If you want to win, you better get movingCourtesy of Anca Dumitrescu, Miami (OH) Head Coach
At one of our recent team meetings I asked our girls to bring a short video of a memorable point or moment in tennis. Some of them brought a clip played between Nadal and Federer, or Wozniacki and Clijsters, or Safina and Iankovic, all these points lasted at least 20 ball exchanges. During these points, the players covered all corners of the court with outstanding strength, speed and agility. Watching these points lead us to really consider the importance of footwork and conditioning in order to be successful at the highest levels of the game.
At times, especially in junior tennis, the focus on developing a player’s level of tennis fitness and his or hers ability to efficiently cover the court for an extended period of time is sacrificed in order to spend more time on learning how to hit the ball harder and harder. Players seem to easily fall in love with their quest of hitting the ball hard which often becomes their main means for winning the point. Such focus often leads to poor shot selection and short points which never allow a player to develop their conditioning or realize its value.
While developing a clean technique and power through the shot are important areas of development, footwork and tennis specific conditioning often make the difference between average players and the best players on the tour.
It is not a surprise that the current number one players in men’s and women’s tennis: Rafael Nadal and Carloline Wozniacki, are also considered the best movers out there.
Why is conditioning so important to one’s success on the tennis court?
One reason that has brought footwork and movement to the forefront of success in tennis is the technological development over the past decade which now allows players to use racquets and strings which generate more power and thus increase the speed at which the game is being played.Therefore, everyone out there has the ability to hit the ball hard and the result of the point often comes down to the player who can not only attack but also defend the court in those moments when the opponent is on the attack. When players lack the physical conditioning to run down tough balls and get quickly in and out of the corners they’re only hope for winning the point remains hitting the ball harder or going for bigger and riskier shots in order to shorten the point. Tennis for these players is no longer a game of percentages but a high risk gamble in which more often than not they end up on the loosing side.
Secondly, there is a direct correlation between a player’s level of conditioning and mental toughness. Pushing beyond one’s physical limits is a question of will power and determination in those moments when the muscles are filled with lactic acid and the brain is screaming at the muscles to stop and rest. The more repetition an athlete gets at pushing beyond the physical limits, the easier it becomes to fight through those limits and the stronger the mind becomes in those moments. The body eventually adapts to these physical challenges and the body is able to better deal with the stress and engage in faster recovery.
As a result, when such players face long points which require them to defend the court until they have an opportunity to attack, they are now able to move explosively in and out of the corners and hit high percentage shots because they have trained their bodies to withstand lengthy attacks from their opponents and no longer feel the need to press or over hit out of fear of not being able to get to another ball. Moreover, such players force their opponents into having to do an extraordinary amount of work for every single point until their opponents can no longer maintain that level of physical and mental exhaustion. That mental fatigue can result in that one double fault in the third set tiebreaker or that missed volley at 5 all. It may only mean a couple of lost points but then again it is a couple of points that usually make the difference between winning and loosing a tennis match.
Thirdly and maybe most importantly, having a high level of conditioning gives a player tremendous confidence on the court. When I grew up in Romania, coaches used to drill us with the same message: “as long as you can get to every ball, you can hit poor shots and still win the match.” It was a very simple message and yet it couldn’t be more true. Even the best players have days when their timing is off and their balls land a little further away from their targets. Even Nadal and Wozniacky sometimes hit the ball short and leave it sitting for their opponents to put it away. Unlike most players however, they remain composed and confident in those moments because they know that despite not hitting the ball great, they can still get to enough balls and lengthen the match until they are able to regain their rhythm or until they wear down their opponents to such a degree that they start missing themselves.
When Djocovic made his great run at the Australian Open, all the commentators talked about was his ability to cover the court and run down balls that many other players would let go. In Spain most tennis academies spend hours trying to teach their players how to move like Nadal and in Belgium, Clijsters is a symbol of fitness and strength for younger players.
All these players hit the ball better, harder and with more spin than most. However, they all recognize that their success cannot just lie in the way they hit the ball. They realize that there may be other players hitting bigger forehands and backhands. At the same time they have developed such a level of footwork and conditioning that allows them to combine defense and offense into a beautiful masterpiece of pressure which suffocates their opponents.
So if you want to reach the next level of your game take a step back for a second and evaluate your conditioning. Do you feel confident on the court that you can move strong in and out of the corners for an extended period of time? Do you feel that you can maintain your focus throughout that exertion and continue to move strongly in the latter parts of the match and still make good shot selection? Do you enjoy getting pushed and at the same time pushing your opponent and making them work for every point? If the answer to these questions is yes, you are certainly on the right track for success.
If however the answer is NO, it is time to take ownership of your conditioning. Get together with a conditioning coach and make a plan. Set goals that are reachable and evaluate your progress periodically. More importantly, know that you will have to push your limits at time and embrace that challenge without setting any personal limitations. You may find out that you can go further and reach limits which you never though were reachable and within that you will gain a whole new level of confidence on the tennis court.