Commentators often utter clichés in the face of luck, such as: “it is the same for both players.” Soccer commentator Alan Hansen once said something like this in relation to England’s penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2004 tournament, when captain David Beckham missed. It looked to all on the pitch that the ball moved a moment before Beckham struck it. Unfortunately, this possibility was quickly confined to the history books as yet another excuse for a poor England show. But the truth is that Portuguese players then had an advantage as they each ensured the ball was well placed on the apparently damaged penalty spot.
Turning to this week’s record-breakingly rain-drenched Wimbledon, is it the same for both players when the weather interrupts tennis? The commentators seem to emphasise the psychological impact of staying ready for the return to play rather than the physical impact, as if they can be easily separated. It seems to me to be an artificial distinction, and my limited understanding of tennis suggests that rain interruptions favour the weaker (or less fit) player.
Regular readers of the Knackered Hack will know that we’re quite interested in the process of recovery — whether of body or mind, short or long-term — and that heart rate is closely correlated with mental and physical function. Rest — even for short period — allows heart rate to fall and body and mind to recover. This process can itself be trained. High intensity training with short breaks may be a good way to get the body to bounce back more quickly.
Physically, stress increases throughout the duration of a tennis match, but unlike a marathon, the exertion is punctuated by defined periods of rest. So the body has a regular interval to recover after each point, game and set. The body that is trained to recover more quickly will be more alert, agile and responsive to what the mind wants it to do.
As a match continues, the quicker recovering player builds a cumulative, physical advantage. But that critical advantage may be wiped clean by a prolonged rain break.
Furthermore, between each point, the rules state that play must resume after 20 seconds. My understanding is that this period should be timed strictly between the end of one point and the delivery of the subsequent serve. It is reported that Rafael Nadal takes up to 45 seconds, with lots of fidgeting and other histrionics, before settling in readiness for the next point. The BBC reported Thursday that this was one of the reasons his matches take so long, and why the rain interruptions led to his match against Robin Soderling taking a full five days. Meanwhile, it is he who is complaining that the Wimbledon schedule has disadvantaged him. Would Nadal be so successful if the referees started penalising him for his loafing? Alternatively, Nadal maybe squandering an advantage because he is famous for using weights and gym work, which suggests he might be using high intensity interval training.
It’s remarkable how a little rest changes everything. For example, I usually punctuate my training runs with a one-minute walking break in the middle. The return leg is always much quicker than when I run continuously. Recovery seems to be universally neglected in popular discussions of sport, and yet the science seems to be focusing more and more in that direction. Recovery is very personal; training regimes tend to be too generic, so they say.
Twenty seconds is not a lot of time for heart rate to come down, so the athlete that has trained better for recovery will be in much better shape for the next point. Tennis is not unique in this, but the rest periods seem to be much more readily manipulable than in other racket sports, because the court is larger.
Tennis players can use gamesmanship to manipulate the breaks between games too. The fitter player has an interest in trying to hurry up the game, and remove any advantage from rest that might accrue to their opponent. The struggling player will want to maximise each break. Perhaps some of this was at work earlier in the week, when Serena Williams cramped up spectacularly. Michael Stich thought so. Certainly, the rain break will have helped if there was a serious problem with her calf muscle. Thwacking a muscle with a racket was a new therapy on me. That said, the two occasions I have been for a sports massage rank among the most painful voluntary experiences of my life.Donate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)
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