The months or so prior to, and after, the U.S. Open (or, for that matter, any big tournament) are great months for tennis. Newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet are all full of articles and features that wet the appetite of both tennis players and non-playing tennis fans.
Yes, the big tournaments are great for the game but they're frequently a nightmare for teaching professionals like me. Now don't get me wrong. I love tennis, earn my living in the sport, and I think that anything that gets people interested in the game is fabulous.
The big tournaments get people pumped up about the game. We see Serena rip a return or Andy Roddick hit a 140 m.p.h. serve and suddenly the tennis devil inside of us wakes up and says "Hey, that's not so tough. I can hit the ball like that.
Most of us fall prey to our tennis devil from time to time so we take to the court and try to play like our heroes on television. Those of you that have read my columns in the past know that I think trying to play like the pros of today is a colossal waste of time as well as a quick road to frustration and injury. In fact, a little over a year ago (August 2004), I wrote a column on that exact subject. In it, I quoted Grand Slam champion Sandy Mayer who said, "We've never been in an era where the gap between what the pros do and what you can learn from them is so wide." He went on to say that, "I don't want to teach people to hit esoteric shots with complicated grips that drastically limit their games... I think it's absurd for a kid or adult to try to hit their forehand like Andy Roddick. I cringe when I see teaching pros telling their students to keep ripping the ball and saying, 'In time, it will come in.' Well, guess what? It won't."
Does that mean that there's nothing to be gained by watching the pros? Not at all. You can learn a great deal watching the stars of today--provided you're looking at the right things.
In my opinion, trying to emulate the extreme grips, open stances, and supersonic power of the pros is a big mistake for mere mortals like you and I. These things require tremendous talent and athleticism as well as hours of practice to incorporate them into reliable parts of our game.
However, there are two areas where I feel we can, and in fact should, try to imitate the pros: footwork and racket preparation.
Float like Federer. Pay attention to the pro's footwork moving to and in-between their shots. Watch Roger Federer glide around the court. He's always on his toes and, just before his opponent strikes the ball, he takes a split-step which helps him gain that all-important first explosive step towards his next shot. Also notice how quickly he recovers after each shot.
A vast majority of stroking errors for players at the recreational level are due to poor positioning. Poor positioning is usually due to poor footwork which can often be traced back to a late start. A split-step helps you get that all-important quick first step and a speedy recovery helps you into position to make your next move.
Prepare like Venus. The next time you get the chance to watch Venus Williams, pay attention to how quickly she prepares her racket. As soon as the ball leaves her opponent's strings, Venus' racket is back.
Many players don't begin to move their racket until the ball has bounced on their side of the court. As a result, they're way behind in their preparation and are then forced to speed up their swing to compensate. This compensation frequently causes a loss of control as well as stress on your arm. As soon as the ball comes off your opponent's strings, whip that racket back as quickly as you can--just like Venus.
I asked some other noted tennis experts for their thoughts on what we can learn from the pros. Here are a few of their responses:
Coaching legend Vic Braden also suggests focusing on the pros' preparation as well as telling us "to watch only one player at a time. Listen to the sound of the opponent's shot and notice how quickly the one you're watching moves to the ball, and how early they prepare. The pros make it look so easy because they worked so hard, and early, to make it look easy."
Geoff Norton, the Director of Development for the Professional Tennis Registry also feels that we can learn by watching the pros move and suggests an interesting experiment. "I've always told my students to roll up a sheet of paper, (making a telescope) and look through it. This allows you to focus on one area at a time and I usually tell my students to watch the pros' footwork."
Bill Mountford, Director of Tennis at the USTA National Tennis Center, offers a different, and excellent, lesson saying that "recreational players can learn a lot by watching how the pros act and react between points. Notice how they pace themselves and choose to take a little extra time prior to a crucial point. Also, pay attention to how they go through the same rituals before and after virtually every point."
"Finally," says Bill, "recreational players should pay close attention to the shot selection of professional players. For example, when pros are pressed, they usually play smart defensive tennis. When amateurs are rushed, they often try to hit a lucky winner which more often than not results in an error."
Tom Veneziano, creator of the popular Tennis Warrior system (www.tenniswarrior.com) adds, "recreational player can learn a lot when watching the pros. For example, the top pros forget their mistakes and move on quickly. The recreational player should take note and do the same."
Also, when a pro is in a bad cycle he or she doesn't think it's permanent. Instead, he or she stays relaxed and waits for the cycle to change and inevitably it does. Recreational players should learn that cycles exist and are part of the game. When they are in a bad cycle they should relax, not panic, and wait it out, just like a pro.
Forget the extreme grips, stances and power shots. Focus on these areas and you'll notice an immediate improvement in your game.