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Turbo Tennis
June 2017 Article

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Notes to the Tennis Neophyte... Do It Your Way!!!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Those of you who are familiar with my column may know that I took the game of tennis up at a fairly late age, 39. As is often the case with players who are new to the game, I searched for ways to improve my tennis proficiency in the fastest manner possible. I began to read anything I could find on tennis. I purchased and viewed myriad instructional videos. I listened attentively to all the "tips" expressed by tennis commentators as I watched professionals compete via television. In short, I totally immersed myself into the game.
 
Like many neophytes, I was immediately frustrated with my inability to develop my game. Being athletic most of my life, I had never had any difficulty mastering a sport.
 
Tennis was an exception!!!
 
I would take to heart all the advice friends and hitting partners would give. I would apply all of the lessons learned through books, videos and magazines. The more I would attempt to apply these principles, the worse my game became.
 
My introductory time with tennis was, to say the least, frustrating. At first, I felt I must being doing something wrong... Perhaps, I wasn't applying the knowledge correctly? Next, I came to believe that I might not be suited to the game.
 
Eventually, I felt competing would force me to come to terms with what was needed to improve. I would compete in USTA sponsored events in virtually any category in which I qualified. I recall younger players, like Paul G. and Jeff L., literally laughing at me after beating me 0 and 0 in tournament play (tennis has its pecking order and sometimes is void of supportive players). It was a tough time for me.
 
Thankfully, my friend, Bob Casale, kept encouraging me to continue. He, too, was struggling with his game. Occasionally, I encountered serious, senior players like Peter Bronson and Peter MacPartland, who instead of ridiculing me, offered support. Still, my game seemed frozen in time... I just wasn't getting better.
 
My epiphany, regarding tennis, came as a result of two independent occurrences. First, I began to start photographing professional tennis for magazines and sponsoring corporations. Second, I had the great fortune to train with Oscar Wegner (author of Play Better Tennis in Two Hours). Little by little, I began to see that much, if not most, of the advice and insight that I had received was simply wrong... at least for my game. The reality of what I experienced in learning this wonderful game was, and is, quite different from the conventional wisdom associated with authors, traditionally oriented players, TV commentators and some teaching pros.
 
So, I decided to take a very different approach... one that I have never regretted! This is why I have entitled this column, Turbo Tennis. I truly believe that one can learn to play tennis in far less time... if one is willing to step away from conventional approaches and advice. The result of my exploration led to me being ranked 4th by USTA New England in Men's Singles 5.0 for two consecutive years.
 
Now, I know that I will probably receive lots of e-mail from teaching pros and others, who will chastise me for daring to dispute some of the wisdom put forth by those who have come before me.
 
First, let me say that you are entitled to your opinion, and I hope that you will allow me to have mine. Second, I have a very successful track record in teaching people to play this great game. Some of the novice players that I have taught have actually competed successfully on the collegiate and USTA sectional circuits... all in a matter of months, not years. My results speak for themselves. Finally, I am USPTR certified and found that much of what this body has to offer is valid, and I would never discourage anyone from seeking instruction from a fellow certified teaching pro. In truth, the USPTR forces its instructors to complete continuing education units to maintain certification. In this way, the teaching pro always is kept apprised of new methods, trends and tactics.
 
It is imperative that the player accepts the fact that much has changed in the game over the last 20 years. Racquets, playing surfaces, strings, and even fitness levels are different today. As a result, we have what is known as the modern game of tennis. These changes have altered the way in which the game is played. The stroke production techniques, grips, stances, etc., that worked in the 1980's are just not as applicable in the year 2017.
 
Today, it is rare to see serve/volley tennis other than in doubles competition. The pace and spin combination of groundstrokes in the modern, 2017 game of tennis (on both pro tours) has allowed for hard hit groundies that more than not land within bounds!
 
There are no rules that are not meant to be broken. No two of us have the same exact gate when we walk. Each player's strokes are unique to him/her. In truth, each player must discover (as did I) what works for her/him.
 
Still if you look at the vast majority of players on the pro tours or see how the world's tennis academies approach stroke production, etc. there are some guidelines. BUT, it is up to each of us to discover what does or does not work for our individual games. A great thing about tennis is that it really is a continuous journey. Throughout this journey, the nature of the game and the nature of how each of us plays the game changes.
 
However if you are a new player to this wonderful game, I would suggest you begin your journey experimenting with the advice I offer below. These are not rules... Rather, they are starting points from which to launch your tennis journey.
 
Stances
 
Conventional tennis instruction would have the player stand sideways to the net on virtually all strokes. This sideways stance is referred to as a closed stance. Now, if one is serving or hitting a one-handed backhand, the closed stance may be the best position for one's body. But in the modern game, the open (facing the net) or semi-open (something between open and closed) is the preferred stance for forehands and, at times, for two-handed backhands. Look at virtually any player on the men's or women's tours. Open forehand stances are the norm, not the exception. Look at the way in which Rafael Nadal produces his two-handed backhand... more often than not, he is in a semi-open stance or a fully open stance. When returning serve, I firmly believe that a semi-open or open stance can greatly improve the pace and placement of one's return. In part, I believe that there are more two handed backhand players in part because this stroke permits the use of either a semi-open or open stance.
 
If one looks carefully at the way Serena Williams strikes the ball, open and semi-open stances on groundstrokes abound. Using the semi-open or open stance allows the player to approach the ball more naturally, and makes for compact but powerful groundstrokes.
 
In real-life tennis situations, a player will be forced to hit a groundstroke from virtually every stance imaginable. However, when one has time, using a semi-open or open stance for groundstrokes is best.
 
Excluding sliced shots, even players who hit one-handed backhands are increasingly adopting the semi-open stance position. This is particularly true when hitting topspin. Although Roger Federer and Stan Warwinka will use the traditional closed stance when hitting their one handed backhands, you will see them hit quite a few one-handed backhands that are struck from the semi-open stance.
 
Racquet Preparation
 
For years, I have heard tennis teachers yell at their students, "Take that racquet back early." Frequently, they advise the student to take the racquet back fully... meaning that the racquet should almost be pointing at the fence behind the player.
 
Well, I certainly agree that early "preparation" is desirable. However, I do not believe that this means taking the racquet back as far... at least for forehand groundstrokes and two-handed backhands. I advocate very short, compact strokes. The shorter the backswing...the better. Compact strokes mean that you can prepare early very easily. Compact strokes mean that there is less to go wrong as you produce the stroke. When struck from an open or semi-open stance, compact strokes can be tremendously powerful. Modern racquets automatically provide power. There is no need to take a big backswing. This becomes particularly true when returning serve.
 
One key to providing power when taking a short backswing is to increase racquet head speed at the moment of impact. I advise students to approach the ball with a slow racquet. But, as they are about to make contact, they should attempt to increase the speed of the racquet's movement. This is the real key to getting controllable power! The arm remains relaxed throughout the stroke, and the player should never have to "muscle" the ball. In effect, the player should attempt to "stalk then push" the ball.
 
Now, I know many of you may be skeptical. So, here is a little test for you.
 
Go to a court and have your hitting partner feed you balls. Try your existing swing. Try to hit the ball as hard as you can, while still guiding it to land in bounds. Now, try the same drill using a 6-inch (yup, 6 inch) backswing. This time, when you are about to make contact with the ball, speed up the racquet head speed by "pushing" the ball at the moment of impact. It may take a few tries to get used to the new swing motion. However, I am certain that you will see that your groundstrokes will have lots of pace.
 
More important, you will find that you are better able to control the direction and depth of these shots. If you want to know how Andre Agassi hits so hard, in part it is due to this technique.
 
I don't suspect that many of you will adopt a 6-inch backswing, but shortening your backswing will probably become a goal after performing this "test."
 
Now, one-handed backhands (especially sliced backhands) require more backswing. Still, by cutting back a little bit on the backswing and "pushing" at the moment of impact, a player can greatly improve the pace/placement quality of her/his groundstrokes.
 
With volleys, I advocate no more than a 1 foot backswing. Volleys are not strokes. Rather, they are powerful "blocks."
 
Stroke Finishes
 
It is my firm belief that the finish of each stroke is of paramount importance!!! Full and consistent finishes result in better stroke production and reliability.
 
If one looks at the pros, one will see forehand stroke finishes that are almost always wrapped around the player's shoulders. Some players like Rafael Nadal will use more of a windshield wiper-like finish. Still, I have seen some players who actually finish their forehands above their heads with the racquet not having crossed their body. (Back in the day, Steffi Graf's devastating forehand used this type of finish.) Since topspin is the norm when hitting a forehand, one of these three finishes will fit you best. Experiment! When you find the best of these three finishes for you, stick with it. Try to finish every forehand groundstroke in the same exact manner.
 
The one-handed backhand has two, somewhat different, finishes that are desirable. When hitting the one-handed topspin, the player should attempt to finish with the racquet head in front of her/his body and above her/his head. When striking the one-handed slice, the player should attempt to finish with the racquet head lower than her/his head, but still, in front of the body.
 
When volleying, I advocate no finish. That's right... no finish. My advice is to try and stop the forward motion of the racquet at the moment of impact. You won't be able to stop it completely. However, this attempt will help you avoid "swinging" at the ball.
 
Footwork
 
Good footwork is essential in the game of tennis. Still, for most players, thinking about how one is moving to the ball will distract him/her from the most important task (seeing the ball). Foot drills that improve stamina and speed are essential for all tennis players.
 
However, only the advanced player should work deliberately on how he/she moves to the ball.
 
My advice to players is to not think about their feet. Instead, I like to see players move to the ball with his/her chest for groundstrokes and her/his head for volleys. That's right... the head!
 
Players want to "stalk" each ball. You are focusing intently upon its path as it approaches you. This is absolutely essential for proper preparation and stroke execution. When moving to hit a groundstroke off either wing, simply move as though you want the ball to hit you in the chest. I assure you that this little tip will go a long way toward helping you develop proper footwork.
 
When volleying, simply try to move your head to the ball (not to worry, you won't ever intersect the ball's path with your head). You will find that you move in a very quick and very appropriate manner. This simple action seems to make even the most uncoordinated player move quickly and effectively to strike a volley off of either wing. The best part is that you never have to divert your attention to your feet as your focus is automatically on the ball at all times.
 
Surprising as it may seem, these movement "cues" are effective and can easily be learned/incorporated into your game.
 
Grounding
 
For years, tennis teachers have cautioned their students to keep their feet on the ground, and to "stay low throughout the shot." The theory always was that being "airborne" at the moment of impact with the ball provided an unstable base. As a result, the ball would be uncontrollable.
 
When I first heard this piece of advice, it seemed to make sense to me. Then, I started photographing the pros. I discovered that, in most of my images, the player was completely off the ground when the ball made contact with the strings... particularly on the forehand side.
 
In time, I began to understand why this was common among pros. By lifting their bodies at the moment of hitting a topspin shot, they are able to impart controllable power.
 
Now, I will admit that the one-handed backhand slice requires that one keep her/his feet on the ground and it is best to stay low in throughout the shot. But, this is not true when hitting the topspin backhand. Next time you go out to hit, try lifting (not jumping) your body at the moment of impact. You will probably finish this stroke on your toes as a result of your upward body movement. Soon you will see that in doing so, you can hit a ball that has lots of pace but lands in... due to the topspin. It may take a little while to get your timing, but in a short while you will be hitting topspin winners with tremendous success.
 
My Way or the Highway
 
Lastly, there is a myth associated with tennis that must be dispelled... "There is only one right way to produce a stroke."
 
This, in my opinion, is the most damaging myth in the game. It assumes that all players are alike or should be alike. We are all different heights, weights, use different grips and move in uniquely different ways. Some of us hit one-handed backhands; some of us hit two-handed backhands. Some of us like to volley. Some of us fear volleying. Some of us like a powerful racquet. Some of us like a racquet that is more flexible.
 
The point is that each player is unique. The important thing to note is that a "tip" or instruction is only good... if it works for you.
 
It is always good to try new things and to test out new theories. Still, in the final analysis, the most important criterion for evaluation is the result.
 
My tennis instructional advice is only as good as it applies to you! The same is true of others' advice.
 
So, as I end this month's article, I ask you to test out my theories. For me and for many others, they have proven to be useful and effective. Hopefully, if you adopt some of these ideas, 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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