For longtime tennis trainer Scott Clark, his sessions are not always about forehands, serve speed or footwork. His main focus? Preventing injuries.
“Ultimately my job responsibility is keeping these guys healthy,” says Clark, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) who works with four of the top-10 U.S. men on the ATP tour. “First of all, don’t injure them in training and, second, you have to train them to prevent injuries. I don’t care how good of a tennis player they are, if they are injured and not on the court, they are not successful.”
But as the late-season U.S. Open approaches later this month, keeping these athletes completely injury-free isn’t a reality. At this point Clark, who has 20 years experience in sports science as a Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician, simply tries to manage injuries while the focus shifts from three-set matches to full five-set singles and double days, potentially over the course of a two-week Grand Slam tournament. While Clark works with young rising star and World No. 78 Denis Kudla, 2015 Newport champion and World No. 87 Rajeev Ram, Tim Smyczek and Austin Krajicek to prep them for New York, he says the biggest change involves bolstering conditioning and fitness without overworking the body. Clark, who acts as both the players’ physio and strength and training coach, says he can only hope the players have maintained their fitness levels throughout the season. His focus now is to build the mental side of the game and give them the confidence to push through five sets.
“Guys who can deal with the mental aspect are guys who are going to be successful,” says Clark, who has spent only 10 days at his home in Chicago this year because he is constantly traveling to tournaments with his players. “Training is going to shift toward more of a mental challenge.”
To accomplish this shift, the four players engage in high-intensity interval training to prepare their bodies to work while fatigued and build both mental and physical toughness. One of Clark's drills involves handling multiple, rapid-fire balls for 15 seconds, followed by a 10-second break and repeated over and over to simulate an entire match.
In the days immediately before the U.S. Open starts on Aug. 31, Clark will lessen the volume of work and focus on cleaning up any nagging injuries. And they all have them. “They just can’t take time to heal,” he says, “so I spend a lot of time with these guys on mobility and stability.”
During those ever-so brief “recovery days” Clark will have Kudla, Ram, Smyczek and Krajicek spend up to an hour foam rolling and working on specific movement patterns to activate muscles. Then each athlete will work on mobility or stability based on their needs, addressing injury concerns along the way.
Once the U.S. Open gets underway and players have singles and doubles matches and practice sessions, Clark puts the focus on “prehab” for a different body part each day. If they have enough energy, he’ll still put them through a 15-minute session where he combines core work with strength maintenance. Using a standing circuit training regiment, Clark says the players can maintain upper body strength in a quick-hit session. If they have extra “gas in the tank,” he’ll put them through interval footwork training that includes cardio conditioning before they slide into their hour-long cool down and recovery mode.
All through the U.S. Open—or any other tournament, for that matter—Clark deals with tweaks and twinges on a daily basis. “For the tennis player, it is a continuum,” he says. “You have to really be on top of your athletes, know what their needs are and design training programs to prevent (chronic) things from cropping up. It is delicate.”
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.