Wimbledon 2011: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovaic set to battle in men’s final


Novak Djokovic, above, and Rafael Nadal made their way to the Wimbledon final utilizing training, diet and recovery time — much more practice and preparation than just hitting the ball. (STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)

The complaint was the same from the two men whose dream of reaching Sunday’s Wimbledon championship was squelched in the semifinals: The ball kept coming back.

Andy Murray hit shots that looked like clean winners, and time and again Rafael Nadal chased the ball down and blasted it back like a superhuman backboard.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga suffered the same frustration against Novak Djokovic on Friday.

“He was everywhere,” said Tsonga, who succumbed in four sets, like Murray, and was left baffled by how anyone could keep pace with Djokovic’s speed and stamina.

It’s no surprise, then, that the players regarded as the best movers in tennis — Nadal, 25, and Djokovic, 24 — advanced to Sunday’s Wimbledon final.

“There are no slow players in the top 10 any more,” said veteran coach Darren Cahill, a tennis analyst with ESPN. “The era of being relatively slow but having a big game is completely gone.”

Tennis, of course, has always had players regarded as great movers — quick, fluid, agile and explosive on court.

Bjorn Borg was among them.

But when Borg and John McEnroe ruled the sport three decades ago, squaring off in the gripping Wimbledon finals of 1980 and 1981, the best movers in tennis were the naturally gifted athletes. They didn’t necessarily work at it.

Back then, tennis players’ training consisted almost exclusively of hitting the ball.

McEnroe, now 52, barely worked out in the gym when he was at the top of his game. He also traveled on his own much of the season. Borg was an anomaly, among the few pros to travel full-time with his coach.

Today, Nadal, Djokovic and the sport’s top players travel with entourages that include coaches, athletic trainers, hitting partners and, on occasion, physiotherapists and massage therapists.

“Times are different,” McEnroe said earlier this week. “We were like one-man bands. Now, all the sudden, players have 10 people around them.”

More significantly, they spend as much time, if not more, developing their speed and conditioning off the court as they do hitting balls on it.

Says Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi late in his career: “All the coaches spend a lot of time working on movement. You back that up with shot selection and what type of shot to play in a defensive position and what to play in an offensive position. But it all starts with movement. If you can’t track down the ball, you can’t stay in the point.”

The top-ranked Nadal, who is seeking his 11th Grand Slam title and third Wimbledon championship Sunday, is a master retriever, wearing opponents down by not only getting to balls but also turning a defensive shot into an offensive shot with brute strength. So, too, is Djokovic, who has lost only once this year in 48 matches.

“His game is really complete defending, and when he attacks, too,” Nadal said of Djokovic. “But in my opinion, his general game — his total game — is really complete. Good serve, very good movements. Very easy. His eyes are very fast, and he can go inside the court very easy playing very difficult shots. “

Nadal, 25, is famously known for his relentless workouts.

And Djokovic’s ascendance in the sport (he’ll supplant Nadal as No. 1 in the world on Monday, regardless of Sunday’s outcome) has coincided with a renewed commitment to fitness and a switch to a gluten-free diet that he says has increased his stamina.

According to Mark Kovacs, senior manager of sports sciences, strength and conditioning and coaching education for the U.S. Tennis Association Player Development Program, nearly all elite tennis players devote the equivalent of a full-time job to pushing and pampering their bodies.

They spend two to four hours a day hitting tennis balls, another two to three hours on physical conditioning off the court and three hours on recovery, which includes stretching, getting massages and medical treatment.

Most of the off-court training focuses on improving speed, power and explosiveness. And the most common exercises mirror those done by NFL, NBA and major league baseball players to achieve the same results.

Instead of simply lifting weights, Kovacs says, tennis players often do Olympic-style lifts like the snatch to build power and explosiveness at the same time. They work with medicine balls, as well, throwing and catching at 100 percent effort.

For more dynamic movement, they work with resistance bands and do plyometric exercises, too, such as squatting with a weight and leaping into full extension over and over. And there are specific exercises to improve reaction time so they can see the ball coming off an opponent’s racket a split second faster.

“There is definitely a genetic component or a natural component (to being a great mover,” Kovacs says. “But there is a huge training component, as well. If you’re not training, you’re not going to get a lot better at it.”

Kovacs traces the advent of off-court conditioning in tennis to three factors.

First, was Australian coach Harry Hopman, who emphasized the importance of fitness as early as the 1950s and ’60s.

Then came Ivan Lendl, the powerful Czech who reached No. 1 in the world in 1983 and won eight Grand Slam titles before retiring in 1994. Lendl credited his success to his fitness regimen, and other players took note.

Since then, top players have increasingly turned to professionals — physical therapists, sports scientists, strength and conditioning experts and massage therapists — to structure training plans to prevent injury and improve their movement.

“The improvement in technology and the understanding of how the body moves and functions and recovers has been the biggest emphasis in the last 15 years,” Kovacs says. “It’s why athletes in all sports are moving better and faster. Look at the NFL Combine results: Football players are running a lot faster and jumping a lot higher than they did.

“It’s the same in tennis: Players are bigger, taller, faster, stronger because they spend much more time on fitness and strength training. All those factors contribute to them being better athletes and better movers.”

Although Djokovic has beaten Nadal in all four of their meetings since March, Sunday’s Wimbledon final marks their first best-of-five-sets contest this year — a daunting proposition.

“Physically we all know that he’s superior and he’s the strongest player around [and] most prepared,” Djokovic said of Nadal. “So I’m ready for long rallies, long points. I feel fit in this moment, and mentally motivated obviously.”

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