The text message shows up on Will Holcomb’s phone about once a week, usually at night, asking whether he’s got time for an hour of tennis the next morning.
Holcomb was a captain for the tennis team at Rosemount High School before graduating in 2012. He moved back home to Inver Grove Heights from Colorado when his father, Jeff, died unexpectedly in January 2019 so he could be close to his mother, Mary Stoner. She played tennis at Michigan State and “taught me pretty much everything I know about tennis,” Holcomb said. In the past year, he estimates, he’s played more than ever.
He started teaching tennis again at St. Paul Urban Tennis, playing on a team and finding time to hit with some friends a few times a week around shifts as an at-home care provider. And this time of year is when the text messages about morning tennis show up.
This time of year is when Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins lives next door.
“To be honest, I’m surprised sometimes he’s able to do it, with two kids and doing the football stuff,” said Holcomb, whose mother recommended him as a tennis partner to her fellow Michigan State alum. “I imagine he’s tired. But when he gets out there, he just says he loves to get out and play. It’s fun for him — a little break from everything.”
Last year Cousins picked up a tennis racket for the first time since middle school, in search of an activity that didn’t take him away from his two young sons as long as a round of golf or carry the injury risks that pickup basketball did.
Tennis became even more of an outlet during the 2020 offseason, when he could play with his brother Kyle in Florida, a coach he knew in Michigan, or Holcomb in Minnesota while staying within social distancing guidelines.
Learning the sport through thrice-weekly sessions, Cousins realized it transferred to his high-stakes work as a quarterback even more than he thought.
“No one ever told me that Pete Sampras, when he would warm up to serve, he started by throwing a football,” Cousins said. “It confirmed that, hey, maybe there is something here. If a tennis guy was using the football motion to warm up his serve, the serve could be a great way to, in a different way, keep your shoulder in shape for the football motion.”
A 40-minute tennis match would give Cousins the conditioning he sought in the same 6- to 8-second spurts he plays on a football field. Reacting to a drop shot, he said, is similar to when he drops back to pass, “the seas part and there’s an open A gap to run through to steal 5 yards.”
The ever-studious Cousins learned a tennis serve — as one of the few overhead motions in sports where an object stays in an athlete’s hand the whole time — can help ward off shoulder injuries by strengthening the muscles that aid in the deceleration phase of the movement.
“He asked me my opinion, and I didn’t think too much of it. I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good,’ ” said Cousins’ trainer, Joe Tofferi. “And the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘That’s such a genius idea by him.’ Kirk’s never going to be a Barry Sanders and get out and do seven or eight hours of speed and agility, but it never hurts to be more agile. If you look at the serve and the overhead, and what the core does, and what the hips do, it’s spot on, man, for what he needs.
“I’m kind of disappointed I never brought it to him first.”
Cousins, who turned 32 on Wednesday, said tennis “will be a pretty consistent part of my routine going forward,” and he’s starting to dream about what it could look like as a competitive outlet after his NFL career is over. His wildest wish is to put in a grass court near his house.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do that, and I don’t know what the logistics are like,” Cousins said. “I think there’s a reason you don’t see them anywhere, because they’re pretty hard to keep up. But I have a dream to somehow find a way to [do it]. That’s kind of a funny side goal of mine.”
‘Work in progress’
Cousins’ mother, MaryAnn, signed him up for tennis lessons as a young teenager, and he played a couple of years at Holland Christian Middle School, in between seasons as the quarterback on the football team and the point guard on the basketball team.
The tennis team didn’t cut anyone, so after the competitive spots — two singles players and three doubles teams — in the lineup, there was a ladder of players who’d play a single set to eight games instead of a longer match. Cousins was fifth on the ladder.
“That was probably a good thing for me to get some humble pie,” he said.
Toiling on the middle school team did give Cousins a base to revisit when he returned to the sport, though, and parts of the game have come back quickly. Holcomb estimated Cousins is between a 4.0 and 4.5 on the National Tennis Rating Program scale, which is “about where I am, as well.” (The top of the scale, for world-class players, is 7.0.)
Asked to scout himself as a tennis player, Cousins described himself as a “work in progress,” with the big serve and strong forehand of a typical American player but with some room to grow in other areas.
Cousins hit with a tennis pro in Michigan and asked for an evaluation.
“He said, ‘You’ve got great pace on your shots, you’ve got good pace on your serve, but there’s fine-tuning that has to happen. There’s a higher ceiling than where you are right now.’
“I have to remind myself, I’m doing it for the football benefits rather than just trying to be a great tennis player. I tell him, ‘I just want you to make me move, make it difficult on me, have me breathing heavy.’ I don’t need to learn all the spin shots. I just want to be physically put through the wringer.”
Cousins still does hourlong training sessions with Tofferi, but they’ve changed because of tennis. He’s doing fewer sprints and structured agility work, and is able to focus more on resistance training and maintenance work.
Tennis has improved Cousins’ mechanics on downfield throws, Tofferi said; he’s learned to engage his core and drive force into the ground, the way Aaron Rodgers throws or Rory McIlroy swings a golf club.
“I’ve been with him six or seven years, and his body just keeps getting better,” Tofferi said. “Other guys might be on the downfall, or starting to get the dad bod going. He had more of a dad bod coming out of college than he does now. It’s hard for me to come up with something as competitive and enjoyable as tennis.”
Sessions with Holcomb at a park in Inver Grove Heights usually involve 40 minutes of drills before the pair plays a set. Cousins prefers to play on the baseline and has the lateral quickness to “get to everything,” Holcomb said.
When he wants to put Cousins away, he’ll force him to his backhand or lure him toward the net and into the volley game the quarterback hasn’t quite mastered.
Cousins’ fiery on-field demeanor comes out on the court, too.
“When he’s on cue, he’s kicked my butt a couple times,” Holcomb said. “I’ve got to make up for that. Tennis is my sport. He can have football.”
Gaining fans through tennis
Cousins is not the only quarterback who has dabbled in tennis. The Saints’ Drew Brees twice beat Andy Roddick as a junior player in Texas. Mardy Fish, a Minnesota native and former top-10 player, said he belongs to the same club as the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady, who’s learned pickleball along with tennis.
Cousins recently had a FaceTime call with Fish, who struck up a friendship with Vikings receiver Adam Thielen at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe.
On the call, Cousins suggested the two find a time to play so Fish could give feedback on Cousins’ game. He floated his grass court idea too, but Fish was skeptical it could work.
“I told him the only guy I knew that has grass courts is Jack Nicklaus, the golfer,” Fish said. “I went over to hit with Jack — I call him Mr. Nicklaus, excuse me — a couple times. He has three grass courts at his house: pristine grass courts, perfectly kept up.”
Fish suggested a clay court would be easier to maintain and more helpful to Cousins’ game.
“Adam’s been telling me, ‘Kirk is really into tennis, dude — he wants to play with you bad.’ … It does make sense for someone who’s not known as being fleet of foot to try and figure it out,” Fish said. “But it’s also one of the reasons I like rooting for Kirk: He’s willing to try anything and everything.”
If Fish is a fan of Cousins, Holcomb, now 26, has found a close acquaintance in his return to Minnesota.
He sheepishly admitted he didn’t root for the Vikings growing up. “I was a Brett Favre fan,” he said.
That’s changed since the Cousins family moved in next door. Holcomb’s mother is on a group text with Cousins’ wife, Julie, and she and Holcomb watched the Vikings’ comeback win over the Broncos at U.S. Bank Stadium last November.
“It’s cool to see he can enjoy himself [playing tennis], and I’m happy I can help him out with that,” Holcomb said. “All my friends are a little jealous. It’s very different to know the guy and then cheer for him. It’s been great to watch.”