Michael Emmett: “Is Tennis Really a Demanding Sport?”

Written by: Michael Emmett


***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs.  He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet.  Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada.  Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s.  Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***


When we think of ‘action’ sports, tennis is usually at the top of the list. And when we think of passive sports, with limited action and lots of standing around, baseball (among others) comes to mind. Most sports experts agree that baseball is a game of statistics and demands a very high skill level but there is more waiting, watching and dead time which is a real negative for most sports enthusiasts.

A recent study shows that these two games, sports that we think of as being at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of activity, are not that far apart when it comes to live action. To be clear, I’m suggesting tennis is much closer to baseball in terms of continuous play than most of us would like to believe.

Tennis has always been regarded and thought of as a grueling sport, but the facts show that this is simply not the case, and I will illustrate this fact farther down in this column.

Who are the best athletes in the world? Who are the strongest athletes in the world? Who are the fittest athletes in the world of sports? Who are the athletes who can sustain a tremendous burst of power and explosiveness for an extended period of time? Is it soccer players, hockey players, triathlon competitors, sprinters, cyclists, marathon runners or tennis players?

Two years ago at the Australian Open, Djokovic and Nadal played a championship final match (the longest Grand Slam final in terms of time in the open era) that lasted nearly six hours in a sun-drenched stadium where the temperature was hovering near 40 degrees. So, should tennis be compared to these other sports in terms of physical exertion? You’d be lying if you said you didn’t think of a tennis player as a supreme athlete who could compete with any of the best athletes in the world in any other arena. The truth is tennis has gained a reputation as a demanding sport, however, the facts show that the sport has a lot of down time and it’s unfortunate the rules can’t be slightly altered to fix this inherent problem. In that marathon match between Djokovic and Nadal in Melbourne the stats show these guys were taking 50 to 55 seconds on a regular basis between points when the rules only permit 25 seconds. The average rally was only 8 to 12 seconds in duration.

Fans live for long points. 50+ shot rallies – like the one between Nadal and Djokovic in this year’s US Open final – are certainly amazingly entertaining but unfortunately not the norm. The question that begs to be answered – how much action is there in a tennis match? A recent study analyzed two matches at the U.S. Open last month to find the results. The answer: not as much as you’d probably think. In the two matches they reviewed, only 17.5% of the time was spent actually playing tennis. Can this really be true?

They started the clock, for this recent study, the moment the ball was tossed, and then stopped it the instant the point ended. Obviously, during Hawkeye reviews, the stopwatch was paused.

One of the matches they evaluated was a second-round, four-setter, between Leonardo Mayer and 2012 champion, Andy Murray. It lasted two hours and 41 minutes—three minutes shorter than the average men’s singles match at 2011 US Open. Mayer and Murray actively played for 26 minutes and 29 seconds, or 16.4% of the time.

Believe it or not, there’s plenty of down time in tennis. Players take breaks at changeovers and between sets. They argue and challenge rulings. They berate themselves in front of world-wide audiences. They pray to the heavens for support. They change racquets when the umpire calls for new balls. They meticulously fix their strings after every point. Some pick their shorts, adjust their hair, pull up their socks or re-tape their fingers. But most of the down time was spent between points, when players strolled around, toweled off and bounced balls before serving.

Djokovic, a few years back, used to bounce the ball in excess of 30 times before finally pulling the trigger. Thank God this dreadful habit has been rectified. This was not the case 30 years ago, when the greats of the game just simply went to the baseline and served.

In other words, 83.6% of the time in the match between Murray and Mayer, these guys were basically doing nothing.

They also took out the stopwatch for another match, a one-hour-and-26-minute women’s doubles tilt between Daniela Hantuchova and Martina Hingis and the world’s top-ranked team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. Without a doubt, I figured there would be more down time in doubles, since teammates discuss strategy before every point. But compared with the men’s singles match, this one featured plenty of action, with 16 minutes and 50 seconds of tennis, or 19.6% of the match time. The women served fewer aces and hit fewer service winners, resulting in more prolonged points.

Fortunately, these studies didn’t include Milos Raonic or John Isner. When these guys are involved in a tennis match these eye-opening numbers would be significantly lower. Obviously, the rally time would be way down when the serves are coming in at speeds of over 140 MPH. As we know, the Mayer/Murray match was just over 16% of play time. I would estimate, with Milos being analyzed over the course of an entire tournament, that these numbers would be closer to 12% of actual play time. And, as we see, this generation of player is getting taller and stronger, so the trend is going to be toward lessened points. Bigger serves, faster courts and newer technology all adds up to shorter points and more down time.

The bottom line is baseball and tennis – as far as action sports are concerned – is much closer than most of us would have thought!

A deeper dive into second serve statistics

The two most widely reported second serve statistics in professional tennis are the number of double faults a player hit, and their second serve winning percentage. If we’re trying to understand the effectiveness of a particular player’s second serve, relying only on those statistics has significant drawbacks. Article by Michal Kokta.

Yves Boulais: No Excuses… Get Working

Yves was proud to work with players including Greg Rudsedski, Patricia Hy, Oliver Marach, Eugenie Bouchard and Rebecca Marino, who achieved excellent results on the world stage. He was an Olympic Coach in Barcelona 1992 & Atlanta 1996, and Captain of the Canadian FedCup Team 1998 – 2000.

Update on UK Tennis Situation with Master Louis Cayer

I would like to share a mindset I instil in all the players I coach, one I believe has greatly influenced all of the player’s performances; “whatever happens, I can handle it.” This mindset is achieved through a systematic, tactical development process, so that whoever the opponent, whatever the surface, regardless of the environment, or scoring, the players can, and will rise to the challenge as it is presented.