When you watch the leading players battling for supremacy at a big tournament, it is easy to marvel at their athleticism and technique. They can appear almost superhuman at times. Highly trained techniques and excellent mental skills are vital at that level, but in this article, we will cover the physical aspects that players need to develop in order to reach the top.
It is important to remember that, while there is some element of genetics involved, the top players have got where they are by working relentlessly to improve their physical ability over a long period, and most of them travel with a physical trainer. So, if you are a young, aspiring tennis player, what physical qualities should you be working on?
A successful tennis player needs to be well-coordinated to adjust quickly to different shots. To last through long matches, they need good endurance, and flexibility helps them play awkward balls. A high level of agility and sharp reflexes allows them to volley well, whilst physical power helps them dominate.
Sports scientist John Kiely has defined this as follows: ‘Coordination is when the central nervous system organizes the body to satisfactorily solve a movement problem for the least uptake of resources.’
Many subsidiary skills contribute to good footwork, but in essence, an elite tennis player needs coordination to get themselves into position quickly and hit the ball using an efficient technique.
Roger Federer is an example of a player with outstanding coordination, which explains why he generally looks so elegant on the court.
Although coordination can be worked on at any age, it is generally believed that substantial improvements are most easily obtained if you do coordination exercises when you are young. For this reason, if you watch tennis coaching groups for young children, you will nearly always see many coordination games being played.
Tennis is, therefore, a sport where you benefit from starting at an early age, but there is no need to despair if you did not. Just arrange a few sessions with a strength and conditioning coach and ask them to work on your coordination.
Endurance (Muscular and Cardiovascular)
Tennis matches in the men’s draw at a Grand Slam can last five or six hours in what might be hot conditions. A player whose endurance is suspect will have little chance in such a match, however good they are.
An elite player needs cardiovascular endurance (of the heart and lungs) to sustain them through the longer rallies. This can be trained by running and, in particular, interval training.
Possibly more important in tennis, particularly for attacking players, is muscular endurance. Specifically, players need to repeat sets of fast, explosive movements hundreds of times during a long match without a significant decline in performance.
Strength training is precious for developing muscular endurance, but ideally, a weight below your maximum should be used, incorporating a higher number of reps instead.
There is a lot of stretching and lunging involved in tennis. Simply watching Novak Djokovic play for a few minutes should be enough to convince you of the importance of flexibility.
However, many of the movements required in tennis can, rather counter-intuitively, result in players developing a lack of flexibility in some joints. This, in turn, means that fitness trainers typically spend quite a lot of time helping players restore this flexibility.
For example, the typical low ready-position can result in hamstring tightness, and serving can result in a limited range of external shoulder motion.
Therefore, it is vital to work on the range of motion in your shoulder along with hamstring stretching to avoid shoulder, hamstring, and lower back injuries.
Agility & Reflexes
Although top players read the game well, a tennis match will always bring many situations where a player has to react to unexpected changes of pace, spin, and placement.
In order to deal with difficult shots, tennis players need excellent agility and reflexes to respond quickly. Just being a fast runner is not enough: players need to move rapidly forwards, backward, or sideways.
Therefore, it is vital for aspiring players to train all of these movements, and there are many exercises designed for this purpose. One specific point to bear in mind is the benefit of training over the kind of distances you might move in a rally, so a series of 20m sprints can be especially beneficial.
Aided by modern racket technology, today’s tennis players hit the ball harder than ever before. A player who lacks power is unlikely to succeed.
It is important to realize that powerful tennis shots are produced due to a chain of motion that includes both the upper and lower body. Strength training should therefore focus on legs and glutes just as much as arms and shoulders.
A well designed, gym-based strength training program using appropriate weights will protect a tennis player against injury and give them the power to hit the ball hard consistently.
Elite tennis players are superb athletes, and they train extremely hard to maintain this and minimize injuries. Anyone who aspires to play at a high level should consider hiring a fitness trainer to improve all of the areas mentioned in this article.