July 5, 2005
Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston
University and each month he will give us a new tennis
Okay, folks, this month we're going to discuss something that has
always been the bane of my existence. But, unfortunately, it is very
important to tennis players. I speak of none other than
Yes, I know, I know. I
wouldn't read any further either. But one can only assume that you
are here, reading this article, because you want to improve your
tennis game. Either that or you just enjoy my witty repartee,
and we both know that's not it.
So, what's so important
about fitness? Can't we just play tennis and have fun and not worry
about being in shape?
Well, of course you can.
No one is stopping you from being a "Weekend Warrior," a
"Holiday Hacker," a "Part-time Pusher," or a
"Monthly Moonballer." No one at all. And truth to tell,
recreational tennis is a great way to stay in just-good-enough shape
to get your doctor off your case.
But there are a fair
number of you who will, at some point, do something really silly.
Like enter a tournament. So, you've decided that you can handle one
match a week, eh? Try four. Or eight. Or twelve. Yes, it is possible.
As well, your level of
fitness dictates how you recover after each match. Will you go
out for drinks with the "fellahs?" Or will you lie on a
stretcher in the ER with an IV in your arm? No joke, it can
happen. Lots of times we don't feel the heat and the exhaustion on
the court because adrenaline is keeping us going. But once we step
off the court, our bodies come crashing down around us.
Additionally, the best
part about fitness is preventing injury. Contrary to popular belief,
tennis is a very injury-prone sport. And the vast majority of
normal tennis-related injuries can be prevented with proper fitness
training before walking on the court.
Finally, the most
attractive part of fitness is: play better and win more!
We will get into all of
these aspects as well as some basics for fitness training specific to
It is a foregone
conclusion that nearly 100% of us do not play as well when we're
tired. Particularly those that play a high-energy style of tennis. I
am a power player, which I lament in a lot of ways. But it's fun and
it's the style of tennis that I've played for well over a
quarter-century, so I "dance with the one what brung me,"
as my fellow Texans say, more frequently than I care to admit.
So, what do we do? Well,
there are two ways to deal with this idea. First, we could get into
such great shape that we simply don't get tired. Or, second, we can
adopt a style of play that works when we're tired. My coach in the
mid-eighties attacked both prongs of this fork. Plus, I think he was
somewhat sadistic. But he never asked me to confess to any heresy, so
I just chalk it up to him believing fervently in good conditioning.
I, as well, believe in
both of these ideals, but to a lesser degree. My coach back then had
us so tired each day in the Texas heat that I didn't know how to
function when I wasn't tired. And in the end, I really only recall
winning one match solely because I was in better shape than the other
kid. And I lost plenty because I wasn't as good a player.
So, you have to work on
your game, too. But be conscious that there is some definite benefit
to knowing what parts of your game diminish when you're tired, and
then allowing for it. Meanwhile, work on your fitness level to try
and keep that point where you go from being fresh to being tired
So, to attain this goal,
do basically two things. One, work on an endurance regimen. Jog, if
your knees can take it (mine can't). Play more and more tennis,
longer and longer hours, in the heat of the midday sun. Play singles.
Whatever it takes to get you working on that endurance.
Second, devise and engage
in drills that force performance while tiring you out. The Marquis de
Coach I had as a teenager was the master at this. We didn't even step
on the court until we had done some running. And then the first
drills we did were grueling.
We always started off with
"3 sets of 12." In this drill, there are two feeders
standing on the service line. The person being drilled is on the far
baseline. The feeders take turns feeding crosscourt to the drillee's
alternating forehand and backhand. Twelve balls are fed and the
drillee must get all twelve over the net and in the court to count as
one set. Even if the first ball is missed, the twelve balls is
completed, but the set doesn't count. Continue, with brief
rests between sets (no more than 15 seconds) until three completed
sets have been achieved. It sounds easy, but believe me, it isn't.
For a few added bonuses: the feeders must keep their feet moving (no
resting!); the drillee must complete five sets. Frequently, it would
take the entire practice session for someone to complete their 3 or 5
sets. And we were some of the top-ranked juniors in the state at the
time. This is a very tough drill, but it is excellent at forcing you
to perform while tired.
Another drill we did never
really had a name. It was mostly just hitting overheads. But there
are a few twists. First, the drillee must hit 25 overheads in a row
over the net into the court to complete the drill. Any miss and the
count starts over. Second, the drillee must touch the net with his
racquet after each overhead. Finally, if at any time anyone bounces
an overhead over the back fence, he or she gets to rest while the
rest of the group has to run a lap. That way, you can be sure the
feeder is putting the lob good and deep, making the drillee run more.
Added challenges: the feeder must keep his feet moving; the drillee
must hit 5 in a row over the net into the alley after the 25 in a
row. This is a great drill for learning to hit overheads, typically
an aggressive shot, while really tired.
Finally, we did a drill in
college called "The Worst Point of Your Life." In this
drill, the feeder takes a full basket of balls and feeds them to the
drillee in a manner that simulates a point… for the entire
basket! The feeder should mix in drop shots, short balls, deep balls,
lobs, varying spin, etc. to make it seem like it is indeed the worst
point the drillee has ever played. The drillee should make sure to
treat this drill as if it were a real point; try to get everything in
the court and try to get to every ball.
Obviously, these are good
drills for bullet-proof teenagers to do. We were in great shape, I
can tell you. We even outgrew the Coach de Sade so he flew in a guy
from New Zealand to train us. It was pure insanity. But I don't
expect any of you to get this insane with your fitness unless you are
truly serious about your tennis. Oh, and if you're over 30 and
your name isn't Agassi, then this level of fitness is way
But the point is, craft
and perform some drills that help you see more how you play
when you're tired. And the more you do these drills, two things will
happen. First, you will be better able to play when you're tired. And
second, the point at which you get tired will take longer to reach.
Strength training has only
come into vogue in tennis in the last 20 years or so. Before this
time, there was a fair perception of the need for strength, but not
much beyond that for injury prevention.
Speaking as someone who
has blown his knee twice on the tennis court, if it can be prevented,
by all means prevent it.
Back in the day, we used
to do many exercises involving weights. We wouldn't go over, say, two
pounds, but we did many many reps. Key areas to work on involve the
wrist, the shoulder, the forearm, the biceps, and the triceps (okay,
so I could have just said the entire arm). Legs are definitely
good to strengthen in the same fashion (low weights, high reps) as
are abs. I am not going to go into detail on all the ways to
strengthen these areas. Anyone can go to a gym or subscribe to Men's
Health to get good ideas. But think the following: leg lifts, arm
circles, bicep curls, tricep extensions, squats, pushups, and rows.
In the end, there really
is no limit to the good that fitness can do. But there are some
things that you may wish to avoid if you are looking to improve your
tennis through fitness.
First, I have heard it
said that "nothing above the shoulders" helps tennis.
Before you start figuring out how to strap barbells to your eyelids,
this doesn't mean exercising muscles above the shoulders. It
means that the various exercises that involve lifting weights above
shoulder level are not good. I am not going to agree nor disagree.
Any time someone tells me to do less exercising, I am not
going to question them. As well, tricep extensions lift the weights
above your head, and I know those help.
I would also avoid
"bulking up." The best tennis players are strong from a
tenacity standpoint. They are simply resilient. It doesn't take much
strength to lift and swing a 12-ounce tennis racquet to hit a fuzzy
yellow ball. But it takes the type of weight training that small
weights and lots of reps can give to be able to withstand hitting the
ball hundreds of times and not get hurt. As well, good tennis players
need to remain flexible, which big weight-training tends to take
All in all, I think all
tennis players can benefit from a fitness regimen. If you play once a
week, try walking or light jogging once or twice a week. If you play
two or three times a week, try playing an additional time per week.
At least add in a drilling routine designed to give you a good
aerobic workout with short bouts of anaerobic activity.
In the end, I guarantee
that you will feel better and you will also play better.
Now, drop and give me twenty!
Send your tennis questions and comments to Mike
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