In 1971 I had a big week. I won Wimbeldon, the French, Australian, and U.S. Open's from Monday through Friday, and on Sunday I single-handedly brought the Davis Cup back to the United States. I was the greatest tennis player on the planet and yet, I was only twelve years old and had been playing tennis for a little over 18 months. As I said, a very big week!
Like all twelve year-olds who had just discovered something they were passionate about, I dreamed. My dreams took me to the red clay of Roland Garros, and the tight, green lawns of Australia, England and New York. Wherever big-time tennis was played, a short moment after laying my head on the pillow each night, I was there.
My nights were spent on the pro circuit and my days on the courts developing a game the likes of which the world had never seen. Laver's forehand, Rosewall's backhand, a Stan Smith serve, and the cool of Arthur Ashe. Those were the stars of my youth, and my game would have a little piece of each. Of course, a few months after my first lesson, I could defeat my idols easily, albeit on the backboard at my club and in my dreams at night.
While I never reached the level of my heroes during my waking hours, or anything remotely close for that matter, I did learn to play the game a bit. I was a ranked junior, a high school "star" and played for a pretty good college team. Good compared to most, but nowhere near the level of the pros. Not even close.
I got my first taste of the pro game in 1984. I had been teaching for a few years and Fred Stolle and Butch Buchholz were coming to the club to promote something or other, and my step-father and I were going to play a doubles match with them for the members.
Now Stolle and Buchholz are two of the games all-time greats but, at the time, were probably thirty years past their prime and almost as many pounds over their playing weight. How good could they be? They walked onto the court, looking like any other 50 year-old players at the club, moving slowly with various braces and supports attached to their elbows and knees. I was in my early 20's, fit and ready to show the "old" guys how the game was played in the "new era." God, was I in for an awakening.
Consistency like I'd never seen. Depth to within six inches of the baseline every time, and the control of concert maestros. It wasn't two games before I found my tiny corner of the court and began praying that they wouldn't hit the ball to me. I covered my small area and 50 something year-old Fred Stolle covered the other 98%, knee braces and all. Great day-------- thoroughly outclassed by two "old men" well past their prime.
It was on that court, that day in 1984, that I realized that the game the pros play is totally different than the activity us mere mortals toil with, and the gap is even wider today. Today's pros are bigger, faster, stronger, and have more sophisticated training methods. Their level of play is so far removed from anything you and I play, that comparisons are inane.
The super athletes on the pro tour today play a at a level of power and speed that the vast majority of us will never begin to approach, nor should we try. Professional tennis in the 90's can be summed up in one word--HARDER. Hit it harder, end the point as quickly as you can and that is what wins on the pro tour. Absolutely correct, but for the 99.999% of us that are not, nor ever will be, on the tour, it is not a good style of play to emulate.
Pros of the past played a game of consistency and control. Yes, they hit the ball hard, but their games were based on consistent control and patience while they waited for an opportunity to attack. This style of play is much more suited to, and attainable to a certain extent, regular tennis players like you and I.
While we can only dream of hitting a 130 mph serve, we can realistically work towards keeping the ball in play, moving it around the court, and attacking the net when an opportunity presents itself. If we try to emulate the style of play of the pros of the past, while we still most probably will not achieve their actual level of play, we will develop sound fundamentals in terms of both strokes and strategy. These skills will, in turn, produce a much more enjoyable style of play. A style of tennis that resembles a chess match where consistency and strategy determine the winner, rather than a brand of the game that is more of a race to see who makes enough errors to lose the match first.
Yet, we still like to dream. We think we can do it because the pros make it look so easy. Even as mature adults we still try to learn the Sampras serve, the Seles backhand, or the Agassi return. We try to play like the pros and what do we end up with? The very occasional great, world class shot, but more often than not, frustration because we simply can't do it like the pros.
Well, I'm here to tell you that it's okay that we can't play like the pros and, in fact, shouldn't try. Heck, I AM a pro and I can't play like THE PROS. Most of us don't have the time, talent or even the desire to put in the thousands, that's right thousands, of hours that our heroes on the tour have devoted to their games. As I've said before, Pete Sampras has hit hundreds of thousands of serves in practice do develop what is perhaps his biggest weapon. I'm sure that Andre Agassi wore out the arms of many, many teaching pros as he had them serve thousands of serves to him so that he could groove his return.
Who, among us, is going to do that? We can't, we have lives. Jobs, families, other interests. Tennis for most of us is a form of recreation. Exercise, fun and something that we can enjoy the process of improving at. It is not our livelihood, and in the overall scheme of things, should be one of the more pleasurable aspects of our lives. A break from the stress of making ends meet and doing the best we can for our families.
This is what tennis for mere mortals like you and I should be, and that is what the focus of this column will be for the immediate future. I'm sick and tired of seeing articles telling us how to do it "like the pros." We're not pros, never will be and only cause ourselves frustration trying. "Play like the pros?" Please, how ridiculous is that? "Sing like Elvis"--teach me how to do that and I'll really get excited.
See you next month!