I love to read. Newspapers, magazines, books, you name it, if there’s a printed word, I’ll read it. For reasons of personal enjoyment as well as professional enhancement, I particularly enjoy reading books about tennis. In fact, a few years ago I began to put together a collection of old and new tennis books, searching book stores, fairs and, of course, the Internet.
Whenever I would come across a book that seemed particularly interesting or rare, I would buy it
and, if the author was still living, try to contact him to ask if they would sign the book. My
collection now includes books signed by Rob Laver, Jack Kramer and of course, Vic Braden.
Last week, one of my students came across a very old tennis book at an estate sale. Knowing my passion for books, she very nicely picked up the book and brought it to the club for me. The book was well over sixty years old and looked it. The binding was brittle and had the obvious wear and tear that anything, or anyone for that matter, would have as they approached seventy
years of age.
The title of the book was “How To Play Tennis” by Mercer Beasley, copyright 1933. My first thought was, “What a great find,” my second “Who the hell is Mercer Beasley?”
It turns out that Beasley was the Vic Braden of the 20's and 30's. The coach of the masses as well
as champions such as Ellsworth Vines, Frankie Parker, Clifford Sutter, Bunny Austin and Wilmer Allison.
Not exactly household names today, but they were the Sampras’s and Hingis’s of their era and Beasley was their mentor. In those days it was said that “as an instructor Mercer Beasley is without peer.”
Beasley made an intensive study of tennis and came up with a system of instruction that formed the basis of the book I now have on my shelf. As a teaching professional, I was naturally curious to see how the game was taught back in the 30's, so I gently opened the book and began to read.
Beasley begins with the following: “No two tennis champions have ever played the game exactly
alike. All of them, however, possessed a strong foundation and sound tennis fundamentals. What follows here are the fundamentals of modern tennis, on which you can build your own individual game.”
The book then takes the reader through a very thorough explanation of all aspects of the game. It begins with simple hand-eye coordination exercises, stroke production, and moves through footwork, fitness, game-play, rules and equipment, it’s all there.
It was a small book, about 170 pages, and when I finished, I felt that it was a very thorough book
with a lot of good advice, but the part of the book that kept coming back to me were four words from Beasley’s opening passage: “Fundamentals of modern tennis.”
As an instructor, I found these words to be the most valuable because they are what many, many tennis players today are lacking. In their haste to “hit like the pros” or beat their neighbor, they look for shortcuts that eventually catch up with them and stunt their tennis growth.
Unfortunately, much of what we read today encourages this approach to the game. As I’ve said previously, tennis books and magazines today offer thousands of tips that will help us to hit the Venus Williams forehand or the Andy Roddick serve and we gobble up these tips like a pauper at a buffet. Seldom though, are we reminded of tips that will REALLY help us mortal players.
All of this “new age” information is fine and can be fun to experiment with ONCE YOU HAVE A FIRM GRASP OF THE FUNDAMENTALS. Let me ask you: Can you hit twenty-five cross-court and down the line forehands on a consistent basis? Can you do the same with your
backhand, consistently? Can you consistently hit your volleys and overheads where you want to? Can you place your service toss in the same spot on a consistent basis and can you serve down the middle and to each side of the service boxes, on a consistent basis?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, read no further, because you are now truly ready to focus on the more advanced aspects of the game. However, for those of you who are honest enough to admit that you can’t, the key thoughts behind each of those questions were; “placement & consistency” and therein lies the secret of good tennis and what most of our concentration as instructors and students should focus on.
Remember that “tennis is a game of accuracy and not strength. If it were a matter of hard hitting
and brute strength it stands to reason that the heaviest and strongest player would win, while
actually quite the reverse is true. The speed of the ball is secondary, for the very simple reason
that without accuracy speed results in netted balls and errors and hence, in wasted energy. Accuracy–the ability to return the ball to any desired position on the court–that is the secret of tennis.”
These are the words of Mercer Beasley and they were true seventy years ago and I believe, more than ever, true today! With this in mind, I’d like to take this column to remind you of what Mercer Beasley in 1933 and I, in 2001 feel are the three most important and thus, greatest tennis tips of all time. They are quite probably the first tips you ever heard, yet as you ascend up the tennis ladder, these three thoughts should remain foremost in your mind each time you take the court.
As previously mentioned, tennis is, and always has been, a game of control and consistency and
Mercer Beasley says that the road to consistency and accuracy begins by mastering “the most important step of all: learning how to keep your eye on the ball.”
Now, most players firmly believe that the do keep their eyes on the ball but I have found that the tendency of most players is to simply watch the ball once it is on their side of the net. When the ball leaves their side of the court, their focus and vision tends to drift away from the ball and more onto their opponent.
They then re-focus on the ball when it crosses the net back to their side of the court. This is a huge mistake because the time spent not looking at the ball takes away valuable recognition and preparation time that allows you to pick up and prepare for your opponents next shot properly.
Beasley then goes on to discuss what he feels is the easiest way to learn to keep our eyes focused on the ball; learning how to catch a ball. “Put down your racket for a moment and take a position about five feet behind the baseline. Place your hands on your knees as a baseball player does and assume a comfortable crouch, ready to start off quickly in any direction.”
“Tennis balls are now hit to you easily from side to side. Keep your eye on the ball as it comes over the net, bounces in the court; watch it and watch nothing else until it is safely in your hands. You should actually see the ball enter the fingers of your hands”, says Beasley.
“When you have succeeded in doing this, you have learned to keep your eye on the ball. Never forget it. Never stop keeping your eye on the ball, make this a subconscious action. Make it your tennis law.” All-time tennis tip #1: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL.
When you get into the habit of consistently watching the ball when it is in play, you’ll find that it
becomes much easier to prepare for your next shot because you’ll pick up where the ball is going
sooner which will allow you to employ the second greatest tip of all time:
GET YOUR RACKET BACK AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. “The backswing of the racket comes first,” says Beasley. “It is a common error among players, and even instructors, that footwork should come ahead of the backswing. This is a fallacy.”
So once, through intensely watching the ball, you have determined which type of shot you’ll have to play, your first move is to immediately get your racket back, then begin to move your feet. The reason for this according to Beasley is that “later on in advanced tennis, you will receive many terrifically fast services and other “winners” that come toward you so fast that you haven’t the time, first to move your feet into position and then to swing your racket. With the racket back
first, you will be able to hit these balls without moving your feet.”
Now that your eyes and mind are totally focused on the ball, you are able to pick up your opponents shot and bring your racket back as early as possible. It’s time to get apply the third greatest tennis tip of all time: MOVE YOUR FEET!
To work on this, Beasley takes us back to the basic throwing and catching drill he outlined a short while ago. I’ll let his words take it from here:
“Now,” Beasley continues, “having caught the ball, throw it directly back to the server. You will
discover immediately that in order to make an accurate throw you must be on balance. You will discover that as the throwing motion is made, there is a tendency to topple over sideways. Also, you are apt to overrun the ball. The slightest extra movement, causing you to be off balance, will result in an inaccurate throw.
“With little quick steps, however, always maintaining your balance, you can adjust your catching position so that it fits in smoothly with the throwing motion. This, the quick little steps you take to adjust your position, is called footwork and naturally must be done ahead of the actual hitting of the ball. If it is accomplished sufficiently in advance, the hitter, being at rest, is enabled to make his stroke one of grace and ease, instead of one of contortion and difficulty.”
“How far you go in the game depends upon your footwork and how far you develop it. Without good footwork, you can never play good tennis.”
There you have them–the three greatest tennis tips of all time. Yes, I know these tips are simple and basic and right now you’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, I know all of this, I don’t need these tips.” Well, I’ve got news for you, I’ve been playing tennis for over thirty years, at a relatively high level, and I still find that when I begin to struggle on the court, if I remind myself of these three tips, my game immediately picks up.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity or brush off the benefits of mastering these tips. If you can
consistently apply these you will have accomplished many important things. To name a few:
- You’ve trained your eyes to watch the ball.
- You get used to quickly anticipating the direction
of balls hit to you, and to the different kinds
of bounces that come off the court’s surface.
- You learn to move quickly and to adjust your
position while still retaining your balance.
- You learn that from a comfortable position it
is easy to throw back the ball. This same rule
applies to hitting a tennis ball.
- Keep your eye on the ball.
- Get your racket back as quickly as possible.
- Move your feet.
The next time you take the court, focus on these three areas. Watch the ball on your opponents side of the net, as soon as you can determine where their shot is going, get your racket back, and remember to keep your feet moving constantly and intensely.
Through reading Mercer Beasley’s book, I realized that tennis for most of us has not really changed all that much over the past seventy years. Tennis in the 1930s and in 2001 is still a game of control and consistency and the tips that were the best back then remain the greatest tips today.
Yes, at the professional levels today’s game is extremely powerful, but unless Agassi or Seles are
calling you for a match, focus on developing your consistency and control.