A fairly recent retrospective study from Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach analyzed serve volume in professional and junior tennis players. The researchers sought out to find how many serves are hit in a set (and match) by pros and juniors. The aim of the study was to use this serve data to develop an interval serve & groundstroke training program for elite tennis players. Although others have attempted to devise this type of program for tennis players, this is the first to my knowledge that has looked at more recent serve data while at the same time developing a program that took into account intensity (as a % of max speed) rather than just volume (i.e. number of serves).
Why is an Interval Tennis Program Important?
In youth baseball, there seems to be a relationship between the number of pitches thrown and shoulder/elbow injuries. The higher the volume, the more injuries. Although there isn’t any conclusive evidence to support this in tennis players, with upper-body injuries comprising almost 50% of all tennis injuries, it’s safe to say that volume of serves & groundstrokes probably plays a role in injury occurrence. Furthermore, in recent years baseball coaches have been doing a much better job of progressing the number and intensity of throws that their athletes perform, something the tennis world still hasn't caught up to. This may be due to schedule differences between the two sports (baseball has a specific off-season, pre-season and regular season while the tennis season is year-round); but it’s logical that an interval serving program be implemented in the modern tennis player’s training regime as well. In this article, I’ll review the study and provide practical considerations with specific emphasis to the serve.
These researchers looked at elite junior and pro players (both males & females). Pro stats were collected from the 2013 and 2014 US Open while junior stats were collected from the 2014 Orange Bowl - one of the most prestigious junior events in the world. The junior players ranged from ages 13-18. The total number of serves were extracted on a per set basis and then used to determine average serves per set and match for both pro and junior players. Although the number of groundstrokes were not analyzed, the researchers used previous data to estimate groundstroke volumes. Serve data was analyzed and comparisons between juniors and pros as well as males and females, were made.
On average, professional males attempt 157 serves/match while females attempt 96 serves/match. Keep in mind that the data was taken from the US Open, which for the men, are comprised of 5-set matches. On average, junior males attempt 94 serves/match while junior females attempt 86 serves/match.
The researchers concluded that on average, players hit about 40 serves per set (regardless of gender or age). Furthermore, based on their analyses, there’s a 3 to 1 first to second serve ratio which was an important consideration when designing the program. Because most events - both pro and junior - are 3-sets, the researchers designed the program based on a total of 120 serves per match that could potentially be attempted. And based on previous research, players hit on average about 210 groundstrokes in a 3-set match. From this information, the following 21 step interval program was designed.
Response to the Study: Practical Considerations
Although both groundstrokes and serves were included in the training program, we're specifically going to focus on the serve. So on top of the interval program, the authors provided an injury classification table (Table 2, below). This table gives players some basic guidelines as to where to start and how to progress based on the severity of their injury. The issue here is that it doesn’t cover specific injuries. Does the player have an issue with the shoulder or the elbow? Also, if you have a “mild” tendon/ligament injury, you’re recommended to perform the program every other day while progressing through the various steps. If done in this manner, it may take 6 weeks to start serving full out again. This may not be particularly practical. What if the Orange Bowl is coming up? Or the US Open?
Each player is different. No two players will have the same injury history, mechanics, recovery rates and so on. Programs of this nature need to be individualized based on the needs of each specific player. For some, this may mean a more accelerated approach while for others, a longer-term program, similar to the one outlined in this study, may be appropriate. This is where the coach, trainer & therapist work together to design the most effective plan for the athlete. But not only that, monitoring progress is also important. Perhaps the athlete should assess their pain level at the end of each session (on a 1-5 scale for example) to have a better picture of where they're at and how to progress moving forward.
A Closer Look at Serving Volumes
The authors designed the program based on a 3-set match. But for those that work with male professionals gearing up for Grand Slams (or Davis Cup), it may be more appropriate to design a program that reflects the amount of serves across 5 sets, instead of 3. Also, the program outlined in this study used average serve numbers but there's a range that exists. Some matches may require players to attempt 150-200 serves (3-setters) while others might be lower than the 120 average (if you only play a 2-set match). Furthermore, most junior events require players to compete in 2 (or even 3) matches per day. Could you imagine playing two 3-setters in one day? You may hit up to 400 serves!
Again, coaches should look at their individual scenarios to determine what types of volumes are best for their players. That said, even if you're working with a pro player who only plays 1 match per day, I'd still want a buffer. Can my player handle 200 high intensity serve attempts in one day? If so, they will likely be ready for any match, including long 3-setters.
A Closer Look at Serving Intensities
Take a closer look at the guidelines and you’ll notice that the intensities are increasing with each outing. This may be detrimental as some players may not recover from one session to the next. Pitchers don’t throw all out every time they practice. Sprinters don’t sprint at max speeds every time their on the track. The same should apply to your serve training (whether that be in a return to sport manner, or during practices in general). Varying the intensities helps facilitate recovery & adaptation, minimizes fatigue and provides players an opportunity to work on other aspects of their serve - rhythm, timing, direction, spin variations, ball toss etc.
Variation in Volume & Intensity
Although I mentioned previously that we probably want a buffer (i.e. you're able to hit around 200 serves in a day), that doesn't mean you should train by hitting 200 serves EVERY DAY...and not with full intensity! If sport science has taught us anything, it’s that varying volume and intensity is necessary in the training process….especially in elite players. Why? One reason is that it allows the player to recover from a high intensity session and adapt to that session. So instead of taking the next day completely off, they still practice serves - just less of them and not with the same speed goals in mind. You don’t see pro players serving all out in every practice at tournaments and there’s a reason for that.
While variation is critical for recovery, increasing the volume & intensity of serves does take a toll on the lats, traps, rhomboids, shoulder, arm etc. Including deceleration type drills into the program may be a wise choice along with a proper warm-up and resistance band work.
What About Programming at Other Times?
Having an interval serve & hitting program shouldn’t be reserved for players coming off injury. This type of programming should be in some way implemented into the annual cycle of a competitive player. I’m not saying you need to count every single ball a player hits in practice and matches, but it may be a good idea to get rough estimates. Here’s an easy way to estimate groundstroke volume. Let’s say your player has a 1 hour practice session and it’s scheduled to be a light one - 30 minutes of hitting up the middle of the court, 10-15 minutes of volleys/overheads and another 10-15 minutes of serving. While your player is hitting groundies (and they get to a "normal" pace, whatever that means for them) count how many balls they hit in a minute. Whatever their score, you now have a reference for practices. In other words, if we’re hitting 30 minutes up the middle and my player hits around 15 balls a minute, I know that in 30 minutes, they’ll hit around 450 shots (probably less than that because of breaks/rest times but you get the point).
Overall, this study is a good one. It highlights the importance of programming serves & groundstrokes in the elite tennis player - both to help avoid injury AND to help return to practice/play after an injury. There are some limiting factors but this is to be expected as each player is different. Individualizing the program based on your specific scenario is an absolute must but the table above provides a great reference to start from. Work backwards. Figure out the amount of serves your player needs for their tournament/competitive season and program based on that number. It's also important to maintain shoulder/arm health throughout - this includes a thorough warm-up, a conditioning program and proper mobility/flexibility training.