Thursday, May 31, 2007

Why is tennis so afraid of a quantitative approach (Part 2)

A couple of posts ago, I started this thread about taking a more quantitative approach to identifying and developing world-class tennis players and why the tennis world is not really into looking at the sport from a more quantitative viewpoint.

In that initial post, I talked about the “cultural” issues in the sport of tennis that hinders taking a more objective perspective on developing larger numbers of world-class tennis contenders. In this post, let’s now begin a more objective analysis of the actual physical attributes that are required to perform at a world-class level in tennis.

You see, in other sports, they define specific standards for the various physical and sports-specific skills that are required to succeed at an elite level. In track and field, they specify times (i.e. run 10 kilometers under 28 minutes) and distances (throw the javelin over 85 meters) that potential competitors must first meet before they are allowed to participate in high level competitions. In Major League Baseball (MLB), professional scouts are employed to evaluate 10 separate general athletic and baseball-specific skills before a prospect is even offered the opportunity to train with even an entry-level professional team.

In tennis, especially in US Tennis, the only “quantitative” standard used to evaluate potential pro prospects is simply the tournament win/loss record of the prospect. Really, that’s the only crucial factor. In tennis, results and performance are synonymous. Is that really true? Of course not, but you have to consider the historical reality that tennis up until say the middle to late-1980s was more similar to golf in that tennis was more of a (country club) game, not a true athletic event.

So, based on this perception and understanding that tennis is a game, not an athletic event or “sport”, success in the “game” of tennis was presumed to be fundamentally based on hitting skills, having a strong tactical/strategic understanding of how to play the game, and being a strong, mentally-disciplined competitor. The athletic elements of the game (foot speed, racket speed, and physical conditioning) were seen as secondary and more of a “bonus” to a player that would enhance his/her success, not as a fundamental, core determinant of their future success.

Essentially, all the gatekeepers in US tennis today think and behave as if tennis was still the country club game they remember when they grew up and when they were actively playing, and so they base all of their current and future decisions on how to govern tennis (including the selection and development of future pro prospects) on those old-school ideas… As if the rapid evolution of tennis into a true athletic event—a true sport—over the past 20 to 25 years never actually happened.

This collective old-school perspective of the US Tennis Establishment from the people who run the USTA, all the way on down through the membership of the two tennis teaching guilds (the USPTA and PTR), trickling down to the players themselves is one of the factors that prevents the US from being the dominant tennis nation in today’s tennis world. It’s as if US tennis has been operating in a time warp where the calendar still says “1985” on it. Being that it’s now 2007, it’s no surprise that US tennis has been eclipsed by Spain and France as the vanguard of the SPORT of tennis.

So how could our once mighty tennis nation return to its former stature?

The answer is simple... We need to take a fresh, objective look at how to succeed in the SPORT, not “game”, of tennis. We need to try to look past all of our old biases and preconceptions, and really study tennis from a very objective, practical perspective and then make decisions and take action based on those new findings.

We need to ask the basic questions such as: what physical attributes are required to give a player a realistic chance at becoming a top touring pro today?… Because the answers are all out there, performing before our eyes.

Am I discounting the classically appreciated attributes of ball-striking prowess, tactical savvy and gritty competitiveness? Of course not. What I am saying is that with the transformation of tennis from being more of a “game” to a full-on sport, all the issues and challenges that arise in the overall development of a world-class athlete must also be considered.

So, for example, did you realize that according to statistics,

  • Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal serve at essentially the same speed on first (117 to 120 MPH on average) and second serve (90 to 95 MPH on average).
  • Roger Federer can hit his forehand at speeds up to 110 MPH?
  • Gael Monfils has hit a forehand in a live match at over 120 MPH?
  • Roger and Rafa can generate over 5000 RPMs of topspin on their forehands?
  • Rafael Nadal can run the equivalent of 4.2 second-40 yard dash (the same as a superstar NFL cornerback)?

(As a reminder, I’ve already covered the stroke speed standards established by a typical Top 100 player in an earlier entry titled “Introduction to racket speed: How fast are the pros anyway?".)

Those physical standards are there, folks. The majority of us just don’t seem to see them, or if you’re part of the “coaching establishment”, you may be simply unaware that you should care about such quantitative performance standards. But these standards exist, no question.

Basically, pro tennis is like all the other true professional sports. If you can’t physically perform to certain minimum standards, you will not be a part of “The Show”. If you can’t serve over 120 MPH on first serve, or achieve a running speed of 14 to 16 MPH (for the average human, this is the equivalent of a full sprint) within three or four strides, the odds of being a successful touring pro are stacked wayyyyy against you.

The long-standing football cliché: “Physical superiority cancels out all theory” definitely applies to modern professional tennis, no matter how much the gatekeepers of the sport continue to tell us otherwise.

TTFN! (short for "Ta-ta For Now" for all of you new readers)

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At 9:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this article, but I have to say you are TOTALLY off base on Nadal running a 4.2 40 yard dash.

first of all, the 40 yard dash times that are not electronically timed are not accurate...however, if you are honestly going to tell me that Rafa Nadal can outsprint Reggie Bush over 40 yards by over a full yard, you are crazy. Reggie Bush ran a 10.41 100 meters when he was 18, and at the USC pro day, Bush ran a 4.33 40 yard dash.

Nadal is a great athlete, but he runs nowhere near a 4.2 40 yard dash, which would make him not just faster, but significantly faster than Michael Vick, Deion Sanders, Darrell Green (who beat Carl Lewis in a 100m sprint)and thousands more pro and college football players and track stars in the U.S. alone.

USC's college football team alone has roughly 10 guys who run under a 10.7 100 M all who were track stars, all who train seriously with weights, some who still run track competitively who at their absolute best are running 4.32-4.40,

I would say there are only a handful of pro tennis tennis players who could hope to get even near a 4.45


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