Let’s drop the beer and wine, and pick up the soy milk and apples. Or, in the case of the best American tennis player this year, let’s let that waistline expand a bit more.
Take Scotsman Andy Murray, the world’s number-four player, who credits his new gliadin-free diet for giving him an extra boost for an Open run this year.
“I wake up at, like, 7 o’clock in the morning now and feel great,” said Murray at the Open on Saturday. “Before I would wake up at, like, 9:30 and feel terrible.”
He’s not “stiff and sore and tired” ever since he gave up those pasta dinners, he said.
But he’s not the only one.
The man responsible for the trend is number-one seed Novak Djokovic. For years, Djokovic played through the U.S. Open with breathing problems, mysterious ailments and big questions of whether his endurance could hold up for two grueling weeks of tennis. Despite reaching the finals twice here in the last five years, he hasn’t won. After last year’s Open final loss to Nadal, he went gluten free. He cut out the pizza, the beer, the bread, the pasta and even the wine. No celiac disease for him — just the hope for a little something extra.
The result ever since? He has two Grand Slam wins, he’s a perfect five-for-five against number-two Nadal, owns a 57-2 record in 2011 and is in the midst of one of the most dominating seasons in the history of the sport.
How did Djokovic go from physically questionable to the sport’s most dominant player?
“His technique is the same,” said Murray. “I think physically he looks better than he did in the warm conditions. Like in Miami where he struggled in the past. I think he’s looking better physically.”
Murray clearly took notes. After reaching the men’s final here in 2008, his game had been sinking. Last year, after a stunning third-round loss, he told the press rather bitterly, “I don’t know if I’ll win a Grand Slam or not.”
Now he has introduced a new diet of his own. As part of the gliadin-free regimen, cow’s milk is out and soy milk is in. Protein bars and shakes that he used to have after matches? Out. Chocolate bars? Out. Apples and bananas? Very much in.
“I never really used to have much fish unless I was having sushi, so I’m having a lot more fish and vegetables, and just trying to have just a more balanced diet rather than just the typical sort of pasta before matches and steaks and chicken,” he said.
Breakfast — sans bagels with cream cheese and peanut butter (must be a British thing?) — is “difficult for him” now.
But unlike Djokovic, Murray allowed that this diet is…well, maybe a bit temporary.
“Maybe after the U.S. Open I can start reintroducing those foods back into my diet,” he said of the no-nos.
But it’s not just diets either. You need even to watch how you eat. Nadal, who has been sluggish all summer after losing to the more physically fit Djokovic at Wimbledon, injured himself dining out at an otherwise rather healthy sounding establishment.
“I get burned in a Japanese restaurant,” said Nadal on Saturday. “Probably the Teppanyaki grill was there, probably the plate.…When they put the food, I tried to put the plate closer to me and was obviously very hot.”
Nadal burned two fingers and his shoo-in status to defend the crown is suddenly a lot more questionable.
But players don’t necessarily need to eat healthier, either. The diet meme began in earnest last year when American Mardy Fish made a run to the fourth round. Fish’s diet wasn’t exactly sophisticated. He merely stopped eating junk food. No more French fries; no more Dominos pizzas. The 6-foot, 2-inch Fish, who was once a little over 200 pounds, shed the baby fat and was a lean 170 last year.
This year, in which Fish has transformed himself into the top ranking American man at number 8, he is expected to make a deep run. Fish himself is upbeat about his chances: “I expect to see myself in the second Saturday of the U.S. Open.”
But he’s once again changed his diet. He’s eating more.
“Last year I came in, I was extremely fit at the time, but I was almost too — I was right around 170 pounds,” he said on Saturday. “You know, I was almost too skinny.”
How’s he making up for it?
Well, on Saturday he tweeted what his hotel room looked like in preparation for Hurricane Irene. The photo included Honey Nut Cheerios, NutriGrain bars, six cans of BumbleBee tuna and white cheddar rice cakes.
How’s that not-so-strict diet working out?
Fish won his first match on Monday in straight sets over Tobias Kamke in a blindingly fast one hour and 43 minutes.