The clay court season is an important time for the players on the professional tour and in junior tennis. This surface places a unique demand on the player’s body. The clay surface is more slick and slippery than the hard court and so the athlete needs to have the ability to stay balanced and react to the uneven bounces and footing. In addition, the player’s movement on the court will be slightly different than playing on a hard court and so they will need the prerequisite movement competencies in order to be as efficient as possible.
When competing on the clay, most players slide into their shots as opposed to using small stutter steps on the hard courts to set up for a shot (there are exceptions). A lot of players are beginning to slide on the hard courts, but this is typically done when they are sprinting to get to a ball. On the clay, the slide occurs more often.
The sliding can occur as the player sets up to hit the ball, after the player hits the ball, and even the combined before, during, and after the ball is struck. This unique aspect of playing on the “dirt” may lend itself to an increased risk in hamstring and/or groin (adductor) injuries if the player does not have the prerequisite competencies including tissue compliance and sufficient motor control. The sliding motion observed during play on clay courts imposes high eccentric loading to the lower extremity, specifically, to the groin and hamstrings (as seen in Figure 1). Typically, this form of loading occurs in a reciprocal pattern and subsequently the training must accommodate the pattern and loading.
Injury or intolerance to physical loading typically occurs if the athlete’s capacity is exceeded. Therefore, it is important to help train each athlete in order to build up their tolerance so that their capacity is greater than the demand imposed on the body.
There are a few considerations when determining the exercise required to accommodate the sliding motion in tennis:
- Interpretation of tension or stiffness
- Active joint articular control of the hip complex through the available range of motion
- Anatomical relationship between the rectus abdominus and the adductor complex at the pubic symphysis
Interpretation of Tension or Stiffness
With the slide comes the need for tissue compliance of the entire hip complex to eccentrically load, which involves but is not limited to the hamstrings and adductors/groin (Figure 1). In order for the central nervous system to accommodate tissue compliance through a demanded range of motion, one must possess the ability to control this entire range of motion. Tension or tightness can be experienced when moving through range for many reasons. One of the reasons for this sensation can be the brain perceiving a threat and in order to protect the body, it will produce a sensation of “tightness”. This perceived threat is interpreted as, to a certain extent, insufficient control of the available range under demand, in this case the slide on clay courts. To understand tension a little better click here and here.
Active Joint Articular Control
Joint articular control should be attained through the entire excursion of said available range (beginning, middle, and end range). This means focus should be directed at controlling concentric and eccentric portions of exercises. A few exercise sequences for the hip complex that takes this into account can be found here and here. Remember, the player needs to be able to get into the position, but also has to get out of the position.
Figure 1. Tissue compliance of the hip – Opposite hip flexors to opposite hamstring complex (left picture) and adductor complex to opposite adductor complex (right picture)
There is a strong anatomical relationship between the adductors and the core (Figure 2). This fascial connection can be seen as an “X” pattern across the pubic symphysis between the rectus abdominis and the adductor longus. Therefore, there needs to be a focus of not just isolating the hip, but also combining it with the abdominals. The intention is to develop load tolerance at the pubic symphysis to accommodate force transfer between the groin and the abdominals. Two examples of exercises can be found here and here. If one of these muscles is not doing their job, then there is a chance that its opposite sided muscle in the fascial connection may have to work even harder which may increase the risk of exceeding the tissues threshold for load.
Figure 2. Front Functional Line (left picture) and Adductor Longus (AL) crossing over to Rectus Abdominis (right picture) (Norton-Old et al. 2013)
Clay court tennis enhances and challenges some of the aspects already involved with on-court movement due to the lack of traction and inconsistent bounces. It is therefore that much more important to challenge the body’s ability through various lines of tension during exercise protocols. The intent for exercises given should take into account all the demands placed upon the athlete with the goal for the athlete to be more resilient and hopefully see transferability onto the tennis court.