Training like the professionals
tennishead hangs out with strength and conditioning expert Jez Green and British pro Emily Webley-Smith to understand how professionals improve speed
The life of a professional tennis player is a busy one. Whether competing, planning schedules, travelling to and from tournaments, or quickly trying to adjust to a new time zone, there’s little time for much else. But as well as winning matches, banking dollars and accumulating ranking points, a key element for any pro is to keep improving their game – whether by ironing out technical problems, improving tactical awareness or, just as importantly, working to become physically more efficient.
British No.7 Emily Webley-Smith decided prior to the 2011 summer grass court season to set herself the specific goal of becoming faster so turned to strength and conditioning expert Jez Green, who works with Andy Murray and in the past has helped female stars such as Daniela Hantuchova and Tatiana Golovin.
“While I was travelling earlier this year I had time to think about what I wanted to achieve physically,” the world No.282 explains. “My goal was to simply get a bit faster so I approached Jez and said, ‘OK, I want this. What do we do to achieve it?’”
Green set about planning a rigorous six-week ‘training block’ as they’re known on the tour, aimed at improving the 27-year-old from Bristol’s speed by around 10 to 15 per cent and, as Green explains, the domestic grass season was one of the best times to get to work.
“The pros often do this kind of thing at the same time as playing tournaments because there’s no real off-season in tennis,” says the Englishman.
“The grass season is a good time to do it because rallies and matches tend to be shorter than on other surfaces so less physically demanding. Also, because of the morning dews, you can’t really get on court before about 11 or 12 o’clock usually. That means Emily can do these sessions early in the day, at around 8am, when she’s at her freshest. You can’t do this kind of work fatigued or you’ll hurt yourself.”
Before the training block, Green tested Webley-Smith’s speed and leg power so after six weeks both can judge exactly how much she has improved. Then the work could begin.
Green believes that a tennis player’s ability to move effectively around the court is as much about decelerating – being able to slow the body down quickly to change direction for example – as it is about accelerating and so improving Webley-Smith’s ability to decelerate was a key element of their daily routines that included sprint work, pure deceleration drills and on-court movement patterns.
Deceleration work involved drills such as sets of six to 10 mini hurdle jumps in different directions with the player mixing up which foot they use to land on.
Webley-Smith would also be completing acceleration work – three to five sets of 60-metre sprints, with each set comprising three to five repetitions. These are made harder by the occasional addition of a jacket which weighs 10 per cent of the player’s bodyweight.
On-court drills were also an element of the six-week regime and would feature sets of six specific movement patterns aimed at mirroring how a player gets around a tennis court during a match.
“Over a six-week block Emily will carry out pure deceleration training sessions [mini hurdle work] three or four times a week,” Green explains.
“She will do a weight-jacket sprint session only twice a week because it’s very heavy on the legs. At the same time she’s doing some movement work on the court involving a medicine ball. There were certain movement patterns that she wasn’t happy with so we broke those down and built them up again. Towards the end of the six-week period she will combine all the elements we’ve been concentrating on to work flat-out on the court when everything will come together.”
On top of all this, there will be weeks when Webley-Smith is competing too, and even when she isn’t, additional hitting sessions and gym work make for an exhausting schedule.
“A regular out-of-competition day consists of a speed or warm-up session at the start of the day – maybe 8 till 9am,” she confirms. “I’d be on the tennis court from 10 till 12 noon, then a more specific on-court session or points in the afternoon. For example, if I feel I need to work on some small element of my game then I’ll do some basket work after lunch. I’ll then finish the day with a late gym session from 5 till 6pm. Sunday is my day off!”
Hard work pays dividends, however, and after the six-week block is over improvements will have been made to an area that Webley-Smith believes can make a big difference to results – particularly on the women’s tour.
“At my level it’s quite a specific element of fitness to work on,” she says. “I think there are a lot of girls who could be a lot more efficient in what they’re doing and the choices that they make in their training. Most of the guys move more naturally than the girls – for the girls it’s more learned. If you look at the girls in general everyone has got better, but if you look at the top 100 women they move better than those lower down the rankings.”
'How pros train' featured in the November 2011 issue of tennishead magazine. To subscribe, click here.