Tennis has evolved. From racquet technology to improved training methodologies and everything in between. We now see a different type of tennis being played. Overall, it’s faster, points are shorter and there’s no denying that it’s more power oriented. Because of this, players have had to adapt.
And adapt they have. It’s not uncommon to see players lifting weights to gain more strength & power. Coaches are prescribing short, explosive drills rather than long slow runs and movements of the like. This evolution in our sport, according to a 2016 study (Gale-Watts and Nevill 2016) has brought about another change...a change in body types.
Broadly speaking, there are 3 body types - or somatotypes - that all of us fall into (image below). While research has confirmed that we each have a biological predisposition towards one of the 3 (nature), what we do in our day to day lives - whether that be playing high-level tennis or sitting in front of a desk for the majority of the day - will have a large influence on our body type (nurture).
There are more precise ways to measure and classify body types (rather than simply looking at photos). Researchers use a mathematical formula to determine which body type an individual fits into, given a variety of factors (bodyweight, height, skinfold measurements and so on). This is called somatotyping. Before we look at body types in tennis, here are some defining characteristics of the 3 main somatotypes:
Thinner individuals; smaller bone structure; shorter limbs; lower propensity of gaining muscle mass; faster metabolisms; higher tolerance to carbohydrates.
Medium sized bone structure; athletic build; if active, high levels of lean muscle mass; many explosive athletes fall into this category; testosterone and growth hormone (GH) dominant (allows them to maintain muscle easier than other body types).
Larger bone structure; higher amounts of fat and overall body mass; naturally less active; store energy (calories) more readily; low tolerance to carbohydrates.
What we also see are mixes. For instance, some people can be ecto-mesomorphs - in other words, they can easily lose weight if not active (become more ecto) but at the same time, when training, can build muscle at a similar rate ...I guess they’re the lucky ones ;).
Endo-mesomorphs, on the other hand, can be quite muscular and fit when training, but tend to store fat easier when not training.
You see, there are some individuals that can fluctuate more than others. This too is a biological trait but again, one that is heavily influenced by environment (and when it comes to athletes, training in particular).
Take Serena Williams as an example. When in peak physical shape, she has high amounts of lean mass, relatively low body fat and is definitely an explosive, power type of athlete. In past years, she would have even been strictly considered a mesomorph. Today, she’d likely be classified as a meso-endo (i.e. more on the meso side but has certain endo characteristics). She’s carrying slightly more weight, especially in the mid and gluteal sections. While it’s no surprise given that pregnancy can have massive implications on the female body, Serena’s body shape has fluctuated throughout her career - again, this is something she must deal with because of her inherent genetics.
Then there’s someone like Novak Djokovic. Earlier in his career, he actually had a meso-ecto build (image below); he was never a true meso but it’s clearly visible that he had more muscle mass compared to today. That means that he’s now likely more on the ecto-meso side of the equation. Less muscle mass, thin arms and torso and obviously, a fast metabolism. This has probably been a result of both his training and his diet. That said, he’s been successful on the court with both body types, so probably ok for him to fluctuate a little. But recall when he came back from elbow surgery, he was even leaner than today - supposedly even Marián Vajda urged him to gain some weight.
So What Does the Research Tell Us?
When it comes to research on this subject - particularly when looking at the pro tour - it’s definitely scarce. One retrospective study that we alluded to above, (Gale-Watts and Nevill 2016) aimed to provide insights on the body types of ATP players, and how they’ve evolved from 1982 to 2011. They used BMI (body mass index) and RPI (reciprocal ponderal index) measurements - the former being a measure of a person’s weight status (under, over or normal) while the latter is essentially a measure of their ‘leanness’. Both take height into equation, but RPI’s measure emphasizes height to a greater degree.
What they found was that BMI increased non-linearly over the specified time period, indicating that players increased their weight, relative to their height. While in general populations, an increase in BMI is usually an indication of gaining adipose (fat), in athletic populations (and pro athletes especially), it’s an indicator of increases in muscle mass.
Conversely, RPI decreased over the same time frame, essentially indicating that players decreased their overall ‘leanness’ (i.e. they weren’t as lean). While it’s not exact, this provides some evidence that players aren’t as ‘ectomorphic’ as they once were.
Furthermore, the authors had 2 player classifications - winners (those that made it into the 3rd round or better in slams) and losers (those that lost in either the 1st or 2nd round of slams). It was observed that ‘winners’ had higher BMIs compared to ‘losers’ and the study conclusion was essentially this - higher muscularity is linked to greater success in male professional players.
But I see problems with this. Firstly, BMIs (which again, are derived from both height and weight) were calculated based on values that were found in old record books and the ATP website. I’m not quite sure how reliable those measurements truly are. For instance, it appears as though Federer weighs 187lbs (the same weight as Nadal)…does that include perhaps his full gear, including shoes (and soaking wet?!).
On top of that, BMI is not necessarily an accurate indication of somatotype (at least no studies to my knowledge have shown a high correlation). But even if that were the case, it’s not cause and effect. I mean, would you classify Novak Djokovic as a mesomorph? His BMI (21.8) would be on the lower side (something you would have noticed in the early 80s, according to this study). Some have even lower BMIs - players like De Minaur (20.6) and Gilles Simon (20.5).
Others (Rafa, Tsonga, Verdasco to name a few) have higher BMIs - 24.7, 26.3 and 25.4 respectively. Tsonga and Verdasco would actually be classified as ‘overweight’.
Yes, it’s true that on average, players are carrying more muscle. It’s still an average.
Note - BMIs for female players could not be taken as their body mass is omitted on the WTA site.
Research in Juniors
In junior players, similar findings have been observed. For example, in a 2007 study, Sánchez-Muñoz et al found that - compared to an older study by Elliot et al (1998) - both male and female players showed a greater tendency towards a mesomorphic vs an endomorphic profile. The difference here is that BMI was not used - rather, trained anthropometrists took a variety of skinfold readings and the Carter & Heath equation was used to determine somatotypes. This is a far more valid and reliable way to gain insight into body types, compared to BMI values.
They found that male junior players were classified as ‘ecto-mesomorphic’ while female players were classified as ‘endo-mesomorphic’. In terms of somatotype’s impact on performance and ranking - there were no differences amongst male players (i.e. they were homogenous throughout; whether you were the 1st or last ranked player, body type did not change) while the top 12 female players did show significant differences in certain anthropometric measurements:
“The different characteristics of the best female junior tennis players of our study—taller, heavier, and with wider humeral and femoral breadths—compared with the lower ranked players, suggest this could nowadays influence playing style in this category for this gender.”
Being taller & heavier; having larger legs & arms, were all significantly correlated with ranking (i.e. the top 12 female players). The authors believe that these anthropometric factors may be associated with a better ability to hit and move with ‘power’. But remember, correlation doesn't equal causation. These interpretations, thus, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Lastly, a recent study (Sogut and Altunsoy 2019), found that 12 national female Turkish players (those training at the national centre with an average age of 16) were more meso-endo (instead of endo-meso; recall that the former is predominantly meso).
But this didn’t have any bearing on their performance (figure below). Interestingly, here’s what did: both body weight and BMI were significantly correlated with serve speed. In other words, those females who had more mass, served bigger. Height had virtually no correlation (0.33) - in contrast to previous research - and mesomorph body type had the highest correlation (but was not significant). Perhaps the added weight contributes to an increase in momentum through the shot (if all other parameters are equal).
Furthermore, the results demonstrated a disparity between the somatotype profiles. The mean somatotype of top level players was noted by Sánchez-Muñoz et al. as endomorphic-mesomorph, whereas participants of the present study were found as mesomorphic-endomorph.
Either way, we do see that female players are generally a mix of endo and meso - this is largely genetic given that women carry more adipose compared to men. And overall, both male and female players have some characteristic mesomorph features.
Training & Nutrition - How We Can Manipulate Body Types (and should we?)
So here’s the question; should we try altering our body types or not? Given what we saw above, we should all try to become mesomorphs right?
My belief is that optimization should be favoured instead of all-out transformation. If you have a biological predisposition to a certain body type, it’s likely that (in most cases anyway), you’ll do best with that body type. Even if that means you’re an ectomorph (or endomorph).
But it’s true that tennis is more power-oriented compared to years past. So if you’re an ectomorph, you probably want to train to become more ecto-meso. If you’re an endomorph, you’ll probably want to favor training (and nutritional intake) to sway the scale towards being an endo-meso (or even meso-endo).
Too much in either direction, however, and you’ll likely experience problems. Do you think it would be wise to train Sasha Zverev to become a true ‘mesomorph’? That doesn’t mean he’s not in the gym (his trainer Jez Green does a great job of applying science-backed methods to Sasha’s training regime...which includes heavy strength training; vid below). But he probably won’t be doing body-building style workouts 3-4 days/week just to try to increase muscle mass.
Conversely, Ash Barty probably wouldn’t do well restricting caloric intake and organizing her training to be more ectomorphic. She’s a typical power-type athlete that likely does well - in part - because of her body type, not in spite of it.
Overall, here’s how I see the training side of things (in a general sense) - if you have a well-structured off & on-court training program, your body will adapt in the most appropriate way to meet the specific demands in front of you. What that essentially means is this - if you’re only playing tennis, doing extended rally drills, for hours on end, you’ll likely lose a lot of weight (and probably become less explosive in the process; or at best, not gain any explosiveness).
On the other hand, if your training plan is well rounded - including various training phases (general, specific etc) that emphasize different qualities (strength, speed, endurance, agility etc), at different times of the year, and that these qualities are proportioned appropriately for your individual needs - over time, you will surely gravitate (to some degree) towards a mesomorph physique. That means regardless of your genetic predisposition, there will be some meso in you.
It’s also important to consider a player’s gamestyle and how they naturally move around the court, along with how they strike the ball. If you’re a counter-puncher vs a big server, that’ll have an influence on the organization of your training and ultimately, your physique.
Research has confirmed that ‘relative strength’ is an important factor for sports where athletes need to move explosively and change direction often. And if you train for strength, you likely won’t gain a lot of mass - so in many cases, keeping the same (or similar weight) and increasing strength, will have big benefits on movement abilities.
As for what you should eat based on your body type, here’s a terrific infographic from Precision Nutrition that says it all: Click here to download the free PDF infographic.
Regardless of what the research says and what way you think you should look like, there’s no rule that you must be more of a ‘mesomorph’ to compete at an elite level. It’s usually the wrong approach when it comes to training for tennis - players chasing body composition first. Body composition may be an important metric in some circumstances (perhaps with players who are de-trained because of injury or a long layoff or those that do have a greater predisposition to carry more fat than others), but there are many ways that physique can be affected.
There are always issues when looking at studies, especially those that are either correlation type, have small sample sizes or are derived from data that could possibly be inaccurate. Furthermore, we can’t always look at averages. They take away the entire individual nature of our sport - and the art of coaching in particular. We work with individuals and thus should see each player in that manner. If they are inherently ectomorph, we shouldn’t try to change that but rather complement it. Same goes for mesomorphs. Perhaps we should consider building game styles around their body types, rather than trying to conform them to a particular body type (and worse, style of play).
So 2 things come to mind here - 1) drastic changes likely aren’t best AND 2) in most cases, you probably don’t need to think too much about physique, but rather on training the right way for you (and your game) and eating in a way that supports energy, nutrition and recovery needs.
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