Those of you who are familiar with my column may know that I took the game of tennis up at a fairly late age, 39. As is often the case with players who are new to the game, I searched for ways to improve my tennis proficiency in the fastest manner possible. I began to read anything I could find on tennis. I purchased and viewed myriad instructional videos. I listened attentively to all the "tips" expressed by tennis commentators as I watched professionals compete via television. In short, I totally immersed myself into the game.
Like many neophytes, I was immediately frustrated with my inability to develop my game. Being athletic most of my life, I had never had any difficulty mastering a sport.
Tennis was an exception.
I would take to heart all the advice friends and hitting partners would give. I would apply all of the lessons learned through books, videos and magazines. The more I would attempt to apply these principles, the worse my game became.
My introductory time with tennis was, to say the least, frustrating. At first, I felt I must being doing something wrong
perhaps, I wasnt applying the knowledge correctly. Next, I came to believe that I might not be suited to the game.
Eventually, I felt competing would force me to come to terms with what was needed to improve. I would compete in USTA sponsored events in virtually any category in which I qualified. I recall younger players, like Paul G. and Jeff L., literally laughing at me after beating me 0 and 0 in tournament play (tennis has its pecking order and sometimes is void of supportive players). It was a tough time for me.
Thankfully, my friend, Bob Casale, kept encouraging me to continue. He, too, was struggling with his game. Occasionally, I encountered serious, senior players like Peter Bronson and Peter MacPartland, who instead of ridiculing me, offered support. Still, my game seemed frozen in time
I just wasnt getting better.
My epiphany, regarding tennis, came as a result of two independent occurrences. First, I began to start photographing professional tennis for magazines and sponsoring corporations. Second, I had the great fortune to train with Oscar Wegner (author of
You Can Play Tennis in Two Hours). Little by little, I began to see that much, if not most, of the advice and insight that I had received was simply wrong
at least for my game. The reality of what I experienced in learning this wonderful game was, and is, quite different from the conventional wisdom associated with authors, traditionally oriented players and some teaching pros.
So, I decided to take a very different approach
one that I have never regretted! This is why I have entitled this column, Turbo Tennis. I truly believe that one can learn to play tennis in far less time
if one is willing to step away from conventional approaches and advice.
Now, I know that I will probably receive lots of e-mail from teaching pros and others, who will chastise me for daring to dispute some of the wisdom put forth by those who have come before me.
First, let me say that you are entitled to your opinion, and I hope that you will allow me to have mine. Second, I have a very successful track record in teaching people to play this great game. Some of the novice players that I have taught have actually competed successfully on the collegiate and USTA sectional circuits
all in a matter of months, not years. My results speak for themselves. Finally, I am USPTR certified and found that much of what this body has to offer is valid, and I would never discourage anyone from seeking instruction from a fellow teaching pro.
Still, it is imperative that the player accepts the fact that much has changed in the game over the last 20 years. Racquets, playing surfaces, strings, and even fitness levels are different today. As a result, we have what is known as the modern game of tennis. These changes have altered the way in which the game is played. The stroke production techniques, grips, stances, etc., that worked in the 1950s are just not as applicable in the year 2000.
So this month I want to dispel some of the myths that I see associated with the game of tennis. Beginning in January, I shall be addressing each stroke in tennis individually, and it is important that the reader understand what I believe are erroneous assumptions about the game.
Conventional tennis instruction would have the player stand sideways to the net on virtually all strokes. This sideways stance is referred to as a closed stance. Now, if one is serving or hitting a one-handed backhand, the closed stance is probably the best position for ones body. But in the modern game, the open (facing the net) or semi-open (something between open and closed) is the preferred stance for forehands and, at times, for two-handed backhands. Look at virtually any player on the mens or womens tours. Open forehand stances are the norm, not the exception. Look at the way in which Andre Agassi produces his two-handed backhand
more often than not, he is in a semi-open stance. When returning serve (perhaps, the best aspect of his game), Andre crushes the ball using an open stance off either wing.
If one looks carefully at the way Venus or Serena Williams strikes the ball, open and semi-open stances on groundstrokes abound. Using the semi-open or open stance allows the player to approach the ball more naturally, and makes for compact but powerful groundstrokes.
In real-life tennis situations, a player will be forced to hit a groundstroke from virtually every stance imaginable. However, when one has time, using a semi-open or open stance for groundstrokes is best.
Excluding sliced shots, even players who hit one-handed backhands are increasingly adopting the semi-open stance position. This is particularly true when hitting topspin. This spring, take a close look at the players competing on European clay. You will see lots of one-handed backhands that are struck from the semi-open stance.
For years, I have heard tennis teachers yell at their students, "Take that racquet back early." Frequently, they advise the student to take the racquet back fully
meaning that the racquet should be pointing at the fence behind the player.
Well, I certainly agree that early "preparation" is desirable. However, I do not believe that this means taking the racquet back as far
at least for forehand groundstrokes and two-handed backhands.
I advocate very short, compact strokes. The shorter the backswing...the better. Compact strokes mean that you can prepare early very easily. Compact strokes mean that there is less to go wrong as you produce the stroke. When struck from an open or semi-open stance, compact strokes can be tremendously powerful. Modern racquets automatically provide power. There is no need to take a big backswing. This becomes particularly true when returning serve.
One key to providing power when taking a short backswing is increasing racquet head speed at the moment of impact. I advise students to approach the ball with a slow racquet. But, as they are about to make contact, they should attempt to increase the speed of the racquets movement. This is the real key to getting controllable power! The arm remains relaxed throughout the stroke, and the player should never have to "muscle" the ball. In effect, the player should attempt to "stalk then push" the ball.
Now, I know many of you may be skeptical. So, here is a little test for you.
Go to a court and have your hitting partner feed you balls. Try your existing swing. Try to hit the ball as hard as you can, while still guiding it to land in bounds. Now, try the same drill using a 6-inch (yup, 6 inch) backswing. This time, when you are about to make contact with the ball, speed up the racquet head speed by "pushing" the ball at the moment of impact. It may take a few tries to get used to the new swing motion. However, I am certain that you will see that your groundstrokes will have lots of pace.
More important, you will find that you are better able to control the direction and depth of these shots. If you want to know how Andre Agassi hits so hard, in part it is due to this technique.
I dont suspect that many of you will adopt a 6-inch backswing, but shortening your backswing will probably become a goal after performing this "test."
Now, one-handed backhands (especially sliced backhands) require more backswing. Still, by cutting back a bit and "pushing" at the moment of impact, a player can greatly improve the pace/placement quality of her/his groundstrokes.
With volleys, I advocate no more than a 1-1/2 foot backswing. Volleys are not strokes. Rather, they are powerful "blocks." More on this in a future article.
Traditional tennis mandates that the player finish her/his stroke by pointing the racquet head in the direction of the balls target. In my opinion, this is the most ill advised way to strike a groundstroke. If one looks at the pros, one will see stroke finishes that are almost always wrapped around the players shoulders.
A full finish is the second ingredient in helping a player to produce a powerful, yet controllable, groundstroke.
The one-handed backhand has two, somewhat different, finishes that are desirable. When hitting the one-handed topspin, the player should attempt to finish with the racquet head in front of her/his body and above her/his head. When striking the one-handed slice, the player should attempt o finish with the racquet head lower than her/his head, but still, in front of the body.
When volleying, I advocate no finish. Thats right
no finish. My advice is to try and stop the forward motion of the racquet at the moment of impact. You wont be able to stop it completely. However, this attempt will help you avoid "swinging" at the ball.
Good footwork is essential in the game of tennis. Still, for most players, thinking about how one is moving to the ball will distract him/her from the most important task (seeing the ball). Foot drills that improve stamina and speed are essential for all tennis players.
However, only the advanced player should work deliberately on how he/she moves to the ball.
My advice to players is to not think about their feet. Instead, I like to see players move to the ball with his/her head. Thats right
the head! If you are truly "stalking" each ball, you are focusing intently upon its path as it approaches you. This is absolutely essential for proper preparation and stroke execution. If you simply try to move your head to the ball (not to worry, you wont ever intersect the balls path with your head), you will find that you move in a very quick and very appropriate manner. This simple action seems to make even the most uncoordinated player move effectively. The best part is that you never have to divert your attention to your feet, and your focus is automatically on the ball.
Surprising as it may seem, this movement "cue" is effective for both groundstrokes and volleys.
For years, tennis teachers have cautioned their students to keep their feet on the ground, and to "stay low throughout the shot." The theory always was that being "airborne" at the moment of impact with the ball provided an unstable base. As a result, the ball would be uncontrollable.
When I first heard this piece of advice, it seemed to make sense to me. Then, I started photographing the pros. I discovered that, in most of my images, the player was completely off the ground when the ball made contact with the strings
particularly on the forehand side.
In time, I began to understand why this was common among pros. By lifting their bodies at the moment of hitting a topspin shot, they are able to impart controllable power.
Now, I will admit that the one-handed backhand slice requires that one keep her/his feet on the ground, and it is best to stay low in throughout the shot. But, this is not true when hitting the topspin backhand. One needs only to look at images of Thomas Muster to see clearly that he was airborne on virtually every topspin backhand.
Next time you go out to hit, try lifting (not jumping) your body at the moment of impact. You will soon see that in doing so, you can hit a ball that has lots of pace but lands in
due to the topspin. It may take a little while to get your timing, but in a short while you will be hitting topspin winners with tremendous success.
My Way or the Highway
Lastly, there is a myth associated with tennis that must be dispelled
"There is only one right way to produce a stroke."
This, in my opinion, is the most damaging myth in the game. It assumes that all players are alike or should be alike. We are all different heights, weights, use different grips and move in uniquely different ways. Some of us hit one-handed backhands; some of us hit two-handed backhands. Some of us like to volley. Some of us fear volleying. Some of us like a powerful racquet. Some of us like a racquet that is more flexible.
The point is that each player is unique. The important thing to note is that a "tip" or instruction is only good
if it works for you.
It is always good to try new things and to test out new theories. Still, in the final analysis, the most important criterion for evaluation is the result.
My tennis instructional advice is only as good as it applies to you!
the same is true of others advice.
So, as I end this months article, I ask you to test out my theories. For me and for many others, they have proven to be useful and effective. Hopefully, if you adopt some of these ideas, you will soon become a tennis overdog!