World-class tennis conditioning

A real case study

The physiological demands of tennis make a comprehensive strength and conditioning programme essential for players who want to reach the top. New PP contributor Sean Fyfe discusses these demands and presents a case study of a highly ranked world junior from Australia to illustrate the key principles of targeted tennis strength and conditioning

Let’s start by stating some fundamentals about the physical demands of tennis. The energy demands for tennis are 80% derived from the ATP-PC energy system, 15% from the lactate pathway and the remaining 5% from aerobic metabolism.
Information regarding the relative contributions of energy systems required to compete in a particular sport is essential to physically prepare an athlete. Average and maximum work durations and work/rest intervals also need to be understood so that competition physical demands can be replicated.
In tennis, this varies for two reasons:
Surface type – clay courts such as the French Open, which are the slowest, will promote longer baseline rallies than grass courts or fast hard courts such as Wimbledon and the US Open respectively, which make for shorter points;
The type of player – servers and volleyers and aggressive baseliners who like to go to the net will generally play shorter points, whereas baseliners who are more defensive will play longer tennis points.

Some general statistics are as follows; the average point length is less than 6 seconds and with advancements in the game, the average point duration in professional tennis matches has decreased. For example in 1988, the final of the US open saw an average point duration of 12.2sec compared with 5.99sec in 2003. Ninety-three percent of all tennis points are less than 15sec. The maximum time players are allowed to take between points is 20sec but the average is 15.2sec, and players are allowed to rest for 90sec every 2 games they play. Taking into account average point durations and rest periods, players can therefore expect to rest for 2.3-3.2sec for every second of work performed(1). These statistics should be kept in mind when structuring speed and agility and endurance sessions, but you also need to bear in mind the type of player you are dealing with.
For the purpose of this article, we will call our left-handed, 6 foot 4 inches tall and 93kg player Matthew. Through communication with his coach and my own observations, I knew Matthew had a very powerful and effective serve, which he often uses to serve and volley behind but not all the time.
From the baseline, the aim for him is to play aggressively and push forward and finish points at the net. Average point duration for Matthew therefore will generally be less then the statistics mentioned above. His coach notes that his movement is not currently good enough to allow him to maintain his court position and play the intended aggressive baseline gamestyle, which requires a player to be able to stand close to the baseline (closer to the net), rather then a couple of metres behind the baseline. This in turn means he needs to be able to react and move very quickly as there is less distance between him and the opposition.
After watching Matthew play and through fitness testing and subsequent comparisons with other players, I noted that he was slow with his first few steps when initiating movement – not explosive through his legs – and he was slow to change direction, particularly after having moved to the right, which is his backhand side.
A musculoskeletal screening on Matthew provided one very valuable piece of information; 18 months ago Matthew was suffering from right-sided ankle pain that went undiagnosed for a period of months. It was later revealed through further investigations he had a stress reaction (boney inflammation) in the medial tibial plateau (upper bone of the ankle joint on the inside). He had continued to try and play his tournament schedule but he stepped in a hole while running and the medial tibial plateau fractured.
Since the rehabilitation process, Matthew has lost significant dorsiflexion at the ankle (the flexing of the ankle you get when you do an Achilles stretch) and he was incredibly unstable performing any single-leg activities such as single-leg squat jumps or bounding through mini-hurdles.
His lateral hip stabilisers were also very weak, which meant his pelvis and back were not being stabilised and his proprioception was poor. His ground contact time when doing any single-leg jumping work was much higher than on the left, which had to be affecting his on-court movement. It showed itself by his slow recovery from the backhand corner when trying to push quickly off his right leg. We also discovered that Matthew’s right hip was extremely tight, producing a loss of internal rotation.


This is an extract from our Raquet Sports Special Issue of Peak Performance.  To subscribe and read more, click here.

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