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May 2012 Article

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Slow Tennis

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Last month, I dedicated my article to Aggressive Tennis. If you read this article carefully, you will note that it is not a pitch for hitting every ball as a winner, nor to hit every ball as hard as one can. Aggressive tennis is very individual, and as such, what may be successful for me may be unsuccessful for another player.
This month, I want to slow things down a bit... literally. First, we are all going to be treated to Roland Garros this May. "Dirt ball" is slower than most hard court tennis, and certainly slower than grass court play. Don't get me wrong. There is plenty of speed and power in the shots exhibited on both tours at the French Open. But comparatively, it is a slower tournament surface that lends itself to long rallies, and requires patience plus endurance.
Before I get into the "meat" of this month's column, I want to call your attention to a new book by David Ranney entitled, Play Zen-Sational Tennis. I have known David for quite a few years, and he kindly makes reference to me and my column/book in his most recent work. At his website www.maxtennis.com, he consistently links readers to my columns, and for this I am most honored and grateful. But, I am not in the business of promoting anything, if I do not believe it is worthwhile. This book is definitely a good read for tennis players of all skills levels. Not to worry! You won't have to learn transcendental meditation nor will you need to wear orange robes around the house. {;-) Truthfully, this book is an excellent blending of how to play better tennis from stroke, practice and mental perspectives. As a devotee of Tim Gallwey, David has taken this pioneer's work and refined it into a great "system."
Apropos, David's book explores some factors that I believe perceptually slow down the nature of playing tennis. Imagine that you could play every match in slow motion. Wouldn't that eliminate some of your errors?
Well, I can't slow down the speed, spin or power associated with an opponent's shot or serve. But, I can help you to perceptually slow down what you receive from your opponent, and bring yourself into a state of calm... not panic.
The first thing you must realize is that you have much more time to hit the opponent's shot than you realize. Those of you who took my advice last month and have read some of Oscar Wegner's tips know how true this axiom is.
To prove my point, I must relate an anecdote. Some years back, I was competing in a USTA sectional match. I was facing an opponent whom I had never played. I knew of this player's reputation for having an absolutely killer serve. I arrived the day before my match in Andover, MA. and I scouted this opponent. I watched him serve from a gallery perspective. The sound of the ball coming off his racquet strings was like that of a gun. From my side view perspective, the ball seemed to be traveling in excess of 125 mph. Needless to say, this did not provide me with much comfort.
The following day as I warmed up with this opponent prior to our match, I decided to forsake taking many serves. Instead, I focused on returning serve as he practiced his pre-match serves. He noticed that I was doing this, and this just fueled his fire. He tried his best to scare me with the velocity of his serves before the match had started.
About a month before this match, I was challenged by a professional, women's, fast pitch softball pitcher. She claimed that given 4 pitches, that I would not be able to hit even one. Now, I played lots of baseball in my day. I am a switch hitter, and frankly, I had great averages at the plate back in the day. However, I realized that she would be throwing "heat" with her rising fastball. This is the opposite path that a fastball takes when playing baseball. The first pitch blew right past me. It was definitely a strike. On the second pitch, I was able to foul the ball off with a late swing (not a hit). Then, I did what none of the other "contestants" did. I bunted the third pitch and ran like heck to first base. I made it safely to first and won the challenge. She was NOT happy.
My point in relating this story is that two things occurred. First, I became acclimated to the speed and path of her fastball. Second, I realized that a bunt is as good as a hit, if you make it to base safely. In essence, I used her speed, power and spin against her. She was totally unprepared for a bunt, and neither was the catcher or third baseman.
In tennis, these two factors can play a very important role in deciding the ultimate outcome of a match.
Back to the Andover match, I eventually was able to see this opponent's big serve with "slower" eyes, and I decided to employ my Sergi Bruguera return of serve. Sergi had the best forehand, blocking return of serve that I have personally seen. He could take a huge serve and block it deep into his opponent's court. From there, he would begin the point. Once in a while, his opponent would put the return away for a clean winner. More often than not, these attempts resulted in weak replies or errant shots because Sergi's return had backspin and no pace.
Next time you practice with a player who has some speed on her/his serve, try the following. Simply touch the ball with your racquet head directing the flight of the ball in a somewhat upward direction. After two or three tries, I assure you that you will be returning these big serves with your reply landing deep in the opponent's court. Whether you realize it or not, this technique slows down the big serve game!
Generally, this frustrates the big server. He/she will simply respond by trying to serve with more power. Big mistake! Usually, the big server's placement and control diminish. You get more accustomed to fast serves, and eventually, you will find that you feel comfortable taking a swing return rather than simply blocking a return of serve. Perceptually, the big serve has lost some of its bite.
The same blocking return can be achieved on the backhand wing. A two hander can very easily block a big serve back so that it lands high and deep in the opponent's court. The one handed player will probably do best to imagine that she/he is simply attempting a drop shot. This short, backspin motion with the racquet usually can be controlled to achieve the same high and deep return.
Take away a big server's most important weapon, and I assure you that you will be more calm, experience little if any panic/fear, and will probably find the game's overall pace with respect to length of points increases. Rallies will probably not be as difficult to achieve.
On groundstrokes, players have much more time to hit the reply than they imagine. It is normal at the beginning of a match to be a bit nervous and to rush things a bit. However once the ball hits any surface, the laws of physics dissipate some of its energy and speed.
To perceptually slow down groundstroke rallies (even with big banger opponents), two things must be in place. You need to really see the ball clearly, and consciously. This aspect of the game is so important that in 1996 when I began writing this column, I dedicated my first effort to the importance of seeing the ball. You can access this original article at: SEE the ball!!!. In David's new book, he provides excellent drills and tips on how to better "see" the ball.
The second thing you need to do is get your conscious mind out of the way!!! You cannot think and play tennis at the same time. The non-conscious mind is where we store all our muscle memory. If we practice correctly, we have in our mental software all the data necessary to approach the ball correctly, hit the ball perfectly, and recover to be prepared for the next shot.
I know. You are likely saying, "Ron, you really expect me to believe that my non-conscious mind is the real tennis player out on the court?" My answer is a resounding, yes!!!
Every day, millions of us drive our cars to and from work, schools, shopping excursions, etc. While we are doing this potentially "life threatening" activity, we listen to music. We speak with other passengers in the car. We daydream. Hopefully if we are on the phone, we are doing so with hands free devices. We are literally making millions of little decisions, and millions of alterations in steering, accelerating and braking without any conscious interference or debate. We simply use our conscious mind to provide the sensual data necessary to allow our non-conscious mind to get us there safely. This works because we have trained ourselves to drive properly, practice driving regularly and trust our non-conscious mind.
If each of us are willing to put our lives on the line with our non-conscious minds, why are we unwilling to do so when playing something so comparatively insignificant as tennis? The answer is quite simple... we are not willing to let go when playing tennis!
Granted, we probably don't have the same fundamentally sound training in tennis in our formative years. There really aren't standardized "driving schools" for tennis. Nor, should there be. Everyone plays this wonderful game in her/his own unique way. Yes, there are some principles like the importance of finishing every shot fully and recovering quickly after executing a shot that are some of the basics that must be in place. But how achieve these is unique to each of us to a greater or lesser degree.
Additionally, I will grant that we practice driving daily in many, if not most instances. This may not be the case with respect to our tennis game.
Lastly, driving is hopefully a cooperative endeavor. By this, I mean that all drivers are attempting to navigate in sync with all other drivers. In tennis, there exists opponents and competition.
It is my belief that competition is the real culprit that prevents us from letting go. We place too much importance upon winning and losing. We invest far too much of our self esteem into this great game. But, it is indeed still a game... not a profession... for the vast majority of us.
Don't get me wrong. I am a highly competitive person. I will fight till the end in almost any contest. The motivating factors for me, however, are more focused upon loving the thrill of competition and the joy of winning. Truthfully, I have no fear of losing. Heck if I didn't want to lose ANY match, there is a fool proof method to achieve this goal... don't play any matches!!!
Simplifying your strokes will go a long way toward perceptually slowing down the pace of any match and put you in the position of being well prepared to execute most strokes without being "pressured."
I may be criticized for this statement, but I will make it nonetheless. Long, involved and complicated strokes/serves/volleys always break down!!!
Shorter back swings, volleys with less motion and more blocking, and serves that are short, sweet and compact always pay dividends. If you do nothing this summer but work to achieve these objectives in your stroke production, I assure you that your game will automatically become more consistent, and the feeling of being "rushed" will almost certainly go away.
I get very angry at teaching pros that spend hours working on elaborate footwork patterns with their students. Nothing should ever take your eye or focus off of the ball. If you practice regularly, stay in reasonably good running/aerobic shape and focus more on the economy of what you do with your racquet and body; naturally effective footwork will emerge. While strokes can be improved through conscious modifications, I have never really known a player who truly improved by trying to modify her/his footwork. The only exception to this "rule" is that learning to run in smaller steps is a benefit because they improve the ability to adjust when approaching the ball. Beyond this, I have no use for specific modifications in how one moves on the court. We all walk with a different gate. We all run in a unique manner. Stay in shape. Run off court by sprinting with short steps. These will help your footwork. But, the real goal is to forget the feet and focus on the ball. Lastly, we all need to learn how to relax. The problem is that we only spend time trying to learn how to relax when we are playing or practicing tennis. How many of us really spend every day discovering new ways to simply relax? When the going gets a bit tough during a match, we all of a sudden expect our minds and bodies to relax? This is highly unlikely to occur, if we don't practice regular relaxation techniques.
In his new book, David Ranney does an excellent job in explaining how and why we need to relax when playing this fabulous game of tennis.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard MD, wrote an excellent book entitled, The Relaxation Response. Dr. Benson was one of the first in the medical community to realize the effects of stress on health, the connections between mind and body, and the importance of finding ways to relax daily.
I strongly recommend that each reader review the material available at his website: http://2learnmeditation.com/relaxation-response.html.
If you can learn to slow down your breathing, relax your muscles and calm your mind in your daily life, I assure you that you can learn to do so on the tennis court.
The game of tennis slows down considerably when the mind and body are calm!
So, take some time to reflect upon these principles. Every player can actually play "slow motion" tennis if she/he spends the time on and off court practicing.
Once you learn to play in slow motion, I am absolutely certain that you will be well on your way to becoming 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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