What is the physiological toll on an elite athlete of 14 days cooped up in a hotel room? Seventy-two of the world’s best tennis players are about to find out.
Having had the misfortune of being on a charter plane to Melbourne carrying passengers who subsequently tested positive to COVID-19, top players such as Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, Kei Nishikori and Anett Kontaveit had to endure a fortnight’s hard lockdown, putting them at a distinct disadvantage to their rivals, who were allowed out of hotel quarantine for five hours a day to train.
Some players were able to train for five hours a day, but those in hard lockdown had to stay in their rooms.Credit:Eddie Jim
Those in hard lockdown had no access to training facilities beyond their rooms, leaving some players to hit balls against mattresses and others, such as Kazakhastan’s Yulia Putintseva, pining for fresh air. According to exercise scientist Kevin Norton, this will have taken a measurable toll on the players. The question is, with nine days on the outside since they were released, will they be capable of performing at their best in the first grand slam of the year?
How will time in quarantine have hurt tennis players?
Australian player Ellen Perez says there’s no substitute for training on a tennis court. “It’s nice to feel the ball, be active and sweat it out,” she says. “To put all that aside and be put in a room locked up. It’s very different. We are not used to sitting at a desk or used to sitting down for long periods of time like that. It’s a huge adjustment but you have to make the most of everything.”
Professor of exercise science Kevin Norton, from the University of South Australia, says players confined to their rooms would have lost not only muscle strength and blood volume but executive function skills such as sharp reflexes, rapid decision-making and the ability to regulate sweating to keep cool.
“They may look great at hitting the ball against their hotel window or their mattress but the ball isn’t coming back at them with the same speed it will on the court. So they are going to lose that fine motor control, that fast decision-making,” Norton says.
Of course, well-trained athletes don’t lose all their conditioning in 14 days – but even a modest decline can make all the difference against the best players in the world.
“It’s hard to know how much they lose, and it might not be much, but there is a very fine line between someone that makes the final and someone who gets beaten in the first or second round,” Norton says.
However, tennis coach Roger Rasheed, who has worked with Lleyton Hewitt, Gael Monfils, Grigor Dimitrov and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, says the top players should have done most of their fitness work well before arriving in Australia and that those who got creative in lockdown, using beds, chairs and their own body weight for core strength exercises, are the ones who will recover best.
”Your mental strength needs to be your number one weapon in times like these. If you took a positive look at this and said, ‘OK, this is what I have got to work with, what’s my agenda look like? Let’s make a plan,’ you will get through it.”
Norton says fitness and circulation are usually replenished within 48 hours of resuming training, while the ability for muscles to reduce acid levels and transfer energy usually takes three to four days. Muscle strength can take as long as six to eight days to rebuild while those executive skills can take as long as several weeks, depending on the athlete.
But one area concerns him most.
What impact does the sun have?
Norton is most concerned about how players who were locked away will handle the heat. This summer has been a mild one in Melbourne but if the weather heats up it will take a toll on those who were stuck in climate-controlled rooms for two weeks.
He says this could become an issue for male players playing four or five set matches. “If we had a heatwave come through, I would be worried about the ability of players to thermoregulate – to be able to sweat at high levels to cool their own bodies under intense exercise and hot weather,” he says. “That sort of physiological adaptation takes a minimum of six to eight sessions in the heat over 10 or so days. It’s not something you can come out of quarantine, have two sessions on a hot court and be ready for.
“You could see players under heat stress and heatstroke if it is quite severe. It’s not just a matter of it being a 40-degree day, on court it could be around 60 degrees with the radiant heat.”
Who has emerged from hard lockdown in the best form, and how have they done it?
Tennis Australia and the WTA hastily arranged a special tournament for female players who were forced into hard lockdown. Officially, it was called the Grampians Trophy, but let’s call it the “Quarantine Cup”. The trophy was shared by Estonian star Anett Kontaveit and American Ann Li (the tournament didn’t go to a final because of the disruption caused by a positive COVID-19 test to a hotel worker). Greek player Maria Sakkari and American Jennifer Brady also made the semis.
Kontaveit, a quarter-finalist in last year’s Open, trained in her room on an exercise bike and with weights and medicine balls. Every second day she did a virtual Pilates and yoga session with her trainer. “Sometimes it’s a longer bike session with intervals, sometimes it is more weights and legs and upper body exercises,” she wrote in a column for The Age.
But she still had to acclimitise when she was released from quarantine and hit the practice courts. “My muscles are not used to playing, the movement is so different to what you can do in the room so some muscles are getting tight and sore from playing but it’s been OK.”
Both Kontaveit and Li were still feeling the effects of hard quarantine on the eve of the Open. “Definitely a new situation coming here and having to do two weeks of hard quarantine but I’m proud of the work I did in the room, I tried to work out a lot and shadow hit against the mattress,” Li, the world No.99, said.
Said Kontaveit: “I’m not sure these two weeks of being in the room are totally behind me, but I feel it was definitely worth playing these matches and now I’m really glad I got them in.
“If you haven’t been able to serve a single serve for two weeks it’s always going to be difficult when you start hitting. No matter how cautious you are, how slowly you take it, it’s always going to be a little rough on the body when you start again.”
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