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Become a "Spin Doctor"

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

When I say: "become a spin doctor," I am not referring to those annoying pundits who tell us what we should think about a particular event or issue. Rather, I am talking about incorporating the use of ball spin into your game.

Given the modern game of tennis, I don’t believe that many if any players can rise to the top of their game if they are not masters of spin. Racquet technology is such that almost any player can find a racquet/string tension combination that will permit her/him to crush groundstrokes and really pop volleys. The question really is: Can she/he keep the ball in the court and control where it lands?

The first player that I know of that really incorporated topspin into his game was Bjorn Borg. In watching tapes of his Wimbledon matches, one is immediately struck by the arch that his groundstrokes had…off of both wings. This is particularly amazing to me because grass does not favor groundstrokes. The balls stay low and are prone to bounce erratically. Yet, Borg was able to get under the opponent’s replies and lift the ball for topspin. In watching Borg play today, it seems to me that he has abandoned his commitment to topspin. His balls are much flatter than those he hit in his early career. I think this change in groundstroke is ill founded…particularly on surfaces like Har-Tru (the surface upon which most senior tour matches are played).

I recently broke out a videotape of Jim Courier winning his first French Open. Clearly, he was at the top of his game at this point in his career. Once again, I noticed lots of arch on his groundstrokes. Granted, he would run around his backhand and hit crushing forehands crosscourt. These "put aways" were flat. Yet, most of his groundstrokes were hit with much topspin.

In a conversation I had with Oscar Wegner some years back, her informed me that Jose Higueras, Courier’s coach during his best years, spent hours with Jim perfecting his topspin.

Several years ago, while photographing the Pilot Pen International, I had occasion to watch several of Jim’s matches. The arch on his shots was no longer there. He was hitting the ball hard and relatively flat. He was losing more than he was winning at the time. I recall writing a note to myself about the lack of spin on his groundstrokes.

Jimmy Connors is, perhaps, the most successful player not to utilize spin. His forehand is almost completely flat. What is amazing to me about his game is his ability to control his shots. His backhand has always been touted as his best shot. If you watch him hit the backhand, you will note that he actually imparts a bit of backspin to the shot. This, in my opinion, is why he is much better able to control shots off this wing than off his forehand side. Jimmy is so fit and so gifted that he is capable of playing the "flat" game with success. Most of us are not so blessed.

In watching the senior tour, it became abundantly apparent to me that spin was part of their game. What is different about the senior’s spin is that many of them utilize backspin or slice. Now, don’t get me wrong. Michael Pernfors and Guillermo Vilas do hit topspin. But many, if not most, of the senior players rely upon slice for control of their groundstrokes. This makes perfect sense to me. In the past, three out of the four Grand Slams (and many other events on the tour) were played on grass…where the ball naturally stays low. Slice is the spin of choice on this surface.

In photographing the WTA players at the Pilot Pen this past summer, I was struck at the pace of the groundstrokes. The French players were particularly hitting the ball hard. Clearly, Venus Williams (the ultimate winner) hits the cover off the ball. What surprised me is how the smaller, less muscular, French women were able to generate so much pace. Upon closer examination, it became clear to me that they were attempting to hit flat balls. By hitting flat groundstrokes, the French women were increasing pace…but unfortunately, at the expense of control.

Believe me. Venus and Serena Williams hit a big, hard ball…but, they still impart significant topspin. They are just so gifted and so strong that their groundstrokes are still hit with lots of pace. Steffi Graf hit with incredible pace off of her forehand wing. Yet again, she was able to generate pace while still hitting with topspin. How are they able to do this? I’ll tell you later in this article.

Hopefully, these examples will convince the reader that spin is an absolutely essential part of the modern game.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with spin terminology or new to the game, let me explain the three types of spin that exist.

First, there is topspin (sometimes referred to as forward spin). If you take a tennis ball and roll it forward away from your body, the rotation it takes is what topspin looks like.

Second, there is backspin (sometimes referred to as slice or underspin). If you take a tennis ball and roll it towards a wall, when it bounces off the wall and is returning to you, it has backspin. From your perspective, the ball is rolling with rotation that is exactly the opposite of what you observed as topspin.

Finally, there is side spin (referred to as slice when talking about serves). If you take a tennis ball and spin it as you would a top, this is what side spin resembles.

Flat balls are balls that have very little to no spin (The physicists out there will remind me that no ball travels without some spin. However, flat balls have such little spin that the spin is hardly noticeable.)

Now, let’s talk about how each spin affects the ball. With topspin, the ball drops to the ground more quickly than it would without spin. When it bounces, it actually bounces higher than normally would be expected from a ball that is flat. Since the ball drops to the ground more quickly, topspin allows you to hit the ball harder without hitting out. This is why topspin is the mainstay of the modern game.

Backspin or slice stays afloat in the air longer than it would without spin. However, when it bounces, it stays low. It would seem to the reader that slice would not be appropriate in the modern game in that balls that are hit hard would be more likely to travel long. Well, to some degree this is true. But, backspin does have its place in the modern game. When hitting approach shots, slice is usually desirable because the low bounce forces the opponent to hit up on the ball. This frequently results in a ball that is easily volleyed away for a winner. Volleys also benefit from slice. They usually stay deep and low. Thus, the opponent has more difficulty returning a volley for a winner.

However, if you can hit a driving slice (I call this German slice after Boris Becker and Steffi Graf), you can rally using slice. For most players, hitting sliced groundstrokes off the backhand wing is easier than off the forehand wing. Steffi Graf hit almost every forehand with topspin and every backhand with slice. Her results speak for themselves. The key to rallying with slice in the modern game is to hit it with pace. Shots that simply float deep with little or no pace are candidates for put aways by your opponent.

Flat balls usually are the balls that have the greatest pace. They travel quickly and low to net.

They are often times the best way to hit a short ball that you wish to put away for a winner. Still, I like to hit my put aways with some topspin. Why? Well, I hate to miss a put away because the ball did not drop in the court! This is more likely to happen with flat balls.

Whether it is topspin or slice, a spinning ball is a ball that is controllable. A flat ball is at best a risky proposition. To understand why this is so would involve a discussion of some elementary Physics. Recognizing that many of you are not interested in Physics, I will just ask you to take my word for it.

My personal approach to spin is as follows: Rally with topspin, approach and volley with slice, and hit the winners a little more flat. Really, if you hit your balls according to these guidelines you are playing percentage tennis.

Second serves benefit greatly from the use of spin. Why? They are more controllable than flat serves. Basically, there are three different spin serves: topspin serve, slice serve and kick serve.

The topspin serve forces the ball to drop more quickly and to bounce high. The slice serve imparts sidespin to the serve. The ball drops a bit more quickly and curves (like the curve ball in baseball) as it travels. The slice serve bounce also is different in that the ball bounces more to one side than it would if hit flatly. The kick serve (preferred as a second serve by most pros) bounces high and curves because it travels with both topspin and side spin. I hit all of my second serves (and many of my first serves) as kick serves. When you absolutely need to get the serve into the box, spin is your insurance policy. If you are playing on a fast indoor surface or on grass, the slice serve is probably your best second serve. Kick serves don’t bounce high on these surfaces and usually end up traveling into your opponent’s strike zone. If you want to learn how to hit any of these serves, please refer to my earlier article entitled "Service with a Smile."

So, how does one hit a topspin groundstroke? Well, your grip makes a big difference. It is almost impossible to hit topspin with a continental forehand or backhand grip (refer to my article entitled "Picture Perfect" for descriptions and images of grips). On the forehand side, semi-western or western grips make imparting topspin easiest. Eastern forehand grips can impart topspin, but not as easily. Regardless of grip, some common denominators exist: you must swing your racquet from low to high, you must attempt to brush upward against the back of the ball, and you must follow through with a windshield wiper like motion. This latter finish looks like the motion that a windshield wiper on a car makes. These principles hold true for forehands and for backhands (one handed and two handed). Take a look at the finishes in the article, "Picture Perfect" to see how you should finish for your grip and stroke style.

Now, there is a danger to topspin. If it is hit without much forward pace, the ball will drop short…resulting in an easy put away for the opponent. So, how do the pros generate pace on their topspin? Well as promised earlier, here is the answer. They go air born with their bodies.

They literally have learned to lift the ball by lifting their bodies off the ground as they stroke forward with pace. The combination of these elements makes for a hard driving, deeply hit groundstroke. Look at any modern pro. You will see that he/she is off the ground when they finish his/her groundstroke.

With slice, you are likely to have the best success by hitting forehands or backhands with a continental grip. However, if you want to hit a backhand slice with pace (what I call German slice) you will want to adopt the eastern backhand grip. Hitting a one handed backhand with this eastern grip will allow you to hit the ball hard. If you start with your racquet head higher than the path of the ball and finish your stroke with the racquet head in front of you at about net cord height, you will soon discover the benefits of German slice. The ball will travel with pace low to the net, land deep in your opponent’s court, and literally die when it bounces. I hit this ball all the time to the players on the college team that I coach. Believe me, not many of them come back in a way that can hurt me…if they come back at all. German slice is worth learning.

Regardless of grip, some principles associated with hitting slice must be known. First, it is a high to low racquet motion. Second, you must finish with your racquet going forward not downward. Otherwise, the ball will simply float over the net. Finally, you must stay low to the ground all the way through the shot and its finish. If you have tender knees (as I do), you will probably want to limit the number of slice shots you hit. Hitting slice off the backhand wing is much easier than off the forehand wing…but the principles are the same. I see some players who actually hit a two handed, backhand slice. This is unusual, but again the principles remain the same.

It should be noted that Mats Wilander learned the one handed backhand slice approach. It was the shot he needed to add to his arsenal to win Wimbledon. He found it useful on all surfaces.

I strongly encourage you to perfect your use of both topspin and slice. In each use of spin, try to hit a driving ball…one that has lots of spin, but still travels with pace. The keys to achieving this combination are: For topspin, lift the ball and your body through the stroke. For slice, stay low and drive downward and forward with force.

If you follow these guidelines, you will soon be a master of spin, and "spin doctors" in a very short period of time become tennis overdogs.

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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