Tennis is a game of many skills. Strength, flexibility and endurance can all play a part in the outcome of a match, and to play at one's best, special attention should be paid to these areas away from the court.
As one moves up the tennis ladder, the game becomes much more of a physical contest and while sound strokes are certainly important, they are of little use to you if you cannot get into position, or are not strong enough to use them.
Jeff Landau and Steve Ogilvy, two players at opposite ends of the age spectrum, whole-heartedly agree.
Landau, age 22, is a former highly ranked junior from New England and largely credits his development over the years to his off-court program. At the insistence of his coach, former Junior World Champion, Stanley Matthews, Landau began his additional training while in the juniors.
"I did a lot of jumping rope to improve my foot speed," recalls Landau, and I also worked out with weights to get stronger."
After a successful junior career, Jeff went on to play for Wake Forest University and, during his junior year, won the National Amateur Championship. Now a world ranked player, Landau continues to find his off-court exercise a vital part of his training.
"I still do quite a bit of work as far as strength and agility are concerned, except when I'm playing tournaments. Then I cut back on the weights and do agility work, push-ups, and crunches to maintain my muscle tone. I think the fact that I started so early in my career got me into the habit of exercising away from the court and, over the years, it's helped me develop a great deal!"
Connecticut's Steve Ogilvy, age 83, has been playing tennis six days a week for over seventy years and has been ranked number one in New England an astonishing 37 different times.
Ogilvy began his off-court regimen before much was known as far as the benefits of additional exercise. "I used to jog around the block with my dog, and the neighbors would look at me as if I was crazy," remembers Ogilvy who also did push-ups and sit-ups to improve his strength. Seventy years, and a lot of push-ups later, Ogilvy is one of the top, and fittest, senior players in the country.
Training methods have come a long way since Steve Ogilvy first began jogging around his street in the 30's, but while the benefits of additional training are well documented and profound, little attention is paid to this fact by most tennis players.
Whenever I suggest to my students that they embark on some type of off-court training, the responses are usually the same. The juniors generally look at me as if I'm out of my mind and the adults simply say "THIS is my exercise and I'm lucky to find time for the tennis let alone off court exercise."
While it is true that we live in a generally overscheduled society and everyone's time has many demands, the fact remains that players of all ages and levels, who are serious about improving their tennis, can greatly benefit from some form of off-court training.
With this in mind, I'd like to devote the next two columns to outlining exercise considerations for first, junior players and next month, seniors.
Chuck Kriese, Head Coach for the Clemson University men's tennis team, has for years been considered an authority in the field of player development. Kriese, in his popular book YOUTH TENNIS,
states that a complete training program for a junior tennis player should include:
- Speed and agility
- Flexibility and strength
Note: Kriese also includes nutrition and injury prevention and these subjects will be addressed in future columns.
Endurance is a must for tennis players, however, it has to be the
proper type of endurance. Many tennis players believe that running a large number of miles will give them the necessary endurance to play a long match. They are mistaken, according to Kriese.
"A tennis player could run five or six miles a day and still be out of shape to play a long match. Distance running makes use of the aerobic (oxygen) system but playing tennis makes use of another system." He is referring to the anaerobic (without oxygen) system. Tennis is not played at a slow steady pace but rather in short, intense bursts of speed and power, so a competitive player training for this type of exertion must design a program which will best mirror what he or she will face on the court.
I personally, and painfully, learned this lesson a few years ago when I decided to run in the New York Marathon. I spent hours running mile after mile to prepare for the grueling 26 mile course and was shocked when I stepped out onto the tennis court and could not play three hard points in a row without getting winded. I could run all day long, in a straight line at a slow pace, but was undoubtedly in the worst tennis shape of my life.
Moderate aerobic training will provide a base of endurance which will help over the course of a long match and can assist one in losing weight, however, the majority of a tennis player's time should be spent on anaerobic training. Here are a few of Kriese's favorites.
Running Drills (Note: Always warm-up by jogging before you start sprinting):
- Sprint 50 yards four to six times with a 30 second rest between each sprint.
- Sprint 100 yards two to four times with a 2-2 one half minute rest between each sprint.
- Sprint 220 yards two to four times with three to four minute rest between each sprint.
- Sprint 440 yards two times with a five to seven minute rest between sprints.
In addition to anaerobic endurance, agility is also an important aspect of a tennis player's development and here are two of my favorite agility drills which I still do today.
1. SERVICE BOX DRILL: Start in the center of the service box facing the net. Shuffle as quickly as possible to your right and, using a cross-over step, touch the singles sideline with your front foot and simulate hitting a low volley, making sure to bend your back knee so that it is as close to the ground as possible. Then repeat to your left. Do this back and forth twenty times and then take a one minute rest. Do three to five sets of this and increase the repetitions as you notice your
2. RUNNING THE LINES: Start on the singles sideline at the baseline. Sprint up the sideline, touch the net and shuffle back down the line as if you were hitting an overhead. When you reach the service line, shuffle across until you reach the center service line and then sprint up that line to the net.
Touch the net with your racket and then shuffle back down the center service line simulating an overhead. When you reach the service line, shuffle across until you reach the opposite singles sideline from where you started. Then sprint up to the net, touch it with your racket and then shuffle all the way down the singles sideline as if you were hitting an overhead.
Finally, shuffle across the baseline back to your starting position. Repeat two or three times and then take a one minute rest and do again.
STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY
The common theory for many years was that tennis players did not need to do any strength training. "It will only make you muscle-bound, stiff and unable to swing the racket" was the prevailing wisdom.
"Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl sent that theory the way of the wooden racket in the 70's and 80's," says Dr. William Lewis, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist based in Bridgeport CT. "When Lendl and Navratilova's tennis reflected the benefits of their programs it opened the door for the other players, who were quick to step on the bandwagon, and today virtually every top tennis player in the world is involved in some type of strength and conditioning training program."
The reason? "As your muscles grow stronger and more flexible through training, they are better able to perform the strenuous tasks that tennis demands," says Lewis. "Your technique will improve, your confidence will grow, because you'll know that you are physically prepared, and most likely, you will reduce the number and severity of injuries that you will incur."
"Strength training," continues Lewis, provides protection against injury, particularly to the knee and elbow joints, two areas of a tennis players body which are prone to being injured."
Lewis, a former ranked tennis player, has worked for over 25 years with individuals of all ages ranging from beginning athletes up to members of the National Football League as well as players on the international tennis circuit and the PGA and LPGA tours.
A firm believer in off-court training, Lewis insists that his athletes, both professional and recreational, follow a disciplined program designed to stretch and strengthen their muscles and joints.
Parents are often asking when they can start their children on a weight training program and it was once thought that it was best to wait until puberty when the child's body would be a bit more developed.
Lewis disputes this saying, "Recent studies have shown that overall strength can be improved significantly even in pre-adolescent children by an adequately supervised weight training program."
In addition to strength, cautions Lewis, it is essential that a tennis player also be flexible. "The nature of tennis, with it's twisting and turning, makes it vital that a tennis player be not only strong but also extremely flexible." Thus in addition to strength training a tennis player should also incorporate a flexibility program.
There are an endless number of exercises and programs for both strength and flexibility, but rather than take up a lot of space here, I would suggest that you consult a trainer or ask your local professional to help you design a program that best suits your goals.
So, whether your goal is to play for your school team, make it to the big time, or if you simply want to become the best tennis player you can, the evidence is overwhelming and the verdict is in.
If, as a junior player, you can get into the routine of a supervised off-court exercise program, you will develop positive habits which will give you every opportunity of not only reaching your true potential as a tennis player and an athlete, but of living an active and healthy life. Get to it!!!
Note: Always consult a physician before beginning an exercise program.