We have become a society addicted to a quick fix, instant gratification style of life. Fast food, three point shots and the big forehand. People entering the job force want to start at the top, counting the days to their "golden parachute," before they've even rolled up their sleeves.
Start at the bottom? Learn my craft? Work my way to the top? You've got to be kidding. I want it all and I want it NOW!!! This "I want it now attitude" has permeated all aspects of our culture and having been a tennis teaching professional for well over twenty years, I see it every day on the courts.
The sharply angled passing shot, the swinging volley from mid-court, and the 100 mile an hour serve are just a few of the "sexy" shots that everyone strives for these days. These are the shots that that get the crowd on their feet, and that are the most fun to brag about after the match.
Develop a point? "Why bother, I'm going to hit a winner from the baseline as soon as I can, just like Agassi." Well, I've got news for you, you are not Agassi, I am not Agassi and the odds are,
we never will be. Sorry.
Time for a reality check. We are not professional tennis players and are kidding ourselves if we try to play like them. Richard Meyers, a teaching professional for over thirty years has written a book titled "Tennis For Humans" and the title is most apt. He uses the term "humans" to describe 99 % of the people who play tennis.
"All of us would like to play like the big boys and girls on television - serving blistering aces, driving backhand winners down the line, executing exquisite drop shots with a surgeon's touch," says Meyers, "but, realistically, regular human beings are never going to be able to do these things as consistently as the pros. Most human beings won't even get close."
Meyers is absolutely right! The vast majority of us have neither the time, talent, coaching, or even desire, to devote the amount of time to our tennis that the touring professionals have, yet we all have the dream. We'd like to play like the pros and the media goes out of it's way to convince us that we can. They constantly feature articles on hitting the shots the pros hit and advertisements that tell us that if we buy such and such racket we'll play like the particular pro who endorses it. Many teaching pros also serve to perpetuate this illusion by teaching strokes with the side bar that "this is how the pros do it."
Because we have the dream, these articles, advertisements and teaching pros, all tap into that inner voice in all of us which says "I can do it" Reality check #2. We can't, at least not consistently.
What we generally fail to realize is that when we watch a professional tennis player, we are seeing a finished product that is the result of many, many hours of training. We see Sampras hit his 100 plus mile and hour serve but we do not see the thousands upon thousands (that's right, thousands) of practice serves he has hit over the past 15 years that has enabled him to groove his toss and motion to consistently produce such a devastating stroke. You like Venus's forehand? Well, I can guarantee you that stroke took many, many years of practice to develop to the point where she can hit it on a consistent basis in a match situation.
The key word here is consistently. All of us can, on occasion pull a shot out of our back pockets that resembles something we've seen on television. The problem is that most of us fall into the trap of thinking that if we did it once, we can do it again. It's like fishing, all we need are a few nibbles to keep us out there for hours trying for our next great catch.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen a player come up with a truly world class shot to win a point and then lose the next half dozen points trying to re-create the magic. What this "I can do it" approach to the game brings is the very occasional fantastic high, surrounded by a tremendous amount of frustrating lows. Simply put, THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO ATTEMPT TO PLAY THE GAME!!!
THE KEY TO PLAYING PERCENTAGE TENNIS:
Many books have been written outlining percentage tennis. Two of the best that I've come across are "Intelligent Tennis" by Skip Singleton and "Think To Win" by Allan Fox. These books detail the "percentage plays" in both singles and doubles and should be required reading for all tennis players.
My personal definition of percentage tennis revolves around the nightmare of everyone who has ever stepped onto a court - the unforced error. Approximately 85 percent of all points played, by players of all levels, are decided by errors and there are basically two types of errors tennis players can make, forced and unforced. It's important to understand the difference.
Forced errors are the result of a strong shot by your opponent and there is not a tremendous amount that can be done. Just say "too good" and move on to the next point. Unforced errors, however, can be dealt with.. The easy overhead, the routine forehand, the floating volley, you get the idea. This type of error is not the result of anything our opponent has done, yet it causes us to slap ourselves on the forehead and cry, "How could I possibly miss that shot?"
I have come to believe that a vast majority of unforced errors come from poor shot selection.
Specifically, from trying to do too much with the ball.
Every day I see players caught ten feet behind the baseline, with the ball up in their faces, try to zip a sharply angled winner past their opponents who are standing three feet behind their own baseline. The result? More often than not an error.
How about this one; a short ball hit into the fence because you tried to end the point with an Aggassi-like winner instead of setting up the point with a smooth down the line approach shot which would allow you to move into the net and volley away your opponents weak return.
I constantly remind my players that tennis is not like diving, you don't get extra points for degree of difficulty. If you end the point with one fantastic (low percentage) shot you get just as many points as you would if you set-up and finish the point with three or four well-placed (high percentage) shots --------ONE!!!!!
To cut down on unforced errors I tell my players to ask themselves one question before they hit every shot, "Do I feel good?" By "good" I mean comfortable and balanced. If the answer is no, don't go for an offensive shot, just hit the ball back, high over the net, deep into the court. If the answer is yes, you do feel balanced, and the ball is in your "comfort zone" ( for most players this zone is between the waist and knees) then take the offensive.
Far too many unforced errors are a result of going for a big shot when one is not balanced or in the proper position and, contrary to what many players think, it is impossible to get into position for every ball. The very nature of tennis is that you want your opponent to be off-balance and he or she wants you to be off-balance, and it is usually the player who responds better to being caught of balance that will commit fewer errors and most probably win the match.
One of the major differences between an "A" player and "B" and "C" players is their responses to being off-balance or under pressure. The "A" player, when caught off-balance will recognize that they are not in a position to do anything offensive, and will merely hit a high deep, safe shot back to their opponents. It's almost as if they are saying, "I don't like this one, take it back and give me another." They then wait for the next shot, and if they can get into a comfortable, balanced position, they then begin to go on the offensive.
The "B" and "C" players, when caught off balance, rather than playing the percentages and hitting back a safe return, fall victim to that inner voice which says "I can do it, I can hit a great shot from this position."
They then try a low percentage shot, more often than not miss it and that is why they are "B" and "C" players. Simply, if you're off-balance, give the ball back to your opponents with a deep, lob and wait for the next one (see my October 1998 Circle Game column). If you can get into a good position, then go for it.
Remember, tennis is not a game of winners, it is a game of errors and the player who makes the fewest errors will usually come out on top. Tennis is also a game of patience. A point played between two players of equal ability is usually decided by the player who loses their patience first and goes for the low percentage shot. Don't be that player. Keep the ball coming back and always give your opponent the opportunity to make the unforced error. More often than not they will!