Spain currently has 14 players in the ATP top 100, quite a feat for a relatively small country.
Players and parents often ask me: What have the Spanish been doing so well in the last 20 or 30 years to produce so many world-class players? What are the secrets to their success?
Over the last six years, I have been studying the Spanish system with many of the most well-known, legendary Spanish coaches, including Lluis Bruguera and William "Pato" Alvarez, giving me a unique inside perspective about the Spanish way of training.
Here are six common core elements that are seen across the different training systems in Spain and that have contributed to Spanish success.
1. Footwork and balance
Spanish coaches are obsessed with training footwork and balance. Training on clay can assist the coaches as they strive to create world-class, graceful and efficient movers on the courts.
For the Spanish, tennis is a running game that requires great agility and balance. Spanish coaches believe in teaching players to move well in all directions, 360 degrees, including a strong emphasis on moving backwards diagonally for defense.
Spanish players are taught from an early age to adjust to the incoming ball and to position the body in an optimal, balanced way, so that they can hit the ball with power, accuracy and consistency.
Other systems talk about footwork, but in Spanish pedagogy, footwork is the highest priority.
2. Racquet speed and weapon building
Most Spanish coaches are also obsessed with building huge racquet speed—maximum acceleration, to create a heavy topspin and power ball. There are many Spanish exercises that are taught to the players to help them develop acceleration. Playing on clay regularly also helps develop power and spin. Spanish coaches tend to overweigh the forehand in development, preferring to build a big heavy, topspin forehand that can be used to dictate points.
When you look at Spanish champions like Sergi Bruguera from the 80s and 90s and current superstar Rafael Nadal, you can see clear examples of the protypical Spanish forehand weapon.
A hallmark of all Spanish players is consistency from the baseline. The majority of Spanish training is done around the baseline working on developing rock solid groundstrokes that never miss. This helps to give the Spanish players a confidence during extended rallies.
In Spain, the coaches strongly emphasize patience during rallies, making fewer mistakes than one's opponent, and not beating oneself with unforced errors. In Spanish systems, footwork is the key to creating groundstroke consistency.
Unlike many other training systems, especially in the U.S. historically, Spanish coaches tend to build players' games from the defensive perspective. This means players are taught to counterattack as means to victory, as well as the traditional attacking strategy. In practice, this means that many drills are designed to force a player into a defensive or counterattacking position before the players can switch to the offense.
The concept of defending against and defusing an opponent’s power and weapons is highly prized and valued in the Spanish model, and players learn that frustrating an opponent with great defense is often as rewarding as hitting a glorious winner, and can be a powerful tool of psychological warfare.
5. Physical training
Another hallmark of the Spanish style of training is a strong focus on physical conditioning, especially off-court stamina, strength and injury prevention work.
Many academies in Spain dedicate nearly half of their training to physical and athletic development, and they do a lot of prehabilitation work to prevent injuries before they happen. Thus, Spanish players tend to be very strong physically, don't break down as much in the latter parts of matches, and stay healthy and injury free for longer periods of time than many of their peers from other countries. Spanish players also tend to be very resilient physically, and they bounce back quickly when injuries do present themselves. Many other systems tend to overweight the tennis training so much, they develop great ball strikers but with fragile injury prone frames and athleticism that is not at the highest level of the game.
6. Suffering (mental toughness)
The hard work the Spanish put in on the physical conditioning side undoubtedly plays a major role in their mental toughness. There is a saying in Spain that: "The Spanish players love to suffer," and indeed, the Spanish coaches actually teach the principle of suffering to their players.
Spanish players learn from an early age that suffering and overcoming high levels of pain and fatigue on the court are true qualities of a champion, and young Spanish players desire to have the heart and fight of famous Spanish champions of the past and present, like Bruguera, Ferrero, Moya and Rafa, among many others.
If there is any one commonality among the teaching systems across all of Spain, surely the principle of learning to suffer and fight to the end, is a very important one.
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.