A little while back I wrote an article about strength training for tennis. More specifically, I wrote that physical training for tennis should stop focusing on “fancy drills” and start targeting specific & relevant qualities to today’s game. This was highlighted by an article outlining Azarenka’s off-court regime – which comprised of heavier strength & power training. In this post, we’ll look at both the mechanical and physiological demands required for elite performance in today’s female game (WTA/ITF). This will hopefully provide a better understanding as to why strength & power training is so important in women’s tennis today – and why certain traditional programs may not be ideal. A brief application of training will be linked to each tennis demand to provide further context.
FEMALE TENNIS DEMANDS EXPLOSIVENESS
I don’t think anyone will argue that the modern women’s game is characterized by explosiveness. The pace is faster than it’s ever been, which means players need powerful movements to get to the ball. Research indicates that these movements are almost all within 3m of each other and a 3 set match may demand up to (or more than) 500 of these explosive bursts (Kovacs 2006). Exceptions to the 3m movements may include running down a drop shot or running for a wide ball. But even retrieving a drop shot isn’t more than 10m!
Furthermore, when looking at some basic rally length stats, coaches will often notice that the majority of a match is played within a 3 shot rally. For example, in the US Open semi-final last year, Serena and Pliskova played a total of 131 points and 92 of those points were 3 shots or less – that’s 70%. Only 3 points (2%) were 10 shots or longer. Craig O’Shannessy, Grand Slam analyst and founder of Brain Game Tennis, says this isn’t a one off. After aggregating female rally lengths from all 4 major in 2016, Craig revealed that roughly 70% of points were played between 0-4 shots (0 being classified as a double fault). This is pretty good evidence that being explosive is an absolute must in today’s game.
How does training apply?
Performing maximal or near-maximal resistance training elicits neuromuscular adaptations. Basically, your nervous system becomes more efficient at recruiting, firing and synchronizing the appropriate muscle fibres, specifically type 2 fibres (the ones that are important for generating speed and power). That said, there may still be a by-product of muscle growth (hypertrophy), something that shouldn’t be a concern as the benefits of being more explosive surely outweigh the costs of being slow.
According to a study by Kraemer et al (2003), a 4-month, 6-month and 9-month periodized strength training program in college female tennis players may help improve vertical jump height – a predictor of power & explosiveness. So females shouldn’t shy away from big weights.
A variety of plyometric movements are also important in order to transfer increases in strength into a fast, reactive first step. Plyometrics can come in many forms but one area that stands ahead of the rest for the modern female player is depth/drop jumps. Essentially, the aim of these movements is to increase reactive ability – a quality tennis players perform on EVERY SINGLE SHOT. In what way exactly? The split step. Think about the purpose of a split step – to help initiate an explosive movement towards the direction of the oncoming ball. If a player does not possess reactive strength, when they split step they’ll lose potential energy and force will be absorbed into the ground. The reverse is true when a player has high reactive strength – which the best female players do. Just watch Serena when she initiates movement, it’s as if she’s being zapped by a bolt of lightning.
TENNIS REQUIRES MOTION IN MULTIPLE DIRECTIONS AND PLANES
Tennis is a multidirectional sport – a player will move forward, backward, laterally etc. It’s also a multi-planar sport. There are 3 planes of motion (figure 1) – sagittal, frontal and transverse. Tennis demands movement in all of these planes at different times. Every time you hit a groundstroke, you’re working the transverse plane (i.e. you’re rotating). When moving laterally or lunging to the side, you’re working in the frontal plane. Finally, when moving forward or volleying, you’re moving in the sagittal plane.
Figure 1. Source
How does training apply?
Working in the weight room allows coaches to have more control over the environment. It’s possible to place the athlete into different situations where they need to work on a specific movement, and in a specific direction. For example, a player may have poor mobility and strength when moving laterally. A simple exercise like a side lunge can have a tremendous impact on a player’s lateral movement while simultaneously working on increased range of motion in that specific pattern.
Furthermore, when performing plyometric activities, players shouldn’t neglect movements in a variety of planes. For instance, a simple box jump may have many variations – jumping forward, backward and sideways onto a box – which can work both frontal and sagittal planes. You could even jump forward, rotate in mid air, and land sideways on a box – which would work both the sagittal and transverse planes simultaneously.
The same goes for medicine ball exercises that focus on increasing groundstroke and serve power. These movement can be tremendous, but they must be performed with a purpose. Aimlessly throwing a med ball against the wall repeatedly with improper mechanics, just to feel like you ‘trained hard’ does very little to improve power. Specifically performing med ball side throws, for example, with proper hip & shoulder rotation along with MAXIMUM INTENT on every throw, will have far better performance gains.
Players need to be cautious – performing too many exercises in a certain direction or plane while neglecting others will make them good at those movements ONLY. This is the principle of specificity at work.
ACCELERATION, DECELERATION & CHANGE OF DIRECTION
It shouldn’t be a surprise that tennis requires great acceleration and change of direction (COD) abilities. When reacting after a split step, the aim is to accelerate to the ball as quickly as possible in order to set-up effectively. The better your position when you set-up, the better your chances of hitting a quality shot. After every shot in tennis, a player must recover to be better prepared for the next ball. Change of direction ability has a big impact on an effective recovery. This is quite obvious for most players and coaches. What perhaps is not as obvious is a player’s ability to decelerate quickly and effectively in order to be set for the oncoming shot. While acceleration and change of direction require a tremendous amount of strength and power generation (to impart force into the ground and displace your body), deceleration requires a great amount of force absorption (to stop your body while it’s in motion).
How does training apply?
Think of a squat. During the lowering phase, you’re essentially decelerating. And the question then becomes, can you handle a high amount of load under control and then use strength, elastic energy etc. to lift the load back up? The ‘lifting back up’ is the second component of the squat; the acceleration/change of direction portion. At the most basic level, the more force you can absorb and then impart into the ground, the better will be your ability to accelerate, decelerate and change direction.
Female players shouldn’t be afraid of some good old fashioned sprint work – and I’m not talking about interval training. I’m talking about performing short sprints – between 40m-60m at maximum (or close to maximum) speeds – with full recovery times. For instance, a 40m sprint may take a female player less than 6 seconds to perform, this should then be coupled with a several minute (up to as much as 5) for full PCr recovery. Furthermore, you won’t be able to perform many of these as they are extremely taxing to the neuromuscular system – up to 5 may be all a beginner can handle when first starting this type of training. But the improvements in speed, recruitment patterns and running technique are definitely worth it.
WOMEN’S TENNIS DEMANDS VARYING JOINT ANGLES & MUSCLE ACTIONS
Tennis requires a player to perform all kinds of movements. These include but are not limited to: bending forward and backward, reaching in all directions, lunging, squatting, twisting, elbow, shoulder and wrist movements. All of these actions have varied angles of flexion, extension, internal/external rotation, pronation, supination, abduction, adduction etc. and all at different joints, depending on the specific requirements during a point. Furthermore, they will also necessitate differing muscle actions. Not to mention that velocity of each movement will differ at each joint (I know it’s a lot to think about).
How does training apply?
When working with a WTA player, it wasn’t uncommon for her to have scratches & scrapes all over her knees after a match. Because although women play with a lot more variety these days, they can still hit the ball hard and flat. And when trying to take an aggressive stance on the baseline, you’re gonna have to get really low to handle a big groundie from the opposing player.
Retrieving this type of low, fast ball, would then require the player to have phenomenal range of motion in the hips, knees, ankles and spine. The hips would play an even bigger role as they also require large ranges both internally and externally to rotate while low to the ground – and the strength in those patterns to generate some type of power.
To achieve these extreme ranges, a mobility program is a must, but that’s not all. Gaining strength in these positions is also necessary – progressing first with isometric holds, then to traditional concentric-eccentric strength training and finally with more speed specific movements that will allow transfer to scenarios that a player will encounter during a match.
OVERHEAD & ROTATIONAL STRENGTH & POWER ARE A MUST FOR ELITE WTA & ITF PLAYERS
Hitting big groundstrokes and serves, undoubtedly demands a strong, powerful lower body – and in today’s female game, having a big serve is a huge weapon. The women are becoming more and more athletic and players like Rogers, Vandeweghe and Pliskova are hitting serves between the 110-120 mark. Serena and Osaka are just 2 examples of players that have the ability to hit in the 120s in a routine like fashion. And on average, Serena hits harder first server than Novak Djokovic!
How does training apply?
You may have the strongest legs in the world, but if there’s a leak in the chain – from legs, through the trunk and shoulder, there’s no way you’ll be able to get pace on the ball. Rotationally, it’s important to have strength and power so it can be transferred into the groundstrokes. The shoulder must have both power qualities for high speed bombs, and it needs to be able to handle the large forces that are being imparted on it with each ball strike.
Of course medicine ball exercises can help, but more research in overhead athletes is pointing to throwing training as an effective modality to increase pitching velocity in baseball, spike speed in volleyball and serve speed in tennis. When performing these types of drills it’s critical to start by improving throwing mechanics at submaximal loads for a number of weeks before implementing high velocity throws with weighted implements.
CONDITIONING & THE MODERN FEMALE GAME
Long forgotten are the days of long distance runs to get in shape or suicides til a player is hunched over and feeling queasy. Or are they? Unfortunately, we still see academy settings where players are getting destroyed with interval runs and even top pros sharing training videos that seem wild and counterproductive. Are these types of training methods necessary to be successful in today’s game? In my opinion, hardly.
Yes, you must be conditioned well to play at an elite level but what type of conditioning, that’s the real question. Remember our stat from earlier? Serena and Pliskova played mostly 3 shot rallies. Even their 3 long rallies (10 balls or more) were between 13-14 seconds long. They are both heavy hitters I know that. So let’s look at another match – 4th round of Roland Garros, Halep vs Stosur. It’s safe to say that Halep has less firepower than a Williams or Pliskova, so you’d think the rallies would be really long. Although they were much longer, 70% of the rallies were 6 shots or less and 86% of the rallies were 9 shots or less – only 22 points (or 14%) were longer than 10 shots, and that’s on clay. One of their longer rallies, 12 shots, took 16 seconds of actual playing time. Think about these numbers the next time you’re grinding a player through repeat interval drills of longer than 60 seconds – it’s the wrong energy system!
How does training apply?
So a player just gets off the court from an intense 2 hour tennis training session and it’s time for some fitness. Is it really necessary to do more conditioning? Likely not. The most specific conditioning a player will ever get, is playing tennis, and playing against players that demand more from them. Tennis drills that are taxing will have greater specific adaptations to a player’s energy system for tennis than any form of running drills. There may be some cases in the developing player that require running drills, but they must be planned accordingly and not coincide with high volumes of training & competition.
Furthermore, performing circuit type workouts with med balls and a player’s own body weight, can have greater benefits to their conditioning than running. Remember, specific demands will have specific adaptations – how often do you run very long distances in tennis? The answer is never. Recall from earlier in the post, movements are generally within 3m or less, points last (mostly) 4 shots or less and no longer than 10 seconds at most (with a 20-25 second recovery), movements are in multiple directions & planes and joint angles vary. A circuit that hits all these items will elicit greater performance adaptations than long running drills.
Lastly, women’s matches are on average shorter than men’s matches – mainly at the slams because of best of 3 versus best of 5 set matches. This provides further proof that training should emphasize explosive movements, performed in repeated sequences – for optimal physical play.
A PROPER PROGRAM CAN HELP PREVENT INJURY
A tennis match is unpredictable. Match time, point length, ball direction from opponent, weather conditions, opponent style of play, playing surface etc. are all factors that can vary and may be out of a player’s control. This adds an interesting dynamic to any match – you don’t know how long you’ll be out there and what kind of shots will be expected of you. The tissues (bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, fascia etc.) have to be able to handle the repetitive nature of the sport. If the force being imparted on your rotator cuff, for example, is greater than what that tissue can handle, injury will eventually ensue, this is a fact. And just because there’s no signs of pain now, does not mean that everything is fine and dandy. Along with a thorough warm-up, a properly designed strength & conditioning program – working through specific movements, muscle actions, joint angles with targeted work to rest intervals – will offer the support the tissues need to minimize injury risk.
Matt Kuzdub – MSc CSCS Pn1 FRC
Matt is the content creator at www.mattspoint.com, an online tennis and strength & conditioning resource for coaches, players & tennis enthusiasts. Matt has helped players at all levels – from juniors to the professional ranks – achieve high levels of performance at both the national and international stage.
Matt specializes in the development of elite tennis players, both on and off the court, using applied kinesiology, biomechanics & the latest in coaching/training theory. Feel free to contact Matt at http://www.mattspoint.com/contact/.