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Most tennis players—especially those who have played in advanced tournaments—have experienced some form of elbow ailment, commonly referred to as tennis elbow. It can be completely debilitating, but the pain of tennis elbow can be prevented with proper methods.
"Typically, tennis elbow comes from hyperextension of the wrist. It depends on bad mechanics," explains Dwayne Hultquist, head tennis coach at Florida State and founder of Seminole High Performance Tennis. "You see it in people who don't have good form. Bad form forces you to overstretch the muscle on the outside of the elbow."
"The higher skilled players don't have a lot of issues with it, because they have good form, but you want to continue to strengthen the wrist," adds Florida State tennis trainer Clay Johnson. "The wrist controls the form, because all the muscles that are responsible for those actions originate there."
Johnson spends a lot of time with the 'Noles and with younger players at Seminole High Performance, working to prevent elbow injuries using these three methods.
Proper technique plays a critical role in elbow injury prevention. As a young player, using a western grip—which is commonly taught nowadays—can put a lot of stress on that area. "A tennis professional like Rafael Nadal uses a western grip, which allows him to hit a lot of top spin," says Johnson. "The reason you typically get tennis elbow is because the wrist is extended and you make contact at the wrong point."
When you make contact with the tennis ball in front of your body, you use racquet head speed and the kinetic force of your body. If you have poor form, you are probably using your arm to generate force and hitting the ball close to your body, causing more stress to transfer to the elbow.
"It's important to have a quarter degree turn to keep the pressure off," adds Hultquist. "That's where a tennis professional can help you prevent tennis elbow."
Most new racquets are player-friendly, with technology built in to reduce the shock transferred to your arm. Any spicket at the bottom of a racquet will take some pressure off the elbow, allowing you to make better contact with the ball.
Johnson recommends caution about the type of string and racquet you use. He says, "There is a string called Big Banger. It has a lot of power but it's very stiff, and that will contribute to vibration, which can cause inflammation in your elbow." He also advises younger players to use a racquet with a large head, designed for power, which discourages overswinging and reduces vibration. (Get feedback on your swing through the Babolat Play and Connect Smart Racquet.)
Exercise is one of the best defenses against tennis elbow. Hultquist and Johnson agree that prevention is key. That's why professional athletes spend as much time in the weight room as they do on the court.
"If a kid is just developing, or a guy has had tennis elbow, I would strengthen below the elbow," says Johnson. "Then I'll strengthen above the elbow." He recommends using Thera-bands to strengthen the muscles around the elbow, shoulder and wrist. Eliminating weakness in each of these joints reduces the amount of stress on the elbow, preventing potential injury.
Already suffering from tennis elbow? Learn the best way to cure it.