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A Balanced 2013

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Ron Waite, USPTR

If you are as many people, you are probably thinking about making some New Year resolutions. Frequently, we start out with the best of intentions. But over the year, we tend to deviate from our New Year's goals, objectives, etc. Believe me. I am one who has made such a resolution only to abandon it by the time spring rolls around.
 
However, I believe that tennis players should have New Year's resolutions regarding this wonderful game of ours. Truth be known, my tennis resolutions are usually kept, while my personal resolutions seem to fall by the wayside.
 
In 2013, I would encourage each of my readers to make a New Year's resolution that is related to "balance." Very simply put, I am suggesting that each player make a concerted effort to increase the balance in her/his tennis game and tennis life.
 
The word, balance, as I use it in this context, has multiple meanings. However, each of these "meanings" in my opinion should be addressed. Indeed, achieving better "balance" in all of its tennis related meanings is my resolution for 2013. I am hoping to inspire you to adopt this resolution as well.
 
This month's column will address what various forms of balance that I see as relevant to this great game of tennis, and will offer some suggestions on how to enhance your personal balance in each of these.
 
By balance, I am not referring to one's physical ability to be balanced in stature, etc. Rather, I am using the word balance in a broader context. Although, players can greatly benefit from exercises and activities that enhance our sense of balance (e.g. yoga, pilates, etc.)
 
Before I begin my discussion of balance, I would like to remind each reader of a "principle of nature." In truth, I am somewhat of a frustrated scientist. As an undergraduate student, I used my free electives to take courses in Physics (my favorite science), Chemistry, and yes, Calculus (the mathematics of motion). In all of my studies, cursory as they may be, there is a principle that seems relatively universal. "Nature" is always seeking equilibrium.
 
For example, the old adage "water always seeks its own level" speaks to the sense of balance that water seeks with respect to its immediate environment. Water, if possible, always tries to seek a common level.
 
If you think about the cooling or heating systems in your house, the rooms that are being fed air conditioning or heat are trying to achieve a common temperature within the room. In essence, it is seeking equilibrium where the temperature in the room is evenly balanced.
 
These are just two very simple examples of how balance/equilibrium is a constant "goal" in "nature" that we all have observed.
 
On a non-physical level, there is the old adage "all things in moderation." Here, the implication is that in living our lives we should attempt to avoid extremes. For example, the consumption of moderate amounts of wine may actually be beneficial to one's health. Excessive consumption of alcohol is frequently problematic.
 
My point is simple. The world of nature seeks to achieve equilibrium (balance) whenever possible.
 
In a personal sense, balance in all aspects of an individual's life is probably a desirable goal.
 
With this in mind, let's look at the ways in which balance plays a role in tennis.
 
Balancing One's Tennis Life with Other Life Aspects
 
Most of us do not derive our livelihood from tennis. Pros on both tours are literally dedicating their lives to competing well enough to earn not only ranking, but more important, income!
 
The tennis teaching pro is another individual who seeks to support herself/himself through the game of tennis.
 
In each of these two situations, it would be surprising if these pros did not put tennis as a high priority in their lives.
 
However, it is likely that there are some very serious and dedicated tennis players who are reading this.
 
Some of these may be juniors who seek to compete at a level where they may receive some financial aid from a college or university in the form of an athletic scholarship. Given the cost of a college education, any financial assistance is significant. Some youthful players are striving to raise their game to a point where they may be recruited to play for a college or university. Obviously in this situation, tennis is a high priority.
 
Hopefully, many of my readers compete in USTA sponsored tournaments. Here, the goal may be to become ranked... either regionally or even nationally. I have a friend who regularly competes in USTA regional and national competitions. His goal is always to secure a national ranking within his age category. To achieve his objective, a significant priority must be given to sustaining and improving his tennis prowess. Again, my friend must put tennis high on his list of life priorities as well he should given his quest for national ranking.
 
The vast majority of us who enjoy this great game are not seeking financial reward, income or even ranking! This is not to suggest that players who are not driven by money or ranking are not serious about their skills, strategies, etc. And certainly, "winning:" is always an objective.
 
Unfortunately, I have seen too many recreational, junior and intermediate players who make tennis a higher priority than is warranted. I am not referring to the amount of time, energy and effort that these players invest in their game. Rather, I see many of these players who perceive much of their personal worth in relationship to their tennis results.
 
Each player must arrive at a balanced approach to the game of tennis given his/her realistic objectives.
 
I have seen players who literally place tennis as their highest priority. Their entire life is built around this great game. For some, this emphasis upon the importance of tennis in their lives may be somewhat justified. For many, I believe they place too much emphasis upon the importance of tennis in their lives. After all, tennis is a game!
 
At this point of my life, given my age and full-time career as a college professor, I cannot place the same priority upon tennis as I would if I were a high school student seeking to secure a college scholarship. However when I first started playing this very seductive game, I put tennis near the very top of my personal priorities. It is very easy to fall into the mindset that tennis is most important.
 
For me, tennis is a major part of my life. I teach tennis, write about tennis, photograph tennis and coach players. Yes, I derive income from these endeavors. One might think that I would put tennis first in my life. But truth be known, tennis is only a part of who I am albeit an important part of my life.
 
Each player must know why he/she seeks to play this wonderful game. Given the answer to this critical question, the wise player prioritizes tennis in ways that are in balance with other facets of her/his life!
 
Failure to know exactly why you are playing this great game (and the reason may change over time) leaves you without a way of integrating tennis into your life that results in a proper balance.
 
If you do discover how to properly integrate tennis into your total lifestyle, I assure you that you will enjoy playing more and will probably play better.
 
Balancing Tennis Performance with Personal Self Esteem
 
Whether you are a touring pro or a recreational player, we all seek to "win!" After all, tennis is a contest. Like many games, each tennis match has a winner(s) and a loser(s). I doubt that there are any tennis players who enjoy losing a match. This is not surprising. Who wants to be a "loser?"
 
However, a potential problem may arise particularly as a tennis player improves.
 
A friend of mine once said to me "You need to do a lot to get a little better." While I don't totally agree with this statement, it is an undeniable fact that to get better one needs to practice, train and compete. All of these require dedication and fortitude.
 
Regrettably, this investment in time, energy and effort can easily lead the player to some very counterproductive self perceptions... if she/he is not progressing as quickly as desired or if she/he is losing matches.
 
Your value and self worth are NOT determined by the quality of your tennis game!!!
 
I have seen players who are on a slump or losing streak literally become depressed. They are not simply unhappy about being on the losing end of matches. Rather, they are evaluating their self esteem in terms of tennis outcomes! Sound crazy? Think about yourself and the players whom you know.
 
It is somewhat understandable and acceptable for touring pros, or players seeking scholarship, ranking and/or employment as a tennis teaching pro to place so much of their identity into the game of tennis. But even in these player situations, it makes no sense to place too much importance on your tennis performance and results.
 
Never forget that tennis is first and foremost a GAME!!! If you are not having fun, you have to ask yourself, "Why?"
 
The Australian Open is the first of the Grand Slams. Watch the facial expressions on many of the players competing in this great event. By watching the player's "kinesics" (body language/movement and facial expressions) you can easily determine who is enjoying the contest and who is not.
 
A player can be down a set and a break, but still show that she/he loves the contest.
 
Having photographed the touring pros for over twenty years and closely examining their facial expressions, mannerisms and especially their eyes, I would suggest that even the pros can place too much emphasis upon their tennis performance and results. As I look through my long telephoto lenses, I can see the subtle facial signals that indicate what the player is feeling inside.
 
Andre Agassi was a fierce competitor. In his teenage years, I saw a talented player who seemed to self-evaluate his overall persona by the results of his tennis matches. As he matured, I observed an Andre Agassi who never lost the desire to win, but always seemed to be enjoying the contest... win or lose. To me, Andre exemplified the right attitude toward tennis. He simply enjoyed competing. He kept competing until his body prevented any further competition. At the end of his career, it was unlikely that he would win a Grand Slam event or even maintain a high ranking. He didn't need the money associated with competition. Indeed at the end, he was losing to "lesser" opponents. In reality, he simply loved this great game and enjoyed the thrill of competing against an opponent.
 
50% of all pros competing at this moment are going to lose! They have every reason to measure their self worth by match results. The truly great pros in my mind are those who simply put their "profession" in proper perspective. Roger Federer certainly wants to win... but he is not devastated when he loses.
 
You know you have made tennis too much a part of your "identity" when you cannot put your losses behind you.
 
In truth, I do not envy the life of the touring pro. You are constantly working toward winning the next match. The "season" is incredibly long. You literally travel the world and are often times living in hotel rooms. When you are not competing, you are training. You are always surrounded by coaches, trainers and other tour players. Literally, your life is tennis 24/7/365! The more successful you become the more media and fan attention you receive. Like it or not, the tennis touring pro is "trapped" in the world of tennis.
 
I truly respect the Williams sisters. In their illustrious careers, each has found a life outside of tennis. Whether it is fashion design, modeling or acting; the William sisters have an active life apart from tennis. It is my strong belief that these interests enable the William sisters to avoid the "trap" of tennis. Each has an identity outside their tennis matches.
 
My point in all of this is really quite simple:
 
Balance your tennis persona with the intricate, varied, interesting, engaging, talented, charitable, intelligent and capable person who YOU REALLY ARE. We are all more than simply our tennis scorecard!!!
 
Seek Balance in Your Game
 
The last component in your New Year's resolution to be balanced involves how you play.
 
There are better ways to play this exciting game of ours, but there is no single right way to play tennis.
 
It is clear that the modern game of tennis is continuing to evolve. Still, the present day ideal for both pro tours generally involves the following:

  1. Players are generally taller, especially on the men's side.

  2. Touring pros are generally more fit, and train off court in addition to traditional practice.

  3. Big, powerful serves are the norm for all touring pros. There are plenty of women on the WTA who can crack a 100 MPH+ serve!

  4. The big, heavy groundstroke game is the norm on both tours. Given the racquet technology, revolution in strings, and the strength of modern players; tennis has become a power based sport on almost every surface.

  5. Despite power being the norm, the truly great players are in complete command of finesse strokes as well.

If you are a senior player who has enjoyed tennis for many years, you probably are more of a finesse than power player.
 
If you are a junior or collegiate player, you probably are most comfortable hitting big serves and groundstrokes.
 
If you are a novice, recreational player; you are probably struggling with certain strokes.
 
Unfortunately, complete tennis is rarely emphasized by teaching pros or at the numerous tennis academies around the world.
 
Given your "level" of play, you should seek to develop an overall, balanced game.
 
The senior player may need to revisit her/his groundstrokes and incorporate more modern grips and/or two handed backhands to increase the power and topspin associated with these strokes. To add balance to the senior's game, a more powerful, groundstroke based style of play may need to be added. The senior player may benefit by adding a kick serve to his/her arsenal.
 
If you are that junior player or an intermediate, you are probably swinging hard at every stroke. The backcourt, groundstroke game is probably where you feel most comfortable. You rally until you get a chance to hit that clear winner. But in rallying, you are crushing the ball on every stroke. This type of player could add balance to his/her game by learning to serve/volley and chip charge. If playing on a slow clay surface, learn to play a patient, topspin game where the ball clears the net by several feet... diminishing power. The hard hitting groundstroker may benefit by adding a slice serve to her/his repertoire of stroke.
 
If you are a novice, you need to solidify what strokes you do own and continue to add new weapons to your arsenal. If you have no backhand, you are probably not going to win many matches. You probably need the assistance of a teaching pro and/or advanced player to help you integrate new strokes to your game.
 
Novices are in the best of worlds and worst of worlds. On one hand, the novice is super enthusiastic and excited. He/she is eager to learn and is discovering "new" things all the time. On the other hand, the novice sees the more advanced player and realizes that he/she has a bit further to go to master this wonderful game.
 
In each of these three situations, the goal is the same... expand your game strokes and strategies to provide a more complete and balanced method of attack when you compete.
 
I firmly believe that at some point, the touring pros will integrate more net play into the modern game.
 
I am often challenged when I make this statement, but I believe it to be true.
 
The great Jack Kramer once remarked that tennis moves in waves. For a while the serve/volley and net game will prevail. Then, the groundstroke game will have its day in the sun. Eventually, the net game returns.
 
What prevents the serve/volley and net game in modern singles play from being viable is that groundstrokes are so much more powerful than in the days of wooden racquets and traditional strings. Today, the touring pro at the net can often times be passed because of the added power and control brought on by modern racquets and strings make passing shots easier to execute.
 
Still, I believe athletes progress and evolve. There was a time when the 4 minute mile was a barrier that seemed almost impossible to break for those who run track.
 
I dare say that, if the professional basketball teams of 40 years ago were to play the NBA teams of today, there would be no contest.
 
In 1975, who thought that anyone could strike a 145MPH serve? Who would have thought that a player on the men's tour could return a 130 MPH serve?
 
Humans grow and adapt. It is my firm belief that the days of net game tennis are not gone forever! It is simply a matter of time before a player competes on either tour who plays the net as her/his primary approach... and wins.
 
My point? Even the pros will eventually need to add more balance to their playing styles.
 
So, this year make a resolution regarding tennis that you CAN keep. Focus on bringing a sense of balance to your game. I assure you that if you do, you will soon 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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