From creative cardio sessions to ice baths, diet and downtime, here’s how the world’s best tennis players not only stay on top of their game, but win
The longest match ever played at Wimbledon was eleven hours, five minutes. Granted it was played over three days, but ELEVEN HOURS. Tennis, as sporting pursuits go, demands serious stamina, as concerns regarding Andy Murray’s current fitness indicate- it’s the cardiovascular element of his game that coaches are most concerned about post-injury. So how do the likes of Murray, Johanna Konta, Heather Watson and Caroline Wozniacki stay fit and focused for tournaments such as Wimbledon? Aside from putting the hours in on court, here’s how they bring their A-game.
Whether you’re diving towards the net or sprinting along the baseline, cardio fitness is key, and staying fresh for two hours or so during play can be quite the test. British Number Two Heather Watson doesn’t mince her words when it comes to the demands of her sport:
“This sport is just 10 per cent talent - the rest is hard work. When working on my fitness, I've never felt sick but I've sometimes been working so hard, both mentally and physically, that I've felt as though I'm about to cry my eyes out."
To save themselves from sobbing, many players adopt a creative approach to cardio training, incorporating more ‘outside of the box’ activities to keep brain and muscle engaged, not to mention beat boredom. British Number One Johanna Konta loves rock climbing, while boxing and beach volleyball are also popular amongst the world’s leading players. Caroline Wozniacki even ran the New York Marathon during some “time off” from competition.
If you’re keen to improve your cardio fitness while also making strides in your tennis technique, LTA endorsed Cardio Tennis at Virgin Active was purpose-designed to up training ante- think quick runs, jumping and swinging to an energising soundtrack. Virgin Active sees an upswing of 25 per cent in participant numbers during the weeks of Wimbledon, so get in there fast.
In addition to cardio work, players prioritise resistance training to build strength. When you’re darting around a court for a living, leg day is all important, while returning serves that could come in at 163.7 mph (the world record but...you never know) demand biceps of steel. Low-impact resistance training using suspended TRX straps is less torturous than it looks, offering a handy way to build strength while preventing injury at the same time, which is pretty much the dream if you’re a professional athlete (Andy Murray and Roger Federer are regular TRX’ers). Even if you’re not a pro, Heartcore founder and personal trainer Jess Schuring has five moves to boost not only your tennis aptitude, but all over strength:
TRX crossing lunge
Exercise how to: With the TRX in mid-calf position, suspend your left foot in the TRX foot loop and with the TRX anchor behind your right shoulder, execute a curtsy lunge. Repeat on the other leg.
Benefit: As tennis involves a lot of lateral loading and stabilisation through the legs and hips, this move is great to strengthen the side of your hips through safe knee angles.
TRX low row
Exercise how to: With the TRX fully shortened, hold onto the handles facing the TRX and pull yourself in towards the anchor keeping your shoulders back.
Benefit: Strengthening of grip and forearm musculature to reduce the incidence of tennis elbow, along with strengthening the upper back for better anterior and posterior balance to prevent injuries.
TRX single arm bicep curl
Exercise how to: With the TRX at the same length, stand sideways to the TRX holding the handle with one hand only and pull yourself in towards the TRX with the elbow raised.
Benefit: A lot of tennis players have significant left/right imbalances due to most of the effort being put through one arm. This move helps addressing that imbalance.
Exercise how to: With the TRX in a mid-calf position and the feet in the foot loops, lift your hips, keeping arms in a stiff plank position. Raise your hips as high as you can and keep your core engaged before bringing your hips and body back down.
Benefit: Most power generation starts at the hips and requires a great deal of core strength. This move addresses both hip activation and core strengthening at the same time.
TRX Speed Skater
Exercise how to: Holding the handles facing the TRX, shift your weight from your right leg to the left leg, mimicking a speed skater.
Benefit: Ability for quick directional changes are integral to any tennis player. This move in their repertoire will help them strengthen this ability.
Novak Djokovic has a gluten-free diet, and while in his autobiography Serve to Win, he stresses that it’s not for everyone, after two weeks of going gluten-free, he noticed that his endurance and energy increased, plus he felt less mentally fatigued. Otherwise he eats a high protein, high fibre diet , avoiding too much sugar, primarily so that his brain “isn't suffering the roller-coaster ride of energy highs and lows."
Venus Williams, meanwhile, is a part-time vegan , while Johanna Konta keeps it simple by prioritising light sources of protein such as fish and eggs pre-game, with chia pudding or the occasional ice cream for dessert if she’s off-duty (her Instagram feed reveals that she loves baking too). Former Wimbledon women’s winner Garbiñe Muguruza has a sweet spot for hummus and homemade fruit smoothies to power her workouts, followed by veg and egg loaded homemade pizza and rice pudding for recovery (it’s not all green juice and deprivation). You may also have noticed that bananas also feature highly courtside, likely due to the fact that they’re high in potassium so help to stall cramping, although timing is an important as anything- players fuel themselves little and often throughout a match to keep energy levels up, eating a protein-rich meal or snack within an hour of finishing.
Onto the less pleasurable aspect of recovery- the part where you’re dunked in a vat of icy water for up to ten minutes. There’s that photo of Andy Murray clutching his Wimbledon trophy while surrounded by ice to remind you, but it’s par for the course in tennis land, as Muguruza confirms:
“You always do the ice bath - it's very important."
That’s not to say that players enjoy them, despite Murray’s grin. WTA Tennis reports that Victoria Azarenka has battled with the ice bath in the past, both mentally and physically:
"All these ice baths that I've done, that I hate so, so bad, and which have hurt me every day, when you win a tournament, you know that they were worth it."
"There was one day when I was like, 'No, I'm not going to do it today.' But I pushed myself and at this level those little things can make all the difference."
Said difference relates to the fact that applying ice to muscles, or immersing them in icy water, is thought to reduce muscle soreness by up to 15%, thus speeding up recovery while reducing inflammation. Many athletes now also swear by cryotherapy , whereby you enter a -90ºC chamber and just, you know, hang out for three minutes. Athlete’s report that cryotherapy is distinctly less excruciating than taking an ice bath, but also, at up to £95 a session, far more costly. Either way, this is one fitness tip I know I may be giving a wide berth.
Finishing with some more zen-like fitness wind down, tennis pros love nothing more than striking a pose alongside smashing their opponents on court. Caroline Wozniacki combines morning gym sessions with afternoon yoga practice, while Heather Watson tests her balance and flexibility with outdoor matwork.
Andy Murray takes things up a notch by way of Bikram yoga to enhance his conditioning, hone his breathing technique and maintain mental agility and concentration. In summary, if you want to win, you’ve got to throw everything at it- sweat, tears, ice, pain and bananas, apparently. Although Andy labels them a “pathetic fruit” in his autobiography, so I wouldn’t bring them down to SW19 to aid his recovery anytime soon (he prefers a plum).
Wondering what a cryotherapy session entails? Read our review of being bundled into a chamber of dry ice