I’m obviously a big tennis fan. I don’t just follow the big events - although don’t get me wrong I do enjoy watching the top guys compete - but I also follow junior tennis and the lower ranks of the WTA & ATP, specifically the Canadians. This past weekend I watched the end of a Davis Cup match between Richard Gasquet of France (ATP World number 10) and Philip Bester of Canada (ATP World number 160). Although Bester played well, he inevitably lost in straight sets to the formidable Gasquet. What struck me though, was not the match itself but what Bester had to say in his post-match interview:
“Physically, it’s another level. I need to continue to work on getting stronger and fitter and hopefully one day be up and playing against these guys.” - Philip Bester’s comments after being defeated by ATP World number 10, Richard Gasquet.
Philip and I don’t know each other but I’ve seen him play live and he’s a pretty good athlete to begin with. And honestly, I have no idea what his off-court training regimen looks like but if it’s anything similar to the tennis fitness programs I’ve seen over the past 15 years, I can tell you with certainty that he won’t get stronger - at least not the type of strength he’s looking for...and not the type of strength required for high performance tennis.
Strength Training for Tennis - Lifting Heavy is A Good Thing
He obviously wants to improve his strength, he flat out said it. But the truth is, many players, coaches and tennis proponents have something against strength training. Or at least the strength training I’m referring to. I’m not talking about the leg press machine or band work, or core training or even lunges. I’m referring to the type of strength training that requires an athlete to lift some sort of appreciable amount of weight….the strength training that other athletes in other sports are using to get faster, more explosive, more resistant to injury....the strength training that the tennis world believes is bad for your knees, or your back, or your feel or….I think you get my point.
Strength in Tennis is Important But It's NOT Everything
Please don’t confuse what I’m saying here. I don't believe strength training is the be all end all. I don’t even believe that it’s an absolute requirement to do well at the pro level. I do however, believe that many players these days see the merits of why stronger is better. And why pros on the verge of the top 100, like Bester, feel as though they need a greater level of strength to compete with the best.
I won’t go into details today but just to be clear, strength training can come in many forms. I’m NOT talking about bodybuilding or powerlifting. As a tennis player, it doesn't mean spending endless amounts of time in the weight room. But it does mean working on various forms of weight training, including explosive strength, starting strength, speed strength, maximal strength etc. Strength training qualities important for all athletes, not just tennis players. Irrespective of the quality, what’s important is that we’re talking about moving some sort of appreciable load with a given intent. It could mean moving a moderate load quickly (speed strength/power) or to move a heavy load under control (eccentric strength). The end product in my opinion is quite clear - if you increase a tennis player’s ability to produce force - or absorb force - you’ll probably (not a direct cause and effect, more on this later) have an influence on their ability to use that force on court....when moving laterally, changing direction, bursting to the net to run down a drop shot or generating more racquet head speed on a short ball.
Some players on tour have adopted this type of strength training. Take a look at Azarenka on the cover photo - she’s working with some load. In fact, read this article. The article touches on Azarenka’s new physical preparation regime and how she hired the former strength & conditioning coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Or how about Agassi? Remember when he hired Gil Reyes, former strength coach for the University of Nevada’s basketball program. Agassi squatted. And benched. He was in the best shape of his life.
But what about improving other qualities important in tennis?
I get a bunch of questions like this all the time from tennis coaches. How can we improve a player’s footwork? Shouldn’t they be doing some band work to prevent shoulder injuries (on a later post I’ll talk about how I programmed very little band work with - mostly for warm-up purposes - with over 30 youth tennis players and none had any serious upper or lower body injuries all year)? Why can’t they hit harder? You know the best way to improve these qualities?….Tennis. Practice the proper footwork on court. Improve technical deficiencies. Monitor the amount and intensity of time spent on court to prevent overuse injuries. Want to improve coordination and timing? Play with someone better than you, who hits harder than you and with more precision than you. The focus and attention that this type of training requires is exhausting, but worth it.
The most specific form of physical training for tennis is….tennis. Many of us forget this. Playing tennis is a physical activity. It targets many physical abilities. It’ll tax your cardiovascular system...it’ll work on your reactive abilities...you’ll lunge, jump, stretch, backpedal and so much more. As a strength & conditioning coach - and a competitor at heart - I’d love my athletes to be the strongest & fastest athletes around. But that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be the best tennis players.
A proper, formal, strength & conditioning program can be a tremendous tool to help supplement what we’ll inevitably be the most important component of your tennis training... tennis.