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Pre-Program Your Game For Success

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in February. Where I am, the weather is still very much winter-like. However, it won't be long before the spring months arrive and we tennisphiles will be chomping at the bit to play this wonderful game of ours outside again.
Some of you have probably taken a hiatus from playing tennis. Some of you may have played occasionally during the winter months... perhaps, in a USTA sponsored league. The truly dedicated and competitive players have most likely been training and playing in earnest.
Of course, my readers who live south of the equator have been enjoying the warmer months and are in all probability in the heart of their outdoor season.
Regardless of whether you're dusting off your racquets from their winter storage or training/competing continuously throughout the year/seasons; some principles of the game must be followed, if you are to compete at your best level.
In a sense, players of all stripes need to periodically review these "basics" in an attempt to pre-program (or perhaps reprogram) your tennis game for the season ahead.
In my opinion, we too often lose sight of these basics and of what really makes for a good tennis "foundation." We focus on stroke production, court movement, and maybe, we spend some time adding a stroke or two to our arsenal. If we are resuming play (indoors or outdoors) after a break, we are probably trying to regain our skill level. All of these are worthwhile things to do and are completely normal.
But this month, I want to review some very basic but indispensible tenets of the game. I want to convey, and perhaps remind, each player of the essential hierarchy of priorities associated with this great game of ours. No player can expect to compete well if she/he does not follow these priorities. Indeed, working on each of these in an orderly manner can make for a great blueprint for resurrecting your tennis game quickly and effectively.
In addition, I want to remind each player of some very basic but absolutely well founded "do's" and "don'ts" to keep in your mind as you practice and as you play/compete. Most of these form what is the heart and soul of "percentage tennis."
This said, let's start with the "Tennis Hierarchy." The underlying and unifying concept found in each of these hierarchical priorities involves "control."
First and foremost, tennis is a game of control. It is easy to be seduced into believing that modern tennis is simply a game based upon power. Watching the pros compete, it is certainly understandable that we would place emphasis upon pace in our approach to tennis. Truly, the pros make it all look so easy. But, one must remember that tennis is a full-time "job" for pros on either tour. They have coaches, strength and flexibility trainers, and in some instances a true entourage of support people.
While most of us are lucky to be able to dedicate two or three hours per day to training, this is a minimal norm for pros on the tours. Add all of this to the pros innate talents and early, childhood tennis development, and you can see that comparing oneself to these professionals is "apples to oranges."
Lastly, both tours are seeing taller and stronger players forming their ranks each year.
All of this notwithstanding, pros must conform to the same priorities associated with the "Tennis Hierarchy" as we "mortals."
The first step in the Tennis Hierarchy is to always control oneself. Before any player steps onto a court, he/she must commit to controlling his/her emotions and demeanor. Yes, tennis can be frustrating. Yes, sometimes the more skilled and talented player loses. Yes, it is better to be "lucky" than good. And yes, tennis can and sometimes will test your emotional mettle. If you cannot control yourself on the court, the chances of you dealing successfully with all of these "unfair" and "out of my control" factors, are slim at best. In particular, I find that many junior, high school and intermediate level players fall victim to their own lack of emotional control.
When Bjorn Borg was a very young adolescent, he displayed his anger by throwing his racquet onto the court. His parents took his tennis gear away and would not permit him to play for a full year. Sounds harsh, but his parents set in place the foundation for the most self controlled player in modern times. Bjorn Borg's nickname was "The Iceman."
Make a personal commitment to being in complete control of your emotions this tennis season. You may benefit from some positive displays of emotion, but you will certainly never benefit from negative emotions or displays of emotion.
The second step in the Tennis Hierarchy is to make certain to get the ball over the net. This sounds so obvious that the reader may be thinking, "Of course, one needs to get the ball over the net." We are all going to make errant shots! After all, we are human, and thus, imperfect. But, errant shots that land long or wide are far less serious than those that result in a ball hitting the net. Why? One can easily correct shots that land too deep by simply hitting with less pace. A player can correct shots that are landing wide by simply targeting more to the center.
Shots that consistently hit the net are almost always caused by some "excessive" and severe problem in stroke production and/or court movement. These are not easy to correct during a match and can lead to much frustration.
So, when playing tennis your first goal should be to make certain that your shots never hit the net. You may have heard TV commentators or teaching pros refer to "good" errors and "bad" errors. Shots that hit the net are definitely "bad" errors. This simple rule will pay huge dividends in competition, I assure you.
The third step in the Tennis Hierarchy is to keep your groundstrokes landing deep into your opponent's court. The farther back your opponent is when hitting her/his groundstrokes the less severe an angle she/he can produce when making replies. It is basic geometry. However when your opponent can step into the court a bit, she/he can go for more severe crosscourt angles, which force you to run hard and usually put you in less than desirable court positions.
There are only two ways to keep your groundstrokes landing deep into your opponent's court: Hit the ball hard and low to the net, or hit the ball with less pace but increased net clearance. If you can hit these strokes with lots of topspin, you automatically can hit a ball that passes high over the net, drops in near the opponent's baseline and "pushes" him/her back.
Some months back I wrote an article on the value of the "moon ball, " see A Tennis Stroke That Is "Out Of This World". Believe me, moon balls keep your opponent in a more defensive position!
The fourth step in the Tennis Hierarchy is to be able to control the direction of you shots. Again, this seems self-evident. But in reality, one needs to "work into" a match or even a practice session before she/he attempts to go for angles. If you place targets (perhaps empty ball canisters) near the sidelines of the opposite court when practicing, you can really develop solid crosscourt angled and well positioned down the line groundstrokes. If you can hit these targets while on the run, you are truly in control of the direction of your strokes.
The fifth step in the Tennis Hierarchy is to control the spin of your shots. Flat shots (those with little spin) are generally difficult to control. Every player needs to have reliable topspin and slice shots off of both wings. Yes, the flat groundstroke has its place in tennis, but it should be the exception... not the norm. Spin shots by their very nature increase a player's ball control.
The sixth and last step in the Tennis Hierarchy is to be able to hit shots with pace. Only when all of the previous steps have been well established does it make sense to try for power and pace in your shots. If over time (when referring to practice sessions) you establish these first five steps, I assure you that the shots you intend to hit with pace will be much more successful and devastating.
The pros are so skilled and practice/train so much that the first five steps are almost a given. Thus, they can begin a match and hit out with all the pace they want without taking too much of a risk. Still, I have photographed many tennis tournaments, and I can assure the reader that pros on both tours usually make certain that they get acclimated to playing the match before they break out the big guns.
So, recognizing the order and importance of each of these six steps is a great way to approach training sessions and a great way to work your way into a match if you are competing. Using these "building" blocks really helps to establish a solid game!!!
In addition to the above steps, there are some basic tenets of tennis that players often forget, abandon, or in some cases, never understood. Following these basic "do's and don'ts" will increase the likelihood of success in competition. They were true in the early days of tennis when players like Bill Tilden competed, and they are equally true in the modern game:

  1. Hit most of your groundstrokes crosscourt. (70% to 80% of the time.) Again simple geometry comes into play here. When you hit crosscourt, you actually have a longer path of court in which the ball can land. When you hit crosscourt, the ball is passing over the lowest part of the net. There is a six-inch difference between the center of the net and the height of the net near the net posts. In addition, your opponent's options with respect to his/her replies are such that you are less likely to be running hard to get to their shot. All of this means that you have a great margin for error and automatically are placing your opponent in the least offensive court position. Some years back, I wrote a column that explains all of this with diagrams. See: Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game.

  3. Hit most of your groundstrokes at three quarter pace. Here again, one is attempting to maximize the margin for error. If you are swinging with all your might or simply dinking the ball over the net, the likelihood that you will make an error, or allow your opponent to hit a put away shot increases significantly.

  5. Never attempt to change the direction of a ball that is hit with lots of pace and/or when you are running hard to make your shot. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen collegiate and high school players attempt to hit a ball down the line when the opponent's shot was hit crosscourt with lots of place. The result? Almost always, the change of direction of the ball results in an error. If you are really running hard to retrieve a ball, you are in a defensive position. This is not the time to change the direction of the ball. Rather, simply hit the ball back in the direction from which it came. Okay, your opponent may be able to hit a winner given this latter situation, but better to make him/her make a shot than to give him/her a "free" point by making a error. A related adage to keep in mind is: Fast feet... slow hands. By this, I mean if you are running hard don't attempt to hit a powerful shot. Rather, send the ball back from where it came at a three quarter pace.

  7. Slice deserves slice. The easiest and most reliable way of replying to a shot that is hit to you with lots of slice is to hit your shot with slice.

  9. Rally with your opponent hitting groundstrokes and await a short ball. In the modern game of tennis this is probably one of the most important tenets to keep in mind. The modern game of singles tends to place extreme emphasis upon groundstroke rallies. Indeed, there are very few players on either tour who tend to play serve/volley and chip/charge styles of play. Usually, players rally from the baseline waiting for a short ball (the ball lands short in your court). Once this opportunity presents itself, modern players step in and attempt to hit a winning put away, groundstroke or volley.

  11. When you force your opponent wide and deep, charge the net. If in a rally, you force your opponent to hit a ball, which requires that he/she hit a reply from a wide and deep position (near the doubles line or even wider, and certainly from behind the baseline) you should immediate approach the net. Why? Well unless the opponent hits a very good offensive lob, you are probably in a position to hit an easy volley or an overhead smash for a clean winner. Pros are taught this and act instinctively. But, intermediate and recreational players generally stay back waiting for their opponent's reply, and in doing so; they squander an opportunity to hit a high percentage winner.

  13. When coming to the net, follow the path of the ball that you have just hit. This tenet applies to serves, groundstrokes, half volleys and volleys. Positioning yourself strategically at the net can be made very easy if you follow this tenet. Literally, watch the path that your ball takes as it crosses into your opponent's court. Follow the "imaginary line" that this ball path creates as you approach the net. If you do, you will not have to "think" about where you should position yourself at the net. Following this rule always leads you to the best possible position.

  15. When at the net, opponents will hit more passing shots down the line if they are on the run, and will hit more passing shots cross court if they are not forced to run to hit their reply. I have charted many professional and collegiate matches and this rule of thumb tends to be accurate about 75% of the time. So if you are anticipating these replies, your chances of being successful at the net are very good indeed.

  17. Slow down a losing game. It never ceases to amaze me that when tennis players find themselves losing a match, their reaction is to speed things up. Nothing could be more counterproductive. If you are losing a match by a significant score, your reaction should be to slow down the pace of play. Obviously observing the rules of tennis, one should take as much time as he/she can between points and during changeovers. Why? Well, taking this time gives your body and mind the most amount of time to relax. Second, the opponent in all probability wants to end the match as quickly as she/he can. Why let the opponent dictate this pace? It is one sure way that you can take "control" of something in the match. Lastly, taking a slower pace can frequently disrupt, and sometimes change, the momentum of a match. It may seem like unfair gamesmanship, but as long as you are keeping within the regulated time allotments, you are playing fairly!

  19. Be patient, and don't panic. This is truly easier said than done. But, tennis players often times tend to overreact and panic when things aren't going as they hoped and planned. Unlike futball, American football and basketball, there are no time limits in tennis. The match is not over until the last point is played! Anything can happen! If things are not going according to plan be patient. Sometimes a game plan just needs time to be effective. Sometimes, a change in game plan is needed. Trust yourself, and both your conscious and non-conscious minds to come up with a possible solution. Should you lose the match, what really has occurred is that the match ended before you could find the right solution! Start to think this way, and in no time the panic syndrome will begin to disappear. Panic never does any good! It makes the muscles and body tight, it puts incredible stress on our nervous system, clouds our thinking, which can lead to paralysis by analysis.

    So this month, I encourage you to print out this column and keep it with you. Refer to it frequently before you practice or compete. In doing this, you will actually be pre-programming your mind to play better tennis... whether you are coming back from a break or in the heart of training/competition.
    Sticking to the principles associated with the Hierarchy of Tennis and these basic tenets of tennis will invariably lead you to 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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