Just like a dependable pair of jeans or aviator sunglasses, developing technically sound and powerful strokes will never go out of fashion. But with increasing ball and player speeds, those looking to excel over the next decade will have to put an even greater premium on physical and mental clarity. Any hitches or extraneous motion will only be magnified as the game becomes faster. Training and tactics must become more individualized for players looking to separate themselves and find success. But for the masses learning the sport, focusing on the fun of tennis will be the best way to grow the game in 2020 and beyond.
A Faster Processor
Watching professional tennis almost looks like a game of pinball. The players fly around the court trying to chase down a rocketing ball, and return it with interest. To that end, working on improvisational abilities and teaching anticipatory skills will become more important in the game’s higher levels.
Rather than just practicing offense, having a repertoire of slices and defensive shots will become staples in a player’s arsenal. The same goes for recognizing and absorbing broad vision clues—opponent court positioning, ball flight, racquet preparation—in order to cover the court more effectively.
“We need to teach court speed as a combination of foot speed and brain speed—cognitive processing,” says Frank Giampaolo, a California-based high-performance coach. “Anticipatory skills must be taught, because players are just hitting the ball too hard.”
The mental parts of the game will also be given more attention. It used to be that the player’s hardware—strokes and athleticism—were the battle cry, but tomorrow’s coaches must focus on the software as well. Skills such as handling performance anxieties and transferring success from the practice court to matches, especially in the early stages of development, will be taught as much as it is experienced.
“Big picture, emotions hijack everything,” says Giampaolo. “You can have the best mechanics and strategies, but if your emotions are tweaked, it overrides everything.”
Analytics have made a major impact on how pro sports are being played, and they are starting to infiltrate tennis. Data collection is becoming more available and elaborate, allowing players to fine-tune tactics and shot selections.
For example, some players are experimenting with forgoing a second serve, and hitting two first serves. Better servers can see a stark difference between percentage of first and second-serve points won, so it may make strategic sense to hit two first serves and risk the double fault.
“It’s like the NBA’s realization in the value of the taking more 3-point shots,” say Mark Kovacs, a coach and trainer who has worked with players such as John Isner and Sloane Stephens.
Granted, this is not a tactic that every player should implement. Which is why coaching and development will become more individualized—not just between the lines, but off the court as well. Strength and conditioning work will continue to grow in significance, as the smallest details could give players an edge. At the highest levels, this can include genetic and blood testing to create specified plans to maximize playing performance.
“It used to be you would run and lift weights,” says Kovacs. “Now it’s athlete specific and tennis specific. A steady baseliner will have a completely different workout than an aggressive player.”
Customized training will translate into more varied playing styles. This decade saw consistent, hard hitting, ground-stroking machines with impeccable court coverage dominate the game. It will remain an effective method to win matches, but it’s a taxing way to do business. And if that’s all a player has in their arsenal, it’s difficult to compete with players who do it better.
Tennis is an aging sport, and it continues to search for ways of attracting juniors and novice adults. Compared with other recreational sports and fitness endeavors, it can be more challenging and expensive. Shorter courts, lower nets, softer balls and other training aids have been implemented to lessen the learning curve, but tennis could still become more inviting.
Shaul Zohar has been teaching tennis in Israel at various levels—from Top 30 players to children with special needs—for more than three decades. He coordinates coaching seminars that aim to remove stress and expectations out of instruction.
“The process of teaching in the early stages will include less about teaching the perfect technique,” says Zohar, “and will concentrate more on the joy of being able to play the game.”
More serious players will still benefit from precise form and training—which will probably become more demanding. But for the everyday player, practice and training will perhaps become less formalized and homogenized.
“In the past, coaches would teach the style they found success in,” says Giampaolo. “The leaders in the field are now more open to teaching what works for the individual player.”