One of the many things that arrive during middle age, aside from sore joints, slower reflexes and tuition bills, is the urge to step back and take a look at years gone by.
As a long-time tennis junkie, I find that I've recently developed a (perhaps long overdue) curiosity about the game's history and concern for its future. An organization called the Tennis Industry Association shares the same concern.
One of the chief objectives of the TIA is to gauge the state of the game. To do this, they have a variety of ways to measure how popular tennis is and they constantly strive to find ways to, as they call it, "grow the game."
Recently, I was asked my opinion on the state of the sport. Armed with my new found philosophical perspective and the fact that I've taught thousands of players over the past thirty years, I had some very definite thoughts on what it takes to grow the game.
I've always felt that once you first get a racket in a player's hand for the first time the key to making them long-term, recurrent players, hinges on two things: fun and success.
First and foremost, the game has to be presented in a manner which is enjoyable. Be it a gym teacher, a Parks and Rec counselor or a teaching professional, that person must be trained so that their primary goal is to make the game a fun activity. Technique can come later, fun must come first.
I am a classic example of this. I'll never forget my first lesson with a young pro named Rick. I was ten years old and because both my parents played, they wanted me to give it a shot. So I took some lessons from, what I now realize, were very mediocre and under motivated pros. To be honest with you, I hated it. I was a baseball and basketball player. Tennis was "stupid."
Then I met Rick and the moment I stepped on the court with him I was hooked.
He had an enthusiasm and passion for the game that made his lesson court a "fun" place to be. Information was being conveyed and learning taking place, but always under the umbrella of "fun." As a result, I fell in love with the game.
From Rick, my philosophy of teaching evolved. Of course, I want my students to improve, and they do, but the improvement in their skills is always secondary to their enjoyment of their time on the court with me.
For most, tennis is a recreational activity, a pause from the hectic schedule that is their lives. So clearly an initial experience with the game should be with a person who is enthusiastic, encouraging and has a true passion for the sport.
While having fun will keep people coming back for a while, most also want to see improvement--which brings me to the title of this column.
Be it "hit homers like Barry," "be like Mike," or "serve like Sampras," all sports depend upon the dream of greatness to help them grow. Tennis is no different. We all want to be like the stars on television with their 140 m.p.h. serves and supersonic forehands. It's human nature.
What's wrong with that? In the past, nothing. However, I feel that with the way tennis is being played today at the professional level, the argument can be made that the pros of today are hurting the long-term growth of the sport.
Let me explain. I live about an hour away from Flushing Meadow, the site of the U.S. Open. As a result, most of my students make it out to the Open each year or watch a good portion of it on television.
Coincidentally, the first week of my winter session usually coincides with the end of the Open so the tournament is always a hot topic of conversation as the season begins. This year was no different.
After the initial "good to see you again, how was your summer" comments, the conversation in each lesson quickly turned to the Open. After a few minutes discussing the great Serena robbery (and she was robbed and it did make a difference) the talk turned to the actual play. I always make it a point to ask my students what they noticed about the players at the tournament. For the last few years the comments has always been the same:
"I can't believe how hard they hit the ball."
And with those words begin the worst week in the life of a tennis teaching professional. After being fed a two week diet of ballistic serves and Richter scale forehands by their tennis superheroes, mortal players around the world develop a serious case of "I can do that too" disease. They don their capes and attempt the tennis equivalent of leaping tall buildings in a single bound: big serves, monster forehands and line-skimming backhands.
This "I can do it too" approach brings a few fleeting flashes of brilliance, many more moments of frustration and enough tennis elbow to make an orthopedic doctor salivate.
Yes, I know, it feels good to "go for it" but at the end of the day, this style of play will leave you with little more than a string of impressive sounding errors as well as a sore arm and/or shoulder.
Now, before all of you teaching pros grab your mouse, I am well aware of the fact that there is a lot more strategy going on out there with the big boys and girls on the tour. However, most recreational players do not pick that up. They only notice how hard the pros hit the ball and the number of aces they serve in each match. They then head out to their weekly game, trying to emulate their heroes. And that is when the problems begin.
I suggest that emulating the way the tennis pros play it today can be hazardous to both your physical and psychological health.
The next time you're at the tennis courts take a look at the number of people with tennis elbow. The vast majority of tennis elbow comes from two things: hitting the ball too often or hitting incorrectly. Given the recent statistics on recurrent play, I don't think people are playing too often. Western grips, open stances and a hit it hard, big shot mentality are the culprits at the recreational levels. I know this to be a fact because I see it every day of my life! What's particularly disturbing is the growing number of injuries among junior players.
The go for broke style of play is also not an enjoyable way to play the game. We've all been on the court with that player who can't wait to tee it up and let it rip. Regardless of whether he or she makes or misses the shot, the point is over very quickly. As a result, the actual game is being played for a very short period of time, there's very little strategy and a minimal amount of exercise.
Additionally, improvement with this approach is more often than not slight. So, what you end up with are players who, at the end of their 60 minutes on the court, have had a few, very brief moments of greatness and many, many more moments of frustration. The only real exercise they've gotten came from repeatedly slapping themselves on the thigh after another error and, on top of that, they're angry at themselves because they "should be better."
They then leave the court and head straight for the ice machine, in search of relief for their throbbing arm." Where is the fun in that? Who can blame them for not wanting to rush back to the tennis court?
Now think back to the pros of the 60's 70's and 80's. They displayed a game of control and consistency. They worked to develop a point. So you see, though we were still trying to "play like the pros," their style of play was something we could realistically emulate.
More important, even though we would never reach their actual level of play, we did learn a style of play that brought us long rallies, better exercise and a heck of a lot of fun. I wonder if the tennis "boom" of the 70's might have had a bit to do with that.
So the argument can be made that the way the pros play today is actually hurting the growth of the game. What do you think? Let me know using this link.