Monday, October 13, 2008

The more things change...

The posts have been lagging, I know.

I've been at work on a number of projects behind the scenes that may all prove to be "game-changers" in the sense that the results of this work will, more than likely, fundamentally change the way we understand how to achieve ultimate performance in throwing and swinging sports.

As a bonus, this work may also finally provide a "bridge" that makes biomechanical analysis understandable and therefore, easily usable for all swinging and throwing athletes who want to increase their performance level.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll begin to reveal some of the incredible revelations and discoveries we have made through all of this ongoing "R & D" effort by the "Chain Gang" from the tennis world and beyond, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I decided that I would post a column I wrote just about a year ago for my partner-in-chains' regular online column on www.aroundhawaii.com. After another season measuring the stroke speeds of collegiate and junior tennis competitiors, the article unfortunately, hasn't lost one bit of relevance.

Without further ado, here's that article:

133, 119, 97.

What do these three numbers have to do with the question posed in the title of this article?

The title of the article asks one of the fundamental questions that's constantly looming in the minds of American tennis fans and followers: who's coming up the US tennis ranks to become the next Pete, Andre, Jimmy, John, or Andy? In the glory days of American Tennis, I think that question was phrased more like "How many are coming up?" rather than "Do we have anyone coming?" as it appears today.

So what do the numbers 133, 119, and 97 have to do with developing prospective American tennis champions?

Well, these are the average serve speeds generated by the 4 men who reached the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Gasquet) plus the last Amercian man standing, quarterfinalist Andy Roddick.

The average fastest serve speed of this "Final 5" was 133 MPH (Roddick's fastest serve on average was the highest among the 5 highest at 142 MPH). Their average first serve speed was 119 MPH, and their average second serve speed was clocked at 97 MPH.

What's the point I'm trying to make here? Before I get to that, let me introduce three more numbers...

107, 91, 74.

What do you think these numbers represent?

Well, these are same serve speed measurements (average fastest serve, average first serve, and average second serve speeds) for a sample of 20 NCAA Division I tennis players taken from teams ranked between #5 and #25 in the final national rankings for 2007.

These 20 players include a former NCAA D1 Singles Champion, 4 players who were selected as 2007 NCAA All-Americans, and 8 players who participated in the 2007 NCAA D1 Individual Championships.

The point is that there is a HUGE difference in the performance capability (as represented by serve speed) between today's top college tennis players and the top ATP pros.

The difference between the two levels is measurable, and in the case of serve speed, the difference is about 20 to 25 MPH for both first and second serves. Does having a powerful serve alone explain the difference between today's NCAA All-Americans and the top ATP players?

No, it goes way beyond the difference in serve speeds in that the top touring pros today are fundamentally physically (athletically) superior in virtually all physical aspects of tennis: serve speed, movement speed, groundstroke speed, speed endurance, etc. when you compare them to even the best college players. The difference between the best collegiate players and ATP pros basically extends to every physical attribute required to compete at the professional level today.

In the past, the difference between the performance level of an NCAA All-American was not very different from ATP players. Many of the past NCAA D1 Singles Champions, say up until the early to mid-1980s, could come straight off of campus and perform (and win) at the ATP level, say, as if they were already ranked among the world's best 80 to 100 pro players. Today, the typical NCAA All-American plays at a much lower level compared to his ATP brethren. From what I've observed in recent years, the top D1 players are playing at a level comparable to a pro player ranked somewhere between 400 and 700 in the ATP rankings.

For all of the casual tennis fans out there, what I mean is that in the past (before 1990), it was entirely possible that a top college player could walk off campus in summer and become immediately successful at the main tour level or even at the Grand Slam level. In contrast, today's top college players would be hard pressed to perform successfully in pro tennis' minor leagues known as the Challenger and Futures Circuits. Again, tennis has evolved to a much higher, much more athletic level in the past 20 years, and the difference between college tennis and pro tennis is clearly diverging very rapidly.


OK, now I have three more numbers to throw your way...

100, 91, 71.

These are the same serve speed averages (measured during live tournament matches) for a sample of 34 nationally-ranked (ranked anywhere from #11 to 1500 nationally), 18 and under junior boys.

The serve speed difference between the ATP pros and the "typical" US junior player is 30 mph, which is even greater than the difference between college players and the top ATP pros.

The serve speed difference between the top ATP pros and highly-ranked college players is around 20 MPH.

That is a huge difference in terms of performance.

However, if you compare the juniors to the college players, there is very little difference in serve speeds between the juniors and the college players.

This makes perfect sense because the top college teams recruit is primarily, if not exclusively from the available pool of junior players who have high national junior rankings. Therefore, you wouldn't expect a big performance difference between the nationally-ranked junior player and a college player.

What's interesting to me is that with all of the physical conditioning work that's typically done in the great majority of college tennis programs, and especially at the top college programs, why isn't there a greater difference in the serve speed performance between the juniors and the college players?

After being an insider to two top college tennis programs over the 2006-2007 season, the reason is pretty obvious. It's because, in terms of increasing racket speed (the physical basis of serve speed), conventional (football-centric) conditioning ideas and methods that are typically used to train even top college tennis players simply have no impact on racket speed, and therefore have no impact on serve speed.

For all of the hundreds of hours that most college tennis teams devote to lifting weights, pulling resistance bands, throwing medicine balls, and stretching over the course of every season, none of these exercises has ever been shown to increase their ability to serve or hit groundstrokes faster.

The majority of college players, coaches, and strength coaches THINK or PERCEIVE that they're hitting faster serves and groundstrokes as a result of all the off-court training they do, but when you actually MEASURE the actual stroke speeds (as I have done over the past season for 2 different teams), a very different picture emerges. And we'll explain and explore those differences next month.

Finally, let's end this article by showing you these three numbers:

133, 118, 98.

These numbers represent the serve speed profile of 3 of the 4 Junior Boys Semifinalists (Donald Young, Vlad Ignatic, and Greg Jones) at Wimbledon this year. Compare them to the pros in the main event...They're virtually the same as the Wimbledon Men's "Final 5" listed at the beginning of this article.

What's the take-home here? On one hand, who really knows if those 3 boys are actually going to become successful on the ATP Tour, much less champions at that level?

On the other hand, at least from a quantitative performance perspective, those 3 boys are at least capable of hitting serves at speeds comparable to that of the top pros, whereas the college guys and the average nationally-ranked junior player fall 20 to 30 MPH short of meeting that measurable, quantitative performance standard.

It's very much like saying that in order to have a reasonable chance of becoming a Major League Baseball pitcher, it helps to be able throw your fastball over 90+ MPH. Or, if you would like to become an Olympic Gold Medalist in the 100 meter dash, you have to be able to sprint 100 meters in under 9.9 seconds.

So, for those of you Donald Young ("DY") doubters and nay-sayers out there (by the way, DY won the boys' singles at Wimbledon), at least DY can bring the serve at the same level as the sports' current greats, so his potential for success at the pro level is not such a far-fetched idea after all.


See you next time...

TTFN!

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