Today, tennis is being played at a standard of athleticism and fitness never seen before. There is, however, always room for growth, and other sports may show the way. This is the second in a five-part series examining such possibilities.
Why: It was once reported that Bjorn Borg, the greatest clay-court player of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, had a resting heart rate of 35. This was eventually proven erroneous, but many fans found it easy to believe, having watched him grind down the toughest competition tennis could throw at him.
Stamina has since remained an integral part of success in tennis, especially among clay courters. Jim Courier, the best clay-court player of the very early ‘90s, was nicknamed “The Rock” because of his obscenely low body fat percentage.
In the mid-‘90s Tennis magazine reported that Thomas Muster, the best clay courter of that time, once ran a marathon’s distance by accident during a training session.
The best clay court player of today, Rafael Nadal, has seemingly made winning epic five-set matches a hobby.
Endurance is usually considered a discipline rather than a talent: One player gets fitter than the other by training harder, then draws the other into a baseline war that only he can win. This is what Borg, Muster, Agassi, and Nadal built their strengths on.
What happens, though, when one player trains harder than any of his peers are capable of?
Physical Characteristics: Lance Armstrong actually does have a resting heart rate of 32-34 beats per minute, less than half the average adult male’s rate of 70. He also has a phenomenally low level of lactate, the chemical that causes soreness.
His very fast pedaling cadence may be due to his low lactate levels; or simply put, Armstrong is able to pedal harder than most of his fellow cyclists for a longer period.
What tennis player, especially a baseliner, wouldn’t enjoy such attributes such as these?
Now, a caveat, or actually a pair of them: Great racket-head speed, the acceleration that allows Nadal to hit so much spin and Fernando Gonzalez so much pace, does a lot to determine how today’s players will play and how great their results will be.
Had Lance Armstrong started playing tennis from a very young age, there’s no way of knowing whether he’d have the racket-head speed required to be one of today’s greats, or whether he’d have particularly swift feet. And at 5’10", his serve would probably not be big enough to make up for a lack of speed or subpar groundstrokes.
Having extraordinary fitness as a primary attribute did work well for Muster, however; the Austrian’s serve was not great and his forays to the net infrequent. His speed was hardly a weakness, but not like that of Michael Chang’s either.
Even his groundstrokes, while very good, could not be hit as hard or as early as Agassi’s, nor with the explosive topspin of Albert Costa. Yet, Muster was able to outlast many of those guys on clay by playing deep in court, which allowed him to run down every ball, and by being simply relentless in his approach.
An Armstrong-like player with those attributes could do a lot worse than have the Austrian’s career: Muster won Roland Garros in ’95, and went 65-2 on clay that year. He even won a pair of Master’s Series events on hard courts, beating, among others, Pete Sampras in the process.
A player with Armstrong’s level of fitness and great groundstrokes, though, might have a career like Agassi’s; if such a player had great groundstrokes and great movement, a career like Borg’s might not be unreasonable.
Mental Characteristics: It is somewhat surprising that, throughout his career, Muster did not have great results in five-set matches. His record was 18-9, giving him a winning percentage of 66.67, behind Wayne Ferreira and Jonas Bjorkman.
While this would seem to belie his reputation for great fitness, it’s not unthinkable: Those he sucked into extended rallies generally wilted long before the fifth set, while those able to impose their games on Muster had a better chance.
As Boris Becker once said, the fifth set is not about tennis, it’s about heart. In the last 10 years, few athletes of any discipline have shown more heart than Armstrong.
Any marathon runner (or, I’d guess, participant in a 23-day, 2,300 kilometer bike race) will tell you that any race of this distance requires great mental fortitude to complete at all, let alone win.
Of all these large-hearted (both literally and metaphorically) athletes, Armstrong has been dominant.
He won the Tour de France seven straight times from 1999-2005, a record. Oh, and he did so after overcoming testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs.
If Becker is to be believed, an Armstrong like figure would stand a good chance in five-setters.
A Note: Look for the next installment on Tuesday, with an athlete who shows that big can be beautiful.
Part One: Usain Bolt.