The 8 Most Critical Tennis Skills and How to Test Them
In a world of cookie-cutter programs and one-size fits all solutions, analyzing your game is the first real step to progress.
Trying to find the “best” fitness program or the “top” tennis drills without knowing what areas you need to work on to optimize your play is a waste of time. What are your deficiencies? What skills or attributes will most improve your game if you focus on training them?
After interviewing some of the best tennis coaches in the world on my podcast, including Brian Boland, Martin Blackman, Allistair McCaw, and Dr. Mark Kovacs, I’ve heard a common theme about producing great tennis players and athletes. Knowing the individual—the strengths, areas that need improvement, and what makes the person tick, to name a few—is critical to maximizing the player’s performance.
Before we get into the skills and tests, I need to give credit where it is due. I learned many of the fitness tests and average scores below from Complete Conditioning for Tennis (2nd edition). I can’t stress enough how much this book, and my amazing podcast guests, have helped me improve my tennis conditioning and my game.
There are several skills which you need to assess before confidently creating a training program that best suits your individual needs. They are the following:
Biomechanically efficient technique is highly determinative of your tennis potential. Deficient technique will cause errors, especially in pressure situations. It can be even more destructive when you have bad technique and know you do, because your confidence in your game will be compromised. More importantly, biomechanical inefficiencies can lead to undue stress on the body and eventual injury. There’s a good chance that there is a stroke or two in your game that you can improve.
Action Step: Record your play with a camera or cell phone and examine your strokes to determine which shots need the most improvement from a technical standpoint. Even better: have a coach grade you on each of your strokes.
2. Footwork Speed/Agility
If you aren’t in position to hit the ball, everything else (technique, power, endurance, etc) is irrelevant. Many players incorrectly attribute a bad shot to incorrect technique when the culprit is often suboptimal footwork. Your footwork speed, intensity, and efficiency is a critical aspect of your game that needs to be developed. Your footwork affects every single shot in your repertoire. It is the difference between a powerful, offensive, and balanced strike, and a short, defensive, attackable one.
Action Step: Perform a 20 yard dash and record your time. Between 3.3-3.4 seconds (men/women) is an average time. Evaluate your lateral speed by shuffling sideways from the middle of the court to the right doubles line, left doubles line, and back to the middle. A time of 7.0 seconds is an average score for men and women. Analyze a match or practice session and see how consistently you are prepared and in position to hit each shot.
Tennis is an explosive sport. A fast start makes a crucial difference in your ability to strike the ball in a comfortable versus a compromised position. Both the quickness of your initial reaction and sustained speed will determine how much time you will have to hit your shot. If you train in the gym to improve your game, you can’t ignore the explosive part of weight training if you want it to translate on the tennis court.
Action Step: Stand sideways next to a wall or tennis fence, reach up as high as you can, and mark that spot with tape or any adhesive. Then jump as high as you can, touch the wall, and mark that spot. Measure the difference between the two points. Between 12-16 inches for females and 21-26 inches for males is an average score.
4. Mental Fortitude
Mental strength in the face of adversity is one of the most critical skills for all tennis players. You can have picture-perfect strokes and unparalleled athletic ability, but if you do not have self-belief, a competitive desire, and the ability to overcome adversity, you will not be successful on the tennis court.
Action Step: Evaluate your results over the past year. How do you perform during critical points? Are you winning most of your big matches? Do you think about forces out of your control while playing? If you find yourself underperforming in pressure situations, you need to make mental fortitude a priority.
If you are not flexible, you increase your chance of pain, injury, and a short career in the sport. In addition to reversing these issues, by training your flexibility, you will be able to retrieve more balls and return shots from uncomfortable positions. If you want a healthier body and a hugely improved tennis game, you must work on your flexibility. On my podcast, Allistair McCaw remarked that flexibility is the main reason why Novak Djokovic became #1 in the world. Watch the Serbian at work, and you will have little opportunity for argument.
Action Step: Assess your flexibility with a trained professional. You can also perform basic stretch flexibility tests, such as measuring how far you can reach toward your toes (2-4 inches past the toes for females and 1-2 for males is an average score) and the internal shoulder flexibility test.
Sustaining a high-level of play for several hours on the court is critical for any competitive tennis player. The most crucial period of any match is closing out the win, and if you cannot perform optimally because of fatigue, you are doing your game a huge disservice.
Action Step: Assess your endurance by considering how your perform at the end of matches relative to your intensity and focus at the beginning/middle of play. Run 1.5 miles and record your time. Around a 14-15 minute time for females and 11-12 minutes for males is average.
We can all agree that the best tennis players don’t look like powerlifters or football players. That said, players often severely underestimate the impact strength plays in improving a player’s game. Dr. Mark Kovacs explained that while flexibility is very important, a muscle that is not strong enough and overstretched can cause injury. The stronger you are, the more you will be able to develop your speed and power from your base of strength.
Action Step: See how many pushups you can perform in one-minute. Based on Complete Conditioning for Tennis (2nd edition), around 30 push-ups for females and 35 for males represents an average score.
Creating and implementing a solid strategy for your matches will result in more wins. As I discussed in my article on how to formulate a winning game plan, formulating strategy based on your game and your opponent’s game offers many advantages, including helping you stay focused, handle pressure, and play matches more optimally.
Action Step: Analyze how often you plan and implement strategy before tennis matches. Do you usually feel outplayed or controlled by your opponent (i.e. you are reactive rather than proactive)? If you want to learn how to formulate winning game-plans before your matches, download my free match-strategy guide below!
To gauge your progress, perform tests on the skills above periodically. It depends on how often you’d like to know your numbers, but every couple months is a good baseline. Try to replicate the same conditions as when you took the first test for a more accurate sense of your progression (i.e. same amount of sleep, rest, food, etc).
Complete Conditioning for Tennis
The last thing I want to emphasize is that you pick up a copy of Complete Conditioning for Tennis (2nd edition). It contains hundreds more self-assessment tests, exercises, and advice on how to analyze your capabilities and create your own fitness program based on your individual needs.
I give a huge amount of credit to Complete Conditioning for Tennis (2nd edition), Dr. Mark Kovacs, Todd S. Ellenbecker, E. Paul Roetert, and all of my amazing podcast guests for helping me become a better tennis player.
(Note: the links to Complete Conditioning for Tennis are affiliate links. If you click them and make a purchase, I make a small commission. Thanks either way!)
The key takeaway here is to assess your strengths and weaknesses of the skills above, and formulate your tennis goals and training regimen according to your findings.
And I’ve heard from a lot of you asking about my training program since I posted a sneak peak of it on instagram recently, so I will be discussing it soon in a future post! 🙂
Analyze your game and let us know what skills you need to improve in the comments section!
To help you plan and create your fitness and training goals, download your free copy of my SMART Goals guide below!