January is the beginning of a new year as well as the start of a new tennis season. We tennis enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the beginning of the hard court season and the first of the grand slam tournaments, the Australian Open. Players must be in top form for the grueling conditions that come with this true test of fitness.
The Australian Open takes place in Melbourne, Australia and occurs at the peak of the summer season. Australian summers frequently produce temperatures over 100° with heavy humidity. Despite having a retractable roof over the court and heat policies in effect, the players have to be properly trained and conditioned to perform in this environment. The intense heat and humidity can cause an imbalance of electrolytes in the system, causing dehydration, fatigue, and muscle cramping. These impairments will set players up for injury. Research studies have shown that dehydration of a mere 3-4% decreases muscle strength by 2%. This will affect the muscle power that tennis players can produce.
Players must do everything they can to stay cool in the hot conditions of Melbourne: consistent intake of fluids beginning before the match, a balanced nutritional program, using ice to cool off during changeovers, staying in the shade whenever possible, and wearing loose fitting, light colored clothing. Players should also take the means necessary to arrive in Melbourne early in order to give themselves plenty of time to become acclimated to the environment.
The dangers of extreme heat are very real for the spectators as well. In this environment, it is vital to keep cool and to replenish fluids. You’ll see many of the fans with wet towels around their necks and wearing large hats, all in an effort to block the sun and keep their temperature down.
Another concern is the severe jet lag that many players experience. Travel fatigue will disrupt one’s normal routines, including sleeping and eating patterns and internal biorhythm. This can create effects ranging from decreased concentration, drowsiness, and delayed reaction time to a reduction in dynamic strength and delayed cognition. The disruption to our bodies’ “biological clock” becomes more drastic with the number of time zones crossed. If adjustments are not made, players will be slower at the start of the match and take longer to establish their rhythm. This can lead to more errors on the court and predispose the player to possible injury.
In addition to the heat, the hard courts themselves can take a toll on a player’s body. Hard courts create a fast-paced game that forces players to be in constant motion. The impact of running on hard courts increases stress on a player’s joints, especially the spine and knees. To successfully play a hard court season, and combat the unforgiving pounding of the court, it is important for players to emphasize flexibility and strength in their off-court training.
In today’s world we have a much better appreciation for what these warriors have to face in the first grand slam of the season. Myself and tennis fans around the globe look forward to another great tournament and the cries of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi.”
Ioonna Félix is a doctor of physical therapy at the James M. Benson Sports Rehabilitation Center. Ioonna is a board certified Orthopedic Specialist and a certified tennis performance specialist. She treats players of all levels, and continues to compete in tennis herself.