Every August, as summer slowly slips away, tennis, too, closes its season. And this historic sport's going-out party is packed with prestige. The fourth and final Grand Slam—the U.S. Open—marks, for some, a chance of a lifetime; for others, an opportunity to show the world you're still the best; and for many, a soiree of sport and leisure: Arthur Ashe lit up in the New York skyline.
But despite its sometimes-reputation as a leisurely, country club game, the energy demands of tennis are great. The sport's biggest names are "some of the best athletes on the planet," says Murphy Jensen, former French Open champion and director of The Cloister Tennis Center in Sea Island, Georgia. Tennis is uniquely challenging: Points last seconds, calling for short bursts of power and energy; yet matches put training and willpower to the test, clocking in anywhere from one to three grueling hours.
Here, six Q-approved, expert-backed ways to sharpen your strokes and fine-tune your fitness in time for the United States' biggest tennis event.
"We tend to think of tennis as an upper-body dominant sport since we hit the ball with a racket, but tennis primarily taxes the lower body and trunk muscles," says Carolyn Appel, an Equinox Tier 3 Personal Trainer & Certified Master Instructor and U.S. Open Trainer. "In order to make contact with the ball, we have to use our feet to get us there. We load up the legs and trunk to produce a powerful stroke." Pro prep: Shift from bilateral exercises (both legs or arms doing the same movement) to unilateral exercises, she suggests. "Because our limbs are performing different functions to hit strokes, any type of lunge (front, walking, side) is highly effective. Add upper-body rotation with a medicine ball, rotating the same direction you lunge. This will mimic open-stance groundstrokes that are the staple of pro players' shot repertoire."
"The impact of the ball on the racket produces large vibrations, which travel to the hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder," says Appel. One of her favorite ways to train: overhead kettlebell carries. Lift a bell straight to the ceiling. Without leaning the rest of the body to accommodate for the load overhead, walk 10 to 20 feet and then walk backward. After a few back and forths, switch hands. "The rotator cuff fires reflexively to prevent the weight from wavering."
Use the Whole Court
Most tennis players tend to forget to take advantage of the geometry of the court, says Mats Merkel, an Adidas player development coach who has worked with Andy Murray, Fernando Verdasco, Caroline Wozniacki, and Jack Sock. Start with the two most important shots: the serve and the return. "Both strokes start the point. Practice those as often as possible," he says. Then switch to your cross-court shots. The more confident you feel with these, the less stressed you'll be when it comes to changing direction, he adds.
"A bodybuilder's body would not hold up for long points, sets, and matches," Jensen says. That's because the tennis player needs to cover great ground to hit great shots. Pro prep: Add intervals to increase your ability to maintain a high power output over a sustained period, says Appel. The key: Keep a timer close by and focus on your work-to-rest ratios so that they replicate the metabolic demands of tennis, she says. For example, run, climb stairs, or do kettlebell swings hard for 10 seconds, then stop for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
See to Win
"The eyes are your gateway to being fast on the court. As much as you need good footwork, conditioning, and strength to be explosive, you need to be able to react quickly," says Appel. Pro prep: Try this drill Appel has seen Andy Murray and Serena Williams use. Have your partner stand about 8 to 10 feet in front of you with arms out to the sides, holding a tennis ball in each hand. Stand in ready position, as if you are about to return a serve. Without warning, have your partner drop one ball. Sprint to catch the ball before it bounces twice. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Build Your Mental Strength
"It's over when it's over," says Merkel. "I have seen matches turn around when everybody was thinking that it was decided already." There can always be a tipping point, he says, but you won't find your chance winging it. Pro prep: Simulate important match situations. "Practice 15:30, 30:30, or 30:40 scores that are very important. The more you practice, the more confident you will be and better able you will be to deal with these situations in a match."