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Optimum Performance: Pro tennis is a demanding, physical game

Serena Williams of the United States, left hugs her sister Venus Williams of the United States after winning their singles match, at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Monday July 6, 2015. Serena Williams won 6-4, 6-3. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant) (Howard Fendrich)

With the Wimbledon Championships concluding this weekend, we should examine some of the effects of tournament stresses — the environment (unseasonably hot temperatures), match timing (day and twilight), injury status (everybody plays hurt), psychological (like Serena Williams playing her sister Venus), and the money and endorsements (to the victor go the spoils) — all have on the last men and women making it to the finals.

Having been with Serena Williams to this tournament on three previous occasions, I know first hand just how hard it is to play four days in a row – if you play both singles and doubles. A research study, “Consecutive Days of Prolonged Tennis Match Play: Performance, Physical, and Perceptual Responses in trained Players,” which accepted for publication in February in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, verifies my experiences.

Australian researchers, used, seven well-trained male tennis players (who) completed 4 hour tennis matches on 4 consecutive days. Pre- and post-match measures involved tennis-specific (serve speed and accuracy), physical (20m sprint, countermovement jump, shoulder rotation maximal voluntary contraction, isometric mid-thigh pull), perceptual (Training Distress Scale, soreness), and physiological (creatine kinase) responses. Activity profile was assessed by heart rate, and 3D load (accumulated accelerations measured by tri-axial accelerometers), and rating of perceived exertion (RPE).”

Creatine Kinase is an enzyme found in the brain, skeletal muscles, and the heart. It can be significantly elevated during a heart attack or by conditions that produce damage to the skeletal muscles – like intense exercise – or to the brain. In my experience, an elevation of this enzyme in an otherwise healthy athlete can slow the recovery process of a soft tissue injury such as a hamstring strain, if not properly addressed.

The counter movement jump – such as a squat jump – used in this study measures explosive power, while heart rate measurements at rest versus activity can tell us about an athlete’s heart rate reserve (maximum heart rate – resting heart rate) and variability (adaptability of heart rate up and down) – both critical measurements of the athlete’s ability to recover during the game.

According to, “the RPE scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. The RPE scale (also known as the Borg scale) runs from 0 – 10. For example, 0 (nothing at all) would be how you feel when sitting in a chair; 10 (very, very heavy) is how you feel at the end of an exercise stress test or after a very difficult activity.”

The Australian study results demonstrated that, “effective playing time (was) reduced on days 3-4 compared to day 1. RPE did not differ and total points played only declined on day 3,” while, “RPE did not differ and total points played only declined on day 3.”

It was also noted that the serve accuracy was compromised post-match compared to pre-match, despite serve velocity being maintained. Speaking from experience, you can have an impressive 130 mph serve velocity on the radar gun, but it doesn’t count unless it lands in your opponent’s service box.

In addition, the creatine kinase levels increased over the four days along with the level of soreness and fatigue.

What’s the bottom line? “Players reduce external physical loads, through declines in movement, over four consecutive days of prolonged competitive tennis. This may be impacted by tactical changes and pacing strategies. Alongside this, impairments in sprinting and jumping ability, perceptual and biochemical markers of muscle damage, and reduced mood states may be a function of neuromuscular and perceptual fatigue.”

Now, think back to what you may have witnessed over the last two week of the Wimbledon coverage. You may come to the conclusion that pro tennis can be a brutal game where survival of the fittest may only be outdone by the will to endure.

Then move on to the next city or country and start over.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently a fitness consultant to Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s fitness and wellness expert. Contact him at