Bird's Tennis Tips: Fitness

July 5, 2005

Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

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 tennis.

Play Better

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 further away.

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 overboard.

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

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 away.

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!


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