The progress of a developing tennis player depends on a single factor—the presence of a strong and disciplined athletic foundation. Nick Bollettieri, founder of the world-renowned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, says the ability to maintain and defend a strong athletic foundation is the measure of a great tennis athlete and one of the most critical components in the evolution from junior levels to professional ranks.
“Strangely enough, very few players and coaches put enough priority into specifically developing this athletic foundation and mastering the movement skills,” explains Bollettieri, who has coached 10 top-ranked players in the world. “As a result, the athletic foundation remains the most underdeveloped quality in most players, severely limiting their potential.”
In the second edition of Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Handbook, the sport's most successful coach points to four essential structural features of the athletic foundation and describes how all players can maximize their performance by incorporating these elements into their training:
1. Wide base of support. For quicker reaction time as well as better power and control in stroke production, the optimal footwork base is one and a half to three shoulder widths apart. With a wider base it becomes easier to keep the center of gravity low to the ground. If the footwork base is too narrow, it's difficult to remain low enough and fatigue occurs much more quickly. A very narrow base leads to inefficient first-step reactions and typically results in too much upward launching through the stroke. The end result is a loss of power and control in stroke production. “Many players aren't comfortable establishing a wider footwork base because they believe it slows down their first-step reaction,” Bollettieri says. “However, there are techniques that top players develop to achieve explosive first-step reactions from a wider base.”
2. Low center of gravity. The actual location of the center of gravity in humans varies by body type. In females, the center of gravity tends to be between the hips, whereas in males it tends to be slightly higher. The difference is nominal, so the hips are typically the reference point for the center of gravity. When you are down in the athletic foundation position, you establish what is referred to as your “athletic height,” which should measure approximately 6 to 12 inches below your normal standing height. Bollettieri says you achieve this low-to-the-ground position by bending your knees to lower your hips while maintaining upright back posture. “Most players have trouble maintaining a low enough athletic height during play simply because they haven't developed all the corresponding movement techniques associated with being low to the ground,” he comments. “Being able to maintain a consistent athletic height in your movement produces that smooth and fluid look of the champions.”
3. Balance on the balls of the feet. Another skill tennis players must learn is how to center their balance on the balls of their feet. Great athletes develop the ability to quickly use tiny adjustment steps to best position their feet and their balance to generate the stroke. Centering balance off the heels and onto the balls of the feet creates a lean of forward momentum for better reactions.
4. Reinforced back posture. Strong back posture offers enormous physical benefits as the final link to reinforcing the entire athletic foundation. As Bollettieri points out, intensely reinforced back posture efficiently channels the power generated from the lower body up to the shoulder to produce powerful strokes. It ensures that the shoulders remain level and stable during stroke production, which is especially critical while sliding on clay. And from a movement perspective, it enables quicker reactions and sharp changes of direction while resisting the forces of inertia that cause strokes to break down. Bollettieri warns that the risk of injury increases dramatically when players misuse the back muscles and maintain weak posture. “In addition to strong back muscles, great athletes need strength in the core muscles of the abdomen and around the hips,” he says.
Covering stroke techniques, strategies, skill development, physical and mental conditioning, and ideas on coaching and practicing, International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Nick Bollettieri uses his development system to help make all players as great as they'd be if he were personally coaching them.