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  • Writer's pictureHleb Maslau

In Conversation with Rob Brandsma

Hleb: Can you please introduce yourself and give a bit of an overview of your background?

Rob: Tennis has been a central part of my life since I serendipitously started lessons at nine. From that moment, I was hooked, spending every possible minute on the court.

However, at 17, I encountered persistent injuries that hindered my progress. Despite consultations with doctors and physiotherapists, the causes remained elusive, and some even suggested my body might not be suited for high-performance tennis. This was a devastating blow for a young athlete with dreams of greatness, but it sparked my interest in the human body and the physical aspects of training. I began a journey to understand my injuries—questioning whether they were technical, a result of overtraining, or due to a lack of strength.

These challenges taught me the importance of perseverance, innovative thinking, and resilience. While I ultimately wasn't able to pursue a professional tennis career, this period fueled my passion for sports science. After completing my economics degree, I shifted gears to study sports full-time, balancing my studies with evening tennis coaching.

Years of coaching, always with a focus on the physical aspects, led me to specialize in tennis performance. My blend of personal experience, coaching background, academic knowledge, and a strong desire to help athletes avoid unnecessary injuries opened numerous opportunities. I started at Dutch academies, expanded my horizons with a stint in China, and eventually contributed to the development of physical training setups at leading European academies.

Looking back at my journey, it has been filled with both remarkable highs and challenging lows, but my love for the sport and passion for improving athletic performance remains unwavering. Working with top players like Kerber, Azarenka, Anisimova, Mertens, and Kenin, as well as numerous juniors and experts from various fields, has been a privilege and a testament to the rewarding path I embarked on years ago.

Rob, Darren and I at the Indian Wells Tennis Championships in 2022.

Hleb: How would you define the role of fitness in tennis and its importance for players at

different skill levels?

Rob: In today's competitive tennis landscape, simply playing the game is not enough to achieve peak performance. Preparing the body for the demands of the sport is essential. I firmly believe in the adage "better athlete, better player." Fitness and athleticism are increasingly crucial, with professional teams adopting comprehensive, data-driven approaches from a young age. The availability of scientific research and analysis has transformed what was once a luxury—having a dedicated trainer—into a standard practice. Players now understand the critical link between fitness, health, and performance.

The primary goal of fitness training is injury prevention, with performance enhancement as a secondary benefit. This applies to everyone from elite players to enthusiastic juniors and recreational players. A well-developed fitness regimen reduces injury risks, enabling players to enjoy the game more and compete with greater excitement. For instance, improved movement leads to better positioning, increasing the chances of winning points. Enhanced fitness allows players to sustain quality and intensity throughout matches, recover faster, and perform consistently.

Solid fitness not only makes a significant difference on the court but also contributes to overall health. The better you move, the more balls you can return, and the longer you can maintain a high level of play. Fitness, therefore, is the foundation upon which great tennis is built.

Hleb: What are some of the key physical attributes the tennis player should focus on to keep

developing their game?

Rob: In tennis, achieving peak performance requires more than just playing the game; it demands a comprehensive approach to physical fitness. To avoid injuries, focus on posture, body control, mobility, stability, flexibility, and strength. Tennis's repetitive nature and reliance on a dominant side constantly throw the body out of balance, making it unrealistic to achieve perfect equilibrium.

Develop powerful legs, glutes, back, and upper body by targeting muscle fiber recruitment and force development. Stay reactive and explosive with activities like jumping, throwing, and plyometrics. Train to be an athlete, not a bodybuilder, by emphasizing dynamic, explosive movements. A strong, stable core is essential for transferring energy efficiently from the ground up through to your shot, without losing power.

Enhance your coordination skills—rhythm, timing, balance, body awareness, reaction, hand-eye coordination, differentiation, and multitasking. Improved coordination allows you to handle complex on-court situations more efficiently. Develop your energy systems for both power and capacity. Training like a Fiat and expecting Ferrari performance won't cut it. Create power quickly and recover rapidly over long periods.

Tennis is inherently rotational, so train your body to handle rotational movements. Practice loading and unloading in various planes of motion—slow, fast, explosive, with weights, heavy balls, and light balls.

Become a better mover by honing on-court movement skills in all directions, focusing on fluency, reactivity, and precision. Watch clips of Federer’s footwork to see this in action. Work on acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction to stay fast to the ball and quick in recovery. Effective movement on the court is akin to a dance, where fluidity and precision make all the difference.

Rob, Amanda and I during the training block in Miami

Hleb: How do you approach designing a fitness plan for tennis players? What factors do you

consider when tailoring programs to individual athletes?

Rob: What are the limiting factors to performance, and where can we see the most progression? Where do we find chances and open windows?

The first thing I always keep in mind is that tennis is about tennis. In the end, it's not just about fitness but about developing better tennis athletes. This means ensuring that players can perform their game effectively and remain resilient against the physical toll of the sport.

Much of the work I do can be seen as fundamental basics that are applicable to other sports, but a significant portion is directly related to tennis. There's a considerable gray area where my training sessions resemble tennis sessions. The question of whether this should be handled by the tennis coach, the fitness coach, or both is a topic for further discussion. The objective is to translate what we do in the gym and during physical training onto the tennis court, with a racket and ball, in specific settings, and under time pressure.

Not everything I do is what's commonly referred to as "tennis-specific," but there's a place for both specific and nonspecific work depending on the athlete's stage and needs.

I aim to create a solid foundation, a complete skill set upon which the athlete can build their game. Let's think of it as constructing a house; you don't start with the roof, do you? Even here, there's a detailed, calculated, and well-thought-out plan—a roadmap of step-by-step progress, brick by brick.

We want our players to unleash their best game without limitations, within their playing style, at the required intensity, every point, repeatedly. This enables them to sustain performance across multiple matches and tournaments without sacrificing quality, intensity, or succumbing to injuries.

When customizing a program, I consider various aspects before designing it. Here are some questions I ask myself, which form the basis of my plans:

The Athlete:

  • What genetic factors does the athlete bring to the table?

  • What is their body type and fiber type?

  • How tall are they and what are their parents' heights?

  • At what stage are they in terms of growth?

  • What are the pros and cons of their current physical state, and how will it develop in the future?

  • How might the game evolve for them, and what physical attributes will be required?

Motivation and Lifestyle:

  • What motivates the athlete?

  • What are their personality traits?

  • How can information be best communicated to them?

  • How long and how intensively have they been training?

  • Do they have any food intolerances or allergies?

  • How is the quality of their sleep, resting heart rate, and VO2 max level?

  • Are they aware of their lifestyle habits, including diet and sleep patterns?

Postural Considerations:

  • What are the weak links in their kinetic chain?

  • Which muscles and joints require more attention?

  • How is their mobility, stability, and overall body control?

  • Are there imbalances or compensation patterns that increase injury risk?

  • What is their history of injuries, and are there recurring patterns?

Training and Tennis:

  • What is the player's desired game style?

  • What are their current strengths and weaknesses?

  • How efficiently do they move on the court?

  • Can they read and sense the game effectively?

  • What is their natural movement style?

  • How explosive and strong are they?

  • What stage of training are they in?

  • How quickly do they recover after exertion?

This list provides a glimpse into the holistic approach I take in crafting a training plan. It's not simply about prescribing exercises; there must be a thoughtful rationale behind each element. It's akin to cooking—a recipe requires more than just ingredients; it demands an understanding of flavors and techniques.

I aim to create a training environment that resonates with the athlete's nature, allowing them to identify with it. Tennis is an individual sport, and each player's unique attributes must be considered in their training approach.

Hleb: Could you share some tennis-specific fitness training, exercises, or drills that are particularly beneficial for tennis players?

Improving and maximizing the split step: One crucial aspect I frequently work on with my players is refining their split step technique to enhance their agility and responsiveness on the court. Mastering a modern split step, coupled with a powerful initial movement, can significantly elevate a player's performance. We delve into various iterations of this skill, encompassing different directions and distances. Practicing with a racket and ball, as well as without hitting, or employing a basket or medicine ball, aids in mastering this fundamental movement. Once proficiency is achieved, the focus shifts towards seamlessly integrating the split step and explosive first step into actual gameplay. Precise timing of these movements can offer a substantial advantage in swiftly reaching the incoming ball.

Stances: Another area of emphasis is developing versatility in stances to optimize stroke execution. Players learn to effectively load and unload, harnessing hip action across open, closed, and semi-open stances. Through drills involving rackets, medicine balls, or baskets, players cultivate a fluid rhythm and timing in transitioning between stances. Attention is paid to foot positioning, coiling ability, separation angle, and maintaining a strong upper-body posture. Adjustments are made based on factors such as ball weight, grip, and ball positioning relative to the body. These foundational skills lay the groundwork for executing a variety of shots in different game scenarios, emphasizing dynamic balance and proper loading.

Foot and ankle care: Recognizing the demands placed on our feet and ankles during extensive court time, I advocate for prioritizing foot and ankle health. Strong and well-functioning feet are essential for preventing compensatory movements that can lead to issues higher up in the kinetic chain, such as knee or hip pain. Assessing factors like toe mobility, weight distribution, and ankle flexibility provides insights into potential areas for improvement. For instance, inadequate stability in the front foot during the serve can compromise balance and energy transfer. To address these concerns, a comprehensive approach incorporating mobility exercises, soft tissue work, balance drills, and tennis-specific movements is implemented both on and off the court.

By focusing on refining these key aspects—split step proficiency, stance versatility, and foot and ankle health—players can enhance their agility, power, and overall performance on the tennis court.

Hleb: Can you explain what are the most common fitness-related challenges, the tennis players face and how you have them overcome those challenges?

The tennis tour boasts a relentless competition schedule, with events nearly every week of the year. Athletes must navigate different time zones, climates, and surfaces, never knowing how long they'll be in one place. This unpredictability makes it challenging to create a consistent plan for continuous improvement.

Staying injury-free and healthy is the top priority. If you can play, you have the best chance to earn points. This means you must compete for several months each year. While some athletes play more than others, ultimately, if you're not in the events, you can't earn points, maintain your ranking, or improve it.

However, achieving this requires daily dedication. You need to work both to stay healthy and to become a better player—two distinct goals. This necessitates a well-thought-out periodization plan. Planning training during blocks is straightforward, but on tour, things can change rapidly, requiring quick adjustments. Both the athlete's body and mind must be ready to adapt to training stimuli. As a coach, I've learned that flexibility, creativity, and constant communication with team members are essential. Sometimes you need to skip a planned session, cut it short, or add more work. As long as the process continues, incremental progress over time adds up.

Tennis involves explosive movements, agility, and quick directional changes. Training to enhance on-court performance starts with observation, reaction, and action. Analyzing data, such as average movement per point and change of direction, helps in creating effective training frameworks. Video analysis provides immediate feedback on movement quality.

The key to tennis is seeing and recognizing what's happening on the court quickly. Drills should focus on improving visual and sensory skills to anticipate the opponent's moves. Reading the opponent’s eyes, foot stances, and hip positions can give clues about their next shot. Combining these observational skills with athletic prowess makes a player nearly unstoppable.

Movement on court involves several steps:

  • Split step and choosing the right split

  • First step (explosive and big) towards the ball

  • Adjusting (small steps) for balance

  • Loading and hitting from various stances

  • Decelerating and recovering for the next move

Improving an explosive first step, for instance, involves understanding its components and developing them in different environments—weight room, track, court, or hill. Technical skills, foot placement, force application, and kinetic energy use all play roles. Developing power, focusing on plyometrics, strength training, and muscle quality are part of the strategy. It may be necessary to step away from tennis temporarily to build certain qualities before integrating them back on the court.

The best way to train agility for tennis is through actual play, as it is the most realistic and integrates sensing, anticipation, and reaction skills. Agility differs from mere change of direction work.

Tennis matches can last several hours and are physically demanding. Improving endurance and stamina involves understanding the sport's interval nature. Short bursts of high-intensity work are followed by recovery periods. The heart rate fluctuates, with 15% of match time spent in high-intensity zones. Knowing how the body responds to lactate and heart rate changes helps in training for better recovery and performance.

Vo2max is crucial for tennis players. Testing in the lab or on the court provides valuable data. Monitoring heart rates during training helps control intensity and ensure athletes stay in the required zones. Balancing different types of sessions—long, short, intense, or mixed—is key, depending on the training stage and player needs.

Endurance training varies based on periodization. On-court tennis-specific sessions, using realistic match-related work-to-rest ratios, are highly effective. Starting intervals with a serve or return, followed by match-like movements, provides the best simulation of real play. Give it a try and see the difference in performance!

Hleb: How do you integrate mental and physical training to optimize players' performance?

What mental aspect do you emphasize during your training?

The saying "mind over muscle" encapsulates the synergy between physical and mental training. Mental strength, which dictates how you handle challenges, pressure, and stress, is cultivated through physical training. By pushing the body, you also train the mind.

Physical training often pushes athletes to their mental limits, creating doubt about whether they can complete the task. Yet, by persevering, they discover they can achieve far more than they ever imagined. Pushing beyond perceived boundaries reveals untapped potential.

Developing commitment, concentration, confidence, courage, and emotional control is essential for mental toughness. These traits are honed through various situations where mental training is integrated into physical training. It's most effective to work on mental aspects during the actual tennis or fitness session. While mental coaching is a profession of its own, athletes benefit from expert input in the long run. As a trainer, I'm always open to integrating insights from different fields for the benefit of my players.

Commitment is crucial for achieving goals. How dedicated are you to becoming a better player or athlete? To what extent are you willing to commit to achieving your goals? Training often leaves you feeling tired, but are you really that exhausted? The brain controls the body and ensures it doesn't reach its maximum capacity. Look at special forces training—often, you can push through one more set or reach for that ball even when your legs feel like lead. Challenge is necessary for improvement; without it, there's no change or progression.

Believe in yourself and your body. Trust that after all the hard work, you are ready for competition. When you've completed various training stages without physical issues, you can be confident that your physical state won't limit you during a match. This confidence means that regardless of the match's duration or your opponent's physical prowess, you're prepared to give your all.

After a good point, stay in the positive energy. After a bad point, walk away from the negative energy—grab your towel, relax, and reload. Establish routines during matches and preparation phases. Create habits you can rely on when the game gets tight and stressful. Focus on breathing, relax your hitting arm, and keep your racket in your non-hitting hand. Building this framework starts in practice.

A match is a clash of egos where showing insecurity or doubt benefits your opponent. Both players are ready, strong, and determined to win. Show confidence even when you don't feel it—fake it till you make it. Practice this in the gym, maintaining an upright posture between sets. After a grueling set, resist lying on the floor; stand tall and keep going. Release negative energy if needed, but continue the battle. Enjoy the fight for momentum, point by point, shot by shot. Regardless of the match's outcome, be proud of your effort.

Tennis involves playing many matches, providing endless opportunities for improvement. Win or lose, be proud, and move on. The process of becoming a better version of yourself continues daily in training, competition, and life.

At night, when brushing your teeth, look in the mirror and acknowledge your hard work. Compliment yourself, embrace positive self-talk. Accept compliments from others—positive reinforcement is a powerful tool easily integrated into daily training.

Before a big match or after a tough drill, managing stress and heart rate is crucial. Practice relaxation techniques and controlled breathing before every serve, after intense intervals, during cool-downs, and even before bed. Visualization is another powerful tool. It enhances movement quality, reduces stress, and builds confidence. Martial artists and Formula 1 drivers use visualization to perfect their techniques and prepare for high-stakes scenarios. Visualize your actions, feel them, and then execute them.

Challenge yourself constantly. Can you maintain focus under pressure? Can you stay brave when playing crucial points? Adaptability is key. Tennis is unpredictable—don’t let unforeseen events drain your energy or focus. Distractions come from many sources: spectators, line judges, weather, or even an opponent's mind games. As a coach, I create challenging, distracting situations in training to develop resilience. Athletes must find solutions without losing emotional control.

Mental resilience also requires a healthy lifestyle. Balanced nutrition and quality sleep are essential for creating an environment where athletes can thrive.

Rob's most impressive skill is falling asleep on demand (Madrid,2022)

Hleb: What advancements in data and technology analytics do you see in the industry? How do you leverage these tools to track and monitor the player's fitness progress and make adjustments to the program?

Data is becoming increasingly important, revolutionizing various fields. In sports, match analyses and tactical plans are now more detailed and precise than ever before. Sports federations employ full-time data analysts, and private analysts are available for hire. Their sole focus is on analyzing matches, comparing performances, and processing data. They can provide comprehensive insights into your opponent, the game, your strengths and weaknesses, and the tactical plan for your match. Moreover, they can assess your performance, movement patterns, and speed.

The fitness industry is also embracing data. Performance metrics, screening, and prehabilitation are now data-driven. Advanced testing setups in labs and on the field, tennis courts with multiple cameras, gym equipment displaying output or speed, and sensors tracking your kinetic chain in movement—everything you want to measure is measurable. The question is, to what extent do you need data to achieve your goals?

Setups are becoming more compact and accessible. One device can now perform multiple tasks. In the past, you needed timing gates, a jump plate, a velocity tracker, and a high-speed camera. Today, single devices can handle all these tests. Access to data is easier with user-friendly apps and software products.

Wearable technology provides valuable insights into readiness to perform, sleep quality, and heart rate. It also offers a clear picture of physical exertion during a match. I use data extensively but avoid letting it dominate my decision-making. I still rely on my judgment, but data plays a significant role in shaping my decisions and plans. If match data shows that my player struggles with transitioning from forehand to backhand while on the run, I can't ignore it. Data doesn't lie, so I must address that aspect of the game. Similarly, if serve speed data shows a deficiency and I observe a lack of hip and back leg load, these are facts I must work on to improve. Wearable data indicating poor sleep quality, a tired system, and a low readiness index would prompt me to adjust a training plan involving high neurological demands.

Data is objective and crucial for making informed decisions and plans. The process requires constant guidance and adjustments, and data undoubtedly aids in this.

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