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Turbo Tennis
November 1997 Article

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Power to the People

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Frankly, I must admit at the outset that I have some reservations about writing on this topic. Why? Well, far too often, I see players who struggle to win a match by out powering the opponent...particularly among junior players. The outcome frequently leaves the "blaster" fatigued, frustrated and without victory.

Recently, I happened to be playing next to two Yale graduate students. One of these two players was quite tall and had what might be termed as motion picture perfect strokes. The other was smaller, seeming less physically fit, and had somewhat unorthodox strokes. As they warmed up, the taller, apparently more talented of the two related to his opponent his tennis pedigree...played high school and college tennis, regional and national rankings as a junior, etc. To top everything else, this more gifted player was a leftie. It seemed that there would be no contest...wrong. The smaller opponent decimated the "better" player. The smaller player hit with depth and control. When an opportunity presented itself, he would take the net and volley short angled volleys. One could see the mounting anger in the "better" player's demeanor. This anger led him to hit every ball, I mean every ball, as hard as he could. As a result, he had some flashy winners, but most of his shots went deep, wide or hit the net. The smaller opponent used all this pace advantageously and returned most of the non-errant shots with ease by hitting controlled "bunts." By the end of the match, the so called better player was exhausted, extremely irritated and of course, had lost the match. Several lessons should be learned from this episode. First, you must know how much power you can give your shots and still control them. Second, you rarely can build an entire game plan upon over powering your opponent and be successful (it's just too risky). Finally, we often try to hit even harder when we are tense, frustrated and losing...often we are not even aware of this! Thus, we make a bad situation worse. Tennis is a game of controls: controlling yourself, the ball, the court and your opponent.

However, power in the modern game is essential! I have been spending time lately viewing videos of matches played in the 70's and early 80's...classics between Borg, McEnroe, Tanner, etc. Clearly, tennis was a very different game in the era of natural surfaces and wooden racquets. Power in those days was really limited primarily to the serve. The groundstrokes and volleys in those days-gone-by were rarely, if ever, comparable to what is common in the modern game (true for both men's and women's tennis!). So, if one really wants to compete on all levels in the modern era, she/he must be able to bring power to her/his game...albeit judiciously!

Let's begin our discussion of power by reminding ourselves of the essential tennis progression:

  1. Get the ball over the net!
  2. Get the ball into the court!
  3. Place the ball where you want in the court (ball direction and depth)
  4. Control the spin of the ball (flat, topspin, slice)
  5. Impart power and velocity to the ball.

Note that power is the least important aspect of this progression. When I warm up before a match, I make certain to follow this order. First, I, in a relaxed manner, hit the ball high over the net (sometimes deliberately too deep). Then, I focus on hitting the ball in a relaxed manner where it drops safely into the court. Third, I try to hit groundstrokes alternately to my opponent's forehand and backhand sides (trying not to move him so much as to be rude). Next, I try to hit all three spins (topspin, slice and flat). Lastly, I attempt a few shots that are truly hit with power. As the match begins, I attempt to employ this progression as much as is possible. I rarely tee-off on a ball in the first two games unless it is clearly the right thing to do. I say all this because power without control in useless!

Every player has a power limit to his/her game. Pros frequently can tag balls all day and still maintain control...that's part of the reason they are on the tours. It is imperative that each player discover his/her power peak. Going beyond this "peak" is just plain foolish. You will only be showing stupidity...not superiority. There is no shame in having a power limit that is lower than your opponent's or your tennis peers. There is much to be proud about knowing your power limit and keeping the pace within that limit. No one gets points for being stronger or more powerful. If this were the most important criterion, power lifters would have a much more lucrative sport in which to compete. Well, enough said in cautioning you about the dangers of power. Let's take a look at what can increase the power in your game.

RACQUETS

You can immediately increase your power potential by switching to a more power producing racquet. There are two factors regarding racquets that can increase their power producing potential: stiffness and weight. Stiffer racquets (either the older widebodies or the more modern racquets that are thinner but less flexible) allow you to hit the ball "heavier" without really hitting it harder. Each racquet manufacturer has its own scale for measuring the racquet's power level. They, unfortunately, have not been standardized among all manufacturers. Suffice it to say that you need to read the manufacturer's literature or consult a racquet professional (e.g. USRSA certified stringer) to understand the relative stiffness of the racquet you are considering. If you desire more power without changing your stroke length or without having to strain to hit the ball harder, the stiffer racquet will certainly help.

If you really like your present racquet, you can add lead tape to the head of the racquet (usually at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions) and your racquet will automatically be more powerful. Why this works is because the lead tape adds weight to the racquet. The physics formula, Power = Mass x Velocity, applies here. By adding the lead tape, you are increasing the mass density. However, it should be noted that adding this lead tape will change the balance and "feel" of the racquet. It will take some time for your muscles and mind to adjust to the change...but they will! If you look closely at many of the pros' racquets, you will see that they often have lead tape on the heads. Pete Sampras adds lead tape to an already heavy frame...bringing the total weight to 15 or 16 ounces! (about two to four ounces heavier than most conventional racquets). It is no wonder why his balls are so "heavy."

Before I leave this section, I must say that racquet manufacturers claim that longbody frames (28 inches or longer) impart more power to the ball. While this may be strictly true, longbody racquets are deliberately manufactured lighter. Thus, the power benefit of the length is offset by the reduced weight. So in my opinion, longbody racquets are not inherently more powerful.

STRINGS

Perhaps the best method of increasing power in your present racquet is by tinkering with its string. Two aspects of string will greatly affect the overall power of the racquet: tension and elasticity. Simply put, the lower the string tension the more power potential the racquet will have. (If you went too low with the tension, the racquet would actually go dead...but this is not likely to ever occur). Just lowering your string tension 5 or 6 pounds can make a very noticeable difference in your racquet's power level. Elasticity refers to the ability of the string to stretch and then return to its original state. Natural gut and "soft" synthetic strings are more elastic, and thus, give the racquet more power potential. However, elastic strings do tend to wear out more quickly. Fortunately, modern string technology is such that synthetics like Gamma's TNT series offer a great blend of power, control and durability. These strings cost a little more, but are well worth the price to the player seeking more power.

SWING LENGTH

The overall swing length of a stroke can make a great difference in your power imparting ability. The longer your stroke (including backswing and finish) the more likely your ball will be hit with pace. Why? Well, by increasing the overall swing length, you increase the racquet head speed. Remember that formula: Power = Mass x Velocity. Here, you are increasing the velocity of the racquet's head. You can actually swing in a fairly effortless and relaxed manner and crush the ball if you use a longer backswing and follow through completely. However, this technique requires great and early preparation. When I really want to tag a ball for a winner, I usually opt for this method.

MUSCLE

Despite what many TV commentators state, you can hit a harder ball simply by trying to hit it harder (what is often referred to as muscling the ball). This is the method that Jim Courier and Thomas Muster use to generate pace. The problem here, in my opinion, is one of efficiency and control. The player who opts for this approach to power better be in great shape (as are Courier and Muster). The upper body will surely be strained! In addition, you will probably need to hit with heavy topspin if you want to maintain control. This excessive topspin will actually take a bit of bite out of the ball...thus, defeating your quest for power. Why topspin? Well, tense muscles are more difficult to move and control in fine motor skill sports...like tennis. You'll need the topspin to compensate for this erratic nature of your stroke production.

However, I must say that strength training is desirable in tennis...in part, because it will increase your power potential. So, don't neglect to faithfully and routinely increase your overall strength! I truly believe that the strength coaches like Pat Etcheberry have increased the overall power in both the men's and women's games. Strength training won't force you to strain to hit harder...it will just come naturally.

BALL SPIN

Any ball spin will take away from the overall power effect of the ball's impact. Now, in a strict sense, it is impossible to hit a truly motionless ball (all strokes produce some spin). However, some balls are hit in a relatively flat manner (no ball rotation). Flat shots are the fastest and heaviest shots. The flat serve is, perhaps, the modern players biggest weapon. When Rusedski serves big, he hits it fast and flat. It is important to know how to hit a flat ball. Most of your groundstrokes should be hit with topspin or slice for control and to upset your opponent's timing. However, when you go for a winner...hit it flatly! Swing longer, faster and with a more level stroke, and your balls will have speed and pace...just what you need for a winner. The problem is that we often do not practice hitting winners! Every week, you should dedicate some time to hitting the hard and flat put away shot. When using my ball machine, I always include some practice on this essential shot. I hit my groundstrokes with lots of topspin...so, I need to practice these flat put aways because the stroke motions are so different.

THE KINETIC CHAIN

Using the whole body in a fluid and integrated manner can really improve the power of your strokes. A good stroke production begins at your feet, flows up your knees and legs, uses the hips and body weight and then allows the upper body and arms to stroke the ball. We call this efficient use of all body parts in stroke production the kinetic chain. Try incorporating the following into your strokes (add one at a time for a week at a time) and see what a difference they can make in you power output.

  1. Try bending your knees in preparing for each stroke
  2. Try lifting up on your toes and straightening your legs just before you make contact with the ball
  3. Try leaning forward (toward the net) as you make contact with the ball

These three actions will increase your power (without any real forced effort) by at least 25% to 50% Of course, these additions will require better preparation on your part!

A WORD ABOUT VOLLEYS

Volleys are very different from groundstrokes and serves. One should never try to increase the power in volleys by increasing backswing, eliminating spin (slice) or by muscling the shot. These actions are antithetical to the way in which volleys are struck. However, all other power factors can and should apply to those who seek to punch their volleys with greater authority.

Well, that's it for power. I get so much e-mail from readers who seek greater power in their game. I know power is essential in today's game, but never should it be sought for its own sake! Power should be a component in your game...not basis of your game! If you learn your power limit and judiciously add the power aspect to your game, I am certain that in no time you will become a tennis overdog!

Good luck in your game!

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Turbo Tennis Archives:
1996 - 2002 | 2003 - 2014


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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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