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What If!!!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in April. The weather is turning into spring, and many of you are out there banging balls around the court in the great outdoors. Truth be known, I believe that outdoor tennis is the way tennis should always be played. Playing tennis outdoors is similar to playing basketball outdoors. It is great to play either game year round, but each has its own, natural environment.

In my Perfect Tennis e-book I propose an on-court and off court process for learning, improving and enjoying this wonderful game. The goal is to achieve what I call flow. When we play our best tennis, we are all on automatic pilot. We seamlessly execute shots and play our own innate style of tennis.

I truly believe that one can improve the frequency of this being in the zone by applying the Perfect Tennis process.

Still, there is a place for cerebral analysis and strategy in the game of tennis. Now, don't get me wrong. Over analysis and conscious thought can be more harmful than beneficial in tennis. As analogy, I offer the following.

If you cup your hand, you can hold onto a bit of water in your palm. But as soon as you close and squeeze your hand to hold onto this water, it drips through your fingers.

In many ways, I find this metaphor a good example of the whole "thought" process in the game of tennis. The more we "try" to examine what to do, the more likely it is that we interfere with flow.

As is the case with many things in nature, we should be striving to achieve balance. This principle is one reason that I always enjoyed studying physical sciences. This "rule" is just that in the physical realm.

Having said all of this, I must confess that there is a time and method for effective analysis when competing in tennis. And, this is the topic for this month's column.

To my way of thinking, there are two primary types of players... Type A and Type B.

In fact, I dedicated an entire column to this topic back in 2000. The reader can easily access it by using this link to the article "Type "A" or Type "B" Player?."

Essentially, a Type A player is a person who has some weapons in her/his arsenal and seeks to simply play her/his game. There is little, if any, real analysis going on in the mind of the Type A player. She/he simply hits the ball in the manner that is seemingly natural. These players often times win because they do have weapons and have spent some significant time honing their skills.

The Type B player is the thinker. He/she likes to find ways of taking away the opponent's weapons. The Type B player is often times referred to as a "heady" player. He/she may even take the form of the dreaded pusher, who really tries to help the opponent lose. Type B players frequently do not have the best of strokes. They may be physically out of shape. But somehow, they find a way to win.

Lately, I have had to become a Type B player. I haven't had a choice. My right knee is very arthritic (Years of being a baseball catcher is catching up with me... Forgive the pun.) Truthfully, there is little that can be done to correct the problem. On the tennis court, I can barely move. At one time, I was fairly fleet of foot. But now, there are just so many balls that I can no longer track down.

The net consequence of this injury and its impact? I have to play smarter not bigger tennis. Like it or not, the only alternative for me is a total knee replacement. Needless to say, I am not taking this drastic measure until there is no choice. However, I can still play singles and win. In fact, I recently played a couple collegiate players and was able to win in two sets each time. Believe me. They could clearly outrun me!

Well, my biggest weapon is my forehand groundstroke. But if I can't get to a ball, I can't use this weapon. What am I to do? I simply ask myself, What if...

Simply put, I know my goal is to minimize the amount of movement that I need to make on the court, and to keep the points as short as is possible... while still winning the point.

Despite the injury, I find myself enjoying the competition. I just have a new set of limitations. Everyone has some limitations. I just need to recognize my own, set viable goals, and discover ways to win. Really, I am doing nothing more than problem solving.

This is exactly the mindset of the Type B player. By simply looking at the match as a set of problems, the Type B player is able to explore the situation and arrive at possible solutions.

Sometimes, the solutions arrive from a simple trial and error. But more often than not, the Type B player is deliberately "probing" and "thinking" her/his way through the match.

All of us, who enjoy this wonderful game, at one time or another, find ourselves in a situation where our "normal" game is not winning us the match. In these situations, we all need to, at least, consider becoming Type B players.

For Type A players, this is probably a frustrating situation. I would not be at all surprised if many of these Type A players don't even attempt to refashion a game plan.

For me, the best approach to being "thoughtful" and analytical involves asking the important What if question.

Phrasing the question in a What if manner is desirable on several levels.

First, the question is not stated in a negative way. If a player asks herself/himself, "Why is my backhand so bad today?" there is a negative implied in the framing of the question. Negative thoughts, self-talk or questions never help in the game of tennis.

Second, asking a What if question suggests that there may be more than one possible answer. If one answer doesn't do the trick, asking What if again may result in a different answer entirely.

Third, the What if question suggests that the player asking himself/herself the question is curious and is simply looking to discover what a particular change may bring. The implication is that the change and its effects are observable.

Now, the timing at which you ask yourself "What if" is critical!

If you are in a match and have lost the first set by two breaks or more, you need to ask yourself "What if."

If you lost the first set in a close score but are down a break in the second set, you probably need to ask yourself "What if."

Asking yourself "What if" is not a sign of desperation. Rather, it is recognition of reality, and an appropriate way to reconfigure your game plan. Still, many Type A players have a difficult time bringing themselves to ask this question. Hopefully if the player is a high school or collegiate competitor, his/her coach will ask the question during a game changeover.

This brings me to the other aspect of when one should pose this important question. The only times to ask this question are in-between games!!! If there is a changeover, there is more time to ask and answer the question. If there is no changeover, one can always find a little time to pose What if and arrive at a preliminary answer.

I do not advise asking yourself this critical question in between points. There just isn't enough time for reflection (unless you are breaking the time regulations). In addition, this question asking will interrupt any flow that you may have established in your game.

Consciously posed questions lend themselves to recorded answers. In part, this is why I encourage every player to keep a "strategy book." This book contains answers to the What if question that have worked in the past. If this book is organized well, the player can retrieve answers quickly during game changeovers. On more than one occasion, I have observed pros on the tour reach into their tennis bags and pull out notes and/or a notebook. Certainly, these contain suggested solutions to typical problems, or specific notes about the opponent.

So assuming that you know when to ask the important What if question, what are some of the possible answers? Well, each player needs to discover her/his own specific answers to this critical question. No two players are totally alike.

Still, there are some probable answers to many of the What if questions. To illustrate what I mean, I offer some of the following examples.

What if I was to take pace off the ball? (You would be amazed at how many big hitters do not like balls sent to them without any pace.)

What if I hit my balls higher and deeper? (If you are winded and tired, or unable to move like me, this may be the best answer. High, deep balls slow down the rallies, keep the opponent back, and usually do not result in having to run for many balls. Of course, this latter attribute is negated, if the opponent can hit a drop shot off your high, deep balls.)

What if I hit at my opponent? (Crazy as it may seem, this tactic can win you points. Some players are just better able to hit balls, and even winners, when they are on the run. The old adage, "Run the turtle, hit at the rabbit" comes to mind.)

What if I vary the spin of my shots? (When an opponent has established a rhythm, it is difficult to prevail. Sometimes hitting consecutive balls with very different spins... slice to flat to topspin for example... can unsettle the opponent's rhythm. The result? Frequently, the opponent hits more errant shots.)

What if I keep the ball deep in the center of my opponent's court? (I recall reading a book by the legendary Pancho Seguro. The book explored various strategies. On clay, he recommended that deep balls that are placed in the center of the court will keep the rallies long. The opponent will probably become impatient and will try for a risky shot for the winner. Impatience and frustration are two ingredients that you always want to engender in the opponent's mind.)

What if I hit sharper angled shots that bring my opponent forward and wide? (This is an answer straight from Roger Federer's playbook. Roger will hit shots that go crosscourt and bounce near the junction of the service lines and sidelines. Amazingly, he can do this off either wing and still hit with some pace. Most of us need to take pace off the balls to hit these severe angles.)

What if I hit everything to my opponent's weaker wing? (I will grant the reader that this answer to the question does not provide any deception. Still, many Type A players will get very frustrated if they don't have a chance to hit their stronger shots. This answer is not the first choice, but amazingly, I have seen it work very effectively.)

What if I change the order and pattern of my shots? (All of us are creatures of habit and exhibit patterns of behavior. These are true when we play tennis. Let's say that your normal pattern is to hit each ball crosscourt. Well, your opponent will soon see the pattern and be able to anticipate your shot. Thus, she/he will have an edge that may result in an outright winner. Simply hitting two shots crosscourt then going down the line, may be enough to prevent this type of prediction. Truth be known, I have three principle patterns that I like to use when hitting groundstrokes. By knowing these and practicing them, I have prepared myself to use them in matches. If one isn't working, I will try another. In most matches, the rallies do not exceed three balls hit by each player. So, my patterns are three stroke variations. My patterns work for me, but there are really no universal patterns. Each player has patterns that meet his/her movement capabilities, stroke preparation, and ability to place the ball. So, one needs to practice patterns that are "comfortable." If you can develop three distinct, but reliable, groundstroke patterns, you are probably very well prepared.)

These are just a few possible answers to the What if question. It is important to note that the answers do not involve drastic changes!!!

If you are truly a skilled player, you can shift gears from a groundstroke game to serve/volley without any difficulty. Most of us cannot. For some, we can prepare either approach, but we can't shift this drastically, during a match.

Introducing new and uncomfortable strokes into a match is probably too big a change, as well. If you don't really own a drop shot, you can't rely upon it in a match. Any strategic change that is based upon faulty or risky shots is doomed to fail.

In the examples I have provided, each answer to What if involves minor changes. It may seem that these are too simple to be effective, but I assure the reader that this is not the case. Tennis is a game of millimeters and milliseconds. Even the slightest change can have a dramatic impact on a match. In my mind, this is one of the reasons that tennis is such an exciting and enjoyable game to play and to watch!!!

I should mention that there is a third type of player... Type C. This is the complete player who has weapons, but also, knows when and how to be analytical.

As an example of the Type C player, I offer Andre Agassi. As a young player, he had tremendous groundstrokes. He could dominate many players with his ability to hit big groundies. But over time, this was not enough to keep him on top.

Once Andre brought Brad Gilbert in as a coach (truly the consummate Type B player), Andre was able to learn to play the game in a Type B manner. When you have a Type A player learning to be a Type B player the result is a Type C player. Type C players are just amazing to play and watch.

I should also mention that it is very unlikely that a Type B player becomes a Type C player. Why? Well, developing weapons and being able to hit with reckless abandon is far more difficult than learning to employ tactics and strategies.

So this tennis season, I encourage each of you to explore and discover your own answers to the What if question. Should you begin this journey and record your answers (the ones that worked), I am quite confident that this year you will 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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