Fitness the Key to Unlocking Tennis Potential

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While I was watching the Marcos Baghdatis, David Ferrer match yesterday someone asked the question “what happened to Baghdatis?”

It was a question of why a player with all of his talent was not playing among the game’s best. Since his magical run to the 2006 Australian Open final, the 28-year-old has made it to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam just once, winning just three other titles along the way. This is puzzling considered that he was hailed as a part of a generation of players, trained in France, who were going to take the world by storm. Those players include Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Giles Simon. Baghdatis’ technical abilities are undeniable; he possesses one of the sport’s most dynamic and versatile backhands, as well as a good all-round baseline game. Likewise, his in-game passion is evident to anyone who has ever seen him play, and has earned him a rabid fanbase wherever he plays. Experiencing a few health problems, ‘Baggy’ has remained largely fit, missing just 3 Grand Slams since 2005. So why is Baghdatis not winning more often? The answer for him, and many other players throughout the game’s history is fitness.

Baghdatis has always been a little on the pudgy side for an athlete. In 2010 the ATP published an article on Baghdatis’ new approach to fitness, noting that he had played for years at 86KG and 14.8% body fat, not good numbers for an athlete who stands 1.83m and plays a cardio intensive sport. Andy Murray in comparison has only 6.5% body fat. Though Baghdatis did slim down to 82kg and lower his body fat percentage to around 10%, he never got the on court results he was looking for. In his loss to Ferrer, he often looked unwilling to really contest longer rallies and often went for bigger, higher risk shots to keep rallies short. Despite his physical improvements, he still lacks the fitness to compete against the sport’s best athletes.

This highlights just how important fitness has become in the modern game. Baghdatis spent time and energy to get into better playing shape in the hopes of emulating other players who underwent similar fitness routines.  However, a stopgap fitness boost cannot make a player competitive in an era where everyone is putting on emphasis on fitness.

Before players like Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl started treating tennis like a full time job, most pro players were content to train on court and show up to their matches and play. John McEnroe was particularly guilty of this. He was so naturally talented that he often forewent training in favour of playing both singles and doubles in tournaments. While in his era he would have been considered an above average athlete physically, in today’s game he would look skinny and undersized. Tennis fans have Borg and Lendl to thank for that. They brought a degree of professionalism to their respective eras (the 1970’s and the 1980’s), rationalizing that a fitter player would be able to play longer and harder. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, but it had never before been properly been introduced to tennis. They played baseline games founded on strong groundstrokes and court coverage, routinely wearing out inferior players.  As the eras progressed, many up and coming players adopted these ideas, ushering in a new era of more serious athletes in the sport of tennis.

Changes to racquet technology played a big part in this as well. Lighter racquets with bigger head sizes and advances in string technology allowed for players to impart much more pace and spin on the ball, which made volleying harder and gave advantages to baseline players. The school of thought changed, as successive generations of players adopted more extreme forehand grips to maximise spin. This created considerably more players who liked to play the ball from behind the baseline and engage in longer rallies to set up winners from the backcourt instead of coming to the net for quick points. This forced players to be in better shape so that they should stay in matches where there were routinely playing 20-30 hit rallies.

Flash forward to the modern game and we see that the best players in the world are also, for the most part, the fittest ones. Gone are the days of men like McEnroe who could win purely on talent. Instead, the greats are known as much for their impeccable training as they are for their spectacular shot making. In fact, Roger Federer, easily the game’s most talented and dynamic shot maker used to have fitness problems. As a young player, he lost a match to a player he considered vastly less talented than himself. He lost because his opponent simply ran Federer off his feet. After that loss Federer vowed to never lose a match again because of fitness and embarked on a training regimen that has resulted in the machine-like player we see today. As a result of his new fitness he was able to unleash more of his physical gifts. He surged in the rankings and the rest was history. But it serves to show that in the modern game, talent alone, even world class talent like Roger Federer’s can’t survive without fitness.

And this has proved true in multiple instances. Andre Agassi reinvented himself as a fitness first player and earned the nickname ‘the Punisher’ for his ability to yank opponents all over the court and wear them down. Andy Murray led Rafael Nadal two sets to one, dictating play against the then world no. 2 before his exhaustion got the best of him and he lost the next two sets 6-3, 6-1. He likewise decided to get in better shape. Despite some injury setbacks, gaining around 7KG of muscle before reaching his first Grand Slam Final at the 2008 US Open. Current no. 1 Novak Djokovic burst onto the scene in 2007, a seemingly complete player, and quickly won his first Grand Slam at the 2008 Australian Open. But his fitness was exposed by Andy Roddick, fresh off his own weight loss regimen, at the 2009 Australian Open where Djokovic was forced to retire after the high heat sapped his stamina. The list of players capable of reaching their heights after getting into great shape goes on and on and proves that in the modern game, fitness is as big a weapon as a big serve.

There are conversely many players who are considerably less talented than the top players, whose fitness allows for them to compete against the best in the game. A good example of this is David Ferrer, who will rise to no. 4 in the world at the end of the Australian Open. His game consists of mechanical consistency and grinding defence that forces his opponents to challenge him head-on in a battle of stamina and willpower. He is a gifted athlete, but lacks the raw physical tools of other players in the top 10. It is his fitness and consistency that makes him great. For years Lleyton Hewitt survived with the similar idea of simply returning every ball hit to him. Both players’ retrieval skills are a product of their first class fitness which allows them to stick with much more physically gifted players.

On the other hand, players with great physical gifts but questionable work ethics tend to not to succeed, especially not consistently. David Nalbandian is one of the most talented players of the last two decades. He is among the greatest ball strikers the game has ever seen and equally hard to break down on either wing. He reached a career high of no. 4, which might make him the most talented player to never win a grand slam. This is a man who beat Roger Federer the first five times they met professionally. What always limited Nalbandian was his fitness, or lack thereof. He always seemed to feature a bit of a beer belly and never was a great mover and through his career, he didn’t make the adjustments that his contemporaries like Federer and Andy Roddick did. As a result, his career has been one of disappointments and setbacks.

In the end, Nalbandian, and other players like him, failed and and continue to fail to treat their careers as professional tennis players as a job. When your entire livelihood rests on your ability to perform physically, then you have no excuse to not do everything to take advantage of what is an extremely short window and train to maximise your potential. This is what differentiates the sport’s greats like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg from the also-rans like David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdadis, who have the talent but not the commitment to be elite players.

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