The other day while walking through the lobby at my club, I happened to notice two tournament matches being played side by side. On one court were two juniors, on the other, two seniors. I would occasionally glance from one match to the other and could not believe that I was watching the same game being played.
The juniors, with their youth, speed, and high-tech equipment were literally tearing the cover off the ball with no point lasting more than three shots. Serve, return, error. Serve, error. Double fault. You get the idea.
On the other side, the seniors, with their hunched over shoulders and oversized frames, appeared to be playing a game which more resembled chess as opposed to the grenade launching that was going on next door.
Every point the seniors played was an extended rally where the upper-hand changed several times before one player finally won the point, not with tremendous power, but rather with superior placement and strategy.
The juniors came off the court in roughly 60 minutes, having played a close three set match. It was impossible to tell who had won the match because both players looked thoroughly stressed out and miserable.
Thirty minutes later the seniors came off, having played two relatively close sets, patting each other on the backs, and again it was impossible to tell the outcome of the match because both players demeanor were the same, they were BOTH SMILING!!!
I was struck by a couple of things. First, the way the juniors attempted to play the game, hitting everything as hard as they possibly could in an effort to hit one clean winner after another, while the seniors played a much more strategic brand of tennis in which they tried to construct points rather than go for low percentage winners.
More important though was the attitude of the juniors compared to that of the seniors. The kids seemed to be having absolutely no fun on the court whatsoever and acted as if they couldn't wait to finish. The entire tennis experience appeared to be sheer agony for them while the seniors seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Not only was the quality of tennis the seniors played better, but their attitude toward the game was also so much more positive. So I wondered, what do the seniors know that the juniors don't?
I decided to conduct an informal study. I spoke with over 50 senior players of various ability and asked them what their secret was.
How were they able to play solid, interesting tennis, compete against each other and enjoy themselves all at the same time?
The seniors agreed on three (I'm sure there are many others) tips that they would offer to help their younger compatriots improve not only their tennis, but their feelings towards the game as well.
1. DEVELOP A CONSISTENT GAME:
Contrary to popular belief, tennis is not a game of power but rather a game of consistency. Given the fact that approximately 80% of all tennis points are decided by a player making an error, the player who is able to best keep the ball in play is usually the most successful.
The truth of the matter is that 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 that is a cardinal rule in tennis: NEVER substitute power for control. The key is for every player to hit at a pace that allows them to keep the ball in play.
I asked tennis guru Vic Braden what he feels the biggest difference in junior players today as compared to 25 years ago is and he replied that "players today don't seem to care if the hit the ball in or out. They just want to hit it hard. Tennis is and always has been a game of consistency."
Many tennis magazines and teaching pros try to teach their students to play like the pros. When players hear and read this advice they go out on the court and try to rip the cover off the ball. They hit the occasional world-class shot and are pleased with themselves. However, they have forgotten the six errors that have come in between those world-class shots.
I believe that the worst thing a junior can do is watch and then try to play by the pros. When a junior player watches a professional they are only seeing the end result. A superior athlete who can hit the ball at a tremendous pace. What they have not seen are the hours upon hours of consistency drills that each and every professional player has done which has enabled them to groove their strokes and their timing. After many years and many thousands of hours of practice, this is what allows the pro to hit the ball hard and CONSISTENTLY CONTROL IT!!
I'm certainly not advocating that you not watch the pros. Just do not try to imitate their power. Instead, imitate their footwork and point development, because power will come in time.
Once a player develops the ability to keep the ball in play, he or she must then work on depth and control for it is the ability to consistently move the ball around the court in a controlled fashion that has proven most successful at the higher levels of the game.
The last thing that a tennis player should concern themselves with is power. A common theory among today's players is that tennis in the 90's is a game of power and you must overpower your opponent or be overpowered. As a result of this thinking, combined with the new racket technology, we have a tremendous amount of tennis players today that can hit the cover off the ball but more often than not, fail to keep the ball in play on a consistent basis. This leads to a tremendous amount of frustration.
A developing tennis player should needs to be competent in four major areas. These areas are (listed in order of importance):
With this in mind, the emphasis during practice sessions should be on consistency, and accuracy as opposed to power. The power will eventually come.
2. HAVE A GAME-PLAN:
I have lost count of the number of times I have asked a junior player after a match what their strategy during the match was and was told "I don't know." Many players go on the court knowing absolutely nothing about their opponents and thus have no idea how to approach the match.
Not so with the seniors. Every senior player I spoke to said that they would try to gather as much information about their opponent as possible. They would ask their fellow players what their opponent's strengths and weaknesses were and would even try to watch their anticipated opponent's previous match if possible.
It's amazing what you can find out by asking and watching. One player named Bill told me that he was in the finals of a senior tournament and was watching Bob, the player he anticipated to be his opponent in the finals playing his semi-final match.
Bill noticed that Bob had a pattern on big points. When his opponent attacked the net, he would first hit a short slice to the net rusher's backhand side and then follow it up with a lob, usually catching the player off-balance. Bill noticed that Bob did this on virtually every big point when his opponent came to the net.
Sure enough, Bob made it to the final to play Bill and on break-point in the third set, Bill charged to the net and Bob hit his angled slice to Bill's backhand.
Remembering Bob's pattern, Bill hit the volley and immediately began backing up for the lob and was greeted with an easy overhead which he smashed away, giving him the break. Bill then served out the match. Bill had gained a valuable piece of information by scouting his opponent and that information helped him win his match.
Is your opponent's backhand stronger than their forehand? Do they get tired during long rallies? Where do they tend to hit their passing shots? Knowing your opponent and devising a strategy before stepping on the court can give you a tremendous advantage.
3. ENJOY THE GAME:
This was far and away the number one piece of advice that the seniors gave to the juniors. Enjoy the game and the process of improving.
Senior players have discovered the joy of playing and working on their tennis and they approach the game as a long-term project in which they are simply trying to develop into the best player that they can. They are out on the court to work on their games, get some exercise and enjoy healthy competition.
Too many juniors get wrapped up in results and forget that tennis is a game which is supposed to be fun. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned in past columns, I believe that this attitude is, to a great extent, a direct result of conditioning from their parents.
A parent's first question to their child after they've played is more often than not "Did you win?" This says to the child that winning is the most important thing, not learning and having fun.
Tennis is a game which is supposed to bring a child enjoyment and which can teach them life values. Not a life and death struggle where you have accomplished something only if you have beaten your
opponent. The seniors have learned this and it has let them enjoy tennis throughout their lives.
Many of the senior players that I spoke to have been playing tennis for over 60 years. They've found the true gift that tennis has to offer. It is a game which can be played and enjoyed for an entire lifetime. It is their hope and mine as well that all the junior players out there can walk off a tennis court at age 75 with their arm around their opponent and a smile on their face. They should all be so fortunate.