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Optimum Performance: Surviving the tennis serve

Maria Sharapova of Russia makes a return to Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania during their singles match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Friday July 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

With the Wimbledon tennis tournament in “full swing,” it’s a good time to examine the power maneuver in tennis that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls – the serve. In January, I began my seventh year working with No. 1-rated Serena Williams, who possesses, with a little help from her friends, the most powerful, consistent (putting the ball in the opponent’s service box) serve in the female game today.

New research using mature, male tennis players – How Does the Scapula (shoulder blade) Move During the Tennis Serve – just published in the July issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) looks at the potential for a shoulder injury which the tennis serve confers.

According to the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSPT), “most of the abnormal biomechanics and overuse injuries that occur about the shoulder girdle can be traced to alterations in the function of the scapular stabilizing muscles. Altered scapular motion and position have been termed scapular dyskinesis.”

The IJSPT also states, “When the scapula fails to perform its stabilization role, shoulder complex function is inefficient, which can result not only in decreased neuromuscular performance, but also may predispose the individual to injury of the glenohumeral joint.”

The glenohumeral joint is a ball-and-socket joint that allows the arm to move in a circular rotation, as well as, the movement of the arm towards and away from the body.

Anyone who has played competitive tennis at the adult level understands how the mechanics of the serve can predispose the player to potential for overuse injury, specifically shoulder impingement syndrome – which, “occurs when there is impingement (jamming) of tendons or bursa in the shoulder from bones of the shoulder,” according to WebMD.

“Over time,” notes the website, “impingement syndrome can lead to inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons (tendinitis) and bursa (bursitis). If not treated appropriately, the rotator cuff tendons can start to thin and tear.”

French researchers selected thirteen male, competitive (International Tennis Number = 3) tennis players, who were between the ages of 20 – 34 years old, with 12- 23 years of tennis experience, who practiced from 4- 7 hours per week to be evaluated by, “eight digital cameras (that) were used to record the three- dimensional (3D) trajectories of the 15 markers during the tennis serve.”

In addition, “the three serves with the highest ball velocity that landed in the service box were subsequently analyzed. The tennis serve was divided into four phases based on five key events.” Those phases included – the cocking phase (early & late), the acceleration phase, and the follow – through phase.

What was concluded was, “that the scapula rotated externally and upwardly during the early cocking phase, then rotated internally and upwardly while posteriorly tilted during the late cocking phase. During the acceleration phase, the scapula mainly internally rotated and anteriorly tilted. During the follow-through phase, the scapula rotated internally and downwardly while posteriorly tilted.”

This conclusion points to the need to perform scapula stabilization posterior (rear) shoulder strengthening exercises in an eccentric (lengthening) manner after competition and / or practice where serving is involved, while also performing flexibility exercises to prevent posterior capsule tightness.

Two exercises, which I use as part of a post game scapula re-stabilizing program, are the Serratus Punch and Retract – Row. The punch maneuver is performed on your back using a light to moderate dumbbell in each hand with arms extended while you lift the outer edge of the shoulders while punching up.

Retract – Row is performed on a table high enough to let both arms hang down with upper shoulders and head over end of table. Retract both shoulder blades followed by arms rowing at 90 degree angles at the elbow.

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