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Now, it's simply about survival of the fittest

The complaint was the same from the two men whose dream of reaching the Wimbledon championship was squelched in the semifinals: The ball kept coming back. Serb-Tastic

sports Updated: Jul 05, 2011 02:04 IST
The Washington Post
The Washington Post

The complaint was the same from the two men whose dream of reaching the Wimbledon championship was squelched in the semifinals: The ball kept coming back.

Andy Murray hit shots that looked like clean winners, and time and again Rafael Nadal chased the ball down and blasted it back like a superhuman backboard.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga suffered the same frustration against Novak Djokovic on Friday. "He was everywhere," said Tsonga, who was left baffled by how anyone could keep pace with Djokovic's speed and stamina.

It's no surprise, then, that the players regarded as the best movers in tennis — Nadal, 25, and Djokovic, 24 — advanced to the final.

"There are no slow players in the top 10 any more," said veteran coach Darren Cahill, a tennis analyst. "The era of being relatively slow but having a big game is completely gone."

Tennis, of course, has always had players regarded as great movers — quick, fluid, agile and explosive on court. Bjorn Borg was among them.

But when Borg and John McEnroe ruled the sport, the best movers in tennis were the naturally gifted athletes. They didn't necessarily work at it. Back then, tennis players' training consisted almost exclusively of hitting the ball. McEnroe barely worked out in the gym when he was at the top of his game. He also traveled on his own for much of the season. Borg was an anomaly, among the few pros to travel full-time with his coach.

Today, Nadal, Djokovic and the sport's top players travel with entourages that include coaches, athletic trainers, hitting partners and, on occasion, physiotherapists and massage therapists.

More significantly, they spend as much time, if not more, developing their speed and conditioning off the court as they do hitting balls on it.

Says Cahill, who had coached Andre Agassi: "All coaches spend a lot of time working on movement and you back that up with shot selection. But it starts with movement. If you can't track down the ball, you can't stay in the point."

Nadal is a master retriever, wearing opponents down by not only getting to balls but also turning a defensive shot into an offensive shot with brute strength. So, too, is Djokovic, who has lost only once this year in 48 matches. Nadal is famously known for his relentless workouts. And Djokovic's ascendance has coincided with a renewed commitment to fitness and a switch to a gluten-free diet that he says has increased his stamina.

According to Mark Kovacs, senior manager of sports sciences, strength and conditioning and coaching education for the USTA Player Development Programme, nearly all elite tennis players devote the equivalent of a full-time job to pushing and pampering their bodies.

Most of the off-court training focuses on improving speed, power and explosiveness. Instead of simply lifting weights, Kovacs says. Players often do Olympic-style lifts like the snatch to build power and explosiveness. For more dynamic movement, they work with resistance bands and do plyometric exercises.

"There is definitely a genetic component or a natural component (to being a great mover, Kovacs says. "But there is a huge training component, as well. If you're not training, you're not going to get a lot better at it. Players are bigger, taller, faster, stronger because they spend much more time on fitness and strength training. All those factors contribute to them being better athletes and better movers."

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First Published: Jul 04, 2011 23:42 IST