Everything you need to know about speed in tennis

In an interview, Satoshi Ochi, the head strength and conditioning coach at the United States Tennis Association, delves into the theory and practice of tennis movement and explains how you can increase your speed to beat opponents you’ve never beaten before.

“I agree that (Roger) Federer is probably the most efficient mover on the tennis court... I believe that he has an exceptional ability to read the balls and opponent so that he is able to anticipate the next shot,” says Satoshi Ochi.   -  Getty Images

“He just seems like he’s floating all around the court, he’s not running. That’s something else.” – All-time great Rod Laver, after Roger Federer won the 2018 Australian Open at age 36.

“Tennis is a thousand sprints.” – 1970s superstar Bjorn Borg, renowned for his mercurial court coverage.

Speed kills. In sports requiring dynamic play, fortune favours the fastest, most explosive athletes.

We marvel at how NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo streaks past three defenders to dunk the ball. Or how legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr dazzles opponents with blazing speed to elude their punches and then land several of his own. Almost as mercurial at a peak speed of 22.9 miles per hour, Gareth Bale was called “the fastest [soccer player] in the world” in 2014 by sprinter Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest human, whose top speed hit 27.8 mph.

It’s no coincidence that the three greatest men tennis players in history — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — are all lightning fast. They use their terrific speed both offensively to pounce on weak shots and defensively to run far and wide to track down powerful shots. And that’s not all. The Big Three seem to defy the laws of physics and geometry when they race to turn defence into offence. “Djokovic is the best offensive defensive player who has ever played,” says Paul Annacone, a top coach and Tennis Channel analyst. Similarly, Nadal never ceases to amaze sports fans when he scrambles to reach a distant shot outside his backhand alley and then darts like a cheetah to smack a down-the-line winner from outside his forehand alley.

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No matter how electrifying a tennis player’s raw speed, it must be honed by coordination, balance, agility and flexibility, and then complemented with racquet skills and tactical acumen. Otherwise, speed is ineffectual and wasted. Mats Wilander, a fleet, seven-time major champion, has even said, “Movement is much more important than ball-striking, that’s for sure.”

To learn all about the basics and fine points of speed, I consulted Satoshi Ochi. The 47-year-old Japanese-American is the head strength and conditioning coach (HSCC) at the United States Tennis Association. Ochi, renowned for his work ethic and selflessness, has trained several talented young Americans, including 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys, 2020 US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady and 2019 Australian Open quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe, as well as Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, Caroline Dolehide, Christina McHale and CiCi Bellis.

Prior to joining the USTA, Ochi was the HSCC at Creighton University, where, after playing Division I tennis, he was also an instructor for the exercises science department. He is a US National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist, a certified personal trainer and an International Tennis Performance Association-certified tennis performance specialist. In 2004, Ochi received the NSCA’s Coach Practitioner distinction, recognising him as an elite strength and conditioning professional in the world.

“Tennis is a movement sport,” Ochi says. “Your body is moving at different speeds in different directions, and you want to move efficiently to save energy.”

In this authoritative interview, Ochi delves into the theory and practice of tennis movement and explains how you can increase your speed to beat opponents you’ve never beaten before.

Speed is the fundamental component in sports, and also the most complex,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden in a 2012 article. Is speed the fundamental component in tennis and also the most complex?

Yes, speed is the fundamental component in tennis. We can break speed down into two parts. First, speed equals running technique, and second, multi-directional speed equals movement and footwork.

Running technique is fundamental in many sports. If you do not know how to run, your ability to develop speed will be limited. In tennis, running is unique, because tennis players do not have enough space and distance to reach their top speed on the relatively small tennis court. Also, tennis players run and move with a tennis racket in their hands.

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Finally, it is just not a linear speed because tennis players have to move in many directions. So in tennis, we are really talking about multi-directional accelerations and decelerations. These characteristics of tennis make “speed in tennis” even more complex.

You are the head strength and conditioning coach for the USTA Player Development programme. Strength and conditioning are very important for tennis players, but how much of your work is devoted to improving the speed of America’s young tournament players?

Almost everything we do in the tennis strength and conditioning programmes is devoted to improving the speed of players.

What are the connections between strength, conditioning and running speed?

Tennis requires multi-directional accelerations and decelerations. To accelerate and decelerate, you have to apply a force. To produce enough force to accelerate and decelerate a player’s body on a tennis court, you have to be strong, powerful, stable, mobile and coordinated enough. Another connection is that this strength power, stability, mobility and coordination all contribute to your being agile and balanced.

Also, in tennis, you have to repeat this movement for a prolonged time, which could be more than two hours in a three-set match or more than four hours in a five-set match. So conditioning is extremely important, too.

Satoshi Ochi says Novak Djokovic has the best dynamic balance and posture in tennis.   -  AP

 

The three best men tennis players in history — Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic — and the three best women tennis players this century — Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Justine Henin — were all extremely fast. What do these six champions have in common in terms of speed?

In addition to their great overall athleticism, they are all great at ball recognition and anticipation. This is another reason why tennis speed, also called movement, is very complex. You may be able to run faster than these six champions on the track. Your reaction time may be at the same level or even better than these six players. However, because of the size of the tennis court and the speed of play, especially in modern tennis, your ability to recognise the speed, spin and trajectory of the ball and your opponent’s body position and movement are very important in order to anticipate his next shot and movement. If you can anticipate well, you can make an efficient first step out of the split step, out of the corner and in other common situations. This major difference separates these six champions from other contenders, and also the top-10 players from average players.

Federer’s incomparable footwork and movement have been variously described as preternatural, graceful, balletic and even “floating above the court.” David Bailey, a footwork specialist from Australia, dissected tennis footwork into 15 “contact moves,” the most basic seven of which are three offensive, two defensive and two rally. While world-class players perform these seven proficiently, only Federer can do all 15 of them at a high level, according to Bailey. “He has a 360-degree skill set,” Bailey told The New York Times. “He’s fantastic going forward, backward and laterally, on all surfaces. There’s no movement wasted.” Would you please explain how Federer performs these more advanced “contact moves,” and how you teach them to less talented athletes.

I agree that Federer is probably the most efficient mover on the tennis court. As I previously mentioned, I believe that he has an exceptional ability to read the balls and opponent so that he is able to anticipate the next shot. As a result, he can make his first step efficiently and move beautifully.

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Years and years of practice and training helped Federer develop this special skill. At the same time, I believe that he has done lots of off-court training, and that helps his overall physical development, which helps his movement.

During training sessions, I always remind players of “body awareness.” Players should know and understand what the “centre of gravity” is. Some players just know without thinking about it, while other players have a tough time understanding it. If you are aware of your body position, you will be able to minimise the noise, unnecessary movement. If you are creating lots of noise, you will lose your balance or you will waste your steps and energy. As a result, you will not be able to move very efficiently, as Federer does.

Is it fair to conclude speed is so important both offensively and defensively that you can’t be a great player today unless you are very fast in both areas?

Yes, you have to be fast offensively and defensively. Again, tennis is a multi-directional movement sport. So if you can move well and move from any position on the court in every direction, you will have a much better chance to perform well.

What tests do you use to measure tennis speed? And why do you use these tests?

As I mentioned previously, almost everything we do in strength and conditioning is devoted to the improvement of speed. So almost all of the tests and assessments measure tennis speed. The High Performance Profile, our version of functional movement assessments, will identify mobility/stability and strengths and weaknesses on a player’s body.

Strength tests in the weight room, such as the squat, dead lift, et cetera, will help us identify a player’s absolute strength. Power tests, such as vertical jump and broad jump, will help us to identify a player’s explosiveness and power production. Agility tests, like the spider test, are a great way to assess acceleration/deceleration, change of direction, and foot-eye coordination abilities. For a short distance sprint, we use a 10m race with a 5m split time to measure a player’s explosiveness, acceleration and basic sprinting/running ability.

In his 2000 book, Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It, Jon Entine wrote: “Blacks with a West African ancestry generally have...proportionately more lean body and muscle mass, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps, and bigger, more developed musculature in general...a longer arm span and ‘distal elongation of segments’...faster patellar tendon reflex...greater body density... modest, but significantly higher, levels of plasma testosterone...and a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy.” Entine concluded, “Relative advantages in these physiological and biomechanical characteristics are a gold mine for athletes who compete in such anaerobic activities as football, basketball, and sprinting, sports in which West African blacks clearly excel.”

In your opinion, how much of the performance of tennis players is determined by their genetic makeup? And, if blacks with a West African heritage have superior tennis genes that give them a speed advantage, do you coach and train them differently from white tennis players?

I don’t usually train differently based on different racial backgrounds. I see them as individual athletes. Each individual has different characteristics on his or her body, and I would customise their programmes based on the needs of each individual. Yes, there is a genetic component. Some physical characteristics are predetermined by a person’s genes.

Tennis is such a complex task sport. It requires many hours and years of training and practice to master the skills. The “tennis gene,” if such a thing exists, will not give players much of a speed advantage. Other things will make a difference and help develop great tennis players.

Do you believe that a gene for speed — that applies to tennis — exists?

Yes, I do believe there is a gene for speed. However, having the speed gene itself may not be the only factor to become a fast athlete, and, in our case, to develop fast speed on the tennis court. One of the points David Epstein made in his book, The Sports Gene, is that genetics alone is unlikely to provide all of the answers because environment and training are also critical factors.

Is it accurate to say that, empirically, we can observe that the vast majority of players with a West African heritage — Gaël Monfils, James Blake, Yannick Noah, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Arthur Ashe, Mikael Ymer, Venus and Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Cori Gauff, Christopher Eubanks, et cetera — are extremely fast? Is it also accurate to say that, empirically, we can see that quite a few Caucasian pro players have only average or somewhat above-average speed?

Empirically, yes. However, I have also seen plenty of Caucasian and non-West African heritage pro players who are probably as fast as the players you mention. We should not simply identify tennis speed among players by race.

Darren Cahill, the ESPN analyst and highly regarded coach, said, “If you can’t play great defensive tennis, you can’t survive.” If men and women tournament players hit the ball harder than ever, does it follow that players must be faster than ever to reach and return these increasingly powerful shots?

I agree with coach Cahill. And you are right. These tournament players hit the ball harder than ever because they have become better athletes. Also, improvement in their equipment — racquets, strings and shoes — have something to do with that. So yes, players must be faster. That means players must move better than ever.

Rafael Nadal never ceases to amaze sports fans when he scrambles to reach a distant shot outside his backhand alley and then darts like a cheetah to smack a down-the-line winner from outside his forehand alley, says Satoshi Ochi.   -  Getty Images

 

Arthur Ashe once said, “Foot-and-eye coordination is more important in tennis than hand-eye coordination.” Would you please explain what foot-and-eye coordination involves, and why it is so important.

The USTA Player Development teaching and coaching philosophy, which was developed by [former world No. 6] José Higueras, explains that the game of tennis is played in the following order: first, with the mind and eyes; second, with the feet; and last, with the hands. So before players finally hit the ball with their hands, they have to move their feet after they recognise balls and make decisions with their eyes and mind.

So try to recognise everything you can, and as early as you can, about the flight of the oncoming ball. That recognition starts when both the ball and your opponent are in your line of vision.

First, watch your opponent’s body. Is he off-balance? If so, is he falling backward or sideways? Is he arriving late, barely on time, or early for the ball? Is the racket arm or arms going to arrive on time?

Second, watch his arm and wrist at the contact point. Does the racket turn in his hand or hands at impact? Is he contacting the ball out of his “strike zone” in terms of height or closeness to his body? Is the racket face vertical or bevelled backward at the contact point? Does the shot sound like it’s hit solidly?

Third, watch the ball intently as it leaves your opponent’s racket. What is its general direction, approximate speed and projected depth? How much topspin or underspin is on the ball? How will the wind affect his shot? Run only as fast as you need to run. That means you sometimes sprint, sometimes run moderately fast, and sometimes move slowly.

Fourth, focus closely on how the ball bounces. Even though you generally can predict how it will bounce, your initial judgement is occasionally a bit off. Then, make split-second adjustments to your footwork and/or swing.

Elite players have the ability to instantaneously zero in on the most critical visual cues in a given situation to nearly always anticipate correctly. This perceptual skill comes from years of rigorous training and experience.

So what Arthur Ashe said makes sense. Foot-eye coordination is more important than hand-eye coordination.

When should you take long strides? And when should you take short steps? And why?

Long, short or medium strides, it all depends on the situation. The answer is that a player should take an optimum length of stride. In general, longer strides cover more distance, and shorter steps cover a shorter distance. So a player should take a longer stride to move more distance and use short steps as adjustment steps when you arrive to hit the ball. But, on a tennis court, each situation is unique, so distances, directions, angles, positions, et cetera, will not be exactly the same. Therefore, the stride length needs to be optimum for each situation.

Various running scenarios repeat themselves frequently during matches. For example, some common situations include running laterally 15 feet during a baseline rally, and scrambling diagonally 20 feet to return a sharp crosscourt angle, and sprinting 30 feet forward to reach a drop shot. Therefore, should players practise drills that prepare them for these specific situations?

Yes, as tennis is a multi-directional movement sport, players should practise drills that prepare them for the situations that you mention here. However, you also should remember that most of the tennis movements are a very short distance. One study shows that the average distance move per change of direction is less than 4m (13 feet) and another study shows that 80 percent of a player’s movement is less than 2.5m (8.2 feet). Therefore, short and multi-directional drills should be the main focus for tennis movement.

During Alexander Zverev’s round-robin victory over Diego Schwartzman at the 2020 ATP Finals, Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, who formerly coached superstar Pete Sampras, said, “Zverev moves very well laterally but only average north to south [forward and backward].” Why do some players move much better in one direction than in another direction? And how can their running be improved in their weaker direction?

Interesting comments by Paul. I did not watch the match, so I am only guessing here. But I believe north and south movement also includes diagonal movement. In general, Zverev moves well and he has good balance and stability. More than 70 percent of tennis movement is lateral movement, so he covers the court well in the majority of his movement patterns. Zverev is also strong and explosive, so he has all the tools you need to move fast on the court. In this case, the problem might be more about the matchup and the required anticipation because Schwartzman is a tricky player to play. Maybe Zverev had a bad movement day. I don’t know. Regardless, I trust the eyes of a highly experienced coach like Paul, so this might be an area Zverev needs to improve.

Players have a tendency to move in one direction better than in another. It could be a strength or mobility issue. The human body, especially a tennis player’s body, is asymmetrical. If a player has a physical limitation that prevents them from properly opening their left hip, they might not take the first step to the left efficiently, and, as a result, they may not move well to their left. If a player has a weaker right glute, their right foot push-off might not be as strong as on the left side, and, as a result, recovering from the right side is not as good as from the left side.

We make adjustments in our strength and conditioning programmes based on these observations and deficiencies, so that players will improve the weaker directions of their movement.

What are the keys to a quick and efficient acceleration?

First, the eyes and the mind, and then strength, explosiveness and power. You have to have great ball recognition and decision-making ability to accelerate efficiently. Then, basic strength will help produce more force to move your body. Lastly, you have to produce the force very fast to move quickly, so you have to have great explosiveness and power-production ability.

Which sport requires running and agility that is most similar to the short bursts of running in tennis? Should young tennis players also play this sport?

I am a big fan of multi-sports participation, especially at a younger age. Different sports help develop not only physical and athletic characteristics and ability, but also mental and social skills. I would say soccer, basketball and volleyball players, and baseball infielders have similar short bursts of running that tennis has. In general, moving-athlete and moving-ball sports help the most.

What are the most productive drills to improve a player’s speed?

For simple “speed,” which means linear acceleration and top speed, strength training and plyometrics and power development drills are very productive. The other kinds of speed include multi-directional accelerations and decelerations. So for shorter distances — 20m or less — acceleration drills, eccentric contraction exercise drills and change of direction (COD) drills are very productive.

I recommend jumping rope as the most productive drill for tennis speed. Repetitive low-intensity plyometrics help develop tendons and muscles stiffness and strength. You need tendons and muscles that are sufficiently stiff and strong to be able to push the ground and receive ground force quickly for tennis speed. Jumping rope is also a great coordination exercise.

Regarding speed and agility training equipment: Do you use ladders, cones, markers, resistance cords, rip-away belts, reaction balls, and bands or fitness rings? Specifically, how do each of these and other devices help tennis players?

I use all of them. Each device and equipment is useful for different reasons and purposes. The ladder is a great tool to do some agility footwork drills. Cones and markers are great to give players targets to accelerate and decelerate or change directions. They are also used as mini-barriers to jump or hop over for plyometrics. Resistance cords, bungee cords and harnesses are great to apply extra resistance during speed drills and movement drills. These devices are also used for “over speed” training. They pull athletes to help them develop faster than normal speed. When athletes experience “over speed,” they also develop deceleration techniques and strength.

The rip-away belt is a great tool to apply resistance and to train players to accelerate. Reaction balls are fun and a great tool for reaction and agility. You can use bands and gymnastic fitness rings — suspension-training equipment — for strength training to develop strength and stability for tennis speed.

The important thing is having a balance of different training modes and tools. You cannot rely on only one type of equipment. You should mix different equipment and tools. Create different drills or use multi-equipment together. Mix different tools with closed (controlled) and open (uncontrolled) drills. If you are knowledgeable about different equipment and tools and know the pros and cons of each, you will be able to create many drills that help tennis players and make it fun for them rather than drudgery.

Some players, most notably Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, are able to decelerate in a measured way when they approach the ball and then change directions with agility after they hit the ball. How do they do both so skilfully?

Many years of practice, training and experience on and off the courts make them so skilful. They are strong and powerful enough to accelerate and decelerate from any position on the court. Their foot-eye coordination, ability to read their opponents’ shots and position, and anticipation for the next movement make it possible to measure the distance and timing they need to accelerate and decelerate with precision.

Does speed training differ for males and females because of their different physiques? And, if so, how?

As I previously mentioned, I train athletes as individuals. We need to customise strength and conditioning programmes based on different physiques, training age and experience, strengths and weaknesses, et cetera. Yes, in general, there are some different physical characteristics between males and females. Probably the most important differences are body composition. In general, males have more muscle mass than females, while the anatomy of the pelvic structure creates wider hips on the female body and a higher degree of hip q-angle than males. However, some male populations have similar body weaknesses or deficiencies as females have, and vice versa.

Each individual athlete is unique, and the human body is very complex. Some players are stronger than others, more explosive, bigger, smaller, taller, shorter, et cetera. This makes our job as strength and conditioning professionals very interesting and challenging. And this is why I love what I do.

Tennis players are taller than ever with the top 50 men averaging almost 6’3”. The tallest in history is 6’11 3/4” Reilly Opelka, who moves much more effortlessly and quickly than 6’10” John Isner, now 35, ever did. Does Opelka run with greater biomechanical efficiency? Is it a matter of attitude because Opelka said “I’ve always liked to scramble for balls,” whereas Isner said, “You don’t see 6’10” NBA players bringing the ball up [after the other team scores].” Do you teach super-tall players, 6’6” or taller, to run differently than you teach shorter players?

I agree Reilly moves well for a big guy. I have trained him since he was 13 years old. We always knew that he would be very tall. I thought practising lots of time on clay courts and working a lot on his ground strokes when he was a junior helped his movement. Also, we spent lots of time doing basic agility footwork drills. Reilly didn’t mind running, but it was not his favourite thing, for sure. Whatever drills or exercises we did, we were always careful to manage the stress on his body. So we always ran him on a natural turf, grass field.

Reilly is also a good athlete and loves to play competitive basketball. He and Tommy Paul spent lots of time playing basketball at the local gym, which we didn’t know much about until later.

Even though superstar sprinter Usain Bolt is 6’5”, is it amazing that a giant, far taller than Bolt, holds the USTA 5m record?

Because of Reilly’s size, we always spent lots of time on basic movement mechanics and techniques, but nothing different from smaller athletes. We managed his intensity and volume, for sure. We believe that helped him develop good acceleration/deceleration mechanics. His first step is so explosive. Reilly still holds the USTA 5m split-time record in the 10m sprint.

"Reilly (Opelka) moves well for a big guy. I have trained him since he was 13 years old. We always knew that he would be very tall. I thought practising lots of time on clay courts and working a lot on his ground strokes when he was a junior helped his movement. Also, we spent lots of time doing basic agility footwork drills. Reilly didn’t mind running, but it was not his favourite thing, for sure. Whatever drills or exercises we did, we were always careful to manage the stress on his body. So we always ran him on a natural turf, grass field," says Satoshi Ochi.   -  Getty Images

 

Do you teach super-tall players, 6’6” or taller, to run differently than you teach shorter players?

The basic running techniques are the same regardless of the player’s size. Although the specific reasons of knee and ankle injuries in tall super players are varied, it is probably safe to say that the stress on the joints such as hips, knees and ankles are higher in tall players than shorter players. If two players are identical in body weight and composition, and if one is taller than other and running and stopping at the same rates, the taller player will probably have more stress on the joints.

Therefore, I would pay more attention to the intensity and volume of the running drills rather than teaching taller athletes how to run differently. Tennis players need to be on the court for countless hours for practice and competition, so I would save their legs for that. Second, super-tall players or players with a history of a high risk for injuries should be monitored to keep the stress lower on their joints and ligaments.

Why is the split step important in order to accelerate quickly to reach your opponent’s shots? What is the advanced split step?

The split step will create extra ground reaction force to accelerate quickly. With a small jump (split step), your body will receive this extra force from the ground. As a result, you will be able to accelerate quickly with less effort and more efficiency.

To me, the advanced split step is that as you are making your split step, you are already preparing for the next movement. For example, before you hit the ground after your split step, you already open your hip, and your toe is pointing toward the direction you move, and your outside leg is preparing to load to push off as soon as you hit the ground.

What is the centre of gravity? And how does the centre of gravity change in different phases of movement: the split step, first step, sprinting, adjustment steps, shuffling and sliding?

The centre of gravity is a balance point. It is the point where a force may be applied to move your body. Therefore, you often want to maintain a lower centre of gravity, so that you are more stable, and it is easier to apply a force to move your body. Also, you should maintain a minimum of vertical displacement — “up and down movement” — of the centre of gravity when you run.

The split step will create some vertical displacement in the nature of the movement; you would like to minimise “up and down” movement, but still hop high enough to create extra ground reaction force. Therefore, the split step is usually a very small step. When sliding, you would like to keep your centre of gravity low and between the legs so you can slide, and there is less chance you will lose your balance when you stop.

Yutaka Nakamura, the head of tennis physical conditioning at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, told Tennis.com: “As you get closer to the tournament, the workouts become more tennis-specific. You reduce the capacity and cut down hours, focusing on movement efficiency.” What exactly is movement efficiency? And why do you do that?

It is a basic concept of periodisation. When it is close to competition, your training is more sport-specific and you reduce the volume of training so that you will be able to peak at the competition.

Movement efficiency here is more about specific movement patterns and skills. When you are close to the start of competition, you don’t want to introduce any new stress to your body. You really want to sharpen up what you have been working on and make sure that everything is in top shape. By the way, Yutaka is no longer with IMG. He is now a private fitness trainer for Naomi Osaka.

What are single-leg stability exercises? And how do they increase movement efficiency?

When you serve, you catch and hold your entire body weight with a single leg at the finish position. Also, most of the movements in tennis start and finish on a single leg. Tennis players need to have strength to decelerate and then stabilise their body with a single leg. Therefore, it is important to have single-leg stability. Single-leg squat and single-leg RDL (Romanian dead lift) are two popular single-leg strength and stability exercises used by tennis players.

Why are dynamic balance and good posture very important when you run in tennis?

Dynamic balance is the ability to stabilise and maintain good posture in any position. Tennis is a game in which your opponent tries to make you run around the court so that you will be unstable and unable to produce good shots. Good posture is a key component to create and keep a stable position. Without good posture, it is hard for you to be stable.

Which pro player has the best dynamic balance and posture?

In my opinion, Novak Djokovic has the best dynamic balance and posture.

"In general, Zverev moves well and he has good balance and stability. More than 70 percent of tennis movement is lateral movement, so he covers the court well in the majority of his movement patterns. Zverev is also strong and explosive, so he has all the tools you need to move fast on the court," says Satoshi Ochi.   -  Getty Images

 

In his 2014 instruction book, The Secrets of Spanish Tennis, Chris Lewit wrote: “In Spain, footwork is taught in 360-degree movements, rather than just laterally and forward. In my experience, most American coaches teach 180-degree movement — lateral and forward — to attack.” Is Lewit right? And should you run differently when you run laterally, diagonally, forward or backward? And why?

Tennis is a multi-directional movement sport that includes 360-degree movements. At the same time, the majority of tennis movement, more than 70 percent, is lateral movement. So it makes sense to focus a lot on lateral movement. The initial movement patterns are different and are based on the directions you are moving. Also, it all depends on your position on the court and each offensive, neutral and defensive situation. Therefore, yes, you move differently when you run laterally, diagonally, forward and backward.

Do you recommend different ways to run — and to slide — on clay, grass and hard courts? And, if so, please explain the differences.

I am not sure if I “recommend” different ways to run based on the surface, but I would say different characteristics of the surfaces, such as softness or hardness of the surface and friction of the surface, influence how you should move. It is simple physics: The ground reaction force is higher if the surface is harder and more abrasive, such as hard courts. If the surface has less friction, it will be more slippery like clay courts, and therefore it’s easier for players to slide.

Sliding on hard courts is an interesting topic. As I mentioned, it is easier to slide on clay courts because the surface has less friction. On hard courts, it is harder to slide because the friction of the surface is greater. It means you need more energy to slide on hard courts. But, it’s possible to slide on hard courts, as we all witness. Because you need more energy to stop the slide, it means you will have to be strong and balanced enough to slide on hard courts. Because tennis players are stronger and faster than ever, they are sliding on hard courts more than they used to. Of course, there might be some equipment improvements, such as shoes and different types of hard court surfaces that I might not be aware of, that might change the way players stop on hard courts.

Do players occasionally have bad movement days, just as they have bad serve days or bad forehand days? If so, why does that happen?

This is a relevant question. Players do have bad movement days. They could come from two possible reasons. The first reason is physiological fatigue. Once again, the basic tennis movements are acceleration and deceleration. To accelerate an object, in this case a player’s body, requires the application of a force. If a player is tired or has not recovered well from previous matches, the player simply cannot generate the same amount of force to move as fast as usual. As a result, this player could have a bad movement day.

The second reason is mental fatigue. Tennis movement heavily relies on recognition and anticipation. Good movement players quickly identify and anticipate where their opponent’s shot is coming, so they can make a very efficient first step. If someone is mentally tired, perhaps partly from physical fatigue — maybe did not sleep well the night before — it will affect the player’s movement. Although I am not a psychologist, if someone is very nervous or not in their normal or ideal mental stage, it could affect them physiologically, and, as a result, the player is not able to move as usual.

How can a player either avoid or minimise a bad movement day?

The answer is pretty simple. You have to take care of your physical and mental condition on the match day. I know that it is easy to say and sometimes hard to do, but this is why scheduling and periodisation are very important. Also, monitoring the daily workload is a very effective way to make sure players are not over-training and, as a result, not fully recovered. Players should work on mental skill management, recovery strategies, sleep, nutrition and hydration and so forth, so that they will maximise their physical and mental condition on the match day.

Does your work also involve increasing players’ hand speed, which is particularly important when playing net?

Reflex and coordination abilities are required to improve players’ hand speed. Also, players should be strong enough to manoeuvre the tennis racquet and explosive and quick enough to move and control body positions. So, the drills and exercises like reaction, strength, power and coordination that we use also help improve players’ hand speed. However, on-court tennis practice is probably the best option to improve in this area.

On the importance of sleep in sports, neuroscientist Matthew Walker, said, “Sleep is probably the greatest legal performance-enhancing drug that few athletes are abusing enough. Roger Federer claims to sleep around 12 hours, about 10 hours a night and about a two-hour sleep during the day. Usain Bolt, the famous sprinter, claimed to sleep somewhere between nine-and-a-half to 10 hours a night, and he takes naps strategically during the day. Once when he was awake for [only] 35 minutes after sleeping, he came out and broke a world record. They all know the power of sleep and they use it. The basketball player LeBron James sleeps 12 hours as well.” How many hours of sleep do you recommend for tennis players to maximise their speed? And should players take naps, particularly during tournaments?

This is very relevant. Sleep is the best method for recovery. We recommend seven-nine hours of sleep. A good night sleep between seven and nine hours provides invaluable adaptation time to adjust the physical, neurological, immunological and emotional stressors that are experienced during the day. Some athletes, especially during major growth spurts, may need 10 hours or more of sleep (Recovery in Tennis). I am not a sleep specialist, but we believe that a short naps during the day of 15-30 minutes are beneficial.

What kinds of tennis shoes and socks do you recommend for efficient and safe running?

Most tennis shoes are designed for tennis movement. They provide good support for lateral movement. The sole is relatively thick and stiff, so it is durable enough for the many accelerations and decelerations and changes of direction that may include sliding. I personally prefer thick socks, maybe double socks. They will give you a good cushion and protect your feet from excess pressure from the wide range of movement you must make. However, I found this varies from player to player. Some actually don’t like thick socks or double socks; especially when they have to wear customised orthotics.

Should tournament players protect their feet and ankles with devices?

Unless you need to wear it due to injury, such as an ankle sprain, I am not a big fan of ankle braces. Your body will adapt to the stress, and that is how your body, muscles and joints get stronger. If you always have extra support that an ankle brace provides, your muscles and joints may not adapt to the stress, and, as a result, that may weaken the specific joint, in this case your ankle joints.

When should you tape your ankles? And why?

Taping is sometimes used as a substitute for the brace and for different stages of return to play after injuries, and as a transition from or to wearing a brace or removing a brace. There might be other reasons to use taping. Athletic trainers are more appropriate professionals to answer this question.

How do concentric strength and eccentric strength relate to running in tennis?

The simple way to explain this is that concentric strength is essential for acceleration, and eccentric strength is essential for deceleration.

The fastest players in tennis history

Men

  • Novak Djokovic
  • Bjorn Borg
  • Roger Federer
  • Rafael Nadal
  • Johan Kriek
  • Andy Murray
  • Tom Okker
  • Lleyton Hewitt
  • Gaël Monfils
  • Felix Auger-Aliassime
  • Kei Nishikori
  • Vitas Gerulaitis
  • Ilie Năstase
  • Michael Chang
  • Yannick Noah
  • Fred Perry
  • James Blake
  • Jonas Björkman
  • Frances Tiafoe
  • Carlos Alcaraz

Women

  • Steffi Graf
  • Venus Williams
  • Justine Henin
  • Simona Halep
  • Kim Clijsters
  • Serena Williams
  • Martina Navratilova
  • Coco Gauff
  • Pauline Betz
  • Margaret Court
  • Ashleigh Barty
  • Greer Stevens
  • Arantxa Sánchez Vicario

When you assess athletes to determine their strengths and weaknesses, do you do a functional movement screening, a musculoskeletal screening and physical fitness testing?

We use the High Performance Profile for our players’ functional movement screening. Once a year, we do full a medical assessment that includes a musculoskeletal screening by physicians. Our fitness testing includes the vertical jump, broad jump, 10m dash with a 5m split time, a spider test, pull-ups, and dead lift or squat RM tests.

At what age should boys and girls start doing running drills? And which drills?

Toddlers start trying to run six or seven months after they learn to walk. Obviously, their body and coordination are not developed yet. Pre-puberty time — approximately age seven to nine for boys and six to eight for girls — is a good time to start developing agility and quickness. As they go through the onset of puberty to post-puberty — approximately age 13-16 for boys and 11-13 for girls — maximum speed development drills should be introduced and focused on.

Do you advise players what their optimum body fat percentage and playing weight should be to run as fast as possible? And why or why not?

No, we do not advise players to have a specific estimated body fat percentage or weight. However, as a high-performance athlete, you should maintain a healthy body composition so that you are able to compete at the highest level possible. This information should come from medical professionals or specialists such as nutritionists.

Which foods and drinks do you recommend to increase a player’s quick energy and running speed for matches in the short run and for their speed, strength and stamina in the long run?

This question should be answered by nutritionists. But, based on my basic nutrition knowledge, simple carbohydrates are probably better for quick energy, and more complex carbohydrates are better for stamina in the long run. The liquid or drink form is probably better for quick energy. Sports drinks have simple carbohydrates and other ingredients provide quick energy. A banana is a popular choice during matches, but a banana takes more time to produce energy than a sports drink, so it may help more for stamina in the long run.

As players age, they lose some of their running explosiveness, speed, agility and flexibility. What can seniors do in their 40s, 50s and 60s to slow down this inevitable loss of speed?

Unfortunately, as we get older, we lose some muscle. However, you can slow down this ageing process. It is the “use it or lose it” concept. If you stimulate your tissues and joints enough, your body will continue to adapt to the stress. In addition to playing tennis or other sports and activities, you should do weightlifting. Strength training is one of the best ways to stimulate your tissues and joints effectively and maintain your muscle, which you need for explosiveness, speed, agility and flexibility.

If speed is of the essence in tennis, both in terms of hitting shots and running for them, how do you think your speed, strength and conditioning coaching will evolve this decade? And how will playing styles evolve?

Tennis players are getting stronger and faster. They can produce more powerful shots than ever from anywhere on the court. Therefore, tennis players need to be more complete athletes. It is a very complex process because tennis is a complex sport. Doing speed drills only will not be enough; lifting only will not be enough; doing plyometrics only will not be enough, et cetera.

Because each athlete is different, the precise training regimen in each of these and other areas has to be different for each athlete. Strength and conditioning coaches need to understand both the sport of tennis and the athlete very well and use every available tool to train and develop them to become complete tennis athletes.

In the past 30 years, the playing style has changed considerably. Not many players serve and volley any more. The points are longer. Lately, the speed of players’ shots — serves, serve returns, forehands and backhands — keep getting faster.

So it is hard to predict how playing styles will evolve. However, one thing is certain: tennis players need to be more than just a tennis player. Like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, they need to be complete and superior athletes. Tennis players should always remember what Federer once said: “My game is a lot about footwork. If I move well, I play well.”