*The following article was posted by the International Tennis Performance Association’s blog.*
By Jonathan Borsky and Dr. Mark Kovacs
Ashton Eaton, winner of two Olympic decathlons, has been quoted as saying that tennis is the “next most athletic sport,” one that requires an interplay of technique, agility, and mind-body awareness. It is one of the few modern sports where athletes under six feet tall still be among the game’s elite, with names like Diego Schwartzman, David Ferrer, David Goffin, and Alex De Minaur competing against those who are more physically imposing. The same could be said regarding those who are taller than the average tennis professional, with giants like Alexander Zverev, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, and Kevin Anderson all predicted to have year-end top ten rankings in 2018. These athletes are undoubtedly genetically-gifted, possessing required base levels of athleticism that keeps moving the sport to new heights. However, it is their movement around the court—the ability not only to reach their opponents’ shots and recover, but also get in an ideal position to produce the effective transfer of forces through ball contact—that allows these men to earn their paychecks. The start-and-go nature of the sport is very taxing on the neuromuscular system, which requires both effective technique and conditioning. While it is not possible to make a slow athlete fast, it is possible to make them faster and is a trainable aspect in a strength and conditioning program.
It’s important to consider the open-skill nature of the sport of tennis, where each ball is hit at different locations on the court with varying degrees of spins and velocities. This requires a great degree of reactiveness, responding to stimuli and simultaneously providing an adequate amount of ground reaction force for first step quickness. The concept of developing relative lower-body strength (at loads of at least 80% of 1-RM) becomes paramount in recruiting the muscle fibers necessary for explosive movement around the court. Research by Hoope et al has found that teenage tennis players perform around 50-55 accelerations and 45-50 decelerations over the course a two-set match. The average explosive burst covers around 3 meters (Kovacs, 2006), and depends on the ability of the tendons to utilize the fast-stretch shortening cycle. Tennis trainers should understand this demand of the sport, using resistance training to develop both eccentric and concentric strength in addition to the reactive strength required provide rapid force development.
It has been argued by top tennis coaches that the sport is won not necessarily through hitting winners but rather inducing forced errors; variables like spin, depth, power, height, and taking time away from the opponent can all be used to force players out of position, where ideal movement application and power production allow a player to remain in the point. The nervous and muscular systems must be able to provide continual activity, requiring both the work capacity AND its ability to endure the activity. That being said, any improvements in the anaerobic and aerobic capacity would be beneficial to a tennis athlete and allow them the best opportunity to keep the point alive. A recent 2018 study by Isha et al. has demonstrated that SAQ (speed, agility, and quickness) training can significantly improve junior performance for both T-test (movement) scores and VO2-max (aerobic capacity) compared to a control group. The experimental group, who received SAQ training 3 times a week over the course of a month, performed drills that consisted of resisted runs and upper-lower body plyometrics at similar work to rest intervals seen in tennis points (about 20 to 30 seconds of work with 1 to 2 minute breaks). The authors suggest that this tennis-specific overloading of the proprioceptive organs leads to positive adaptations and should lead to improved movement capabilities on the court.
The necessity of effective movement training cannot be overemphasized, as even a split- second difference in multiplanar displacement can result in being in an offensive position as opposed to a defensive one. Gil Reyes, the legendary trainer of Andre Agassi, has said that “weak legs obey, while strong legs command,” with the lower body commanding both the strength and endurance to compete in the sport. In end, it could be what separates the “good” from the “great.”
Isha, Garg, and Khurana Sunal. Effective Conditioning Program for Junior Tennis Players. Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine, and Treatment in Sports , 21 May 2018, juniperpublishers.com/jpfmts/pdf/JPFMTS.MS.ID.555629.pdf.
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