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March 2008 Article

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Face The Facts

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in March. North of the equator, the season is turning to spring, and many of those who play tennis seasonally are getting ready for the fun ahead.

Invariably, if you have not been playing tennis throughout the last 5 or 6 months, there is a process of "reclaiming" one’s strokes. In reality, taking breaks from tennis is not such a bad thing. We come back rested and rejuvenated with respect to our passion for the game.

Well whether or not you need to bring back those dormant strokes, this month’s column will hopefully help you fine tune your game.

It bears repeating that control and consistency are far more important than power at every level of the game. Of course, being able to hit with control and power is the goal.

If you are resurrecting your strokes, the emphasis should be upon a progression. First, try to hit strokes that travel high over the net and land deep in the opponent’s court. Second, try to control the direction of your shots with authority. Third, we want to focus upon spin, and lastly, we add the component of power.

Three of the four steps in this progression do not involve hitting balls hard or with much pace. Truthfully, if recreational and intermediate players were to focus only upon these three variables, I suspect their win/loss ratio would improve.

Now to the focus of this month’s column. If you look at the vast majority of tennis instructional articles, they almost always overlook one very important factor in producing controlled and consistent strokes. The factor in tennis that is rarely written about concerns the racquet face. Certainly, there have been numerous articles that extol the virtues and limitations of both large and small face racquets. But it is very rare to read anything that addresses the position of the racquet face at the moment of impact.

Those of you who read my column faithfully realize that I frequently videotape my practice sessions with a view towards understanding how to improve my strokes. This is a technique that I strongly recommend.

This past fall, I spent some time using slow motion video to analyze my contact point for various strokes (forehands, one handed backhand slice, two handed backhand drive and serves). In reviewing this footage, it became abundantly clear to me how important racquet face position is.

Regardless of the stroke (volleys excluded), the racquet face should be perpendicular to the ground at the moment of impact. By this, I mean that the racquet face should be parallel to the net. I call this racquet face position "vertical."

Whether I am hitting high balls, low balls, slice, topspin and regardless of ball direction, my racquet face is vertical when I am making proper contact with the ball. It is critical that every player realize that errant shots are most likely resulting from a racquet face that is not perfectly vertical at the moment of impact.

Now, this is not to say that the racquet face should be vertical during the backswing. If you are using an eastern forehand grip, you want to close the face (the face is pointing at the ground) of the racquet as you take it back when wanting to hit topspin. With backhand one handed slice shots, it is likely that you take the racquet back in a somewhat open position (face is pointing toward the sky).

When we make contact with the ball, we impart spin by the movement of the vertical racquet face. If we want topspin, we bring the racquet from low to high. If we seek to impart backspin, we move the racquet in a high to low path. However in each of these situations, the racquet face is perfectly vertical when making sweet contact with the ball.

If we want to direct a ball left or right, we actually are striking the ball ever so slightly off center. Usually, we time the stroke in such a manner as to achieve this off center contact. I am not speaking about a dramatic off center contact. Rather, we are talking about millimeter differences.

People will often say that tennis is a game of inches. Well when it comes to ball direction, it is really a game of millimeters. The same is true with ball height. If we want to hit a lob, we are actually going to make contact with the ball very slightly below true center. Here again, the racquet face will be vertical at the moment of impact.

It is imperative that the tennis player realize that the true determining factor when it comes to errant shots is the non-vertical position of the racquet face at the moment of impact.

Let’s say that I am producing a stroke, and my ball lands wide. Well frequently, the true reason for the errant direction is that my racquet face was tilted ever so slightly left or right at the moment of impact. If the ball lands too deep, one of the principle reasons for the errant placement is that my racquet face is pointing ever so slightly upward at the moment of impact.

If you have ever "floated" a sliced shot, you may reasonably assume that the reason was probably that your racquet face was ever so slightly open at the moment of impact.

Ever try to hit a powerful, topspin drive and find that the ball hits near the bottom of the net? Most likely, the reason for this error is that the racquet face was a bit closed at the moment of impact, which resulted in a more downward trajectory.

When we are hitting in the "zone," our racquet face is perfectly vertical at the moments of impact.

So if I am correct in assuming that many, if not most, errant shots are related to the racquet face at the moment of impact, how does one assure proper contact? Well, the answer is not all that simple.

There are many reasons that our racquet face can be less than vertical at the moment of contact with the ball. First, there is the matter of grip.

For each stroke grip, there is one precise contact point in terms of ball height and position of the ball. Western forehand grips require a contact point that is high and in front of the player’s body. A one handed, backhand slice shot benefits from a lower contact point that is usually to the side of the player’s body.

One can review proper contact points by going to one of my previously published columns, entitled Grip: Picture Perfect.

Grips often times go awry as we move from one stroke to another. Going from a topspin forehand to a one handed, sliced backhand requires a grip change. In making these changes, we can find that there are tiny variations in how we hold the racquet handle. Normally, our non-conscious mind seems to pick up these tiny variations and makes proper adjustments to give us a contact point where the racquet face is perfectly vertical. Still, there are times when these variations in grip consistency result in a less than vertical racquet face. The great Rod Laver is quoted as having said, "Grip is everything." I think he is right.

I believe that this is why pros have their grips customized. There are racquet technicians who actually mold the ideal grip for a player. Then, each racquet is brought into precise compliance with the ideal.

When we use different racquets, there is almost always a slight grip variation…especially, if we use an overgrip. I noticed that Sergei Brugerra, when he played on the tour, did not use a regular, "replacement" grip on his racquets. Rather, he would take two overgrips and put them on top of the wooden handle. My guess is that he was striving to have a more consistent feel to his racquet grips. I would not be surprised if the wooden handles were not shaved to a precise size and shape.

If you change racquet manufacturers, you probably notice that each racquet company has its own unique grip shape. Prince and Babolat racquet frames have similar grips. Head racquets are a very different shape, as is the case with Wilson frames. Despite being the same size (let’s say level 4) in terms of total circumference, the shapes and feel are totally different.

When resurrecting strokes, I strongly encourage the player to use a wall/backboard or a ball machine. The first goal should be to recapture the proper grips for every stroke. Once rediscovered or found anew, these grips need to be burned into our muscle memories through "feel."

If you have multiple frames, I strongly suggest that you go to a USRSA master racquet technician and have your sticks made as similar as is possible.

Timing is also important in determining whether the racquet face is perfectly vertical at the moment of impact. Timing involves knowing where your ideal contact point is for every stroke. By varying the timing ever so slightly, we can direct balls to the right, left, higher or lower. These variations are minuscule in nature.

So once again, hitting with a wall/backboard or ball machine can allow you to get a consistently proper timing for every stroke and ball placement.

The shorter one’s backswing, the better with respect to timing. Having a long, loopy stroke requires a very difficult and unforgiving timing movement. If a backswing is short and is prepared early, the last fraction of a second adjustments are more manageable.

I strongly encourage each reader to attempt to shorten his/her backswing as much as is possible. In doing this, your timing adjustments can be achieved with greater certainty. This will result in better placement and more consistent strokes.

Another important ingredient in facilitating consistent strokes is having a consistent finish to each stroke.

The tennis academies around the world drill the importance of "finish" into every student. If you watch pros as they take pre-match warm up strokes, they often times will exaggerate the deliberate nature of each stroke finish. I believe this is to "refresh" the muscle memory associated with their strokes.

Having consistent stroke finishes really plays a critical role when you are running hard for a ball or are hitting out of position. Sometimes, there is no way that you can execute a stroke with a proper finish in these type of situations. Still, if you can, you will find that you are far more likely to make a shot that goes where you want it to go.

After refreshing your "grip feel" and "stroke timing/contact point," it is advised to spend some time working on stroke finishes.

I usually attempt to work on stroke finish when I am doing hitting drills that involve movement and running. "Emergency" situations are where a consistent finish for each of your strokes will play the most important role.

Okay, let’s assume that you have worked on these three factors, one at a time, and have resurrected consistently controllable shots.

You have customized your racquets to be as consistent as is possible with grip shape in addition to having them balanced by a USRSA certified racquet technician. You are using new string, and the tension in each frame is the same. When these are in place, you can truly focus on your "grip feel" and arrive at the precise grip for each stroke.

You have rediscovered the ideal contact point for each stroke (including serves). Now, try to adjust your timing to direct the ball in precise paths. For serves, it may be that you automatically adjust the timing by varying your toss. To my amazement, Pete Sampras could hit every serve (regardless of spin, direction or power) from precisely the same toss. This speaks, I think, to the greatness of his serve timing.

Some of you may want to revisit my previously published column Rock Around the Clock to better understand how ball direction is achieved.

You have gone on the court with your hitting partner and have done groundstroke drills that force each of you to move. During these drills, really focus on maintaining consistent finishes for your stokes. Again, the previously mention column, Grip: Picture Perfect contains images that will help you see what finish may be best for each stroke.

So now, you are ready for re-introducing power into your game.

Regarding the serve, I believe that you will find that pronating the arm (rotating the arm/wrist in a counter clockwise manner) and introducing a wrist snap at the moment of impact will provide the most immediate power benefits. Of course, body rotation and knee bend cannot be overlooked in the serve power equation.

All strokes, including the serve, gain more power from what is called increased "racquet head speed." Some time back I addressed this topic in an article entitled, The Need for Racquet Head Speed.

Lastly, power is increased in every stroke when we transfer weight forward as we make contact with the ball.

If you are resuming tennis after a winter hiatus, you should spend at least one week on each of these four factors: grip, timing/contact point, finish and power. Truthfully, I believe that a true resurrection of strokes takes a minimum of eight weeks.

If you have not ceased playing tennis during the winter months, you still may want to regroup and dedicate some time to each of these four factors…one at a time.

Truly, tennis is a game of millimeters, when it comes to stroke production. It is really a marvelous human ability that we can make minute adjustments during play to control the ball.

True control and consistency result from an ability to hit every stroke with a vertical racquet face. Once we have this under firm grasp, we can introduce the ingredient we all seek to be able to own…power!

Spend time this spring working on precise grips, exact contact points, and consistent finishes. Once you have these, you will be able to add power to your game in a controllable manner. And once you have both control and power, you will truly 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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