Tennis is a very fast game, that is often played with huge bursts of energy over a long period of time. There are many different components that make up a physically fit tennis player, this does not only include endurance but also skill elements.
Fitness in sports has changed rapidly over recent years. With the advances in technology and our understanding of nutrition and diet, it's almost impossible to reach the top of any sport without being in peak physical condition and tennis is no exception.
As a professional tennis player performing at the very top level, you have to possess great flexibility, muscular endurance, aerobic endurance and speed, all of which make up a player's physical fitness. In addition to this, agility, balance, reaction time, coordination and power are all elements of skill-based fitness that a top player requires.
Tennis is a sport that includes some of the fittest athletes on earth and can only really be compared to sports such as boxing, decathlon and ironman events. During team sports like football or rugby, it is possible for the individual participants to have a break from the action even when the ball is still in play, with tennis this is not an option.
Looking back over the years, some of the fittest tennis players include Martina Navratilova, who won a Wimbledon doubles title at the age of 46, Michael Chang, who seemed to cover every inch of the court in each match he played and Ivan Lendl who employed strict training schedules to keep in top physical conditioning. Other players from the past who would also come into this bracket include John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf.
In modern times, there are many players on both the men's and lady's tours who can be considered to be in peak physical condition. However, the players that really stand out are Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Federer boasts ease of movement on the court coupled with great stamina and is still able to beat players much younger than himself. Perhaps a few years ago Djokovic would have struggled to keep up with Rafael Nadal in terms of match endurance but seems to have overcome this and continues to get fitter and stronger on the court. Nadal on the other hand has seen injuries hinder his progress recently. Serena Williams is still considered a favorite for any tournament that she is involved in and this is due in no small part to her fitness levels and physique as well as her skill.
This all leaves the question, who is the fittest tennis player of all time? Well, if players who were in the top fifteen or twenty years ago were to come back now, in the condition they were in at the time and play the likes of Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams in a full five or three set match would they be able to sustain their level of play for the entire match? The answer has to be no, simply because the nutrition, technology, training, preparation and understanding of the game have improved vastly during this time, which makes Novak Djokovic currently the fittest tennis player, now and possibly of all time.
In the Future?
This article was written in 2014. Undoubtedly there will be very fit players in the years to come who will challenge the champions listed here. Even a poll from a couple of years ago is starting to be dated. The poll by ESPN on the greatest tennis 'athlete' of all time, conducted in 2012, shortlisted Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, and Serena Williams, with Federer being crowned the greatest.
What About David Ferrer?
A reader of this site, Pete Luoma, had a very well-thought out suggestion of David Ferrer as the fittest tennis player.
"I have watched tennis with passion for 20 years and I have allays had special interest of who is the fittest player. In 2007 I started to think already that the small guy from Spain David Ferrer is the fittest player on tour.
He didn't yet have a real success on the sport until US Open 2007 and many fans had not even noticed him yet though he was a top 20 player. That tournament proved that I was right as grinded opponent after after opponent down.
His game style is the most grueling of all players and he played most matches in many year on tour, never looking tired allays keeping himself in move between grueling points while his opponent needed that time to rest. In that tournament he grinded down David Nalbandian in third round who was a real nightmare opponent for a defensive player. He was taking the ball early moving Ferrer side to side and Ferrer did that and eventually won by making his opponent tired.
Next round he played against Rafael Nadal who was considered to be the fittest guy on tour. Ferrer was not expected to give any trouble for Nadal but I watched his Nalbandian match where he made a physical effort of a normal 6 hour match without even looking tired and believed that he might actually make Nadal so tired that it would decide the outcome even though Ferrer had that grueling match two days ago. His Fitness was just so perfect that a tennis player can even achieve. After the loss of a tight first set he was starting to win each set easier than last one, Nadal who was considered to be a physical freak was getting more tired each set while Ferrer who made most of running didn't look tired at all in this match either.
He still kept grinding his way to semi finals in that tournament and after that he became a regular top 10 player for years, only improving his fitness by unbelievable training methods that started with a 10 km run as a warm up, including an intensive bicycle session and a lot footwork training combined with hours in a gym.
You must add this legend of fitness to this list. There are so many unbelievable stories of his fitness that I could write about them all day. His body was in perfect balance due to his amazing fitness which prevented him from having any injuries until he was 34. YouTube has some videos about his fitness training, you should definitely watch some of them and you will see that he was the fittest tennis player of all time!
Roger Federer's fitness is very overrated. He doesn't grind down his opponents like some players do and when he seldom has some long match he usually doesn't play his next round in afraid to prevent injuries and humiliation. Please add him here, because he needs some mention from his physical work and professionalism. He retired in 2019 but I believe he would still be the fittest at the age of 41."
- The ESPN Sport Science poll to determine the Greatest Tennis Athlete of All Time.
- Our discussion of the greatest ever tennis player.
- Fitness for Tennis
- Legends of Tennis
- More about the sport of tennis