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February 2018 Article

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The Five Absolutely Essential Things You Must Know Every Shot

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Well, I must begin this month's column by extending congrats to Roger Federer who won his 20th Grand Slam title and Caroline Wozniacki who won her first Grand Slam title. This year's Australian Open was exciting and landmark to say the least!
 
Having stated the above, I firmly believe that for most of us north of the equator, it is a time of year to retool and refurbish our tennis skills as the outdoor season is only several months away. Now is the time when many of my readers recommit to improving their games. This is true whether they compete year round, or if they are prone to playing our wonderful sport during the warmer months.
 
I believe it was the great Arthur Ashe who said, "Perfect practice makes perfect." He is absolutely correct in this regard. Regardless of your tennis posture (year round competitor, collegiate or high school competitor, USTA competitor or weekend warrior), February and March are the times to hone skills and perhaps perfect some strokes that have failed us in the past. In truth, February and March should be months when we are committed to re-establishing our fundamentals.
 
Obviously for some of us who are living in snow country, this means availing ourselves of indoor court facilities. Those in the southern parts of North America may already be able to utilize outdoor court facilities. Certainly, the month of March expands the possibility of outdoor practice for many.
 
This month's column will address what I believe are the five most important things that every player needs to "know" when executing any shot. Notice that I put the word "know" in italics. By "knowing," I mean that the player perceptually is aware of these five critical considerations, and that she/he lets her non-conscious mind execute the perfect stroke in light of this information.
 
In some ways, tennis is like driving a car. For the most part, we drive a car on "automatic pilot." Our senses are alert and providing information to both our conscious mind and non-conscious mind. Muscle memory is part of our non-conscious mind and it is this mind that actually steers the car, applies the accelerator and brakes. Indeed, our conscious mind may be thinking of myriad other things while we drive. At times, our conscious mind kicks in and we are consciously aware of what we are doing with our vehicle.
 
In tennis, our senses and our non-conscious mind work together to execute strokes. If we had to consciously think of how to execute a shot, we would never be able to complete a stroke. So, we practice our strokes and strategies until they become "second nature."
 
The five key areas that I am going to address below should be practiced until they do become ingrained in a "mindless" manner. To achieve this, the player should pay attention to each of these areas, one at a time during practices. Eventually, they will merge into a coherent and seamless whole that enables the non-conscious mind to make the right muscle movements and tactical decisions. Again, using the car analogy, we usually become better drivers as we drive more. Why? Well, we are practicing our skills each time we drive. Assuming we are taught proper habits as we begin to learn, we are most likely to make proper and instantaneous decisions and actions without much thought on the part of our conscious mind.
 
So, the first principle that must be established or re-established is: See the Ball!!! Back in 1996, this was the very first article I wrote for the Tennis Server. You can access this original article using the link provided. Essentially, this article asks the reader to really focus on the ball. One wants to see the spinning of the ball. One wants to pay close attention to the ball as it comes off the opponent's racquet. One needs to see clearly the moment at which the ball bounces on the court. Finally, the player needs to "see" the ball make contact with his/her racquet's strings. In truth, you will never actually see the ball touch your racquet's strings. But, one should attempt to see this moment. It will help you provide your non-conscious mind with important sensory data to make the perfect muscle movements to strike the ball effectively. In addition, focusing attention on this moment of impact will help "quiet" your head. If you watch someone like Roger Federer, he always has his head "frozen" at the moment of impact and for a fraction of a second beyond this moment of impact. Having a "still" head helps the body to be in proper balance. Believe me, having a balanced body when you execute your strokes will go a long way toward improving their accuracy.
 
Although it may seem obvious, the next factor that you absolutely must know is: Where Am I on the Court? It would be wonderful if every one of our shots could be made from the center of the court. No running would be involved, and we would have plenty of margin for error. However, this is not reality and in my opinion would make the game boring! Still, I see many players who during practice hit many if not most of their stroke from a center or near center position on the court. If you are drawn out wide (outside the sideline) on either wing, it is a completely different situation that you must address than a shot executed from the court's central area. Your shot selection is completely different. If you go deep crosscourt, you have a much "longer" court with which to work. If you hit your shot across the center of the net (where it is at its lowest), you have a completely different situation than if you attempt a down-the-line shot. The short angled shot from this position is risky, but often times, can force an opponent to scramble. In practice, you need to execute all of these shots from both wings. Have your hitting partner or ball machine feed you balls to this wide area. Vary your shots. After you have done this without running to the ball, attempt the same variety of shots while moving/running to the ball. These drills will automatically help your non-conscious mind recognize in matches where you are positioned on the court.
 
A third question that must be answered for each shot is: Am I in an Offensive, Defensive or Neutral Position? I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have observed a player who is attempting to hit an offensive shot from a defensive position. The result is usually an errant shot or a winning reply from the opponent. The "neutral" position is often times called the rally position. Here, the player is behind the baseline and within the two sidelines. From a neutral position, the player should be attempting to keep the ball in play, and if possible, move her/his opponent. If you are outside the sidelines, running hard to the side or forward, or running backwards away from the net; you are in a defensive position. Here, your goal is to simply hit a shot that lands in bounds, and if possible, keeps your opponent back and deep in his/her court. This is why lobbing is so effective when you are in a defensive position. The infamous "pusher" is a player who knows how to hit a ball high, deep and without pace when he/she is in a defensive position. If you are inside the baseline, at the net, or have your opponent scrambling to get to your shot, you are in an offensive position. These are the situations where going for a put away makes sense. If you have practiced your put aways (whether they are volleys or winning groundstrokes), you will be less likely to over hit the shot, and miss the opportunity.
 
Allied with the above, one always wants to know is: Where Is My Opponent on the Court? In that you should always be focusing on the ball, your peripheral vision comes into play in providing the answers to this question. Some opponents have rather "loud" feet. You can hear them move on the court. So sometimes, your hearing will help you determine where your opponent is... particularly if she/he is moving. (When I photograph the pros on both tours, I am always impressed with how quiet their feet are when moving on the court.) Obviously, if you are focusing upon the ball coming off your opponent's racquet, you know where he/she was. But, opponents are not often stagnant. If nothing else, they are "drifting" back to the center of the court to achieve a desirable court position. Knowing where your opponent is will help your non-conscious mind, and to a lesser degree your conscious mind, decide what the best shot to execute is. Having practiced hitting shots from all positions on the court (from both static and running situations) will provide you with the "experience" to make the right shot selection. As an aside, I remember years back an interview that Andre Agassi gave. His problem was that he had too many shot options in many situations. He credited Brad Gilbert (one of his coaches) with helping him to narrow his shot selection possibilities. His career blossomed!
 
The fifth consideration that each player must consider on each shot is: What is the Best Percentage Shot? I must remind the reader of Peter Burwash's 80/20 rule. Simply put, this rule states that 80 percent of our shots should be directed cross court and 20 percent of our shots should be hit down-the-line. I have charted many matches over the years. Even on the pro level, this rule is usually in play. Still, each player is unique. Going back in time, Todd Martin (now heading the International Tennis Hall of Fame) had one of the most perfect down-the-line, two handed backhands. My guess (I didn't chart any of his matches) is that for him 30 to 40 percent of his backhands were directed down-the-line. So, there are players out there who should deviate from this "rule."
 
One needs to remember that when hitting cross court, the net is 6 inches lower. In addition, the diagonal associated with hitting cross court actually expands the length of the court. Back in 1998, I wrote a column entitled Euclidean Tennis: Geometry of the Game. In this column, I provide a variety of diagrams that will help the reader understand better the 80/20 rule, and also the various court "zones" associated with our great game.
 
If you have practiced static and movement shots from a variety of locations on the court, you will know which shots are viable and which may be a bit sketchy. Your non-conscious mind will know this as well. What you always want to strive to do is to hit most of your shots from a position of comfort. By this, I mean that you have confidence that you can execute the shot well in terms of placement, spin and power. Notice the order that I used in the previous sentence. Placement is more important than spin. Spin is more important than power. Unfortunately in the modern game, so much emphasis is placed upon power that many players reverse this order. As an aside, it is almost always wise to vary the pace of your shots. Why? Well even the most powerful player becomes less intimidating as a match unfolds. If for no other reason, the balls fluff up and take a bit of the bite out of the power player's shots. In addition, we become perceptually accustomed to the pace as a match unfolds. This latter fact is another testimony to the sensory perception/non-conscious mind connection.
 
As I stated earlier in this column, a player should work on each of these five factors one at a time! This can be achieved in a couple different ways.
 
If you wish, spend an entire practice session "concentrating" on only one of these five. More likely, the reader will divide a practice session into five different components. Either way is appropriate. As with everything in this great game of ours, you have to realize what works best for you!
 
So as we approach the upcoming "tennis outdoor season" here in the northern hemisphere, I assure you that if you revisit each of these five components as you prepare to resume or revitalize your game, 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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