The Australian Open – Challenges for an athlete

Australian Open tennis

The Australian Open is one of the country’s biggest international events. Nearly 650,000 spectators entered the gates to be part of the 2014 tournament. Not only were there spectators at the courts, but all over the world Australia was being watched.

But spare a thought for the players – the pressure to succeed is immense.


The difficulties of tennis as a sport

A professional athlete knows exactly what they need to do on match day; from the time they wake to the activities required to get the body ready before competition, to strategies to resist fatigue during the event,and recovery methods post-activity. Tennis, however, is as unpredictable as winning the lottery. Scheduled match times can change; match lengths, point duration and intensity – everything can fluctuate. And in a tournament like the Australian Open, players may have to back up successful performances with another potentially gruelling match the next day.

This uncertainty makes it difficult to plan exactly what needs to be done leading into a match. In other sports, athletes know what time they step onto the field, track or court, and how long play will proceed. Knowing what time you step onto the court and how much work will be required of your body means that preparation can be structured and timed in a predictable fashion. In tennis, this is not always possible.


Curbing the unpredictability

Due to the unpredictability of tennis, ensuring recovery is achieved after every training session and every match is vital in maximising a player’s endurance potential for the next session. To help their depleted fuel stores recover adequately, professional tennis players know it is important to consume a snack or meal containing carbohydrate and protein within the first 30-60 minutes after a training session or a match. Good food combinations that provide this can include fruit and yoghurt; crackers with toppings that contain protein such as tuna, chicken or cottage cheese; smoothies; dried fruit and nuts; and sandwiches with protein fillings.


The practicalities

If we look back at how tennis players will set up the day to perform, it’s important strategies are implemented to ensure they start matches well fuelled and well hydrated. Food choices at this time need to fulfil certain criteria: they should contain carbohydrate and protein, with small amounts of fat. This meal will typically be consumed 3-4 hours before the time set for the match. After this meal, players will continue to eat and drink small volumes of food and fluid regularly, as it is important to ensure the body is comfortable and available fuel is ready for when they finally step onto the court. When consuming foods and fluids before a match, players will never try anything new, as best practice is to stick to something familiar and trialled during training.

The body generally has around 90 minutes worth of fuel to work with, so when a match is played for longer than 60 minutes it is important players keep providing the body with extra fuel. The unpredictable length of matches makes it difficult to plan appropriate fuelling but generally, a smart plan for Australian Open competitors is to consume 20-50g of carbohydrate each hour of play (no professional tennis player will want to wait until the point where fatigue sets in!). Common food and fluid choices during long tennis matches can include sports drinks, sandwiches, pretzels, bananas, and sports gels or bars.


Summer and the Australian Open

During the 2014 Australian Open, the weather sky-rocketed to temperatures that suspended play, reinforcing how important it is that players take their hydration and cooling strategies seriously.

The type of drink selected by an athlete is dependent on their individual needs. Athletes will often consume a variety of water, sports drinks (with 5-8% carbohydrate) and/or electrolyte solutions. The amount consumed is also individually determined based on numerous factors including the player’s sweat rate, match duration and intensity, and of course, weather conditions. Players may also implement cooling strategies such as drinking ice-slushy drinks to help delay increases in core temperature, thereby delaying fatigue.


The practical side of fluid consumption

Athletes can get a gauge of how much fluid their body needs by weighing themselves before and after a session (with the body mass change being largely due to fluid loss). Professional tennis players often check in on their fluid losses in a number of different scenarios (weather conditions, duration, intensity, etc) to get an idea of how much fluid they will likely need during a match. Players will also replace match fluid losses in the important post-match recovery period to ensure they are adequately hydrated before the next match. Generally it is recommended to replace 120-150% of fluid losses over the 4-6 hours after exercise.


Getting it right

Playing hard and performing at your best is all about preparation. Knowing what to eat and drink before a match, having foods and fluids to take onto the court for fuelling during matches, and knowing what to have for recovery so the strategy can be repeated for every match, are all imperative factors to being a professional tennis player. Budding tennis players can learn more by downloading our Active Kids bookletfactsheet, or talking to an Accredited Sports Dietitian.