The Science of Tennis Performance and Physical Training.
Movement and Biomechanics
PLAYERS CAN BE TAUGHT TO MOVE CORRECTLY AND EFFICIENTLY.
When training for better movement in any sport, emphasis needs to be placed on correct biomechanics for the movements that sport requires. Often in tennis, this means your lower body working at a very high intensity while your upper body is preparing to strike the ball. Both sections are linked through your hips and core and both need perfect balance and control to be able to get to the ball explosively and then to hit a high level shot over and over again.
You don't need to spend so much time in the gym training for pure power production and strength. It is true that if an athlete becomes more powerful in the gym, especially in the lower body, that they will be able to move a little faster on the court. Each push and each step should have a little more power than before.
BUT, if this power is not used correctly and efficiently as the player moves, even the biggest gains in the gym with power and explosion will only lead to minimal improvements on the court. The most important part of moving faster on the court is in controlling the power your body produces to help you move. This is done with fine motor control from your brain to your body, muscle balance and the correct muscles working at the right time (big and small muscles), correct postures and specific strenth to maintain these postures through a long match and from one day to the next. Maximal speed of muscle activation is also developed on and off the court.
Elite sprinters in track and field (100m and 200m runners) spend hours and hours working on the technique of their start, just the first 8-10 steps of the race. Why? Because if this is trained well, their movement becomes so efficient, that with every step they take with their initial acceleration, they save a fraction of a second. At the end of the 100m race, the difference between 9.9 seconds and 9.75 seconds can be the difference between 1st and 4th place. Sprinters work to save this extra few fractions of a second by training:
Which part of the foot do they push through when they take each step.
How high their knee comes up before they drive the foot back into the ground.
The correct angle at the hip, knee and ankle joint to allow maximal power to be put down into the ground with each step.
Control of the core and upper body so as not to lose (or leak) energy that their lower body produces and gets back from pushing into the ground. (This is key in tennis when loading the legs in preparation to move or hit, energy leaked means the quality and control of the shot will be less and it will break down more frequently).
How far they lean with the upper body to create maximal acceleration.
How far they reach with each step, how long each step is. (In tennis, there are times you need larger steps and times when you need very small adjustment steps...this is key for quality of the shot each time and needs to be adjusted as you move).
These fractions of a second matter just as much in tennis. Tennis is all about acceleration (mainly lateral) and movement with more detailed control of the upper body in order to execute a high level shot. The split step and first 3-4 steps are about accelerating as fast and efficiently as possible so you arrive in position to hit as quickly as possible. The main difference with tennis compared to a sprinter, is that in tennis, we also have to train the deceleration mechanics of movement so that the player can set up and execute a high quality shot each time and then change direction efficiently.
Imagine having a fraction of a second longer to set up and hit each ball. Imagine each step that you take is a fraction of second faster than before. And not only that, imagine that it allows you to maintain balance and execute a better shot. When your opponent hits a wide ball, you'll be able to move out and arrive in position to hit a fraction of a second faster…this is huge in being able to absorb good balls from your opponent and not being forced into shot sections you don’t want to make…you have more options and can not be stressed by your opponent so much. It makes absorbing big balls and defense easier and less energy draining, it makes neutralising your opponents good shots easier and it makes it easier to turn defense (or neutral) into attack.
Take a look at the video of Anna Kournikova below (video 2.0). It is a short clip but shows her moving out wide to her forehand on the run. She was one of the best movers and all-around athletes to play on the WTA Tour. She was not one of the most purely powerful or explosive players but she maximised what she had with near perfect movement technique and balance. Thus, she became one of the fastest players and hardest to get, and keep on the defense and on the run. She has:
Great split step and balance initially, right amount of lateral lean to get out to the ball quickly.
Angles at her hips, knees and ankles are perfect to allow her glutes, quads and calf muscles to all help in pushing her out to the ball with each step, as explosively as possible.
Her speed out to the ball has allowed her to maintain her upper body posture and not have to reach out too far to hit, thus she hits a better ball more consistently without the shot breaking down.
As she hits and then changes direction, she maintains great posture (chest and shoulders don't dip or slide out...no loss of energy).
As she plants her right leg to decelerate and change direction, her hips are back and her knees are over her feet. This again allows for maximal use of her glutes and quads to push herself back into the court for the next shot.
Having maximal speed out to the ball has allowed her to hit a big forehand with balance and power, neutralising what her opponent is trying to do.
Fig 1.0 Video 2.0
Tennis, at the elite level, is a game of fractions of a second. If you are on the run and reaching out for a forehand, what are your options? To hit high and heavy up the line and try to neutralize? To try and rip a winner up the line and hope for the best? If you were even just half a step quicker and half a step closer to the ball you'd have more options, you would not be forced into a shot you don’t want to hit, your opponent would not gain control of the point so easily.
If you are a fraction of a second faster with each step, you could not just neutralise your opponents good shots more easily but you could turn defense into offense more effectively also. It is these little details that make the difference. With every move, every shot, you have a tiny bit more time…the quality of ball you are able to hit more consistently, becomes higher.
In Fig 1.0 above, you can see the elements of agility needed by an elite athlete. The key to putting these elements together is at what time in the training blocks do you work on each element. And how do you teach the player these elements so they can use them on the court without consciously thinking about them. You don't want your player thinking about where to put their foot, which muscle to try and activate when, how hard to push, etc. It all has to be integrated in the overall training program, on and off the court. So that it happens naturally. Then, movement can be a weapon.
Many players these days like to run around their backhands (especially up the middle of the court) and hit forehands. What does this take to do this effectively and be able to still have time to step around and step in on the ball? It takes a quick push and steps around the ball, to create enough space to produce a quality forehand, a loaded forehand, correct set up, correct ball contact and shot execution. This extra fraction of a second also means you are able to prepare the racquet more correctly, more of the time when you are pressured by opponents good shots. All of this has to to be done so quickly or you are out of position and hitting a weak, easy to attack ball.
The second part of explosive movement is in slowing down, deceleration. The ability to slow down rapidly and change direciton. It is just as important as acceleration. In sports training, it is often asked, "How fast would you drive a car with no brakes?" If you are not able to stop efficiently and rapildy when on the run out wide to a ball, then subconsciously, you will not move out to hit at your top speed. You will naturally stay within your safe limit, knowing you can decelerate and change direction under control. Imagine that you have 'better brakes'. Now you can now attack the ball at top speed and get out to a wide ball a fraction of a second faster, knowing that you can 'hit the brakes' the moment you finish your shot, stick a one foot change of direction and recover back towards the center again. This is being able to decelarate efficiently. See the video of Anna Kournikova below (Video 2.0)...maximum speed, great full shot on the run, one foot sudden stop and then recover. This can be taught and developed.
As you can see in the diagram below, there are many components that have to come together in the right order and in the right amounts to develop a player that can decelerate and then change direction a fraction of a second faster than they do now.