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Bill Tilden's Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

I love to collect books dealing with tennis! Whether they are biographical, instructional or even fictional, I am a compulsive tennis "reader." Not surprisingly, I have a rather extensive collection of tennis related books.
 
As the beginning of June sees the second week of Wimbledon, I thought it appropriate to "honor" our game's oldest Grand Slam event by delving into my collection of older texts. I was specifically looking to provide the reader with useful information from the era when tennis was known as "lawn tennis."
 
"Big Bill" Tilden was one of the very best to ever play this wonderful sport of ours. In 1920, he published his book, The Art of Lawn Tennis. By all accounts, Bill made tennis an art form. My edition of this great, instructional text is copyrighted 1923... its third edition. This book was in its day the "bible" on how to play tennis.
 
Bill Tilden played during the amateur era of tennis, and was ranked number 1 in the world for seven years. He won a total of 10 Grand Slam events. And during the years of 1912-1930, he won close to 94 percent of all of his matches! Regardless of the surfaces, lack of racquet technology and somewhat limited number of players throughout the world; this record is clearly impressive.
 
Well, I want to provide the reader this month with some sage comments and advice contained in this great book. It is obviously no longer in print, but it has a great amount of useful information... even for the modern era player!
 
In his opening chapter entitled, "For Novices Only," Tilden presents an order of development that he believes produces the fastest and most lasting results. These are:
 

  1. "Concentrate on the game.
  2. Keep your eye on the ball.
  3. Foot-work and weight control
  4. Strokes
  5. Court Position
  6. Court generalship or match play
  7. Tennis Psychology" (Page 5)

Modern players could benefit greatly if they too adhered to this developmental schema.
 
For Tilden, concentration was most important. As he states,
 
"Tennis is played primarily with the mind. The most perfect racquet technique in the world will not suffice if the mind is wandering... No one should play tennis unless he cares sufficiently about the game to be willing to do the drudgery necessary in learning the game correctly." (Page 6)

Each of us struggles to learn to play this game. There are no exceptions. However, it is a struggle that is clearly worth the effort. But, I believe Tilden has it right when he relates this struggle to concentration. Too often, I see younger players and neophytes who really are not giving practice sessions their full and undivided attention. This is not a sport for the lackadaisical competitor.
 
If you simply wish to enjoy hitting a ball over the net and having fun, this is perfectly fine. However, competition requires dedication and discipline. One has to spend a lot of time to get just a little bit better. It is just the nature of the "beast."
 
Tilden recognized tennis "burnout." He refers to this as "staleness."
 
"Staleness is the great enemy of players who play long seasons. It is a case of too much tennis... A player can always recover his strength by rest. Staleness is a mental fatigue due often to worry of too close attention to tennis, and not enough variety of thought." (Page 75)

Trying to find the right balance between dedication, practice, match competition and outside interests that allow for mental rest is not an easy pursuit. For the pros on both tours, I firmly believe too much match play is demanded. These seemingly never ending seasons of tennis inspire juniors and collegiate players to over play.
 
To be good at tennis for a long period of time, you need to be able to have other interests, goals and diversions. If your whole life is nothing but tennis, you will probably learn to hate the game at times. To me, this is tragic in that it is avoidable.
 
I would encourage parents who see their prodigies as working toward a college scholarship or even becoming a touring pro to keep Tilden's concept of staleness in mind. Tennis competitors need outside interests.
 
Bill, also, realized the extraordinary demands that are mentally placed upon singles player.
 
"Singles is the greatest strain in tennis." "Singles is a game of daring, dash, speed of foot and stroke. It is a game of chance far more than doubles." (Page 83)

When playing singles, there is greater strain. The singles player is on the court with no team member to provide support. If the match is being watched by spectators or others, the strain is increased. Clearly, the singles player is out there all by himself or herself. It is no wonder that in the singles game, psychology plays such an important role.
 
Doubles provides a team presence which can and does often reduce stress on each team member. In addition, doubles is more of a version of our sport that depends more on control than power.
 
By "chance," I believe Tilden is referring to the fact that a singles match is determined by wind, sun, temperature and court surface than is usually the case with doubles.
 
I think one of the reasons that I have so much respect for John McEnroe is that he played both singles and doubles well! This is a very uncommon phenomenon today. There are doubles specialists like the Bryan Brothers, but few singles champions play doubles except during Davis cup competitions. In Tilden's day, a tennis player was both a singles and a doubles competitor.
 
Bill Tilden was an advocate for proper diet and physical conditioning. He advises his readers to stay in shape through off court training, avoid alcohol and tobacco, and to eat properly. These added to sufficient sleep are key ingredients to keep one's "physical, mental and nervous systems in tune." (Page 74)
 
Simply put, one needs to be healthy in body and mind to play one's best tennis. I fear the recreational player may be a bit less likely to see how important these are to competitive success on this level of play.
 
Although The Art of Lawn Tennis. does provide instructional passages and images regarding stroke production, the insights are less relevant to the modern game. Hard courts, modern strings, and of course, modern racquets have made what would have been the normal grips and stances in Tilden's era a bit obsolete. I did find it significant that even in the 1920's there were players who hit forehand with what Tilden called the "California Grip." This is the equivalent of the modern, Western Forehand Grip."
 
Regarding match play, Tilden does offer some very useful advice:
 
"Always play your shot with a fixed, definite idea of what you are doing and where it is going. Never hit haphazard." (Page 42)

The key concepts in the above is having a "target" and sticking to it. How many times have you hit an errant shot because you "changed your mind" while executing the stroke?
 
"There are only two places a player should be to await the ball.
 
1. About 3 feet behind the baseline near the middle of the court.
2. About 6 to 8 feet back from the net and almost opposite of the ball. (Page 43)

Simple as these may sound, they truly do sum up the ideal positions for awaiting your opponent's reply. By being almost "opposite of the ball," Tilden is suggesting that you narrow the opponent's passing angles by being a bit toward your open court with the opponent almost in front of you. With such a position, you are able to cover passing shots directed at either your backhand or forehand, while encouraging the opponent to hit down the line. The down the line passing shot is far riskier in that the net is higher and the court length is "shorter." Again, this advice speaks to the simple brilliance of Mr. Tilden!
 
"It is seldom you need cover more than two-thirds of a tennis court, so why worry about the unnecessary portions of it?" (Page 45)

In modern terms, this advice translates into a "drifting recovery" at the baseline. Once a player has made her/his shot, the player should begin to slowly drift back toward the center. Allied with this concept, Tilden advises,
 
"Never stand and watch your shot, for to do so simply means you are out of position for your next shot." (Page 43)

In Tilden's day and in the modern era, one always needs to keep one's feet moving. If one is truly focused upon the ball, the speed and direction of the recovery "drift" will automatically be appropriate for the likely range of replies from your opponent. This "hit and watch" phenomenon is the curse of the recreational or casual player!
 
"Should you be caught at the net, with a short shot to your opponent, do not stand still and let him pass you at will, as he easily can do. Pick a side where you think he will hit, and jump to it suddenly as he swings."

Again, Tilden recognizes that being motionless is counterproductive. If you are familiar with your opponent either through previous competitions or by scouting him/her, you may have a good idea of where he/she likes to hit the passing shot. If so, move in that direction as your opponent swings. If you are unsure, take a guess and live with it. After all, you have a 50-50 chance of guessing correctly.
 
"Save steps by using your head"

This little sentence is deeply profound. It implies that a competitive player is always focusing on what to do. Of course, proper training is needed to make these micro second decisions solid. But, the heady player who has trained well will find herself/himself running less and hitting more.
 
Regarding important points and games, Tilden identifies the following:
 
"The two crucial points in any game are the third and the fourth. If the first two points are divided for 15-all, the third means an advantage gained. If won by you, you should strive to consolidate it by taking the next for 40-15 and two chances for game, while if lost, you must draw even at 30 all to have an even chance for game.
 
In order to do this, be sure to always put the ball in play safely, and do not take unnecessary chances, at 15-all or 30-15." (Page 52)
 
"In the game score the sixth seventh and eighth game are the crux of every close set. These games mean 4-2 or 3-all, 5-2 or 4-3 the most vital advantage in the match, or 5-3 or 4-all, a matter of extreme moment to a tiring player... 5-2 is too late to start a rally, but 4-3 is a real chance...
 
The first set is vital in a 2 out of 3 match."
 
The great advantage of 3-1 on your own service is a stumbling-block for Many players, for they let up at the fifth game, thinking they have a 2 game lead. (Pages 52-53)

All points and games are important in a match. But knowing when to play smart tennis is what the above is really all about.
 
What is smart tennis?
 
"The primary object in match tennis is to break up the other man's game." (Page 55)
 
"Above all never change a winning game. Always change a losing game... " (Page 66)
 
"Take chances when you are behind, never when ahead. Risks are only worth while when you have everything to win and nothing to lose." (Page 67)
 
"Learn your shots in practice, but use them in matches." (Page 69)
 
"Practice is played with the racquet, matches are won by the mind." (Page 70)

Tilden was years ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of psychology in tennis, and offers his readers some sound insights. Here is his definition of tennis psychology:
 
"Tennis psychology is nothing more than understanding the workings of your opponent's mind, and gauging the effect of your own game on his mental viewpoint, and understanding the mental effects on your own mind." (Page 47)

What I find most interesting in this definition is that not only is a player's mind to be understood and examined, but the opponent's mind is equally important. To me, Tilden is suggesting a psychological dynamic that occurs between opponents. I think this to some degree explains why one player may be dominated by a particular opponent when he/she dominates most of his/her other opponents. Each time you step onto the court, it is a "new" dynamic that is setup between your opponent and you!
 
If you accept this premise of mine, you will automatically realize that each match truly is a whole new situation. There are new challenges, opportunities, and past performance is only relevant if you allow it to influence this dynamic.
 
Tilden realized that tennis psychology is not simply what a player is thinking and feeling. It is a dual situation. One that I believe when understood makes it far easier to "stay in the now" as so many modern sports psychologists proclaim as being necessary for success.
 
Allied to his concept of tennis psychology, Bill puts forth the following:
 
"The first and most important point in match play is knowing how to lose. Lose cheerfully, generously, and like a sportsman. This is the first great law of tennis, and the second is like unto it - to win modestly, cheerfully, generously and like a sportsman."

I have frequently heard description of players as having "the killer instinct." That she/he has the "will to win." These are clearly important driving forces in helping assure victory. But in my mind, this wonderful game of ours has become somewhat devoid of sportsmanship. I believe this to be true on the pro, collegiate, high school, and recreational levels of our game.
 
If you watch the modern professional champion, his or her first reaction will be to celebrate the win. After enjoying these first moments of victory, he or she will almost as a second thought walk slowly to the net to shake hand with his or her opponent. To me, this is egocentric!
 
I am not advocating jumping over the net to shake hands with the losing player as was the norm in the past, but this action shows that the first thought is to congratulate the person who lost!
 
I have seen superior players literally gloat after victories on the collegiate and competitive amateur venues. The losing player is almost seen as in some way less valuable as a result of the loss.
 
In playing with many Australian players over the years, I can honestly say I have never met so many true sportsmen from one country. They play the game, win or lose, out of love. The victory is the icing on the cake.
 
I will never forget an Australian player who was playing on an adjacent court to mine. We were both in a singles tournament. His opponent was acting in a very childish manner. One could hear this "child's" outpours of "yes" and "come on" in the next zip code. This "child" even would rant his victory chants after his Australian opponent double faulted. I was fortunate enough to win my match. The Australian player ultimately lost to the "spoiled child." At the end of his match, the Australian player turned to the stands (there were some spectators) and requested a round of applause for this brash, young lad. It was a sincere and class thing for him to do. Despite the loss and the court behavior of the youngster, the older Aussie was true sportsman. In my mind, the Aussie really was the winner of the match.
 
He and his "mate" who also was playing in the tournament went off to enjoy a late afternoon beer. Both were fierce competitors. Both were truly skilled players! But, neither was going to be anything but a true sportsman. Win or lose, it was all in the past. Their eyes were on the next match, the next opponent, and the next challenge... the next opportunity to play this great sport.
 
My point is simple. The vast majority of us are NOT going to Wimbledon!!! Every player who steps out onto a court to compete deserves respect and admiration. Bill Tilden played most of his matches for no money at all. What was his true motivation? He loved the game of tennis.
 
"Any player who really enjoys a match for the game's sake will always be a fine sportsman, for there is no amusement to a match that does not give your opponent his every right." (Page 78)

I sometimes wonder if the lack of true sportsmanship has had an impact upon the number of players who decide not to compete. There is little mentoring in the modern game of tennis. Bill Tilden mentored many players... including those who ultimately went on to beat him! Bill Tilden loved the sport of tennis. When was the last time that you went out and invited a lesser skilled player to hit balls with you?
 
You are only as good as your next match. This great game and the incredible people who have played it at Bill Tilden's level should give each of us pause. No matter how good we may think we are... there will always be someone better at some point.
 
We as tennis lovers need to recover some of the lost art and beauty that was the norm in Bill Tilden's day. What have you given back to this incredible sport of ours? As you watch Wimbledon this year, take a moment to savor the history of this great tournament.
 
Those of you who read my column regularly recognize that I am a bit unorthodox in my instruction, and certainly recognize the components that comprise what is the modern game. Still, there is much to learn from the "masters" of this game. So much has changed, yes. But, so much remains the same.
 
Take time to integrate Bill Tilden's tennis into your game, and I am sure that 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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