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The Orthodoxy of Unorthodoxed Strokes

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Let's be clear! No two people do anything exactly the same.

For example, each of us had her/his own gait when walking. Of course, there are some factors in our gait that are dictated by physical "limitations." The length of a person's stride is in major measure determined by his/her height and associated length of his/her legs. There are some factors related to a person's walk that could be improved.

If person walks with the feet leaning in or out, the wear on the edges of one's shoes are likely to wear out before the sole. How many of us drag our toe when serving only to discover that the toe of our back foot's shoe wears out long before the rest of the shoe?

My point is simple. We all are unique and each of us differs in many ways from another. This is not to say that these differences are all great. After all, there are some ways that are better than others. Certainly when a person drives a car, we hope that she/he is driving in a safe manner and according to the "rules of the road." In fact, we require testing and licensing for drivers because this is a very human activity.

Well, why would tennis be any different? Indeed, I believe it is not.

Each player of this wonderful game brings idiosyncrasies to bear with respect to playing style, strategic approach... but equally important... stroke production.

As a PTR certified tennis teacher, I have come to terms with the "universals" that should be part of each player's strokes. Although every tennis teaching organization recognizes that there must be room for differences, there is a body of orthodoxy that is associated with every stroke. Significant deviation from these is cause for concern and correction.

Usually the orthodoxy associated with a particular stroke is referred to as "proper form." I must confess that I have never stopped trying to improve the "form" of my strokes. I will videotape myself practicing and playing in an attempt to recognize what may need to be done to "improve" my strokes. Those who read this column regularly know that I advocate that every tennis player engage in periodic, videotaped, self-review. In truth, this practice may be more useful than some tennis lessons one may commission with a teaching pro.

My assumption, which is shared by virtually all coaches, teachers and players is that there is a best form for each stroke. This is certainly evidenced when we hear people say, "I want to hit like the pros." The assumption? All pros hit the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Let's do a little historical research to see just how much variety exists in the pros' games.

At one point, the two-handed backhand was a stroke that was considered unusual and was not "endorsed" by most pros, their coaches or any of the tennis teachers. Poor Cliff Drysdale, the great TV commentator, was probably ridiculed by many in the game for his two-handed backhand... until of course, they had to face this weapon. I am sure there were those tennis teachers who actually attempted to have students abandoned a two-handed backhand when they encountered students with this particular stroke.

Certainly, Pete Sampras believed that it was better to have a one-handed backhand as he converted as a teenager to this variety from his "natural" two-handed backhand. He believed that he needed a one-handed backhand to be able to play the net game well. Given his record, he was probably right... at least for himself.

However in the modern game of tennis, the two-handed backhand abounds on both the men's and the women's tours. In fact, it is my belief that most of the top 100 players in the world on both tours hit with the two-fisted backhand.

In a very real sense, what was once unorthodox has become orthodox! I find this a bit surprising because the two-handed backhand was often adopted in the past because the racquet weight was too unmanageable for the one-handed stroke. However with racquet technology being what it is, the weight associated with racquets has decreased significantly from the "wood" era. Power and mobility have increased in today's racquets. Given these, one might expect that the one-handed backhand would be more common today than ever. This is not my experience.

We still believe that two-handed forehands are not desirable. Of course, Monica Seles was one player who proved that the two-handed, forehand groundstroke offered some real advantages. She executed this stroke very well, moved to balls with incredible anticipation and could hit severe angled shots with precision. I grant you that her "reach" was compromised a bit, but she compensated so very well for this deficiency.

The most unusual forehand that I know of is attributed to Francois Durr. I never actually saw her play, but I have seen photos of her forehand grip. She would actually take her index finger on her dominant hand and put it straight up the back of the racquet handle. I presume she did this for reasons of support. I have tried to replicate this grip, and I must confess that it is not for me. Still, it worked well for this accomplished pro.

The most unique stroke in this great game of ours may be the serve. Over the years, I have seen just about every possible service motion that there can be. (Each time I say this, I find someone who has a totally different way of serving the ball.) Even on the pro level, there are major variances among players with respect to the serve.

Some toss high. Some toss low. Some have an elaborate service motion. Some serve in a more economical manner regarding motion. I remember the serve of the great serve of Edberg. He had a very high toss and would serve/volley on virtually every point. He would, as a result, be falling into the court as he served.

Most modern players do not serve/volley. Indeed if you look at Roddick's serve, the motion is very abbreviated in comparison to "classic" form. Andy does not really complete the full circle of motion that most players are taught with respect to the serve. Instead, he tosses the ball, bends his knees, lifts the racquet up without dropping it and hits his serve with lots of wrist motion. With serves around 145 mph, it is difficult to criticize the effectiveness of this motion.

The former pro, Jay Berger, used to toss his ball up for the serve with his racquet in what I call, "cocked" position. The racquet was up and behind his head as he made his toss. When Andre Agassi was having difficulty with his shoulder, he adopted the Berger style of serving. Truth be known, I believe that this is the best way to learn to serve effectively. The Berger "motion" is the essence of the serve. All the other motion can be useful, but is not the heart and soul of what needs to be done in an effective serve. I have found with my students that they learn to serve better and/or learn to correct flaws in their serves faster when adopting the Berger service motion.

Even the volley can be struck with many variations. If there is one stroke that "purists" believe "must" be hit in a standardized manner it is probably the volley.

Just listen to John McEnroe when he comments on TV. Granted, John has some of the best "hands" ever to have played the game. His volleys are incredible and should be envied. He promotes a particular form when one volleys. Still in reality, his volleys are a bit unique. After making contact with the ball, John often times will pull back on his forward racquet movement instead of following through in the traditional form. This first came to my attention when I was hitting with Oscar Wegner.

Although John believes that he hits in a classic manner (and indeed at times he does) his volleys will frequently fall into the form described above... which is unorthodox to say the least.

I have seen many female players in both singles and doubles who adopt a two-handed, backhand volley. I have seen fewer male players use this form, but there have been some. A few years back, I broke the thumb on my dominant hand. For quite some time, I had to use a two-handed, backhand volley... I had no choice. Actually, I found that my volleys were quite good. I began to hit my forehand volleys with an eastern forehand grip instead of the traditional, continental grip. Both were quite good!

I have returned to the traditional volley form now that my thumb is completely healed. Why? Well at my advanced age, I do not move as well as I once did. Having the one-handed volley on both sides enables me to stretch for balls better.

Okay, so what is my point with all of this? Well, I would argue that unorthodox strokes usually are present because there is a good reason for the player to adopt the "questionable" form.

For example, most beginning players use an eastern forehand grip when learning to serve and hit in what I call a badminton-like manner. This is by no means what typical form among seasoned players and pros is. But, it usually works. It allows the beginning player to be able to get his/her first serve in the box with minimal practice.

Truth be known, I adopt a similar style of serving when I execute my "backspin serve." I like to hit the backspin serve as my first serve because it has lots of pace and does not bounce high. As a significant contrast, I will hit the high bouncing, kick serve as my second serve. Needless to say, most of my opponents find this combination a bit disconcerting. My first serve as described is very unorthodox... but there is a good reason for me to use it! I do hit the conventional, flat first serve for those of you who are wondering as you read this.

When teaching students, I allow beginners to use the unorthodox, eastern, forehand grip when serving. Eventually, I add continental grip serves and eastern backhand grip serves to their arsenal. Most teachers I know immediately tell the student that the eastern forehand grip when serving is "wrong." The student feels inadequate, and probably doubts the instructor's wisdom in that the new service grip doesn't get the ball in the service box as easily or reliably.

My thinking is to add not subtract things from a student's game! In this way, the arsenal of weapons becomes greater, and equally important, the student does not feel as though she/he is "wrong." Negativity in this game is never useful.

The aforementioned Oscar Wegner has written a wonderful book entitled, Play Better Tennis in 2 Hours. Although the claim made in this book's title is a bit difficult to believe, I assure you that Oscar has many examples to prove its veracity.

Oscar is a most unconventional tennis teacher. Some doubt his methods and insights, but I would beg to differ. In many ways, I believe Oscar was the "forerunner" with respect to the modern game.

His "unorthodox" doctrine has made his an outcast of sorts. But, his devotees will certainly support that he knows what he is doing. I am one. His unorthodox methods and techniques have in major measure become a new orthodoxy! Check this out for yourself. Now, I am not saying that there is no wisdom in the "accepted" forms associated with tennis strokes. They are "orthodox" for good reasons.

If you hit a two-handed forehand, you are probably going to run a bit more in a match. If you hit the two-handed, backhand volley; you are more likely to get passed. An eastern forehand grip when serving is not likely to be as "forgiving" as a serve using a backhand grip.

But if you are hitting a stoke "differently" from what is the conventional wisdom; do not dismay and do not be too quick to abandon your idiosyncratic stroke.

Rather, ask yourself some very pertinent questions:

  1. Why does this "unusual" form feel more comfortable?
  2. Is this "unusual form" more effective than ineffective?
  3. In what situations does this "unusual form" breakdown?
  4. Can I learn a more orthodox form in addition to my unorthodox form?
  5. If I do learn the more orthodox form, when would I want to use my "unusual form?"

At times, tennis can be an elitist game. We are all inadequate with respect to some aspect and stoke(s) in this exciting game. This is why a person's tennis game can always be improved.

Take an inventory of your strokes. Videotape yourself hitting strokes. Watch this video carefully and compare your strokes to those of pros on the tours.

Do not chastise yourself for having an unorthodox stroke or two. Recognize that there is always a good reason why you have adopted this unusual method of striking the ball.

Without abandoning what you can already do, try to work out a game plan to add the traditionally conventional form(s) to your stroke options.

To inspire you, I have videotaped some most unusual strokes associated with a player on the WTA tour. Monica Niculescu from Romania played the qualies at the 2008 Pilot Pen. She won her matches and made it into the main draw.

As the video will show, she hits some very unusual groundstrokes. In many ways, she reminds me of the "Magician," Fabrice Santoro of France. Both are able to impart incredible backspin on forehand and backhand groundstrokes. Both have two-handed forehands.

Okay, neither player has won a grand slam singles event. Okay, each player's strokes are not what one would normally promote for tennis students. Yet, each player would probably beat any of the non-professional players reading this.

Take comfort and inspiration from what you see in Monica's strokes. Yes, she is incredibly fit and needs to be to play the game with her strokes. But, they work for her! You will note that she is capable of hitting orthodox groundstrokes in addition to her very unique variations.

I assure you that if you accept those unorthodox strokes in your game, learn why and when they work, and add orthodox strokes to your game; you will invariably 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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