Why the fascination with the world fastest serve? The science behind it.
TENNIS – Commentators and fans love statistics and new records. In tennis people often think about how many Grand Slams have players won? What was the longest match in history? But there is also a fascination about who in both the men’s and women’s game have hit the fastest serves. By Jonny Fraser (iTPA Master Tennis Performance Specialist, Owner Science in Tennis), Mike James (ATP Tour analyst)
Commentators and fans love statistics and new records. In tennis people often think about how many Grand Slams have players won? What was the longest match in history? But there is also a fascination about who in both the men’s and women’s game have hit the fastest serves. The serve itself is an incredibly complex technical skill requiring large amounts of practice. Tactically players change the serve to provide variety and the importance of the point will also be a deciding factor. Three types of serve can be hit, these include the slice, flat or topspin serve all which have varied bounces, trajectories and the amount of speed which can be hit on the ball. The fastest serves tend to be hit flatter, with both slice and spin slowing the ball down slightly to improve control. The recently improving Samuel Groth of Australia hitting a recorded 163.4mph (262.3kph) currently holds the title in the men’s game. Despite this record not officially being recognised by the ATP it appears to be the suggested fastest speed. Last week Sabine Lisicki broke a new record in the women’s game at Stanford hitting a 131mph (210.8kph) in the first round. Despite her losing the match many sports websites and national newspapers reported about her new world record and this led to the question why the fascination? Reading through a number of the articles online and news reports there simply appears to be an amazement that the human body can produce so much force and speed. This leads onto another question, how can players effectively and consistently hit serves at those kind of speed and avoid injuries.
Mark Kovacs, Executive Director of International Tennis Performance Association (www.itpa-tennis.org) and Todd Ellenbecker (2011) released an article considering the 8 stages of the serve. Kovacs and Ellenbecker (2011) consider the following three phases and eight stages of the serve. The first phase, preparation consists of the period from when the player starts to the point in which the player is in a position with the non dominant arm fully extended with the ball released and the racket tip pointing down behind the body. This include four smaller stages which include start, release, loading and cocking. The second phase is acceleration, which is the point when the racket accelerates and contacts the ball for a very short period of time (Kovacs and Ellenbecker, 2011). Finally the last phase is the follow through which consists of the deceleration of the racket across the opposite side of the body and the finish, where the player will be ready for their next shot. Ultimately the eight stages of the serve as identified by Kovacs and Ellenbecker (2011) demonstrate the importance of the body to be synchronised and to be fluid optimising the bodies kinetic chain. This is the ability to transfer weight and distribute force evenly from the floor through the whole body to contact.
There is no doubt that an understanding of biomechanics providing excellent technical coaching is important, alongside giving the player the opportunity to find their own individual style and rhythm. However from a conditioning point of view, strength, power, robustness and proprioception of the body are all critical to allow players to reach these exceptional speed as show by Lisicki last week. Strength exercises which use the kinetic chain of the body such as deadlifts, squats and single leg squat varieties are certainly great exercises to develop strength for any tennis player. It is important to note however that dramatic increases in strength will benefit the serve but may only lead to marginal gains in the service speed. To coincide with this the ability to transfer strength in a high velocity action exercises may involve the use of medicine ball throws, jump based exercises with some form of initial rotation and the use of Olympic lifting. To reduce the risk of injury players must have robustness around common areas of injury which in the tennis players include the shoulder, ankles, hips and wrists. This includes the use of exercises which address imbalances such as weakness and tightness in the shoulder, or alternatively work on proprioception (the sense or feel of the body within a certain position) to help improve effective loading and landing for example in the ankle if players are looking to prevent ankle sprains.
Overall the ability to hit serves at these high speeds is not uncommon, but involves excellent coaching including a strong understanding of the biomechanics and motions of the serve as explained in the three phases (Kovacs and Ellenbecker, 2011). Furthermore a physical program which focuses on developing strength and power through the kinetic chain and improving robustness to particular areas of common injury is also important. However it must be said that for all this to happen the body must be fluid and synchronised to maximise every part of the nervous system and every muscle required, otherwise the bodies true potential will never be found.
Jonathan Fraser (iTPA Master Tennis Performance Specialist and Owner www.scienceintennis.com)
Kovacs, M. and Ellenbecker, T. (2011). An 8-stage model for evaluating the tennis serve. Implications for performance enhancement and injury prevention. Sports Health, 3 (6), 504-513.