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March 1999 Article

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Video: Seeing Your Way to a Better Game

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Tennis players, today, have a wonderful opportunity that was not available to those who played the game in the past. Yet, I suspect that many players fail to take full advantage of this chance to improve their performance. Specifically, I am referring to the medium of television and its Siamese twin, video.

Recently, I read an article in a tennis trade that described Bosworth International. As many of you may know, Warren Bosworth customized the racquets for Ivan Lendl and continues to fine tune the racquets of many contemporary pros. What you may not know, is that Bosworth International runs a performance enhancement program that uses high-speed video analysis. Truly, in the high tech era of sports science and performance analysis, video is an absolutely essential tool.

The price tag for a game makeover can be as much as $5000. This would be beyond the budget of many, if not most players. Yet, televised tennis matches and amateur video analysis are clearly within the range of the serious player.

Let’s start with televised tennis matches. As you read this, the heart of the tennis season is just beginning. The Lipton Championships (really, the fifth grand slam event) is in the offing, and in several months, the 1999 French Open will be a reality. Televised tennis takes a quantum leap forward during this time of year and televised professional tennis abounds through the US Open. If you take the time to watch and analyze the matches presented "free" by TV, you can truly have a top-flight, instructional program in tennis technique and strategy.

First, you need a VCR. It as advised that the VCR have some slow motion capability. If yours does not, don’t dismay. All VCR’s can rewind the tape and most TV coverage provides ample slow motion replays.

On your first viewing of a match (whether watching it live or on tape), play close attention to what analysis the commentators provide (many of whom are former professionals). Frequently, a Patrick McEnroe or Tracy Austin will provide invaluable insights on technique or the strategic considerations associated with a particular match. Keep a notebook nearby! Jot down these pearls of wisdom. Later, you might want to categorize these tips (e.g., Tips on Volleying…Serve Strategies). If you could watch a match with Fred Stolle or Martina Navratilova sitting next to you, what would you pay for the opportunity? Fortunately, television networks pick up this tab for us. It just doesn’t make sense to let the knowledge that these experts can provide slip by.

Also, you’ll want to make notes on what sections of the match you wish to examine more carefully (e.g., a critical point in a critical game). At a later time, you will want to watch these sections. However, this time turn the sound down! Watch these sections carefully and repeatedly. Don’t hesitate to rewind the tape and view a key section five or six times. If possible, use slow motion analysis to assist you if you are trying to examine technique. It is absolutely amazing what you can learn, if you review matches in this manner!

Another way to view a match on tape is to "chart out" areas of concern. For example, how many backhands is Pete Sampras forced to hit when he is playing on clay? How many times does a server go directly at the receiver with the "jam" serve? How many errors occur because the ball hits the net vs. balls that are hit out? (This is probably one of the most telling statistics that is rarely if ever presented as part of TV commentary. I promise you that more often than not the losing player hits more balls into the net than the winning player. It is absolutely amazing and speaks volumes about hitting with a margin for error.) How does a particular player play points to set up her/his weapon? Who does the most running in the match? Why? Where do most of a player’s errors occur?…off the backhand or forehand side? How many times on average does the ball cross the net before the point is ended?

There are myriad ways of examining and charting a match. Trust me. In a very short period of time, you will have a much better understanding of what works and what doesn’t if you chart out this kind of data…very useful information to have if you seek to improve your tennis match performance!

The second tool available to many players involves a camcorder, tripod and videotape. Many people own or have access to relatively high quality camcorders. If you should not be one of these, take heart. Some places actually will rent this type of equipment to you on a per diem basis. Tripods are not as common. If you don’t have a tripod, you’ll need someone to serve as a cameraperson.

Regardless of how you secure this equipment, the next question is…how do you use it effectively?

Well, the first type of analysis in which you’ll want to engage is known as individual stroke analysis. Here, you go stroke by stroke and tape yourself from a variety of perspectives. For example, you begin with the forehand groundstroke. You set your camera up near the netpost on your forehand side and tape yourself hitting approximately 25 to 30 forehands. (Obviously, you’ll need a hitting partner or ball machine to feed you balls.) Next, move the camera behind you… near the back fence or curtain… placing the camera so that it covers the entire forehand backcourt. Again, hit about 25 to 30 forehand strokes. Repeat this taping procedure with the camera near the netpost on your backhand side. Finally, place the camera behind your hitting partner or ball machine and tape yourself hitting 25 to 30 forehands. From this latter perspective, you will see how you appear to your opponent.

You should videotape each stroke from at least 4 different vantagepoints. I start with forehand groundstrokes. Then, I tape backhand groundstrokes, forehand approach shots, backhand approach shots, forehand volleys, backhand volleys, overheads, first serves from the deuce court, first serves from the ad court, second serves from the deuce court, and finally, second serves from the ad court.

I tape myself for individual stroke analysis twice per year. I use my ball machine to feed me balls and I am fortunate to have a sturdy tripod. I start the camera, start the ball machine, get to position and hit the necessary number of strokes. Then, I shut down the ball machine, move the camera to the next vantagepoint and repeat the entire process. It usually takes me about two hours to tape all of my strokes in this manner. If time is critical, I will do half one day and the other half the next.

Now comes the hard part… play the tape and watch yourself hitting balls. No one likes to see himself/herself on tape. We always seem to be more awkward and less skilled than we imagine ourselves to be. This is completely normal. Watch the tape two or three times. If this were a hitting partner instead of you on the tape, what advice would you offer? Don’t forget to watch this tape in slow motion if your playback VCR permits it. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. Believe me -- after several viewings, you’ll know with certainty what changes you want to make in your stroke production. If you don’t know how to effect these changes, bring the tape to a local teaching pro. Seek her/his advice.

Don’t be surprised if, after viewing this tape, you think that everything in your game needs to be changed. It is a natural reaction to seeing yourself on tape. We always exaggerate our flaws. Choose the one or two strokes that need the most work. Prioritize! If you significantly improved only one stroke every 6 months, imagine how well you would be playing in two years!

Don’t erase this tape. Rather, save it and refer to it when you tape yourself in the future. This allows you to have a very accurate reference guide with respect to how your strokes may be changing and, hopefully, improving.

Stroke analysis of this type, however, is not the same as analyzing how you play real points. So, you should also go out with a hitting partner and videotape your strokes as you play out points. For this purpose, the two netpost camera positions offer the most useful and safest placement. You don’t want to hit the camera with an errant shot nor accidentally collide with the camera as you scramble for a ball.

Tape yourself serving points and receiving points. Be certain to tape yourself from both netpost positions. I usually tape myself serving 10 to 15 points before I change the camera position. Then, I repeat this procedure while I return serve. If you intend on playing serve and volley, you’ll need a camera operator to pan the camera as you move to the net (to keep you in the picture), or you will have to place the camera behind the opponent in one of the net corners (this is less useful because you are usually not filling the picture’s frame from this point of view).

To assist you in understanding the best vantagepoints for camera placement, I have created a visual. Those locations marked with an "X" are the most desirable positions. Those positions marked with an "O" represent secondary placements…only somewhat useful.

Finally, you need to tape yourself playing an actual match… preferably, one that is a "serious" competition for you. For this type of taping, you almost necessarily need a camera operator. If you don’t have one, set your camera up outside the court and shoot through the fencing. This latter approach is not great, but is better than nothing. If you do have a camera operator, have her/him tape you from various viewpoints, if at all possible. A mixture of close ups and wide shots is desirable.

Again, you need to spend time watching both the "point" and the "match" tapings. Try to pretend that it is someone else displayed on the tape. What strengths do you see? What weaknesses? Were there key points in the match? How did you play these points? What advice would you offer the person you see on the screen to improve his/her game?

Now, it is absolutely critical that you keep an open mind when you examine yourself on tape. We all think we know what is right and wrong with our game. Yet, you need to look at yourself with no preconceived notions. That forehand that you believe is your weapon may in fact be a liability. That weak backhand may actually be the stroke that is keeping you alive in points. The camera won’t lie if you look at yourself with an open mind!

Finally, you need to see what you do well, as well as, what you do not do well. The purpose of taping yourself should be to improve your game. In addition to eliminating or minimizing weaknesses, you need to amplify the positive aspects of your game… if you truly expect to get better. It is all too easy to get negative… we all exaggerate our flaws.

Careful analysis of televised professional matches, regular videotaping of your strokes and matches, open-minded critiquing of yourself and your game… these are the elements that will rapidly provide you with the insight, knowledge and gameplan necessary to 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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