After watching Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal battle for six hours in last year's Australian Open final, it is evident that the world's best players are some of the fittest athletes in the world as tennis has evolved from a "gentleman's game" into a demanding athletic contest. The modern game, at every competitive level, is a physically demanding sport. Professionals and aspiring juniors alike are regularly incorporating off-court functional fitness sessions into their training schedules to prevent injuries and achieve high performance goals.
It's vital to get expert advice before starting off-court training and the stakes are high. Consider that if your tennis coach is not competent, then you will likely under perform, but if your trainer is remiss, you could be injured, perhaps permanently.
Before starting fitness training, one should examine an overview of some primary fitness goals which promote safe tennis improvement. Recognize here that the high performance of tennis mechanics is about employing the most efficient movement systems to perform the most effective neuro-muscular movement patterns.
The nature of performing tennis movements encourages most athletes to be anterior (front) dominated as a result of managing externally weighted (racket) deceleration forces which causes over engagement on the racket hand side. Such bilateral (both sided) and anterior discontinuity will encourage movement compensation, as well as upper to lower body disconnection, leading to sub-optimal performance and increased injury risk. These inequities will especially impact elite players, who must manage enormous swing force deceleration.
The first priority of fitness training for tennis athletes is the functional identifications and correction of movement pattern and motor control deficiencies and imbalances. You must assess to progress. A simple Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a practical diagnostic tool that identifies the observable performance of fundamental, manipulative and stabilizing movements by placing athletes in positions where weakness, imbalances, asymmetries and limitations are apparent.
Once movement function and patterns have been identified, a program of corrections and progressions can be undertaken. Strength, stability and mobility are threshold attributes here, with balanced body symmetry being more important than functional excess. Most tennis movements are asymmetrical, as one foot bears the movement load while the other foot moves freely in a series of steps and descents, or in common tennis terms, "The set up, hit and recovery." The asymmetrical nature of tennis movements places great demands on the development and training of rotational stability, coordination, posture, balance, mobility and body alignment.
Tennis-specific dysfunction issues include Scapula immobility, especially on the dominant side; glenohumeral laxity, also on the dominant side with increased external rotation at the expense of internal rotation; and pectoral over engagement. The results of these problems can often be identified by a rounding of the shoulders. Lower body issues include Quid dominance, hamstring and ankle immobility which lead to forward foot strikes, valgas and AB knee instability. These conditions are especially prevalent in females with wide hips (large Q angles.).
Racket and foot speed are essential for success in today's explosive game. The road to achieving these vital abilities is through the development and transfer of power. Speed does not result in power. You will not hit harder or move better by trying to perform movements more rapidly. Power results in speed. Learn to work from the ground up and integrate these skills on the court.
Speed training goes hand-in-hand with functional mobility improvement. Since the average run in tennis is short, just seven feet with a multi-directional cut, development of linear speed is not the primary goal. Instead, explosive starts, rapid and balanced decelerations and quick changes of directions should be the main training focus.
The integration of racket management skills that are consistent with functional mobility abilities is the ultimate goal of fitness training for tennis performance. This comprehensive approach starts with learning sound neuro-muscular activation technique, as well as dynamic movement preparation protocols.
Next, coordinated lower to upper body linkage will ensure that power is developed and transmitted in the stroke from the ground up. Racket speed is an essential skill in today's power game, but simply trying to swing faster is not the answer. Speed does not provide power … power results in speed.
Finally, strokes with sound shoulder positions and accelerating arm arcs will ensure that the power created and transmitted from the ground finds it's way to the strike.
Movement trainers and tennis coaches are most beneficial when they work synergistically to develop an athlete. This practice goes beyond the trainer simply understanding the unique demands of tennis and the coach being familiar with training practices. Trainers and coaches must communicate and interact in an ongoing dialogue, using a common language so that the best practices in each area are consistently reinforced.
Fitness training has the potential to greatly further the improvement and performance of tennis skills. This training must address and target the unique demands of the player and the sport. Tennis coaches need to work closely with functional trainers to help players progress from good to great.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.