Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The View From Above

Originally Published @ on 10/20/09

The View From Above: A new breed of tall players are moving up the ATP rankings, and fitness gurus like Jason Riley of The Athlete’s Compound are helping them reach new heights.
Juan Martin Del Potro’s stunning U.S. Open title run was so monumental it may have sparked a revolution. For anyone to vanquish the indomitable Roger Federer in a Grand-Slam final is certainly monumental, but the fact that at 6’6”, Del Potro became the tallest player ever to win a Grand Slam singles title suggests that his victory might be the beginning of something even bigger.

Or should I say taller. Look around the locker room at any ATP event and it becomes obvious. Painfully obvious if you’re less than 6’ tall in stature: A new age is upon us. There is an emerging breed of super-sized athlete climbing up the ATP rankings, and the emphasis is on the vertical. With 6'6” plus players such as Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey, and John Isner exceeding everyone’s expectations this summer, there is as undeniable shift in tennis’ status quo from large to ginormous.

Haven’t you heard? The two youngest players in the ATP’s top-20 (Del Potro is No. 5 and Cilic is No. 15) look like they could play power forward for the Miami Heat. They are both listed at 6’6” (though many claim that Del Potro is actually taller), and both display surprisingly deft footwork for their size. With the ever-increasing physicality of top-level tennis, one has to wonder, how is it possible that these giants can flourish?

Jason Riley, Isner’s strength and conditioning coach and also Director of Performance at The Athletes Compound at Saddlebrook, believes that exceptionally tall athletes like Isner are benefiting from groundbreaking developments in performance training and nutrition to a higher degree than the other players on tour.

Why? Because they’re bigger, of course. With a 6’9” 245-lb. frame like ex-Georgia Bulldog John Isner’s, you expect a lot of heavy hitting but not a lot of quickness or stamina. But Isner laid that stereotype to waste when he outlasted Andy Roddick in a grueling five-set battle in the third round of the U.S. Open this year. Roddick’s fitness has been praised by many a pundit in 2009, but when it came to crunch time at the Open, Isner was the one raising his long arms over his head after match point.

Del Potro, whose fitness has been called into question before, did some stereotype smashing of his own at the 2009 U.S. Open. He went the distance in a 5-set final that made even the larger-than-life Roger Federer look small. The Argentine’s ballistic forehand took center stage, but the story within the story was that Del Potro seemed to have more in the tank than Federer when it mattered most. Experts expected Del Potro to outhit Federer, but they didn’t expect a man of his gaudy stature to outrun him as well.

In the past, the tallest tennis players were in the dark when it came to understanding the needs of their bodies and the unique challenge that their lankiness presented. The sport used to favor the mid-sized athlete most of all, but that may not be so anymore.

“We spend a lot of time developing stability through John’s body. Shoulders, hips, and core,” says Riley. “Due to his long levers, stability is key to not only making John’s movements more powerful, but also conserving energy as the match progresses.” The Nebraska-born strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist is John’s right-hand man when it comes to not just surviving but thriving on the ATP tour. After spending 8 years with IMG, Riley now hones his skills at Saddlebrook, which has been home to Jim Courier, James Blake, and Mardy Fish among others in the past.

“The core of our training is John’s core,” says Riley. “It’s providing stability through the midsection of john’s body that allows for everything else to work more efficiently. Whether it be medicine ball training, pillar work (hips, abdominals, and lower back), or general strengthening exercises on the lower back or hamstrings, that is what we really try to hit home with John. He’s bought into it because he’s seen his on-court movement improve, and he feels more balanced as he strokes the ball.”

Today, tall players are reaping the benefits of playing in an age where specialists are employing serious scientific methodology in their practices. And the knowledge that they’ve accumulated is helping to make the futuristic fantasy of the bionic tennis player a real and existing possibility.

“John is eating between 5,000-7,000 Kcals per day, depending on his training schedule,” says Riley. “About one quarter of his calories are consumed in the form of supplements. These supplements, especially in the form of liquids, allow for him to immediately re-fuel his energy stores, delay fatigue, and start the recovery process.”

Luckily for Isner, who used to lose up to 9-lbs. over the course of a 5-set match (thanks to the implementation of a better rehydration plan, he only loses 3-lbs now), Riley has given the subject quite a lot of deep consideration: He’s the co-founder of Elementz Nutrition, an all-natural sports supplement company, based in Sarasota, Florida, and he’s been working in the field for over 10 years.

In addition to whipping Isner into shape in the gym and on the court, Jason also makes sure that the big man has enough fuel to get through a Grand-Slam fortnight, where having to play multiple 5-setters can really be a drain a players batteries.

“We never use supplements as a replacement for quality ‘real’ food, but it is nearly impossible for an athlete of John’s size to consume enough calories from food to replenish his caloric needs during the course of a day.”

While Isner and the others aren’t the first tall players to ever grace the court, they are another giant step in a process that seems to be constantly evolving. Think about it: Tennis could have four 6’6” plus players in the top-ten within a year. If that happens, there may be no turning back.

With albatross-like wingspans and lanky yet surprisingly fit frames, skyscrapers are not just dotting the landscape of the ATP’s world - they are taking it over. Now that the public has witnessed Del Potro’s historic Grand-Slam triumph in New York, parents across the globe might be rethinking their decision to guide their tall kids to the basketball court.

Using exceptionally long arms, players like Del Potro, Cilic, Isner, and Querrey are able to generate massive groundstrokes from the baseline. These guys hit cross-court forehands harder than some other players hit serves. And their imposing height makes opponents feel that their 130-140 mph serves are coming from the center of the sun.

But it isn't all fun and games when your head is in the clouds. While the big men benefit in terms of power from their height, they also tend to be handicapped in terms of durability, quickness, and consistency.

But that gap appears to be closing. With progressions in sports performance training and nutrition, these gigantic players have a better shot at maintaining the competitive advantages that their height provides them. They may never run the baseline like 6’1” Rafael Nadal, but today’s tall players are the quickest big men that the sport has ever seen.

The revolution is about evolution, and it's more about the evolution of performance training than the evolution of man. The new breed of tall players, thanks to the dedication and expertise of their performance teams, are maintaining a level of fitness that enables them to hit bigger while running smaller. Of course it is always going to be challenging to lug around a massive frame (proof of massiveness: Isner wears size-15 shoes) on a cement hard-court in the blistering heat for three to five hours. But by knowing their enemy, and heeding the advice of experts like Riley, players like Isner are better positioned to capitalize on their strengths without having to suffer their weaknesses like a species that is on the verge of extinction.

Riley believes that training smarter is more important than training harder when it comes to the No. 39-ranked Isner.

“I believe that the biggest challenge to John’s fitness is the prevention of over-training. By developing a long-term periodization program, we can eliminate excessive training habits. The communication between Craig Boynton (John’s coach) and myself is the most critical aspect of the equation. I am aware of everything that occurs during the course of a match or an on-court practice, therefore I can make adjustments daily.”

Developments in the field of performance training help protect the muscle groups that are vulnerable in the super-sized player, and they help strengthen others to increase explosiveness and make them resistant to injury. Bottom Line: Isolation of key muscle groups, proper nutrition, and cutting-edge flexibility drills are helping tall players look less like giraffes and more like cheetahs when they take the court.

“I believe that in the past 10-20 years, there has been a paradigm shift in the old adage that you are born with speed,” says Riley. “We now know that by increasing the neuromuscular efficiency (the communication between the brain, nerves, and the muscles which they innervate) speed and agility can be improved. Speed is a skill. Therefore, speed can be taught, no matter what your size or body type.”

Of the 24 No. 1-ranked players over the ATP’s history, none has ever been taller than 6'4" (Marat Safin held the top spot for 8 weeks). Roger Federer, at 6’1”, has always been thought to possess the archetypal tennis body of our era. He’s tall enough to serve big, has long enough limbs to provide him with extra reach, and yet he is light enough to run the baseline for four hours without breaking down.
With Juan Martin Del Potro’s victory over Federer, the tennis world may have witnessed the birth of the new archetype. Add Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey, and John Isner to the equation and it is plain to see why the Empire State Building was not the only skyscraper having success in New York over Labor Day weekend.

Cilic, buoyed by his 4th round upset of Andy Murray at the U.S. Open, is only 20-years-old, and he's perhaps the quickest big man ever to play the game. The limber Croatian’s 180-lb. frame is flexible, and his core is supremely fit (note the washboard abs). He may not have the versatility or consistency to become a top-10 player yet, but it isn't his height or his fitness that's the problem.

Querrey, at 6'6" 200 lbs, has embarked on a steady climb up the rankings this summer. After a huge win over Andy Roddick in August in Cincinnati, the lanky American once again reminded people why he might really be the next great American tennis player. While he doesn't possess the quickness of Cilic (he’s close), or the firepower from the baseline of Del Potro (again, he’s close), Querrey totes one of the nastiest serves in the game. Thanks to an increased commitment to fitness over the last year, Querrey is moving much better on the court, and remaining injury free.

At 6’10”, 30-year-old Ivo Karlovic is the original giant of tennis. But at 6'9", John Isner is perhaps a harbinger of things to come on the ATP tour. He’s very similar in stature to the Croatian born karlovic, but thanks to the individualized strength and conditioning training that Isner is receiving at Saddlebrook, Isner’s ceiling is higher than his taller rival. While Karlovic’s physical limitations have forced him into a one-dimensional brand of tennis, Isner hopes that his improving fitness will give him more versatility on the court. With his overpowering serving (Isner has won 89% of his service games this year) already in place, the idea of more mobility and better baseline patrolling is a daunting proposition for his ATP foes. Perhaps the long days that Isner is putting in at The Athletes compound will enable him to evolve into a more agile, and therefore even more lethal tennis player.

The 24-year-old has just broken into the ATP top-40 for the first time in his career, and for a man his size, he's remarkably agile. Still, Isner is 245 lbs — it's not going to be easy for a gargantuan like him to get fit and stay fit on the ATP tour.

While his sparkling run at the U.S. Open was a surprise to many, those who’ve watched him rapidly improve his fitness over the last year knew that a breakthrough was a possibility.

With the success of Del Potro, the road is now paved for tall players like Isner to get in the fast lane to success. Riley wants to keep his client in 5th gear for many years to come.

“Tall tennis players used to rely mainly on their big serves to win matches,” said Riley, who in addition to working with Isner, has worked with Bob and Mike Bryan, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic, and Tommy Haas. “But now they are also becoming more agile on the court.”

Riley isn’t surprised that a 6’6” player has now won a slam. In fact he predicted it in his first e-mail to me. And he believes it is only the beginning.

“By teaching a low center of gravity, providing a foundation of stability, improving flexibility, and improving speed mechanics, we are leveling the playing field for the ‘giants’ of tennis.”

Tall players are ushering in a new era for the ATP. Aided by breakthroughs in performance training and nutrition on tour, the talent pool is indeed going vertical. If the current trend holds, Juan Martin Del Potro’s Grand-Slam victory-winning body might serve as the blueprint for top-tier tennis players for years to come.

Parents might be wise to start registering their tall kids for tennis lessons - Hopefully they'll sign them up with a trainer and a nutritionist as well.

Jason Riley joined Saddlebrook after an 8-year stint at IMG Academies International Performance Institute. During his tenure as Associate Director of Performance, Jason worked with world-class athletes in all sports. Some of his most notable clients include Maria Sharapova, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Derrick Brooks, Carlos Quentin, Tommy Haas, and many others. His comprehensive background and coaching experience have earned him recognition as a leader in the field of performance and nutrition coaching among professional, amateur, and junior athletes.

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