Matt Little: A paradigm shift in measuring and monitoring tennis players

Matt Little has worked as a strength and conditioning coach in elite tennis for over 15 years. He currently leads Sir Andy Murray’s performance support team and manages the monitoring systems used by the three-time Grand Slam title winner.

Elite-level tennis is an incredibly gruelling and brutal sport. Despite the absence of physical contact, the game still involves physical and mental warfare that lasts for hours at a time. The most recent men’s singles competition at Wimbledon 2018 has brought this into sharp focus and prompted me to put my thoughts down on paper.

My opinions are not so much about the format of the men’s Grand Slam competitions, or the women’s for that matter, but rather how we prepare and treat the bodies of tennis players. As a sport, I feel that tennis has a duty to move towards a more responsible and informed way of training its athletes.

When it comes to monitoring the loading of tennis players, the questions I would ask are:

  • How consistent are we in taking load measurements?
  • How accurate are we?
  • Are we really measuring load at all?

After the marathon Isner v Anderson match in the Wimbledon semi-finals, there have been calls to introduce a fifth set tie break in men’s Grand Slam matches. Not only would this stop matches carrying on for an inordinate amount of time, but it would also project players from being physically exhausted before their next match. This would be a smart move, but I feel that it is also important to protect players in the training environment as well as the match environment.

It is widely acknowledged that tennis has developed into a far more athletic and explosive sport over time, with the majority of men’s players weighing in excess of 85kg and moving at speeds of up to 8m/s. Given that 80% of points are fewer than four shots in length, I passionately believe that training programmes (on and off the court) should reflect these changing demands as I’m not sure they currently do.

In my opinion, overtraining (particularly for on-court training) is an epidemic in our sport, and I don’t think we’re too far away from litigation when it comes to training practices. Sports around the world are becoming wise to the fact that they have a duty of care to their elite athletes and I think it’s time that tennis caught up.

Wearable technology is developing at a fast rate and soon there won’t be much we don’t know about the physical demands of sport. Companies like Catapult are now well established in sports such as football and rugby, but their technologies are not used as widely in tennis. In fact, as the highest level I’ve only ever seen Andy, Milos Raonic and Lucas Pouille using performance monitoring systems. That’s not to say that others aren’t using them, but I certainly haven’t seen it.

These devices can tell us the external load that is being placed on a player by chasing around the court, jumping, sprinting, twisting and turning. They can also tell us the maximum speed that the player hit, and how quickly they accelerated and decelerated. This is valuable information, especially when we are looking to learn about what is actually happening to our players on the court.

I believe that every elite tennis player in any training programme should have some exposure to wearable technology in order to monitor and educate themselves around the physical impact that training has on their bodies. I believe these devices should be permitted to be worn in competition and I believe we can do a lot with the data to learn important lessons about the true demands of tennis matches.

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