Okay, so you've had a month to digest my last column (Mortal Tennis) and have finally come to the realization that you are not, and most probably never will be, a professional tennis player.
Congratulations, you have just taken the first step towards playing the most enjoyable, tennis of your life-----mortal tennis.
What exactly is mortal tennis? Simply, it is a realistic approach to the game where you work towards developing strokes, shots and a style of play that will make your time on the court pleasurable and, by the way, more productive.
Would you like to hit a 120 mph serve? Of course!!! Would you like to be able to whip a topspin cross-court backhand passing shot by your helpless opponent? God yes!!!! Do you need these shots to win at your current level of play? I sincerely doubt it.
A few years ago, I was teaching at a corporate event in California. A friend of mine named Rob, who was coaching several touring pros at the time, was also teaching at the event and he was working with a 40 something salesman named Barry, who was in the 3.0 range.
Barry played once or twice a week for fun, but was terribly frustrated because he couldn't hit his backhand with any type of consistency.
He'd taken hours of lessons at his home club to no avail and it was widely known that "if you wanted to beat Barry, all you had to do was hit it to his backhand."
For three days I watched my friend try to teach this man a topspin backhand. Thousands of balls with about a 50-1 ratio of errors to winners each day was the norm , and both of their frustration levels were rising.
Finally, on the fourth day as we were walking to the courts, my friend said to me, "I can't face another day with this guy, you try." "Okay," I said. "I'll take a shot." When Barry walked onto the court and saw me, he immediately smiled and said, "What's the matter? Rob couldn't take it any more?"
We both laughed and began to hit back and forth. Right off the bat, Barry told me about his "backhand issue." And he was right, his backhand was terrible. Each time I would hit to Barry's forehand, he looked relaxed, confident, and stroked the ball back with depth and pace. As soon as I hit one to his backhand, I could see the panic in his eyes as he tried to remember anything that the pros had told him that might help. He hit the frame, the fence, the lake behind the fence, you name it and Barry put a ball there, anywhere but the court.
I looked across the courts at my friend Rob who was smiling and winking at me as he was hitting with a beautiful 25 year-old blonde secretary from California and mouthing the words "are you having fun yet?"
So what were we going to do? After breaking the ice with a few jokes, I asked Barry about all of the instruction that he had received in the past. He'd tried everything to improve his backhand, one-handed and two-handed backhands, he'd even tried a left-handed forehand. That was how
desperate he was.
He'd tried everything, everything but a slice backhand. I showed him the basics and after about 50 balls he started to get a bit of a feel for it and within 25 minutes, he was able to actually rally back and forth with his new backhand. Was it pretty? No. Did it go in the court? A vast majority of the time. Needless to say, he was thrilled and couldn't wait to try out his "new" backhand on his buddies back home.
When I saw Rob a bit later he asked me what I did? I told him that I taught him to slice his backhand. Rob's response was immediate , "he'll get killed using that shot, he needs a topspin backhand." No he really doesn't I said. Not yet anyway.
Rob was used to working with the highest level of player, touring pros. As a result, his instruction was coming from the perspective of what players would need to compete at that level and at that level, he was absolutely correct. You really must have an offensive topspin backhand. One of the drawbacks of a slice shot is that it moves through the air slower and is not as offensive as a topspin stroke. If a pro only uses slice, his ball will not move as quickly and his opponents will most probably eat it up.
But remember, we were not talking about a pro here, we were talking about 40 year-old Barry who just wants to be able to get his backhand in the court and play an enjoyable brand of tennis.
It was at this point that I had somewhat of a revelation that I began to incorporate into my lessons back home. I came to realize that most players, in their haste to develop the "big" shots, neglect to fully develop, and understand the use of, the basic shots and principles of the game.
This is where I believe a lot of teaching pros make a big mistake, spending valuable lesson and practice time trying to teach their students shots that would certainly be nice to have, but in fact, are not truly necessary. Players are busy trying to learn a sharply angled forehand passing shot when they can't yet hit a basic cross-court forehand ten times in a row.
This approach breeds very erratic players who hit the occasional great shot, but more often than not, are extremely error-prone. In turn, this type of "go for it" mentality produces a style of play where points are very short and the overall tennis experience is not particularly enjoyable.
I began to stress the "basics" to my students, most of whom I had been working with for many years. Not so much in terms of stroking mechanics but rather things like consistency, control, shot selection and strategy.
As in any other sport, there are many theories as to the most effective ways to teach tennis. There have been a wide variety of grips and stroking techniques throughout the years, all of which have been successful. In other words, there is more than one way to hold the racket and hit the ball.
While grips and strokes may vary, I believe that a solid tennis player must be competent in four major areas. They are, in order or importance: consistency, control, depth and power.
As I've said (often) in the past, tennis is not a game of power but rather a sport of consistency. Given the fact that approximately 80% of all points are decided by a player making an error, the player who is best able to keep the ball in play will usually be the most successful.
Once you develop the ability to keep the ball in play with your various shots, you should then work on depth and control, for it is the ability to consistently move the ball around the court in a controlled fashion that will allow you to set up a point so that you can try to put the ball away or force your opponent into an error.
The last thing that a tennis player should concern themselves with is power. A common theory among today's players, and unfortunately many teaching pros, is that tennis is a game of power and that you must overpower your opponent or be overpowered. As a result of this thinking, combined with the new racket technology, we today have a tremendous amount of tennis players who can hit the cover off the ball but more often than not, fail to keep the ball in play on a consistent basis.
The fact is, tennis is a game of errors and the person who makes the fewest errors wins. Yes, the pros do hit the ball extremely hard, but the successful ones hit the ball hard--consistently. They never hit at a pace beyond which they can control the ball and therein lies the cardinal rule in Mortal Tennis: NEVER substitute power for control. The key for every player is to hit at a pace that allows them to keep the ball in play in a controlled manner.
Remember this, tennis is a game of consistency and consistency requires patience. Patience to keep the ball in play and work your way into position to finish off the point. If you have a match with two or four players of equal ability it is usually the player or team that loses their patience first that will lose the point.
Watch any tennis match at your club and, as a point progresses, you can usually identify the player who loses their patience first. This is because they lack either the strokes, or the physical or psychological endurance to set up a point, so they decide to end the point one way or another by going for a big, flashy, low percentage shot.
A favorite analogy of mine is to compare a tennis point to setting up a shot in basketball. Your best basketball teams patiently move the ball around in an attempt to get the ball as close to the hoop as possible so that they can score with the highest percentage shot, a lay-up or slam dunk. The best tennis players patiently move the ball around so that they can get into the net and put the ball away with the highest percentage shot, the tennis equivalent of the slam dunk, a put-away volley or overhead smash.
Your impatient basketball teams hoist up a lot of 3-pointers and your impatient tennis players attempt to win their points with low percentage shots from awkward areas of the court. Forget the three pointers, go for the lay-ups.