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Tennis: A Game of Balance

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

As an undergraduate student, I completed lots of science courses as electives. I have always found the Physical Sciences of particular interest. If one studies these disciplines, one cannot escape the concept of equilibrium…or in lay persons’ terms…balance. In nature, we constantly see a quest for balance. If cold and hot water encounter each other…they change to a common temperature…one which is in the middle. If one is familiar with Newton’s Laws of Physics, one knows that for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction…in other words…a balance.

Recently, I began to reflect on the game of tennis and realized that it is a game of many different balances. Recognizing this reality, I began to try and achieve the proper set of balances in my game…with surprisingly positive results.

So, this month’s column will explore some of the ways in which the player should strive to achieve balance in her/his game. Granted, this is an unorthodox approach to the game, but one that I believe the reader will find rewarding.

  1. Body Balance
  2. It is my theory that many, if not most, errors in the game of tennis can be related to a loss of body balance. To strike a tennis ball with authority and control, the player’s body needs to be balanced. Now, I realize there are times when one simply cannot be balanced at the moment of impact (e.g., when your opponent forces you to hit a groundstroke with your weight going backwards). Still, if one wants to control the ball she/he probably needs to hit and swing differently (most likely hitting a lob or moonball). This different swing is really an unconscious attempt on the part of our bodies to achieve the best possible balance at the moment of impact. If we try to hit a winner from this backward position, we probably will see our shot go errant. In major measure, it is because we are not striking a balance at the moment of contact with the ball.

    Those of us who approach tennis seriously often times will spend many hours practicing to improve our strokes, strategies, conditioning and mental state. But how often do we practice body balance? Probably, never!

    If you look at some of the great players of the past or present, they frequently engaged in sports that require balance…skating for hockey, biking, skiing, soccer, or if you are Gustavo Kuerten, surf boarding. Each of the sports/activities requires body balance. Whether we realize it or not, each of these is helping to develop our sense of balance…a skill that can be improved with practice.

    In recent years, the popularity of Tai Chi, Tae Bo and the Martial Arts have provided tennis players with a great way to improve their balance. Having a green belt in Shotokan Karate, I recently found myself practicing katas (forms) in slow motion. This slow motion style of training is great in helping to enhance one’s body balance. Believe me, I am beginning to see the benefits of this off court training in my game.

    My point is simple. Each tennis player who wishes to train in a complete manner needs to work on her/his body balance. Engaging in formal or informal activities that require balance will automatically help you in this regard…and consequently, there will be an improvement in your tennis game.

    As a final insight, I have found that there is one simple action that will dramatically increase the balance of any player’s game…keeping one’s head quiet (motionless) through the entire stroke (back swing, moment of contact and finish/follow through).

  3. The Balanced Game
  4. If you look at the truly great players in this wonderful game, invariably you will see players who can and do provide their opponents with a balanced game. Let’s take Andre Agassi as an example. As a younger player, Andre was blessed with wicked groundstrokes and the best return of serve in the game. He had so much talent, but did not win the big ones. Wimbledon was certainly a breakthrough, but Andre had not realized his full potential. Once Andre secured the coaching talents of Brad Gilbert (one of the best minds in the game), Andre’s overall approach to the game changed. He began to add variety to his game. He improved his serve, began to volley with proficiency and began to craft points in new and different ways. One might say that he balanced his natural power game with patience and finesse. He was no longer a one-dimensional player. He, in fact, had become balanced in his game skills and strategies. The results speak for themselves. He is the only present member of the men’s or women’s tour who has won all four major grand slam events. Truly, Andre is a contender on all surfaces…because he has a balanced game…one that is diverse, complete and multi-dimensional. Although he rarely plays doubles, it is my firm belief that the balance in Andre’s game is such that he could be in the top 10.

    As players of lesser talent, we often times bring only our "natural" game to competition. We spend hours playing the same points over and over and over. Far too frequently, we neglect those strokes, strategies, shots, etc. that would provide breadth to our game. I am not a natural serve and volleyer, but I can serve and volley well. Why? I worked on it diligently. Why? Because without these strokes and related strategies, my game is not balanced. Rather, the scales would lean too far in the direction of the backcourt game. Backcourt specialists may win on clay, but they are, to say the least, challenged on faster surfaces.

    Having a balanced arsenal of strokes will automatically provide you with more balance in your game strategies.

    A balanced game means that you possess all the strokes and that no stroke is significantly weak. If you want to achieve a balanced game, you are going to have to pay the necessary dues. If you have a weak backhand, you will need to strengthen it. If your serve is flat and erratic, you will need to develop reliable spin serves. If the only time you come to the net is to shake hands at the end of the match, you will need to develop approach shots and volleys. If your one handed backhand doesn’t permit you to hit topspin, you need to learn to come over the ball. If you hit a two handed backhand, you will need to develop the one handed slice.

    It is my ultimate goal to hit all the strokes in this game…with either hand. Now, that would be balance!!!

  5. Power Balance
  6. Every player needs to have three power levels: full, medium and slow. Pace is an often times overlooked dimension of the game. I have seen many collegiate players who have only one level of power…full throttle. When they win, they win big. Yet, a player like John McEnroe would decimate these players. Mac is a player who uses all three-power levels to their maximum effectiveness. Despite his on-court histrionics, John McEnroe is truly a genius with a racquet. He can and will hit the big serve. He will run you with his power groundstrokes, and then, he will tease you with short angled dinks. In my opinion, John could play on the tour today, if his court speed was what it was at his peak. He has not lost any of his skill with the racquet.

    Some opponents thrive on power…some fear it. Some opponents can handle both power and the lack thereof…but find the moderately paced shots a bit perplexing. The balanced player will be able to exploit any pace…and will.

    When I train with my ball machine, I frequently will try to hit identical shots with different levels of pace. For me, this is the best way to practice pace and develop the confidence necessary to vary pace during a match. This is my way of solidifying my power balance.

  7. Training Balance
  8. One of the major problems with the pro tours is the incredible length of the season. Players begin in January and compete almost without break until early December. The dedication and fortitude necessary to travel and compete on the pro tours is different from any sport I know. Unfortunately, this schedule does not permit true balanced training.

    Some years back, I had the good fortune to speak with Bob Brett when he was coaching Goran Ivanisevic. Bob has always been an advocate of taking time away from tennis. He realizes that no player can sustain excellence at all times.

    In his mind, the only way to really succeed in professional tennis is to take breaks throughout the year.

    The mind and the body need to take "vacations" from the game. This is not to suggest that the player should avoid remaining in condition. Rather, there are myriad ways in which the athlete can keep her/his physical strength, endurance and flexibility when not playing tennis.

    Most modern coaches promote the concept of periodization. Periodization is a planned approach to competition that is based upon balance. Recognizing that no player can compete at a peak at all times, the player chooses the periods that are most important to him/her. Their training regimen is designed to allow for peak performance at these predetermined times.

    Combining off court training, cross training and increasingly challenging competition, periodization is, in my mind, the most balanced approach to training.

    For instance, if you want to compete at a peak in the spring (as may be the case if you are playing for a high school team), you need to develop a balanced training plan that crescendos at this time. The summer may be the time of year when you can play tennis most frequently. You probably are competing but reasonably. Summer is the time to learn and develop. What wins you may accrue are really "gravy." In the fall, you will hit frequently, but compete infrequently. You will probably increase your strength training and begin a cross training aerobic plan. Winter months are your rest period. You will hit two or three times per week, but you won’t compete. You’ll be strength training and really working on your speed and endurance. You are probably enjoying other sports like skiing, basketball or skating. As the winter ends, you begin your intense workouts for the spring. You begin to hit daily in training sessions that incorporate many drills. You continue the strength training and aerobic training but at a much less intense level. You play practice sets every other day as part of your on-court training. Near the beginning of spring, you find yourself competing. At first, this may be intra team competition, but nonetheless, you are playing best of three set matches. As the season begins, you begin to compete in earnest. Each match you try to raise the level of your play. Your opponents vary in ability and this forces you to explore all your strokes and strategies. You continue to train on "non-competition days" but you are reducing the number of practice sets. You also are beginning to reduce your off court training…why? Your body needs to recover fully from each competition. At this stage of the game, "less is more." By the time the heart of the season is upon you, you are ready to compete at your best. This hypothetical scenario is just one approach to periodization…there are many others. The point is that your training regimen is balanced and allows time for you to get away from competition.

    It is my belief that the lack of balanced training is a principle cause of "slumps" among players. Simply taking a planned and balanced approach will frequently go a long way toward preventing these horrible, down-performance periods.

  9. Balanced Reactions
  10. Tennis is a game of actions and reactions. We all like to think that we are (or should be) in complete control of a match. But, the truth is that this is rarely true…even on the professional level. We cannot always control the match, but we can control our reactions to the match. Instead of going on an emotional roller coaster ride, we can, if we try, achieve a balanced response to what we face.

    As an analogy, let’s consider how we react to our opponent’s shots on a physical level. If our opponent hits a blisteringly fast serve, how many of us can take a full, powerful swing and hit a controlled return of serve? Few, I am sure. As we become experienced players of the game, we learn that sometimes the best answer to pace is a lack of pace. By using our opponent’s power, we can return a serve or reply to shot with control and depth. Frequently, the inexperienced player reacts to pace by trying to hit with even more pace…usually a failed strategy!

    In tennis, we need to have balanced emotional responses to the challenges our opponents present. In a videotaped produced by Dr. Allen Fox, he advises the tennis player to try and stay within the middle of the emotional spectrum. Granted, fist pumping can charge a player to better performance. But, if this positive response system is not kept at some reasonable level, the player runs the risk of suffering an adrenalin crash. No one can sustain that level of positive energy (and associated adrenalin) for an entire match. At some point, the adrenalin disappears and we find ourselves in an energy and emotional valley.

    Conversely, few of us can survive in a match if we permit anger to dominate our thoughts. Negative energy generally produces negative results. Sure, there are those few players like Connors and McEnroe who seem to raise their games when they are angry…but they are the exception not the rule.

    What we really need are balanced responses to the emotional challenges we face in tennis. If we allow ourselves to go too far up, we will inevitably suffer a significant fall. If we allow ourselves to get too down, we may never climb up.

    Most tennis players (including me) overreact. They tend to exaggerate the situation into a non-reality. In truth, one error does not mean that you will commit the error again. One winner does not guarantee that all attempted winners will land in.

    If we allow ourselves to go to emotional extremes, we put ourselves on the aforementioned emotional roller coaster. What is needed is a balanced response (whether positive or negative) to the situations we face. Sure, one is not going to be pleased when he/she hits an errant shot. But, we don’t need to dwell on it. It is fine to enjoy the thrill of hitting a screaming passing shot for a winner, but we can’t allow ourselves to revel in this moment. Emotions are part of being human. We can’t and shouldn’t try to eliminate them…but we can put them in perspective. In putting one’s emotions into perspective, he/she automatically achieves balanced responses.

    If your responses are balanced, you may lose matches, but you will never lose a match because of nerves, or mental lapses.

So, if you want to see dramatic improvement in your game, try to achieve balance in your game. I am certain that, if you do, you will soon become a tennis overdog!

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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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