I was privileged to speak at the First Annual New York Tennis Expo in April, along with an esteemed panel of tennis experts. This was not only the biggest grassroots tennis event ever in the metropolitan area, with attendance numbers that reached nearly 3,000, but it was also a gathering of the most sophisticated tennis fans in the world with an extraordinary capacity and hunger for knowledge. It was a groundbreaking event. I tried to simplify several technical topics for those in the room who are as fascinated as I am by athletic performance. While explanations of complex ideas can be changeling, it's needed in tennis, which is often misleadingly oversimplified. It was interesting that iconic coach Nick Bollettieri, began his impassioned talk by remarking that he would need a "Master's Degree to understand what I said" given his wealth of tennis experience, as well as the enthusiastic response to my topic from the many astute tennis lovers in this audience.
I have recreated the text of my speech below in case you missed it. You will not want to miss next year's New York Tennis Expo.
New innovations in tennis
Sport science and technology are evolving rapidly and changing the way tennis is played. While much of the talk is about new equipment and a faster game, maybe we should also consider using the latest cutting-edge information to improve techniques. I've heard it said that certainty is the biggest limitation to the human mind, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that idea when it comes to teaching tennis. It's important to question the standard practice of the past to improve how we train and play. Great resources like Dartfish slow motion video, for example, give everyone the chance see the best players in the world in slow motion and understand what it takes to excel.
Here are a few important innovations in training techniques that you've probably not heard.
A full examination of the first technique explains why the common teaching advice about "being late hitting the ball" is likely counter-productive to a good contact point.
Let's start by understanding the "Stretch Shorten Cycle" which is gaining popularity in tennis teaching circles, but is not a new idea in athletic performance. Many people might remember Bruce Lee introducing Kung Fu, the oldest martial art, to American audiences with his "one-inch punch." The idea that you can get enormous power from a punch just one-inch sounds pretty far-fetched, but it's science-based and will encourage the development of powerful tennis strokes. Great power can be developed from compact and efficient movements, and this is very important to adapting to the time demands of the lightning-fast modern game. The concept is simple … your tendons function like the pole of an Olympic vaulter, first bending or “stretching," then rebounding back to their original shape or "shortening" and releasing enormous elastic energy and power.
You can use this in your game by starting toward the hit with a stable torso so that your arms progress away from your body and you link your upper body to your hips. Remember, racket acceleration results from full arm extension. The finish direction across the body and low like Roger Federer, across the body and high like Novak Djokovic, or "reverse" forehand style over the same shoulder like Rafael Nadal is less important than the forward part of the stroke because it is the deceleration or slowing part of the movement.
As for mistakenly describing shots as "late," well let's break it down. Many players rush when they hear they are "late," and in doing so, bring the racket away from their body. Since the racket is functionally heavier as it moves away on the take back, it must be pulled inward as it progresses to the hit, increasing your elbow bend which slows both the arm and racket. Unfortunately, it also speeds your body by adding centripetal or rotational force. Think of a figure skater folding their arms in tight to spin faster and you get the idea. A slowing arm with a speeding body might appear late, but is actually just a "mechanically disadvantaged" ineffective lever and a faster take back will only make things worse. A better solution to poor contact position is to think "prepare with your torso as a unit, and start the hit by driving your hips."
The next discovery I'd like to discuss relates to court movement. Several years ago, Isumi Tabata, the speed skating coach of Japan's national team, experimented with high-intensity efforts to improve the performance of his already great team. The method he developed is now commonly called "Tabata's." He found that when his athletes performed 20-second maximum speed efforts with just 10-second rest intervals, they got amazing results. This was a huge departure from the traditional method of 10-second maximum efforts with 30-seconds rest that was the universal training standard protocol throughout the sports world. The data on this method is astounding, with most studies indicating 20 to 24 percent increases in both aerobic and anaerobic output after 12 weeks among already highly-trained athletes.
High heart rate training for tennis players like that suggested by Isumi Tabata has tremendous application for tennis players. Tennis is a 1:7 time effort interval. That means that in a two-hour match, you are only actually playing about 17-minutes total. If that sounds strange, keep in mind that you could watch every snap of the four-hour Super Bowl in about 10 minutes. Improve your body’s ability to use oxygen, which is called VO2 max, and you are more efficient in a way demanded by actual play. Since there is a direct relationship to higher heart rates and coordination loss, the lower your heart rate is, the better you play. Train at high rates and you will adapt to stress better and the beauty of this training is the source of the stress … whether it be physical, mental or emotional, it is not important.
New York Knicks fans might recall the last second heroics of the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller. Not surprisingly, Miller was in supreme aerobic condition and recorded the highest VO2 max numbers of any U.S. basketball Dream Team player tested at the training center in Colorado Springs.
Mental training is very valuable of course, but most tennis instructors like myself are usually limited to the resources of a court, a racket and tennis balls. High heart rate training is a great way to make improvements that will be useful in real match conditions.
Let's now talk about jumping rope, which is a great aerobic and coordination exercise, but not a" best practice" method for tennis.
It's important to recognize that all movements have three parts: The start, the acceleration and the stop. Starts and stops are full-foot contact movements Pushes into the ground which are often called the "loading phase" are most powerful with the full foot. This is "Action, Reaction" and Newton discovered it way before me. Accelerations are forefoot movements and jumping rope is a forefoot movement. The average run in tennis is very short, just seven-feet so, peak performance is most about quick starts and agile-balanced stops, not acceleration. Jumping rope while better than sitting on the couch and eating potato chips is neurologically counter to tennis movement demands.
Similarly, the practice of performing long runs at a steady pace because "you run three miles in tennis, so you need to be able to run that far on a track" reminds me of the “Dodgeball” school of thinking that: "If you can dodge a wrench, then you can dodge a ball."
There are many advances in sports performance. The two innovations I discussed result in greater power generation in both hitting, as well as running. Both of these abilities are so important today. As a takeaway point, I hope that I've motivated you here today, to question past methods and seek out and practice better ones in the future.
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.