Is Tennis The Hardest Sport? (10 Facts)


Tennis is a physically and mentally demanding sport. Every sport has its own challenges before you can be considered an accomplished player, but the range of skills needed to play tennis can set it apart. Tennis requires good levels of physical fitness and agility, a strong mental attitude, good technique, speed of thought, and a willingness to devote many hours to practice.

Tennis is certainly one of, if not the hardest of sports. Tennis players need the endurance to compete through five-hour matches while covering 5km in sprints around the court. They need split-second reactions as they make hundreds of decisions every match.

In this article, I will look at the ten main reasons tennis is considered one of the hardest sports. I will use a few facts and statistics to help illustrate the points.

Man grimacing while playing tennis

1. A 5km Run

On average a tennis player runs around 5km during a match.

While you might not think that is a great deal compared to other sports, it is an impressive tally on a court measuring just 78 ft by 36ft.

Tennis players need excellent levels of fitness, with lots of explosive bursts.

This is not a 5km jog.

These are largely sprints to reach the ball and quick movements to get back into position for the next shot. A tennis player does not have the luxury of a recovery jog between shots.

Of course, 5km is just an average and some players can run considerably more.

A lot will depend on the style of play, match duration, the court surface, and the quality of the opponent at the other end of the court. A busy baseline player like David Ferrer could average up to 6km a game.

This was the same total as John Isner and Nicolas Mahut covered during their epic 11-hour encounter at Wimbledon in 2010.

Recreational players run similar totals to their professional counterparts.

A 2020 study by Fitbit found recreational players could also cover 5km and more during a match. Their data reported a player takes on average 10,680 steps during the course of one hour’s worth of singles tennis. The stats back up the reasoning why many people take up tennis to improve their fitness.

2. Five Hour Matches

Tennis players need an all-around level of fitness, including good levels of endurance.

While the length of matches will vary, particularly at Grand Slam tournaments when it is the best of five sets, not three, the average tennis match lasts around 90 minutes.

This is equal to a soccer match, just without the 15-minute half-time break. The best of five set games can last a little short of three hours on average.

Again, the duration of matches will vary depending on factors such as the court surface.

However, research has the average set in tennis lasting around 40 minutes on the professional tour.

We can return to Isner and Mahut again in terms of the longest ever match at just over 11 hours in duration. This of course far exceeded the previous longest games, but it is not uncommon for matches to last between four to five hours at a Grand Slam tournament.

90 minutes of tennis places physical demands on the body, let alone five hours.

Then the winner will usually have to recover and prepare for a further match a day or two later and go through all those physical demands again.

Tennis players are among the most superb athletes in world sport and this physicality is one of the prime reasons tennis is considered such a hard sport.

The following clip shows an intense Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic rally 5 hours and 23 minutes into a match, highlighting what incredible athletes the top professional tennis players are:

3. Less Than Half a Second

Speed of thought and reaction times are crucial elements to becoming a good tennis player.

You will usually have less than a second to react to your opponent’s shot, make your own shot choice and position the body to play that shot. This reaction time can come down to under half a second when facing a big serve.

The fastest recorded men’s serve is 263.4 km/h from Sam Groth, with Georgina Garcia Perez clocking up the fastest women’s serve at 220 km/h.

The following clip gives you a taste of facing such a fast serve and the reactions required:

Experience and practice go a long way in helping make such split-second decisions. The top players will also analyze their opponents and anticipate shots to help them get into position earlier to make their return.

Most people will visually pick up the ball however much pace is generated.

The physical reaction time is what separates the recreational player from the best in the world. To react physically and adjust the body and racket position to make a return is a hard skill to learn.

Whereas most of us mere mortals would celebrate just being able to return the ball, the top players do not just have to react in a split second but return the ball with precision and control.

The speed of thought to process this information is truly jaw-dropping. As well as the pace of the ball other factors including court illumination can affect on-court reaction times (source).

4. Eight Hours a Day Practice

As you would expect with any professional sport, you must put the hours in and sacrifice pretty much everything else to reach the top.

In the build-up to a major tournament, you can expect to see players practicing and training for around eight hours every day.

Much of this will be on practice courts honing technique, but strengthening work in the gym is also an important part of the process and often breaks up practice court sessions.

However, amateur and recreational tennis players will also need to dedicate a good amount of practice time if they wish to improve their game.

Junior players looking to make a career in tennis will often be putting in two to three hours a day in practice four or five times a week.

Every player is different and every player’s body has different injury thresholds. Junior players certainly need to be monitored to ensure they are not putting themselves at risk from overtraining.

Recreational and club players who are happy enough with their current level might practice once or twice a week to maintain that level.

For those looking to improve you will want to be practicing more often.

For amateur players, the amount of practice will also be dependent on many other factors including work, age, and, ultimately, motivation. Rest must always be factored in to avoid unnecessary injuries, but the need to practice, practice, practice makes tennis a tough sport to master.

5. 500 Shots Per Match

A tennis player can be playing up to around 500 shots in a match, more in a particularly lengthy contest. This is far more than other similar sports.

These 500 shots will consist of a variety of different strokes, with forehands, backhands, serves, volleys, and lobs just some of the basic ones.

Players need to master the technique for all strokes as a weakness on just one will be punished heavily as you play better players.

This amount of decision-making and shot selection, added to the ridiculously short reaction time to decide upon the shot, requires high levels of mental stamina and concentration.

In tennis, the scoring system does not allow for lapses of concentration. A lapse of concentration in a sport where your opponent needs just four points to win one of six set winning games can be costly.

6. Four Different Surfaces

Unique to tennis is the different court surfaces players may experience.

The type of court surface can influence the way a match feels, creating different speeds of play, different levels of bounce, and affecting how players move across the surface (source). The four different surfaces are:

  • grass
  • clay
  • hard
  • carpet (although this is a surface hardly ever used in pro tournaments)

Each surface will have its pros and cons in the minds of each individual player who will find their particular strengths may be further enhanced by one particular court type.

Adapting to different court surfaces is a challenge in itself without throwing in other natural factors such as temperature, humidity, and wind.

In most sports you have one surface you always play on, possibly two with synthetic pitches. They are the surfaces you grew up on and are inherently used to.

Most people will grow up or learn to play tennis on one surface too, so adapting to an unfamiliar surface is hard, let alone potentially three different surface types.

All your instincts in terms of the speed of the ball and the bounce of the ball from the one surface you know have to be re-evaluated for each different surface type you subsequently play on.

7. No Substitutes, No time-outs

Tennis players can lose it from time to time on court. We have all seen the occasional tantrums, often unseen in other sports to the extent it is seen in tennis.

Random shouts of despair, volleys of abuse aimed at their supporting box, rackets smashed into the surface.

This is not because tennis players are plain nasty, but because of the intense mental strength that the game requires.

Apart from when playing doubles, you are alone in tennis. Everything is down to you, including the decisions for those 500 or so shots per match.

There is no one else to burden the responsibility. There are no time-outs or substitutions as in other sports, and when things are going wrong in a competitively charged atmosphere the occasional player implosion is bound to occur.

Tuning out all the negatives and remaining mentally strong on the court is one of the hardest parts of the sport. If you only focus on the bad moments of a match you are unlikely to iron out the problems that caused them and are heading for defeat.

The best tennis players focus on one point at a time, reacting to changing conditions and making adjustments to their game in real-time. It is an all-around mental challenge to match the all-around physical challenge of tennis.

8. 300 to 700 Calories Per Hour

On average a tennis player can expect to burn between 440 to 560 calories an hour playing tennis.

However, there are many factors affecting this including weight, age, skill level, and match intensity. Whether you are playing singles or doubles can also have an effect.

These varying factors can mean you could burn anywhere between 300 to 700 calories per hour of tennis.

In general, the daily intake of calories for women is 2000, with 2500 for men.

The physical demands of tennis can see you burn through a fifth of your daily recommended calorie intake and is why recovery and nutrition are so important.

Many of the sport’s top professionals will employ the services of a nutritionist to ensure they are eating the right foods to replace burned calories for a balanced body.

Post-match recovery will involve lean protein, as well as complex carbohydrates and vegetables.

However, nutrition throughout the day is just as vital in preparing for practice and matches.

As professional tennis players are some of the finest athletes in the world of sport, eating right is a vital part of the training plan for competing at the highest level. Yet it is an area all tennis players, regardless of level, should be considering.

9. $7000 per year

Most people see sports including tennis as being played by multi-millionaires with the rewards getting ever higher. However, in tennis, you have to be right at the top of the pile to be earning the megabucks.

Being in the top 100 players in the world can still see you earn a very good living from prize money and sponsorship once all expenses have been paid. As we start to drop in the ranking it starts to become a hard profession to stay within.

Tennis players are not contracted to clubs like soccer players.

They earn what they win, whereas in soccer even average players can seem to earn contracts worth millions. Previous data shows that players below the top 500 in the world can earn less than $7,000 a year.

Take off traveling and accommodation expenses plus coaching fees and you can see they are lucky to break even.

In Europe lower-ranked players can earn money playing club matches, otherwise, they are looking for endorsements to help cover costs just to break even.

Tennis is a hard sport in which to make a living even if you are ranked in the top 1000 in the whole world.

It takes an admirable level of determination and sacrifice to pursue a tennis career at that level of the tour circuit, and why there have been calls for a better distribution of prize money.

According to the ITF Global Tennis Report of 2019, 87 million people play tennis across the world. Only a minuscule percentage of that number will make the top ranks of the game and earn a living from the sport.

10. VO2 Max of 65

The VO2 max levels of elite tennis players re-iterates the fitness levels needed to compete at the top level of the game.

VO2 max is a measure of a person’s aerobic fitness, based on there being a maximum amount of oxygen a body can use when exercising. Age, weight, heart function, and muscle mass are some of the factors which influence your VO2 max.

Taking gender and age into account an elite tennis player will have an average VO2 max of 65, compared to the normal average VO2 max of 40 to 50.

With this higher VO2 max the elite tennis player is able to consume more oxygen than the recreational player when the intensity of a match starts to increase.

For players right at the pinnacle of the sport, their VO2 max levels can go up another notch still.

Rafael Nadal is said to have a VO2 max of 85, which gives him an advantage on the fitness stakes over his rivals.

This figure goes a long way in explaining why he seems to be able to cover the court so brilliantly and outrun opponents through the course of even the longest of matches.

Nadal’s VO2 max, added to his natural speed, has helped to make him the considerable force he is in the sport.

Conclusion

Tennis is a hard sport to learn and a hard sport within which to compete.

Tennis demands high levels of physical fitness, excellent technique, and rapid hand-to-eye coordination. It is a sport that requires significant mental strength to manage all the highs and lows of a long match.

Tennis is also a tough sport to make a living in unless you are in the very top echelons of the game.

Stephen Hands

Stephen is a competitive long-distance runner who takes part in races around the UK. He has a lifelong love of many sports, particularly tennis, running, and soccer. He shares his passion and his knowledge of many several different sports on our site.

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