Melbourne VIC, Australia, 7 July 2014 | Australian Tennis Magazine

A peak inside the diary, virtual or otherwise, of a top professional player might not provide as many surprises as you’d expect. Chances are that alongside notes of key birthdays, important reminders and special occasions, a high percentage of a player’s calendar are weeks that are simply blocked out.

Such chunks of time will more than likely signify a Grand Slam, Masters event, other tournaments or even training blocks and rest periods. And it’s almost certain that the players have worked with their key advisors to determine  that playing schedule many months – possibly even a year – beforehand.

> View the Australian Ranking Tournaments calendar to start planning your schedule

It’s a subject that Liam Smith, National Head Coach at Tennis Australia, whose current charges include rising Aussie stars Alex Bolt and Omar Jasika knows well. Having also worked with several players on the ATP and WTA tours, Smith has spent a considerable chunk of his professional life determining the schedule that will give players their best chance of success.

“A massive amount of thought, time and consideration goes into scheduling,” says Smith, pointing to strategies that are particularly important in developing younger players.  “We have to carefully plan the schedules around the players’ development priorities and needs, ranking goals as well as work closely with the physical performance coaches to follow a periodised training program to have the athletes peaking at the tournaments we have identified for them.

“With juniors it would be the junior Grand Slams, for players transitioning [into the professional game] it would be ATP Challengers, wildcard opportunities in bigger tournaments and so on.”

Every time you schedule a tournament there should be a sense of excitement and a motivation to lay it on the line.

Scheduling is particularly important when you consider that as much as you might love tennis, there can be a risk of playing too much of it. Smith explains some of the common risks for a player who has over-trained or over-played: “The main risks can be physical injuries, poor performance due to mental fatigue or even a period of ‘flat’ performances.”

That means there is more to a professional player’s schedule than their favourite location or earning opportunities. “In my experience, I’ve always found it very important how the scheduling is linked together and to not have players travel across the globe pursuing points or appearance fees but instead selecting a series of tournaments within the same continent,” says Smith. “This is harder at the top level, however still possible.”

Acclimatisation and the transition between surfaces are among key considerations for professional players’ schedules, which means that players will ideally arrive at an event as early as possible to prepare. “You would try to play a series of events that are in similar conditions from week to week but sometimes [the challenges of transitioning quickly] is unavoidable,” Smith says.

“At most tournaments the court speeds, height of bounces and balls used can be very different so that also has to be considered in picking optimal conditions for players’ game styles … some players adapt quicker than others,  so knowing your players is very important.”

Win-loss ratios are another important consideration, particularly given the impact that they can have on a player’s confidence. Smith generally likes to see developing players claiming at least two or three wins to every loss, which means that stronger or weaker tournaments will be selected
as required.

Equally important is the total number of matches contested. For a developing player, that will ideally be at least 60 each year while players at a higher level will aim to arrive at Grand Slams and other important events with a string of quality matches under their belt. “One top player I worked with looked for six matches prior to the Australian Open, 12 or more on clay prior to the French Open, at least three on grass pre Wimbledon and 10 or more on hard court heading into the US Open,” Smith relates some of his own experiences at an elite level.

“A key factor is that a top player typically wins more, so they can play more matches in less events. A lower ranked player might need to add twice as many tournaments or drop down to lower tier events to reach the same number of matches.”

As important as it is to plan ahead, flexibility is another aspect of player scheduling. Form and motivation can fluctuate, while injury might also play a part in tweaking a player’s workload. But there is a science of sorts even in that situation. “I personally have my players on longer term (annual) periodised plans and then factor in ‘mini cycles’ of periodisation that change from week to week, depending on the results and conditions as to the days of preparation and what the players might need,” says Smith.

While there are many complex considerations for elite players, social level players can generally rely on a common sense approach in allowing adequate time on court with an awareness of the risk of injury and burnout. The best measurement is often the enjoyment factor.

“Every time you schedule a tournament there should be a sense of excitement and a motivation to lay it on the line and enjoy the process of competing,” he says. “If that feeling isn’t there, maybe it’s time for a training block or even just a week off … ultimately I think it has to be fun.”

And that’s something that’s true at every level of the game. “Rest is a key factor that can be overlooked,” Smith continues. “It’s important to schedule in a vacation week here and there, and also within my mini cycles we often factor in days off, sightseeing trips and other fun activities to freshen up the players and get their minds off tennis for a while. Knowing your athlete and having good communication is important to know when the rest is needed and when to push through.”

“Every time you schedule a tournament there should be a sense of excitement and a motivation to lay it on the line.”

Scheduling tips

  • Planning a schedule can be as important as training or competition.
  • There is (sadly!) such a thing as too much tennis – be aware of injury and burnout risks.
  • A balanced win-loss ratio will help establish experience and build confidence.
  • In an ideal world, players will arrive early at tournaments to acclimatise and prepare for tournament conditions.
  • Schedules can – and do – change. Form, injury or motivation concerns may be a factor.
  • Rest can be as important as training blocks.  Your level of enjoyment can be a good measure of scheduling success.