Despite its genteel history, tennis is a decidedly brutal sport for the athletes who choose to make it a career.
It’s easy to see why when you look at the unique strength and conditioning challenges that the game throws up for coaches and athletes. Firstly, there’s no set time – you could be on the court for anywhere from an hour to more than five.
(For those wondering, the longest match ever played was an 11-hour slog-fest between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicholas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010.)
Secondly, in professional tennis, there’s no real off-season. Players travel the world from tournament to tournament all year round, managing their recovery as best as they can in airport lounges, hotel rooms and stadium gyms.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, since tennis is primarily a strategic game, the only way to become truly excellent on the court is to play a lot of tennis – and we mean a lot of tennis.
Jarrod Egan, former strength and conditioning coach at Lawn Tennis Association in Britain and owner of KettleFit, says most professionals play on average four hours of tennis a day.
“Generally most players spend four hours a day playing tennis in training. This is split up into a two-hour block in the morning and a two-hour block in the afternoon – meaning if they want additional strength or conditioning work they have to squeeze it in-between blocks,” Egan tells ninemsn Coach.
“You can see how hard it is for them to dedicate time to pure strength and conditioning. This means much of their work is injury prevention, recovery, and maintenance.”
How you train depends on the surface you play
In professional tennis, there are three main surfaces – grass courts, clay courts, and hard courts. Each has its own characteristics, and each favours a particular style of play.
Clay courts that you would find at the French Open tend to favour powerful, baseline players, while the grass courts at Wimbledon favour players who are agile and quick. Hard courts, like the ones at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, tend to offer the best of both worlds.
“How you train depends on what surface you play. On a grass court, the ball moves a lot quicker off the bounce and the average point might only be five to 10 seconds,” says Egan.
“On clay, it’s much slower, and you’re more likely to see long, grinding points which really test the player’s endurance. Hard courts, like we have for the Australian Open, are a really reactive, bouncy surface, so you have to be on your toes.”
Egan recommends structuring your training sessions exactly like you would play in a game, which means paying careful attention to your rest periods.
“A great way to improve your court speed is to train short, hard repeated sprints with a change in direction,” recommends Egan.
“Try to keep your rest times similar to what they would be in a game – traditionally there’s 20 seconds between points and 90 seconds between games. That’s a good way to establish your work-to-rest ratio.”
It might help to improve your grip with heavy deadlifts and farmers walks, because how you hold the racquet is the secret to controlling the ball.
“Funnily enough, a quirky statistic you’ll find is that grip strength is often the number one performance indicator of high-ranked players,” says Egan.
Your sessions should be short, intense, and have an agility component
Despite the potentially immense length of a tennis match, you shouldn’t be training for endurance as if you were running a marathon, slogging it out with long runs and endless sit-ups.
Egan recommends instead focusing your efforts on repeated, explosive movements that help you cover the court more effectively.
“Even though a tennis match can stretch on for five hours, it’s really an anaerobic sport thanks to the short point times and rest intervals,” says Egan.
“Tennis is a high-intensity power sport, full of repeated, explosive movements. To prevent injury and increase your court speed, you’ll need to do plenty of agility and footwork drills.”
It’s this agility that allows the better players to “cover their angles”, which in tennis equates to winning more games.
“You’ll see in major tournaments that the better players have incredible speed when changing direction, and they cover the court better. Great examples of this are Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic,” says Egan.
Injury-proof yourself in the gym
Compared to the intense, muscle-building routines of rugby buffs, tennis players rarely see the inside of a gym – but that doesn’t mean you should cut lifting out altogether.
“In the gym, tennis players do a lot of hamstring, wrist, and shoulder protective work,” says Egan.
“Most injuries in tennis come from overuse – simply because they play so much – so most of their time with the weights is about protecting ligaments and tissues rather than trying to build them.”
Egan says that it’s also important to strengthen your body using whole-body exercises because it’s easy to fall into a trap of being left or right side dominant.
“Remember that tennis is quite a one-sided sport – other than a double-handed backhand, you’re using your dominant hand a lot and this can lead to overuse,” says Egan.
“That means your time in the gym is well spent balancing out your body with compound, full body movements like kettlebell work – in particular, the snatch.”
Egan recommends kettlebells as an ideal way to train for most racquet sports because you can develop power through a swinging arc, as opposed to pushing or pulling a barbell.
“We’ve got tennis players here at KettleFit who have improved the speed of their seve by strengthening their body with kettlebell swings and snatches,” says Egan.
Egan’s five things that every tennis strength and conditioning program should have
- You should be playing a lot of tennis, but not so much that you’re struggling to recover fully
- Short, hard repeated sprints with a change of direction
- Agility drills
- Kettlebell work for strengthening and injury-proofing heavily used ligaments
- Flexibility work to maintain balance between your forehand and backhand sides of the body