Planning the Tennis Training Program
Most top players tend to be tall and particularly well developed in their musculature. If you are tall, you are better equipped to serve, volley and smash, while your long reach will help you get to the places that smaller people cannot, especially at the net. If you are not, do not blame your parents but work hard on some of the points mentioned below. Your musculature is also something that is governed by genetics, but it can be improved with training. Strength and power are increasingly important in the modem game. It is understood that there is a considerable element of skill in tennis, but there comes a point, as in most sports, where natural flair and skills practice is not enough.
Demands of the game
Unlike a race, where there is a set distance to cover, or a soccer match, with a fixed time limit, tennis is very unpredictable. If you are Steffi Graf, you can mop up an opponent in less than an hour, whereas a men's five-setter can go on for four hours or more. This means you must be prepared for the worst eventuality, up to three hours for women and five for men. Endurance in such matches is a key factor since when you get tired mistakes creep in and your attention starts to wander.
The surface you play on is important too because it can dictate the length of the rallies. On fast grass they tend to be shorter and more explosive, while on a slower clay surface they can last for 20 strokes or more, depending on your skill and your opponent's. Once again, endurance counts. Playing tennis for fitness, even on clay, is not the answer to aerobic conditioning. Most players only utilise about 50% VO2 max even in a long match, an intensity of about 60% of maximum heart rate. Such an intensity is less than the slowest Sunday jog or four-hour cycle ride. This is partly because of the many intervals, not only between rallies but at the end of every other game, when you change ends. Yet physical conditioning, albeit in other departments from aerobic conditioning, is still an increasingly vital aspect of match performance. Speed off the mark needs to be sharp if you are going to be competitive. This means powerful legs, which can be developed through strength training both on and off the court. A strong upper body is also important, particularly in the playing arm, back and shoulder region. Mobility and agility are the other key areas that you need to consider when analysing a tennis player.
Phases of training
Peaking is not an important factor in tennis, at least for professionals. They can find a tournament somewhere throughout the whole year to earn their bread and jam. However, if your goal is to win a club or county tournament, then the opportunity for peaking is far more possible. You may perform more endurance and basic strength development exercises during the offseason, then concentrate more on agility and sharpness in the months approaching the event.
The training week
The structure of a tennis player's week differs from that of most sports, partly because of the unpredictability I have mentioned. You may be relying on a week's hard slog in a particular tournament and then get knocked out in the first round. In addition, much of your training week will be spent in hours of court practice, grooming your serve and drilling groundstrokes down the line. Physical conditioning must be built carefully into this schedule so as not to interfere with your racket practice. Strength training should be aimed not only at toning the muscles involved but also at redressing the inevitable imbalances that can occur because of using one side of your upper body much more than the other, so as to help prevent injury.
In the weights room, you should choose exercises to train muscles in the upper and lower body, particularly the legs, lower and upper back, shoulders and arms. Body weight exercises may also help these areas and the abdominals. A series of exercises performed one after the other can form a "circuit", which you can repeat after a couple of minutes' recovery. Regular flexibility work will also help prevent injuries and can add to the range of movement. Building in a 30-minute daily session, concentrating on both lower and upper body, will complement the schedule well. Drills on and off the court can improve your ability to move your feet quickly into the correct position, while short, intense shuttle exercises to increase speed, followed by adequate recovery to maintain quality, will help you cover the court quickly and effectively.
On the court you can perform shuttles forwards and backwards, from baseline to service line and back, touching the ground with your hand at each turn. Moving from the centre of the court to the left-hand tram lines, back and to the right-hand tramlines quickly, always facing the net, is another way of practicing fast, fluent court movement. Each journey can be covered a number of times to form reps, while reps can be added to form sets. Timing these reps will help you monitor progress. Alternatively, a coach or friend can randomly call the direction for you to move, forwards, backwards, left, right, so that you practice changing direction quickly in response to the unexpected.
An element of aerobic conditioning will help your endurance. Running is useful because you spend your time on court on your feet but cycling and swimming can also condition your heart and lungs without the wear and tear from pounding out the miles and may be enjoyed as an active recovery.
Although not every match is going to be a five-set spectacular, you have to cover for that eventuality!
The information on this page is adapted from Dunbar (1993) with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.
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