Djokovic's secret: pressurized egg

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Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic is using a secret weapon called a CVAC pod that its creators claim boosts performance by simulating high altitude, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

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Ever since last year's US Open, Djokovic has been trying to improve his fitness by climbing into the rare $75,000 egg-shaped, bobsled-sized pressure chamber.

The machine, which is made by a California-based company called CVAC Systems and has not been banned by any sports governing bodies, is one of only 20 in the world.

Unlike the increasingly trendy $5,000 hyperbaric chambers many professional athletes use to saturate the blood with oxygen and stimulate healing, the CVAC is a considerably more ambitious contraption. It uses a computer-controlled valve and a vacuum pump to simulate high altitude and compress the muscles at rhythmic intervals.

The company claims that spending up to 20 minutes in the pod three times a week can boost athletic performance by improving circulation, boosting oxygen-rich red-blood cells, removing lactic acid and possibly even stimulating mitochondrial biogenesis and stem-cell production.

Djokovic is so convinced that the pod helps his game that during the US Open, which starts Monday, the No. 1 seed is staying with a wealthy tennis-trainer friend in Alpine, N.J., who keeps one of the machines on his property.

"It really helps — not with muscle but more with recovery after an exhausting set," said Djokovic, who has never spoken about the pod publicly before. "It's like a spaceship. It's very interesting technology."

While pod users do not do much beyond sitting while they are inside (cellphone use is permitted), CVAC Systems chief executive Allen Ruszkowski said the treatment seems to have many of the same effects on the body as intense exercise. He claimed that the technology may be twice as effective at helping the body absorb oxygen as blood doping — a banned form of performance enhancement.

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In 2006 the World Anti-Doping Agency ruled that such oxygen tents enhance performance and violate "the spirit of sport," but did not add them to the list of banned substances and methods, saying it would wait until further studies were conducted.

Patrick McEnroe, the US Tennis Association's general manager of player development, said he was skeptical that any such contraption could have much impact on tennis performance.

"I don't really take this stuff particularly seriously," he said. "Maybe there are a few things that have helped [Djokovic] mentally, but let's remember that before he ... went into a hyperbaric chamber he had already won a grand slam and beat Roger Federer."

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