How to train for tennis performance?
Over a series of reviews, I will try to dig dip and provide you with practical takeaways in terms of physiology and the demands of a certain sport. First up is tennis. We will have a look over elite-level male and female tennis as well as how demands change when we analyze lower levels of play. Tennis is a sport based on unpredictability. The unpredictability of point length, shot selection, strategy, match duration, weather, and the opponent all influence the complex physiological aspects of tennis play.
Analysis of match demands
Tennis requires players to perform short bursts of high-intensity exercise interspersed with periods of rest or low-intensity activities for a prolonged period (Fernandez, Mendez-Villanueva, & Pluim, 2006; Kovacs, 2007; Mendez-Villanueva, Fernandez-Fernandez, & Bishop, 2007 in Gomes et al., 2011). This variability requires tennis athletes to be highly trained both anaerobically for performance and aerobically to aid in recovery during and after play. The physiological responses to tennis match-play have been reported to be moderate, with different factors affecting those responses (Fernandez et al., 2006; Kovacs, 2007; Mendez-Villanueva et al., 2007 in Gomes et al., 2011):
- individual playing style,
- court surface,
- game situation
In general, these previous studies have reported mean heart rates of 60-80% of maximum (Ferrauti, Weber, & Wright, 2003; Kovacs, 2007) and mean blood lactate concentrations of less than 4.0 mmol/l during matches consisting of three sets (Fernandez et al., 2006; Fernandez-Fernandez, Mendez-Villanueva, Fernandez-Garcia & Terrados, 2007 in Gomes et al., 2011). The running activities of players encompass high accelerations and decelerations but low velocities reflecting the intermittent play involved in tennis, which does not allow high velocities to be reached (Hoppe et al., 2014). Therefore it is important to understand the nature of the sport and train the energy systems that predominate during match play. Below I am presenting an overview of physiological demands accumulated from different studies done on tennis match play. Those reports are conducted on best of 2 sets.
Tennis demands in an infographic:
The percentage of the playing time with respect to the total time of the match (on clay courts) has been shown to be approximately 21% for the attacking players, 28.6% for whole court players, and 38.5% for baseline players (Kovacs, 2006). In an earlier study, the percentage of playing time during matches, on hard courts, was approximately 20%. From the research, it appears that total playing time is only between 20% and 30% of total match time.
When the player in control of the rally was an attacking player (hits the tennis ball hard and attempts to come to the net consistently), the average duration of the points was found to be 4.8 seconds. Rally duration varied between 6 and 11 seconds (mean 8.2s) when the player in control of the rally was a whole court player (who plays from the baseline, but is very comfortable coming to the net). The points lasted on average 15.7s when the player in control of the rally was a baseline player (plays the large majority of points from the baseline, hitting groundstrokes, and does not prefer to come into the net) (Kovacs, 2006).
It has been reported that VO2 values – both at submaximal and maximal loads – were moderate predictors of players competitive ranking (Brechbühl et al., 2016), and that better aerobic conditioning of male tennis players at international levels was associated with better technical efficiency at higher exercise intensities compared with male tennis players at national levels (Baiget et al, 2016).
How about best of 5 matches at the elite level?
However, the major international tournaments (e.g. Grand Slam events and Davis Cup) are determined by the best of five sets (the first player to win three sets wins the match) with the longest matches lasting for more than 5 h. One such study was done by Gomes, R. V., Coutts, A. J., Viveiros, L., & Aoki, M. S. (2011) where they recreated a best of 5 tennis match with 2 elite Brazilian tennis players.
- Players may adopt a different playing strategy in an attempt to cope with increasing physiological and perceptual stress – decrease in rally length as the match progressed,
- In the 3rd and 4th set more than 60% of the rallies had two strokes or less, whereas in the first two sets most rallies were consisting of 2-4 strokes,
- ‘Cardiovascular drift’ may occur during prolonged tennis match-play and highlight the importance of appropriate hydration strategies when playing in the heat,
- Blood lactate concentration decreased during the fourth set in both players, despite maintaining blood glucose concentration and having elevated salivary cortisol, higher HR and shorter rallies in 4th set (showing an increase in fatigue),
- Hypoglycemia does not manifest during match-play,
- Prolonged tennis match-play is associated with increased fatigue and that these elite players may adjust work rates or tactics to cope with the increased perception of effort,
- This puts greater demands and focus on pre-, within-, and post-match recovery strategies (fluid and carbohydrate replenishment & recovery interventions)
Lets have a look at different physiological components of tennis play.
Main points to remember:
- Heart rate: Heart rate is an easily measured index of intensity, it should not be used as the sole measurement of metabolism, as this would not accurately represent the physiological nature of an intermittent sport such as tennis. Heart rate remains significantly increased above pre-exercise levels despite the varying intensity and intermittent nature of the game variability and ranges during a match are rather wide owing to the continual stop/start movements and explosive nature of the sport. During competitive matches, mean HR values range between 60–80% of maximum HR (HRmax), with long and intense rallies eliciting values over 95% of HRmax (Fernandez-Fernandez et al., 2009).
- VO2max: values of >50 ml/kg/min for males and > 42 ml/kg/min for females are generally considered as a minimum standard and preferably a higher value is encouraged for tennis athletes to be able to practice and compete at a high level.
- Predominantly anaerobic: tennis is a predominantly anaerobic activity requiring high levels of aerobic conditioning to avoid fatigue and aid in recovery between points and between matches. Some previous studies have suggested tennis to be an aerobic sport because of the duration and moderate mean heart rate values during play, however, the explosive nature of the serve and groundstrokes, the rapid changes of direction which requires a high anaerobic capacity, and the requirement for a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers do not represent typical aerobic focused activities. Interestingly, aggressive attacking players had lower VO2 values during play than baseline players.
- Lactate (LA) production training: high-intensity drills between 15 and 50 seconds should also be carried out regularly with the goal of improving the player’s ability to perform high-intensity exercise for longer periods. Speciﬁc on-court movements (preferably without the racket) are preferred to ensure the attainment of the desired (maximal) intensities and that local muscle adaptations can be fully transferred to actual match play (Fernandez-Fernandez et al., 2009).
Although heart rate is easily measured, it should not be used as the sole measurement of metabolism, as this would not accurately represent the physiological nature of an intermittent sport such as tennis.
Speed & Agility
Main points to remember:
- Unpredictability: Tennis is a game of continual emergencies because, with every shot the opponent hits, a ball can have a different velocity, a different type and rate of spin, be placed in many different parts of the court.
- Reaction: It requires tennis athletes to have fast reaction times and explosive ‘‘first step’’ speed.
- Movement: Tennis players need to be exceptional movers in linear and lateral (multidirectional) movements.
- Max speed: It is important to train tennis players in the specific movement patterns that are encountered during match play. However, one must not confuse game specificity for physiological capabilities, some older studies have suggested that a program consisting of stop-start sprints of no more than 20 meters would be appropriate I strongly disagree since it has been shown multiple times (for reviews see Haugen et al., 2019) that maximal velocity development only occurs when training for, well, maximal velocity sprinting. So the line of thinking that sprint activities that are no longer than the furthest distance that the athlete would run, per shot, during a point are unnecessary are short-sighted and should not make their way into papers and/or trainings.
- Acceleration: Training should consist of both, acceleration focus training and maximal velocity development, especially for younger tennis athletes. An approach that consists of appropriate running/sprinting technique, volume, intensity, and rest is a must if the goal is to develop a player in terms of speed.
Traning should consist of both, acceleration focus training and maximal velocity development, especially for younger tennis athletes.
Strength & Power
Main points to remember:
- Strength: is required in muscles and joints both for performance enhancement (ball velocity, quality, and speed of movement) and to reduce injuries (protection of joints, ligaments, tendons, etc.).
- Shoulder: In the tennis serve the greatest contribution to the final speed of the racket head was (in order of importance): upper arm internal rotation, wrist flexion, upper arm horizontal adduction, forearm pronation, and forward movement of the shoulder. The shoulder region is highly involved in all tennis strokes, and it has been shown that shoulder internal, external, and diagonal peak torques contribute substantially to service ball velocity. Eccentric muscular contractions play a role in functional activities, but in the tennis shoulder—specifically, the rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor) are of major importance during the follow-through of the service motions as well as groundstrokes. These two muscles undergo high decelerative eccentric muscle contractions to preserve healthy joint movement. Adequate strength and range of motion (ROM) in the rotator cuff muscles are essential in preventing overhead overuse injuries as they are vital in stabilizing and movement throughout the extreme ROM experienced during the serve and groundstrokes. The speed of the serve or throwing motion depends partly on a rapid and forceful concentric internal rotation in the acceleration phase of the serve. The eccentric phase of training may specifically affect the decelerative phase, which may determine the trajectory and velocity components of performance. It is recommended that tennis athletes include both concentric and eccentric shoulder training in their training programs for performance improvement (Kovacs, 2006).
- Grip: Solid contact between the racket and the ball is required for optimum stroke execution, and this is influenced by grip strength. A firm wrist is necessary to prevent the racket head from straying from its intended path under the influence of high angular speeds and torques. Maximum grip strength of 600N has been reported in elite-level tennis players, as well as greater grip endurance compared with non-players, although grip strength and grip endurance were not well correlated and should be trained separately.
- Lower Body: The majority of tennis injuries have been reported to occur in the lower body. Unlike the asymmetrical differences seen in upper body strength, lower body strength measures have been shown to be symmetrical in tennis players. Players should undertake both bilateral and unilateral strength exercises to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury (Kovacs, 2006).
- Development: From this information we can conclude that a tennis player should be involved in progressive strength training from a young age, at first to develop movement proficiency and technique in a plethora of different movements. Later on, with maturation, the focus turns on the progressive overload of the involved joints and musculature, both for the lower (quads, hamstrings, glutes, hip muscles; calf, ankle, and foot muscles) as well as the upper (upper back, chest, arms, rotator cuff) body. The involved muscles and their functioning should concurrently develop in terms of force as well as velocity (i.e., muscle mass gained is capable of executing high velocity movements).
A tennis player should be involved in progressive strength training from a young age, at first to develop movement proficiency and technique in a plethora of movements. Strength and power training should develop muscles in terms of force as well as velocity concurrently.
- Shoulder imbalances: Both male and female tennis athletes have been shown to have a smaller range of internal shoulder rotation and a greater range of external shoulder rotation in their dominant arm than other athletes. The major reason for this is probably the repetitive service action which increases the external ROM—a possible performance benefit. There has been speculation that if the imbalance is not improved, it may lead to muscle and joint injury in the medium to long term. With the asymmetries and imbalances being a hot topic still, there is no papers showing that such detriments in fact do occur. Just to be on the safe side, a good rule of thumb is to try to stay inside the 10-15% difference.
- Shoulder ROM: Playing tennis alone, without any external shoulder ROM training, is not enough to improve shoulder ROM, which could increase performance. Thus tennis athletes should undertake a shoulder ROM program (Kovacs, 2006). I believe that ROM improvements should come with a good, well-rounded, and individualized training program.
- Low back pain: Lower back pain and injury are common complaints among elite tennis players, and this correlates with poor lower back and hamstring ROM (Kovacs, 2006). Tennis players have been shown to have a smaller ROM in both hamstrings than other athletes, but an even poorer ROM in their back leg, while serving. This poor hamstring ROM may be explained by the need for tennis players to be in the typical ‘‘low ready position.’’ This is the most efficient starting position for explosive movement, because of the lowered center of mass, but it does require the athlete to have the hamstring in a shortened contracted position for long periods. I have no proof, but I don’t believe that this is actually the case, since correlation does not mean causation, the reason for back pain is most likely somewhere else (load management, quality of movement, quality of rest & recovery, psychological factors, etc.).
- Individualization: Flexibility needs to be individualized. If the ROM is sufficient, excessive flexibility training may induce negative benefits (reduced power output). Thus training time may be spent productively in maintaining flexibility and focusing on other training variables than continually trying to improve ROM. Like I have mentioned in the strength part, a quality, well-rounded training program should cover all the bases and it should be done both during the pre- and/or off-season as well as during the main competitive season, with proper adjustments that is.
Flexibility training needs to be individualized and based on needs. If ROM Is sufficient, training time may be spent productively focusing on other training variables (strength & power, speed, technique, tactics, etc.). A quality, well-rounded training program should cover all the bases and it should be done both during the pre- and/or off-season as well as during the main competitive season, with proper adjustments that is.
- Performance: Improving tennis performance is the goal of every tennis scientist, coach, and athlete. Age, sex, style of play, physical components, technical components, tactical components, and psychological components will all determine the success of the tennis athlete. Effective planning and training programs will help in designing a safe, effective, and productive program design to help optimize performance.
- Specificity: Most training drills should simulate the time requirements experienced during match play (5– 20 seconds) with appropriate work to rest ratios (1:3 to 1:5). As speed, change of direction, and agility, as well as maximum velocity movements respond to specific and individualized training, it is important that tennis players focus on all of those aspects with drills combining linear, lateral, and multidirectional movements.
- Aerobic capacity: Having good aerobic capacity is important for recovery during play and between sessions. It is recommended that tennis athletes strive for VO2max values greater than 50 ml/ kg/min (42 ml/kg/min+ for female). Having adequate strength levels in all muscles and joints is important, but specific areas of focus should be the lower body for speed and quality of the movement and shoulder, forearm, and wrist for performance (stroke velocity and accuracy).
- Injury prevention and mechanics: While tennis rehabilitation and prevention programs do exist they are not based on objective data but rather on an expert’s knowledge of the sport and often aren’t modified according to a player’s skill level. Second, as serves, service returns, and topspin groundstrokes are the pre-dominant strokes, coaches should emphasize proper mechanics and training of these stroke types.
- Development: Identifying the ways in which the junior and professional levels differ in competitiveness, play demands, and the physical characteristics of shot and movement can be useful for young tennis players and their coaches to set realistic expectations as they transition. Another possible application is to set benchmarks for juniors aiming for a professional career.
It appears that the all-court player is the player’s role that coaches would like to train to be competitive in tomorrow’s tennis.
Full articles available through links:
Fernandez-Fernandez, J., Sanz-Rivas, D., & Mendez-Villanueva, A. (2009). A review of the activity profile and physiological demands of tennis match play. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 31(4), 15-26.
Hoppe, M. W., Baumgart, C., Bornefeld, J., Sperlich, B., Freiwald, J., & Holmberg, H. C. (2014). Running activity profile of adolescent tennis players during match play. Pediatric exercise science, 26(3), 281-290.
Baiget, E., Corbi, F., Fuentes, J. P., & Fernández-Fernández, J. (2016). The relationship between maximum isometric strength and ball velocity in the tennis serve. Journal of human kinetics, 53(1), 63-71.