Andy Murray and the physicality of tennis

With Andy Murray now sitting on top of the world and the biggest change to the top ten in years, we at Sport Science Agency thought it would be a good time to take a look at the changing times in men’s tennis.

This truly global and year-round sport has rolled into London for the World Tour Finals with a number of the usual suspects not among the world’s best. Yes, age obviously has played a part in this with time waiting for no man. But has the physicality of the game gone to a new level which means we are now looking at a new breed of player?

Much has been made of equipment changes down the years and also the increased fitness levels of the players. Recent evidence suggests that players are not only fitter but also the body type needed to reach the top of the game has changed.

Looking back, players such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg were not only smaller than today’s top players, they were built like endurance athletes. Adam S. Gale-Watts & Alan M. Nevill went back as far as 1982 to analyse how the physicality of players has changed.

They found that successful players (which they classed as going beyond the third round in Grand Slam tournaments) had increased body mass index (BMI), compared to their less successful opponents, due to an increase in lean muscle mass. To back this up, they also saw a decrease in reciprocal ponderal index (RPI), again due to increased muscle mass among the successful players.

As the game becomes more power based, talented youngsters now face an even tougher challenge to break through into the upper echelons of the sport.

Research by Machar ReidStuart MorganTania Churchill & Michael Kenneth Bane shows that if you haven’t made the top 100 by your fourth year on tour, the odds are stacked against you becoming a major success. When you look at this as an age profile, it means that players really have until they are 21 to start to make the major physical gains that will allow them to succeed.

The evidence points to Andy Murray timing his physical development to perfection. The skinny player of 2006 who, at around 70kg, fitted the old body type perfectly, built a team around him that understood the changing demands of the game and were able to adjust his training accordingly.

By 2008, following an injury hit season he had gained nearly 10kg in fat-free mass and believed he had another 4-5kg to gain. When he appeared at the Australian Open in 2013 the press questioned his focus on fitness asking if he had gotten too big….

Now Andy and his team look down at the rest of the tennis world from a solid base of power and strength training that has enabled him to cope with the increasing demands of the modern game. 

Murray’s own physicality and career is perhaps the perfect reflection of how tennis has changed. You can’t just be a big server, you need an all-around game. But that game is, for the time being, firmly based around power. The next generation has the perfect role model to base their development on, let’s see how they stack up.