For many in the tennis world, this time of the year means tournaments, and lots of them. Players from all over are either preparing or competing in ITF Futures events, open tournaments and club matches. With that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at a typical training week for players competing in weekend events/matches. Good news is, Dariusz Lipka (former 1000 ranked ATP player) was in town this past week to train & compete in an open event - a mini preparation block for his upcoming Futures circuit this summer.
The event started on Friday and finished on Sunday, a typical open tournament format. We began training the previous Sunday which gave us 5 full days of preparation before the beginning of the event. This article is by no means a blueprint for how you should train the week of a tournament. The aim is merely to present our training regime in the hopes that it may provide some insight into the preparation of an elite player for weekend competition. In a later post, we’ll look at what the preparation of a player competing in Futures/ITF events may look like - because of the format (and whether the player has to compete for a spot in the main draw), it differs completely from weekend events. Here’s a breakdown of what we did, along with a brief explanation as to why we did it.
After a debriefing session in the morning, outlining the objectives of the week and a day by day schedule of things to come, we began in the weight room. The focus was on max strength. I won’t go into the details as to why tennis players can benefit from max strength work as I wrote about that last week, so you can check that out here. Seeing as though I’ve never worked with Dariusz before, I was interested in seeing where he stands in this department. Also, after several questionnaires and conversations before even beginning training, it was revealed that this type of work has never been a big part of his program in the past. He also rated it in the top 3 in terms of physical qualities he wanted to improve (speed and power were the other two). This information helped the decision to place this session at the beginning of the week, hopefully mitigating any delayed soreness/fatigue. We performed only 5 exercises but each was done with loads close to max, low rep counts, few sets and high intent (i.e. each rep must be done with maximal explosiveness, even if the movement speed doesn’t reflect that).
After a few hours to recuperate, we hit the court. This session was designed to act as a rhythm & timing session for Dariusz along with an assessment of his serve (which before training was identified as something Dariusz wanted to improve). Serve speeds and accuracies were assessed in primary serve locations - wide slice and flat tee on both deuce and ad courts. It’s interesting to note that Dariusz’s first serve speed was in the mid 110s, a bit on the slow side for his level. If we were to have a quick glance at his lower-body strength relative to his body weight, the ratio is 1.6 - also low. As we’ll see in another post, there’s a relation between leg strength/explosiveness and serve speed. Now I don’t necessarily know right off the bat if there’s a correlation here, but it could be a factor, and definitely something to consider/monitor.
Side note: I’ll only mention this once as it applies throughout. Every tennis session/match began with a thorough warm-up which included mobility, dynamic stretches, shoulder exercises, ballistic exercises and various court movements. It would take at least 30 minutes to complete this warm-up. As for post-tennis, a shoulder recovery routine was performed almost immediately, along with stretches and depending on the day, some additional light exercises - brisk walk, light jog, general body-weight exercises, band work etc. This would take at least 45 minutes and there were days where it took 1.5 hours (after 2 tennis sessions and 1 fitness session).
We began training on day 2 with an extended warm-up to include some light (and fast) med ball work. A variety of med ball exercises were employed to satisfy the diversity of movements that tennis demands. This included overhead throws (bilateral and unilateral), vertical chest throws, side throws and more. The load was kept very light - 2 & 3 kg balls - and the intention again was very high.
After only a few minutes of hitting up the middle, we began establishing cross-court rally depth (image below). Once depth and quality were satisfied, a cross-court direction drill was introduced. Quality on this shot was successful when the ball crossed the singles line before crossing the baseline. This ensures that the opponent is at least in the doubles alley when receiving the shot, and on many occasions, receiving the ball outside the doubles line.
Both first and second serve placements were then explained, based on data from Brain Game Tennis. Although placements are a good start, I believe it’s also important to know where the ball ends up on the serve (a wide serve on the deuce court is only effective if the returner is stretched outside the doubles alley, for example). With that in mind, I structure many practices via a constraint based approach. In the case of serves, I stand in a certain position when receiving and the ball must cross the outside line of my body in order to satisfy the quality criteria.
On-Court - Set & Charting
Our second session on-court was a practice session with an ATP ranked Chilean player. After a warm-up, the guys played a set. This was the first opportunity for me to see Dariusz playing competitive points and to get a feel for his game. I charted rally lengths. Dariusz lost the set 6-4. When looking at shot lengths, he won the majority of points that were 0-4 shots while losing most points that were 5 shots or longer. He wasn’t dictating play enough with his forehand, especially in the ad court, settling for backhands instead of running around them. This info helped us better organize practices moving forward during the week
On-Court - Serve Focus
The entire morning was devoted to the most important shot in tennis, the serve. Remember, at the 2016 Australian Open, 1 shot was the MOST common rally length, comprising 30% of all rally lengths. In the case of Dariusz, after his initial serve assessment, we established that his accuracy was quite good, often hitting 8 out of 10 first serves into a specific target area. That said, many just didn’t have enough heat on them. To begin working on his serve velocity, specific weighted throws were implemented along with a modified serve motion (video) that was intended to maximize ball velocity (irrespective of direction). This helps establish a player’s capacity for speed (121 mph was the highest, compared to 115 mph when serving into the box). The medium-term aim is then to improve capacity so that at 90% effort, he’s able to achieve a 120 mph serve. We also measured groundstroke speeds and fine-tuned the first serve and next shot (called the +1) pattern - the goal being to see a forehand after the serve.
Off-court - Speed Focused
I often like to pair similar on and off court qualities together. Since speed was the focus on court, speed was also the focus in the weight room. This included reactive hops, ballistic jumps, overload throws & light snatch movements. The objective being to overcome a light load - which helps recruit the appropriate motor units - while generating high power outputs because of the speed in which the movements are executed at. Drop jumps are an example of overcoming a load via the drop itself (the higher the box, the higher the load). Here's a look:
On-Court Session 2 - Sets
More sets and more charting was on tap for the afternoon. Dariusz played a solid German player (eventual finalist of the weekend event) - it was one of the best sets of the week. He dominated the 0-4 rally lengths which made up over 70% of the rallies. In 1 and a half sets, he only lost 1 game. He was finding a way to see his ad-court forehand more often, and early in the rally. This helped him dictate play more often than his opponent.
On day 4, as the tournament was approaching, our practices sessions became shorter, more intense and more competitive. We had 2 sessions where after an extended warm-up, Dariusz played sets with his opponents. These were two 90 minute sessions of focused play, using the patterns that were established and talked about throughout the week.
On-court & Off-Court Extended Recovery
The aim of this practice session was to stabilize the patterns that were trained throughout the week - inside-out forehand, first serve +1, 2nd serve return to backhand etc. Simple stuff but when done repeatedly and with high intent & focus will (hopefully) lead to improvements in play.
Only one 2 hour session was performed to help recover from a solid training week. One thing to note is that we were monitoring soreness, fatigue and psychological factors throughout the week (a questionnaire was filled out every morning before the start of training). To give you an idea, day 2 saw Dariusz with a training load of 2500, while day 5 was 900 - his soreness went from a 4 out of 5 to a 1 out of 5. This was done purposely so that any accumulated fatigue would be gone by the time his first match began.
Day 6, 7, 8 - Tournament Time
Although Dariusz didn’t win the event, he played well, beating the 9th and 5th seeds on route to a semi-final appearance. He lost to the top seed and eventual winner (career high 347 ATP, current 618 ATP ranking). He fought hard in all of his matches (even saving a match point in his second round encounter) - but more importantly, he was diligent and focused with his training all week. With that attitude, anything is possible.