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Fitness play-off: how tennis stars compare with other athletes

Ever wondered how elite tennis players compare to their contemporaries in other sports? Does Rafael Nadal have the same leg power as world 100m sprint champion Usain Bolt? Would Australian Sam Groth’s…

If Serena Williams didn’t play tennis, would her sheer athleticism ensure an elite career in another sport? AAP

Ever wondered how elite tennis players compare to their contemporaries in other sports?

Does Rafael Nadal have the same leg power as world 100m sprint champion Usain Bolt? Would Australian Sam Groth’s booming serve (he currently holds the record for the fastest ever serve, 263km/h) make him a good baseball pitcher? And would the sheer athleticism of the Williams sisters ensure a career in basketball, or any other sport, if it wasn’t tennis?

Unlike many sports regulated by a time clock, the duration of a tennis contest is unknown. On average a match lasts between one and four hours, though the longest professional tennis match was at Wimbledon in 2010 when Nicolas Mahut and John Isner took 11 hours and five minutes, over 183 games, to decide their battle.

This variation in match demands influences the physical profiles of the players and consequently their strengths and weaknesses compared to other athletes.

Aerobic endurance

The gold standard technique of assessing a person’s aerobic fitness is to measure their maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max). This measures the respiratory and cardiovascular systems’ ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles, and the muscles’ capacity to utilise that oxygen to produce energy.

Australian male high-performance tennis players reportedly have relatively high maximal oxygen uptakes (mean of 58.2 ml O2/kg/min), indicating that skilled tennis players have good cardiovascular endurance.

So how do these results compare with elite endurance athletes such as cyclists?

Elite Australian under-23 road cyclists have exceptionally high VO2 max scores, ranging between 70-80 ml O2/kg/min. This means that at maximal exercise, cyclists are more efficient at supplying energy aerobically – ideal for a continuous endurance sport.

So while a tennis player’s endurance is important, particularly to aid recovery between points and avoid fatigue, it’s not good enough to swap the racket for a saddle.

Leg speed and power

Popular measurements of leg speed include the time taken to run ten metres and leg power testing, which often involves assessing the height a player can jump from a standing two-foot take-off (called a vertical jump test).

While Australian female tennis players can break the tape in approximately 2.01 seconds for ten metres, our notoriously fit and fast Australian Women’s hockey team (the Hockeyroos) average 1.95 seconds. Not such a bad result for the tennis players.

Rafael Nadal probably doesn’t have the same leg power as sprint champion Usain Bolt. AAP

When considering leg power, national level male tennis players (16 years plus) average an approximate jump height of 54cm. In comparison, elite under-20 Australian national level basketball players jump an average of 65cm.

Again, the tennis players’ results stand up reasonably well. In general terms, the comparatively similar results of tennis players to other sports more renowned for these capacities certainly illustrates the importance of leg power and speed in tennis.

Overhand throwing

The enormous speeds modern tennis players generate on their serve cannot all be put down to their technologically advanced tennis racquets. Rather, elite players possess an excellent tennis-specific overhand throwing technique.

Sports scientists have investigated the movement coordination patterns of the tennis serve and overhand throw and determined that similar kinematic sequencing occurs between both movements.

So it’s not surprising to hear anecdotal evidence of strong throwing arms on many elite tennis players when playing sports such as cricket and baseball. It may also be a reason why the average female tennis serve is not as fast as their male counterpart.

Vision

In addition to their exceptional physical skills, elite tennis players are often admired for their Superman-like vision. A quick check-up from the optometrist would reveal they only possess the same 20:20 vision as the rest of us with normal, uncorrected vision.

There is some evidence to suggest the best players can track a fast-moving ball for longer than lesser-skilled players and indeed athletes from sports where tracking a fast-moving object is not essential – swimming, for example.

But like baseball and cricket batters, tennis players seemingly can’t “keep their eye on the ball” until racquet-ball contact – despite their coaches demanding they do!

All-round talent

Compared with many other Olympic sports, it’s clear tennis requires a well-rounded athlete able to be as explosive as a sprinter, yet have adequate staying power to last marathon five-setters. That’s before we even consider the sublime dose of technical skill and hand-eye coordination required to actually hit the ball.

Few other sports come to mind that demand the athlete possess so many different physical and skill qualities to succeed. To watch these fine athletes do battle on the hallowed courts of Melbourne Park is an honour indeed.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Marshall Clark

    Australian National University

    "Few other sports come to mind that demand the athlete possess so many different physical and skill qualities to succeed".

    What about squash?

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    1. Jason Thompson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Marshall Clark

      Boxing? Besides their pumelled brains, I've always thought that boxers must be the 'fittest' athletes on the planet if there is such a thing.

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  2. Matthew Brown

    Policy Analyst

    The usual "conspiracy of silence" on the disparity in fitness between male and female tennis players. Very few elite female tennis players would qualify as elite athletes as even casual observation of the current Australian Open tournament would confirm.

    On serving: while modern tennis players may have strong throwing arms which allow them to serve at great speeds it is also true that the change in rules which allows the server to leave the ground at the point of impact of the racquet with the ball has contributed significantly to the evolution of more powerful serves.

    The disparity in serving speeds between male and female tennis players can thus also be attributed to leg power as the server jumps into the serve. Observationally it seems that there is also, on average, a disparity in the quality of serving techniques of male and female tennis players which contributes to male tennis players serving faster (and better).

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  3. Patrick Boyle

    Consultant and Visiting Fellow

    Understand that the VU author was being brief. I agree that at the elite level of tennis the fitness and skill levels are very high and diverse. However, as Marshall points out, similar wide-ranging skills and fitness requirements are the case for squash, particularly at the elite level. Some facets of fitness for high level squash are likely to be greater than for tennis, in part because of the (commonly) long duration of play for a single point (1-2 minutes of high speed running and complex movement…

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  4. Paul Rogers

    logged in via Twitter

    I've always wondered what the optimum muscle fibre type is for elite tennis players.

    Do fast twitchers (type 2), who are more likely to be explosive and fast, have more success than slow twitchers (type 1), who can endure better and longer but are not as fast. And is there a difference over 5 sets?

    We all have a mix, perhaps there's an optimum ratio.

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  5. Peter Hindrup

    consultant

    This is something I have often wondered. When I was young tennis was a cissies game. Today I consider it as tough a sport as there is.

    The sheer uncertainty of the time of expended effort is a killer. As is the go and stop nature of the game. Compare their ability to hit a ball to cricketers where the ball must come down a very narrow channel to be legitimate.

    Jason Thompson mention boxing. The time of the contest, unless it is stopped earlier is known, three minutes and a break. Leaning…

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  6. Tim Mahon

    Manager, Sport4All at Department of Sport & Recreation - WA

    Any multi-disciplined sport would challenge any individual's physical and skill capabilities, depending on the requirements.
    I had the opportuity of working in the Olympic sport of modern pentathlon up to Sydney 2000 - a sport consisting of five disciplines (shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running) all in the one day. As the UIPM (the International Federation) website suggests... .
    ".....A complete sport, on the physical side - Swimming & Running are the basic disciplines; on the mental side – Shooting requires stress control and a precise technique; on the intellectual side – Fencing requires adaptability and intelligence; Riding an unknown horse requires a mix of adaptability, self-control and courage...."
    Maybe a pentathlete relies more on physical and skill qualities than other sports?

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    1. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Tim Mahon

      Never new such a thing existed when I was young, though I had a Swiss friend who had competed in such in Switzerland, where skiing was included. (Perhaps no swimming?)

      Drop the swimming --- water tends to be wet! --- ,and fencing, and the rest doesn't seem to offer too much of a challenge to me. The military rated me highly shooting/weapons skills. I was tossed up on strange horses at fives years old, to ride on the hunting field.

      Tennis is surely mental, requires adaptability, and those who are any good are surely super fit.

      Then look at the top net ball teams. The speed,hand speed and anticipation of those women is phenomenal.

      ,

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  7. Adam Richards

    Teacher

    "Compared with many other Olympic sports, it’s clear tennis requires a well-rounded athlete..."

    It is the first part of that sentence which is your 'get out' clause. When compared to Olympic sports that focus on a special skill such as running, throwing and swimming that is the case. But then again there are many other sports that require well rounded athletes as well. Hockey, basketball, volleyball, soccer, not to mention the decathlon and heptathlon.

    Before getting all excited that the boys…

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  8. Harvey Westbury

    Not being a dinosaur

    This seems like a pointless article to me, a bit like a pub conversation in that it is entertaining but aimless. Surely each sport requires a particular and perhaps unique set of physical and mental skills, and different fitness levels. So why compare?

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    1. Nev Norton

      Farmer

      In reply to Harvey Westbury

      I tend to agree Harvey, So many sports require different skill sets, and attributes.
      However seeing as where playing I would nominate Motocross as being right up there.

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