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The Ideal Modern Player... How To Become One

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Those of you who read column regularly will recognize that I firmly believe that there is no single right way to play this wonderful game of ours. Whether you look at the touring pros, collegiate and high school competitors, or the weekend warriors; there are many variations in how one strikes the ball. Some of these, if successful, should not be abandoned... even if they are significantly unorthodox. Indeed, some time back, I addressed the whole reality of unorthodox strokes in one of my columns: The Orthodoxy of Unorthodoxed Strokes.
For nearly 20 years, I have played, taught and coached this great game. I have competed in USTA sponsored tournaments, been a ranked regional player by the USTA, visited at one time or another numerous tennis academies within the U.S. and Europe, and most importantly, I have had the wonderful opportunity to photograph the touring pros at tournaments through my sports imagery business, Photosportacular.
Believe me. I have seen most of it, if not all of it. I have lived through wide body racquets, staggered stringing patterns, racquets that reached new lengths (literally) and a host of different synthetic string types.
I suspect that a tennis legend like Bill Tilden would hardly recognize the modern game. The reality is that tennis in the 21st century is a different game. Increased money to be made on the professional level, tennis technology, the emphasis upon hard court competition, more tennis schools, a deliberate application of "scientific" principles through video analysis and the greater attention given to our sport in the academic competitions that occur on a collegiate and high school level... each has had an impact on why there is what is often called The Modern Game of Tennis.
If you were to read an instructional book from, let's say, the 1950's and compared its content to one written in the last few years; you would discover instantly that the nature of stroke production has changed profoundly.
In addition, the average "body type" associated with both male and female competitors on both tours has changed significantly. Generally, it is safe to assume that the modern pro is taller, stronger, and maybe even faster, than pros of the past.
Of course many of us, who play this wonderful game, do not meet the body type trends evident in modern professional competition. Still, this is not to suggest that we cannot tailor our games to be as "modern" as is possible. It is to this end that I write this month's column.
First, the modern game is characterized by powerful groundstrokes, huge serves and deep court play. It is difficult to be able to play the serve/volley and/or chip/charge game on any other surface than grass. Why? The modern groundstrokes and speed of the game make closing the net difficult. Unless you are very accomplished and very fast, you are likely to find yourself being passed when trying to take the net.
Although Roger Federer and others today do possess great speed and outstanding volleys, players of this type are the exception... not the norm. Perhaps the last great serve/volley player who used this approach as a norm is Stefan Edberg. Before him, the great John McEnroe was the leading successful proponent of net play tennis.
Hopefully, this form of competition will find a resurrection among pros of the future. But given the power exhibited in the modern game, it may take some time. Jack Kramer was known to have said that serve/volley and chip/charge tennis comes and goes in waves. I hope he is right. Net game tennis is a wonderful thing to see when executed properly.
Well, what we must first determine is whether you are a tall, average or somewhat diminutive player with respect to height. Let's start with males. I am 6'2" and I perceive myself as being average when looking at professional and collegiate men's players. If you are less than 5'10", you are in my mind a smaller player. If you are above 6'3", you are a taller player.
One would think that the height parameters for women would be significantly lower, and indeed, they are lower. But on the professional level, the differences are not as pronounced as on the collegiate and high school levels. I have stood next to Venus Williams and we really are about the same height.
Still, these are the criteria that I would put forth for women. Less than 5'7" is to me small in terms of height. 5'8" to 5'11" would be what I perceive as average height. If you are 6 feet or taller, you qualify as a tall player in my schema.
Height is critical in this game. It dictates the power potential of your first serve, and truly, it influences what grips you should adopt on your groundstrokes.
In the modern game, powerful first serves are most likely to come from taller players. Why? Well, the additional height enables them to have a more advantageous angle when serving. Literally, their height allows them to have an angle that clears the net while still landing within the service box. If you are a tall player and have not worked on "owning" a powerful first serve, you are wasting your potential.
The key to a powerful first serve includes the following:

  1. Use a continental or eastern backhand grip. These grips allow you to break the wrist as you make contact with the ball and this bending of the wrist will generate more power.
  2. Use a loose arm when serving. Tensing your muscles while serving to generate power is counterproductive. A relaxed arm through the entire service motion will ultimately result in producing more power.
  3. Transfer your weight as you make contact with the ball. You want to fall forward into the court when hitting a first serve. Thus, you will need to toss the ball a bit in front of you, or you will not naturally achieve this weight transfer.
  4. Making contact with the ball as high as you can is desirable on first serves in that this creates a more desirable angle for the ball when it passes the net. Literally, you have more margin for error.

Players of average or smaller height can benefit from all of the above. However, these players may literally need to become "airborne" when serving. Taller players can use this technique, but others need to be off the ground and as high up in the air as is possible when they make contact with the ball. Higher tosses and deeper knee bends that propel you upward are requisites in trying to hit your serve from an "airborne" position. You will need to deliberately practice higher tosses, deep knee bends, and launches to make these a natural part of your service motion. This probably means that you will need to revisit your entire service motion to develop a fluid and consistent, "airborne" serve. But, believe me. It is well worth the effort.
Now, there is a downside to the "airborne" approach to serving. Since you are tossing higher and using a more complex motion, you are likely to have some difficulties on very windy days. Unfortunately, every benefit in tennis usually has a drawback associated with it.
This is why I work so hard on having a reliable kick serve that I can depend upon as a second serve. On very windy days, I may use the "kicker" for both first and second serves.
There are only two grips that I recommend for the forehand groundstroke when playing the modern game: the semi-western forehand and the western forehand. Teaching the continental forehand grip has been abandoned for decades. It just doesn't allow for reliable groundstrokes given the pace of modern strokes, and more important, the higher bounce that hard courts provide. I truly admire John McEnroe. He can still hit a continental forehand on a high bouncing service like clay even today. Most of us wish we could hit our forehands as well as he does. But, the reality is that modern tennis does not reward the player who uses the continental forehand.
The eastern forehand is still an acceptable grip, but I find that in the modern game it cannot generate the topspin in a reliable manner that we seek in the powerful forehands hit today.
I recognize that some of you may not be familiar with grips, contact points, stances, etc. If you fall into this category, you will want to review my previous column The Grip: Picture Perfect.
For tall and average height players, I recommend the semi-western. It will allow you to generate power and topspin and not force you to be as bothered by lower bouncing balls (as one would experience if one's opponent was hitting with slice).
Average height and certainly smaller players want to use the full western grip. Since you are lower to the ground, balls that bounce lower require you to bend your knees a bit less. The full western grip will allow you to hit with lots of power and impart massive amounts of topspin which helps keep the ball from bouncing long.
If you watch little kids as they learn tennis, they almost always adopt the full western grip. The smaller you are, the more likely you are to benefit from the full western forehand grip.
Regardless of height, always try to hit your groundstrokes "on the rise." By this, I mean make contact with the ball before it reaches the apex of its bounce and begins to drop. In doing this, you will be using the power of your opponent to help make your shot more powerful. In addition, any funky spins are less likely to affect your stroke production.
Although there are many great one-handed backhand players, I would suggest that the two-handed backhand is most desirable in the modern game. Why? Well, the two-handed stroke takes what is usually the physically weaker wing and allows the player to hit with power. This is particularly true if you are hitting a ball that bounces high. In my mind, one-handed players on the ATP tour have a difficult time winning Roland Garros, in part because they are presented with so many high bouncing balls to this side. In rallies, this may be negligible in consequence, but when returning serve, the one-handed player has difficulty with the high bouncing ball to his/her backhand wing.
Granted there are great clay court players who use one-handed backhands. But if you are going to be a successful one-handed backhand competitor, you absolutely need to be able to come over the ball and hit with powerful topspin. To achieve this, timing and footwork are critical.
Recently, I did an informal count of those players within the top 100 players on both tours. Those players with two-handed backhands outnumbered those who opt for the one-handed variety. I don't think this is a fluke. Rather, I believe the modern game's "normal" backhand is the two-hander.
The two-handed backhand is more forgiving in terms of ball height, timing and footwork. Still, every player needs to be able to hit one-handed slice. You cannot compete without this stoke in your arsenal.
Despite the fact that serve/volley and chip/charge are not the norm in the modern game of singles competition, every player needs to be able to play both with some element of proficiency. On very fast surfaces where the ball stays low, these are the ideal strategic approaches. But playing the periodic serve/volley or chip/charge point when you are up in a game will keep your opponent honest. Indeed, he/she may be so surprised to see you use it that he/she may not know how to counter... at least initially.
Everyone likes to win "free points," as is the case when you ace your opponent. The periodic serve/volley or chip/charge point can win you many "free points" as well.
Work on your volleying technique. Learn to chip a return of serve off of both the forehand and backhand sides. Practice serving and volleying. Just because these are not the norm in the modern game does not mean that they don't have their place from time to time.
Since the modern game is built upon power, foot speed is critical. In this area, smaller players usually have an advantage over taller players. Really, the sprint is the basis of modern game tennis movement. Bursts of speed followed by drifting back to the center of the court are the mainstay movement of groundstroke tennis.
It is my contention that the really tall players on either tour are doomed to shorter careers. I say this because so much of tour tennis is played on hard courts. Hard courts take their toll on every joint in a player's body. This is why you will see senior, recreational players opting for the comfort of clay courts.
Taller players are generally not natural sprinters. Shorter players in my experience are. Thus, the smaller player is physically at an advantage to move to shots with less pressure on her/his body, and usually with much greater speed.
Regardless of height, the modern player needs to worry more about speed with respect to running than endurance. Distance running has its place when training for the modern game, but bikes, elliptical and even treadmills are better options for endurance training. All of these take time, but are much kinder to one's joints that distance running.
Running sprints is the best option for the modern player when it comes to off court training. Some years back, I wrote a column where I described a series of sprints that I call "Saddlebrooks." I named them after the resort/academy in Florida where I learned them. The reader can access this column by going to Mindless Movement.
I assure you that Saddlebrooks will greatly improve your speed and movement on the court.
So as we (north of the equator) enter February and begin to anticipate outdoor tennis, each of us should try to modify our game play towards the modern game of tennis. I assure the reader that if you can adapt and modify your game and make it more "modern" you will in no time 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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