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Six Physical Demands Tennis Players Must Meet

What do tennis players and world-class runners have in common? A professional tennis match can last as many as five hours, sometimes equal to or more than the time it takes a runner to finish a marathon. And while a tennis player typically runs only three to five miles total during a match, most of those miles are spent moving in a variety of directions. The overall time of a match clearly shows that tennis has an aerobic component, while the characteristics of sprinting and changing direction also point to a significant anaerobic component.


In the updated second edition of the United States Tennis Association's Complete Conditioning for Tennis, coauthor Dr. Mark Kovacs details how players wanting to improve their games and reach the next level need to do more than simply play tennis to get fit; they also must get fit to play tennis. Kovacs, a former NCAA champion, says the use of powerful strokes, the repetitive nature of the game, the various court surfaces, individual game styles, and the variety of movement and stroke patterns and stances in tennis call for a proper tennis-specific conditioning program.


Kovacs pinpoints six physical demands on tennis players and explains that when they improve each one, their overall games improve by leaps and bounds:


1. Flexibility. Tennis requires hitting the ball from some difficult and sometimes awkward positions. Therefore, adequate flexibility is an essential part of a successful game. “Consider some of the positions you might take on the court, such as extending the body to reach a wide ball, reaching to retrieve a lob, lunging forward to cover a drop shot, or stretching wide to return a serve,” Kovacs illustrates. “All of these body positions require a significant amount of flexibility.” To perform at their best, muscles must be strong throughout a full range of motion. Any deficits in flexibility will limit a tennis player's efficiency and effectiveness, restricting how much force the muscles can generate.


2. Strength and power. When observing how hard today's players hit the ball, it's obvious that strength and power are necessary for reaching the top. The top male servers can consistently hit serves between 130 and 140 miles per hour, while the top female servers hit serves between 120 and 130 miles per hour. Today's players use their strength and power to rip backhand winners from essentially anywhere on the court while producing offensive shots from positions on the court that used to be considered defensive. This shift occurred because of their physical development, specifically the strength and power they can generate in these difficult positions.


3. Speed and agility. A typical five-second point in tennis requires as many as four changes in direction, making agility—the ability to change direction—a critical component of the game. The ability to start and stop quickly provides a player with more time to get into position, set up to hit the ball, and recover for the next shot. Speed is also important, since being fast allows a player to get to more balls and set up the next shot with more time to prepare. While to some degree speed is genetically determined, Kovacs says all players can improve their speed by engaging in exercises and drills that build speed, agility, and quickness.


4. Optimal body composition. Body composition refers to how much fat, muscle, bone, and water are in the body. The amount of bone and water in the body remains relatively constant, so to alter body composition, tennis players need to think about the amount of muscle mass and fat they are carrying around. Female players should generally aim for body fat of 15 to 25 percent, while men should strive to be within 8 to 18 percent. “The higher the level of competition, the more important this composition becomes,” Kovacs stresses. “Each 5 percent increase in body fat negatively affects speed of movement and endurance and also increases pressure on the joints.”


5. Dynamic balance. If you stand on one foot and don't fall over, you may think you have pretty good balance. But try balancing on one foot and slowly lowering your body into a partial squat position and you will, like most people, find it to be more difficult than staying balanced in a static position. “Now think about how much more difficult it is to balance yourself when you are moving at a high speed and making frequent direction changes during a tennis match,” says Kovacs. Dynamic balance—balance with movement—is a much more difficult skill to master, yet this ability allows tennis players to maintain control of their bodies when hitting those difficult shots from extreme positions.


6. Aerobic and anaerobic fitness. People often ask whether tennis is an aerobic (endurance) or anaerobic sport. Kovacs argues that the point could be made for either choice. The body's aerobic energy system provides fuel to muscles for endurance events, which are activities lasting longer than several minutes. The anaerobic energy system provides energy to fuel short, high-intensity bursts of energy. Therefore, the proper response is that tennis is a sport requiring high levels of anaerobic fitness for energy during points and high levels of aerobic fitness to help with recovery between points and to last multiple hours during matches.


Co-written with Drs. E. Paul Roetert and Todd Ellenbecker, Complete Conditioning for Tennis is the only strength and conditioning resource endorsed by the USTA. This comprehensive training guide features more than 200 on- and off-court drills and exercises as well as exclusive access to 56 online video demonstrations.