Written by: Kieran Foy
***Kieran Foy is the current National Training Centre (NTC) Fitness coach. The 31 year old Dublin born has been in Montreal since 2007. He completed M.Sc. degree by research with concentration in exercise physiology at University of Quebec, Montreal (UQAM). He was a soccer player, current UEFA ‘B’ and Canadian Soccer Association ‘B’ licensed coach. To learn more about Kieran and his passion for fitness, please visit his website http://www.unchainedfitness.com/.***
There’s no doubt that The 2012 Australian Open Men’s’ Final will be remembered as a herculean physical effort by two of the best athlete’s on the planet, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Andy Roddick went so far as to say that it elevated the sport of tennis to a new physical level never seen before, a comment that was right on the money as the match was the longest ever final in the open era clocking 5 hours and 33 minutes. So what are the physical qualities necessary to compete in tennis at this level?
Todd Ellenbecker (Director of Sports Medicine for the ATP World Tour) wrote a very good piece on tennis fitness a while ago where he talks about the subject. In his article, Ellenbecker remarks that good footwork is essential for any player. This involves being able to accelerate quickly, change direction with speed & precision (agility), and practising drills that are multi-directional. These seem like basic points but reminding ourselves of them is useful. Dr. Ellenbecker also endorses soccer practice, where players use the ball to dribble, change direction, pass and receive. Speaking as a former full-time player, soccer athletes do “footwork” better than anyone else, and a tennis player of any calibre would have great “footwork” skills if they played a little more soccer.
Balance is a component of footwork mentioned in the article, and Dr. Ellenbecker recommends that simple one-legged jumping drills are great for developing balance and footwork, as an athlete moving at high speed needs perfect balance in order to place shots accurately whilst on the move. A final point made about footwork is that it will happen naturally on-court when the right training programme is in place. However, getting the training programme right is not obvious as the basics are all too often overlooked in favour of easier options.
Fitness First, Footwork Second
This piece of Dr. Ellenbecker’s interested me the most, and given that it was short it gives me the opportunity to develop it a little. The point is made that it is no good to perform high intensity explosive drills without having basic fitness first. What is basic fitness? It’s always strength and endurance! In my first piece for oncourt.ca that you can find here, I explained my philosophy on fitness training for tennis. So let’s remind ourselves of the basics before we address footwork:
1) A tennis athlete has to be able to run. Endurance training is the all-encompassing term that describes running to develop endurance, stamina, economy and speed endurance. If you can’t run 5-15km, it is very unlikely that you have the necessary physiological or biomechanics necessary to run fast and compete in tennis at the highest level which as we’ve seen can last over 5 hours. You can do SAQ drills all day, but you won’t get faster if your repertoire of drills last between 5-20s. Unfortunately, the concept of running economy and developing running biomechanics is not well practised by self-proclaimed “strength & conditioning specialists” that would have you sit on the ground and drive your arms ear to hip … for some, the thought has never occurred that an athlete gets faster by running on their feet at varying speeds. (I have my suspicions as to why running is unpopular with the self-proclaimed specialists, but I’ll keep them for myself this time). My athletes at The National Training Centre run 15km for fun, bike 80km for more fun, and are known as the fastest players on the ITF circuit. Go figure!
2) Repeated ball striking requires high levels of strength-endurance, and for that a tennis athlete must have a solid Strength training programme. If your body isn’t prepared to hit thousands of balls on Monday and ward off fatigue, and then repeat on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday in week 1, 2, 3 and 4 of a training cycle, then you can’t play elite level tennis.
Once both 1 & 2 above have been developed, the tennis athlete can move into Speed, agility & quickness training and perform with high intensity. With great stamina and economy, the fitness coach is in the best position to get the most out of speed endurance training. Dr. Ellenbecker outlines that it is no good going into speed endurance training without strength and endurance in place, and he makes perfect sense. He is also speaking from years of practical experience and expert training, the same as we do!