Practice? We're talking 'bout practice?
Yes. Yes, we are.
One of the pure jolts of pleasure for fans wandering the practice courts at any tournament is to see two players practicing together. If you wandered the grounds of the Rogers Cup this week, you may have spotted Maria Sharapova and Kiki Bertens blasting the ball at each other, Madison Keys and Anett Kontaveit sharing a laugh between sets, or good friends and frequent practice partners Ashleigh Barty and Julia Goerges tuning it up together on the hardcourts.
While most players now employ full-time traveling hitting partners, hit with their coaches, or dip into the local hitting partners made available by tournaments, practicing with their friends and competitors offers a different level of preparation that remains unmatched.
"It's good because you feel the rhythm and you might face her in the tournament," Simona Halep told WTA Insider. "So when I have a chance I will ask a player to practice with me. The feeling that you can play against her, it's better than hitting with a boy or a hitting partner."
But not all practice partners are the same. WTA Insider spoke to over 15 players about their preferred practice partners and, not surprisingly, the players' practice goals varied. Many said their primary pre-requisite was a player who could provide in-rally rhythm.
"What I look for is rhythm," Belinda Bencic said. "Definitely I don't like to practice with people that hit the heck out of the ball and you have no rallies. So I think rallies are important."
Karolina Pliskova put it more succinctly. "I don't like to play with the big hitters," she said. "In practice you want to hit the balls, not collect the balls."
A few highlighted their desire to practice against styles that made them uncomfortable and to prepare for their next matches.
"If the draw is out, I'm going to play someone who has a similar style," said Caroline Wozniacki. "Otherwise I try to mix it up, so I play someone who has a big serve one day, great returns the next. Kind of mixing it up so I get a bit of everything.
"I look for someone who is willing to do whatever," said Madison Keys. "I like to work on things in practice and not just play points. I also like to play people who get to a million balls, because that's something I struggle with. I like to practice against people who push me and that's usually what I'm looking for.
For lower-ranked players, being able to practice with the top players offers a chance to level-up their game.
"Now I think I want to take back my level, and I want to practice with the best ones, with the top players, try to play a lot with them because they have the rhythm, they have a lot of matches with them," said Carla Suárez Navarro.
Others said they just wanted a positive experience to counter the otherwise stressful tournament environment.
"I'm quite relaxed," Maria Sakkari said. "I don't really care, I can practice with anyone so long as the player isn't very competitive and doesn't make it awkward. We laugh, we say good serve, good point, well-played and stuff. I'm like this, so I like it if they're like that too."
One name that came up often when players listed their favorite practice partners is Donna Vekic, who likes to keep practice sessions fun.
"The guys will play mini-tennis, they're playing for dinner," Vekic explained. "The girls, even the practice it's like a match. I'm like come on, relax. I don't like to be so serious during practice. We're here to have some fun as well.
And then there's the always self-deprecating Sloane Stephens, who would not be surprised if she's not on anyone's shortlist.
"I'm not a good practice partner," Stephens said. "I'm just not good in practice. When you get in point situations and practicing I never call any balls out, I play everything, I never switch sides when you're supposed to, I never keep score. That's probably really annoying to people I'm playing with."
We asked the players who their favorite practice partners are on tour. Their answers may surprise you.
Karolina Pliskova: I like practicing with Donna [Vekic]. I always play good against her. I just like the ball that she's giving me. I like Kuznetsova. She works so hard and it makes me work harder.
Donna Vekic: Maria Sakkari, I really like practicing with her. I had good fun with Karolina Pliskova, with Daria Gavrilova. There are some that are cool and I really try to pick practices with them. But sometimes, oof.
Maria Sakkari: Of course Donna, my best friend. I have no problem to practice with anyone. But there are some players, like Donna, Sam Stosur.
Simona Halep: I love to practice with Carla because she gives a rhythm and our practices are very nice, Svetlana Kuznetsova as well. I'm not especially looking for something when I ask someone to practice with me. I practice with anyone, so I don't have a person I don't like to practice with.
Belinda Bencic: My favorite warmup partner is Sofia Kenin, actually. It was after Mallorca that we flew together. We went to Eastbourne. We played the same time. So we, like, did everything together. We warmed up and everything. So since then we're warmup partners.
I like to practice with Angie Kerber too. That's always great.
Caroline Wozniacki: Yeah, I mean, Aga was a player I would always practice with. I first of all look for players that are good people, so you always know you're going to get a good practice. I'm looking for someone who always takes the practice seriously.
Kiki Bertens: I enjoy practicing with the girls that I get along with really well, like Julia [Goerges], Johanna [Larsson], Maria Sakkari I can get along really well with. It's just a few girls that I really like and I think it's fun to practice together.
For me the vibe is the most important thing. Of course it's the job you're doing and you want to play well but you also have to have some fun out there.
Madison Keys: I feel like it's gotten so tough now. Everyone's booked out like three weeks in advance. Like, hey, do you want to practice on Friday? No, I'm not free until Indian Wells.
I practice a lot with Kasatkina and Donna. Those are usually my go-to's because...they usually want me. Who wants me?
Wang Qiang: Someone who doesn't miss and we can play a lot of rallies.
Sloane Stephens: The best practice that I've had on tour ever was definitely Kiki Bertens. She's a phenomenal practice partner. She does not miss a ball.
Carla Suárez Navarro: I have favorite players. I mean, with Kiki Mladenovic I practice a lot. With Simona Halep I try. I like it. Sara Errani was one of my favorites. I practice also with Garbine Muguruza a lot. But I can practice with anyone. I have no problem.