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"Less is More!!!"

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

As many of you may know, I coach a college tennis team in addition to being a teaching pro. One of the phrases that I often find myself saying in both of these capacities is: "less is more." There are so many ways that this statement applies to tennis that I felt it deserved an article dedicated to its virtues.

It never cease to amaze me that so many players attempt to do more than is necessary in many different situations. I find this to be particularly true when one takes a look at junior and collegiate players. In fact, one of the pitfalls of the modern game of tennis (see my article entitled New Fangled Tennis), is that it actually encourages an attitude of "going for broke." For the top-level pros, this "hold nothing back" approach may be successful. However, most of us that play the game don’t have the skills, conditioning and training time necessary for such a high-risk game.

So, with all of this in mind, I ask the reader to consider some of the ways in which "less can be more."

OVERHITTING

How many times have you experienced the following? Your opponent is way out of court and you are positioned to hit a groundstroke for a clear winner. In fact, you have more than half of the court open. Almost any shot that clears the net and lands in bound will be impossible for your opponent to return. What happens? You take a big swing at the ball, and of course, it sails out…well beyond the baseline.

This is a classic example of "less is more." In the above situation, even a dink will win the point. But, many of us feel compelled to drive the ball with all the power we can muster. Now, I grant you that just tapping or steering the ball may result in a netted ball. The medium pace shot is clearly the best way to go. By taking a little off the ball (less), we are much more likely to hit winners that actually land in bounds (more). You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to swat a fly.

So, why overkill a shot that just needs moderate pace and reasonable placement?

GOING FOR THE LINES

There is probably nothing more rewarding than placing a ball square on a line…especially on clay surfaces where the taped lines are likely to produce a bounce that can only be described as skipping or skidding. However, this type of tennis is very low percentage.

Most of us need at least a 2 to 3 foot margin for error on all of our groundstrokes. When you aim for the lines (rather than safely inside the lines), your chances of winning the point go down precipitously. When I play, I try to imagine the baseline and sidelines as being 2 feet inside the real lines. When I hit a ball at a sharp angle or down the line, I am really aiming for these imaginary lines. I have fairly good control over my groundstrokes. But, I need this margin of error to be reasonably certain that my shots will land in bounds. Know what? It’s the same for the pros! When Bjorn Borg was playing on the tour, his coach constantly reminded him of the need for a margin for error by saying: "the lines are boundaries…not targets." By going for less, you are likely to have more balls land in bounds.

SHORTER BACKSWINGS

One of the things I like most about the modern game of tennis is that powerful groundstrokes are not uncommon. It is exciting to see the pros as they crush balls from the baseline. Many of the junior and collegiate players that I coach have a least one wing from which they can blast the groundstroke…sometimes for an outright winner.

One of the ways in which any player can increase her/his power without sacrificing control is to shorten her/his backswing on the groundstrokes. To prove this, I ask you to conduct a little experiment. Take a tennis ball and place it on the edge of an outdoor table or picnic table. Using only your hand, bring your arm back as far as it will go. Then, swing your arm forward as fast as you can. Hit the ball off the table and mark how far the ball travels. Take a tennis ball can to mark this landing spot. Now, repeat the same action. This time, hit the ball as hard as you can. However, try to hit the ball in such a manner that it hits the tennis ball can that marks the first ball’s landing spot. In this second try, you are attempting to hit with both power and control.

Don’t be surprised if you don’t come close to knocking the can over.

Next, you again want to knock over the "marker" tennis ball can. But this time, put your hand only one to two feet behind the tennis ball. Again, you strike the ball. However, you can’t take a big swing at it. Instead, you are forced to sort of "push" the ball off the table toward the target. Now, as you do this "pushing," try to extend your "finish." In other words, make certain that you follow through completely after the ball has become airborne. You will probably find that the ball travels far enough to hit the target can. However, you now can control its path. Frequently, people actually knock the can over after a few tries.

This experiment usually convinces most of my students that a shorter backswing can provide for a powerful groundstroke (if he/she fully follows through) while increasing the player’s control over the ball’s path. This becomes even more apparent when returning serve.

Arguably, Andre Agassi has the best return of serve ever. Why are his returns so good? Well, he has a great ability to see the ball (refer to my article entitled See the Ball) and excellent timing. Look at his backswing on the return…it is almost non-existent. This shorter backswing improves his timing, which allows him to take the ball "on the rise." This translates into an incredibly powerful return. In addition, the shorter backswing (less) provides him with greater control over the placement of his return (more).

If there is one thing that every player can do to improve his/her groundstrokes and returns, it is to shorten his/her backswing. This is so true that when I am playing a match and want to increase my power…I actually force myself to shorten my backswing…even more than I normally do.

SERVES

One of the strongest parts of my game is my serve. In part, this is true because I hit 100 practice serves every training day. As I look at the serves of many junior, club and recreational players, I see several ways in which "less is more."

First, most of these players try to go for too much on their first serve. They often times go for the big bomb on every first serve. In addition, they want this big, flat serve to land on the lines of the service box. What amazes me is the fact that these players frequently get annoyed with themselves when they are constantly forced to hit a second serve. Now realistically, there are very few players on the tour who can hit their serves that well. Taking a little pace off the first serve and aiming a little more conservatively (less) will translate into fewer faults (more).

Second, many players believe that "muscling" the serve will result in a more powerful serve. Nothing could be further from the truth. Powerful serves result from a relaxed arm, good shoulder rotation, racquet pronation and a good wrist snap (bending the knees doesn’t hurt). I find that trying to be completely loose and relaxing my muscles (less) when I serve yields my most powerful serves (more).

One of the most powerful serves in tennis belonged to Roscoe Tanner. Watching him serve, one cannot help be struck at how low his toss was. When Patrick Rafter was new to the tour, his father (at that time his coach) wanted to improve Patrick’s serve. What did he change? He lowered Patrick’s toss. What may be amazing to those traditionalists who insist that the high toss is best is the fact that Patrick hits one of the best kick serves in the game…still using a lower toss. The truth is that lower tosses (less) translates into more powerfully consistent serves (more). In addition, the low service toss puts the player at an advantage when she/he is competing on a windy day. My serve took a quantum leap forward when I made a deliberate decision to lower my toss. In fact, I could never hit a really good kick serve until I made this change.

Finally, good serves are the result of a fluid and efficient service motion. The simpler your service motion, the better. Now there have been some players who bring this axiom to an extreme. Jay Berger’s "non-motion" was a little too severe. Yet, Andre Agassi served well at Wimbledon some years back using essentially the Jay Berger service motion. He was forced to adopt this unconventional service motion because he was suffering from a wrist injury. Know what? I counted his double faults during this tournament. He actually served fewer double faults than his normal average. Despite this "non-motion" delivery, Andre was still capable of serving at 100+ miles per hour. The point is that compact service motions (less) pay dividends when it comes to consistency and placement (more). In my day, I have seen some pretty elaborate and unusual service motions…most of these were wasted energy. My favorite comment about service motions comes from Goran Ivanisevic. When asked why his serve is so devastating, he responded…"I throw the ball up and hit it." Kind of makes sense when you think about it.

FOOTWORK

One of the most misunderstood areas of the game of tennis involves footwork. You can find all sorts of books and tapes on the subject. They expound on the all-important first step. They demonstrate turn steps, side steps, split steps, tapioca steps and lord only knows what else. Truthfully, all you need to know about footwork can be synthesized into several simple principles.

First, try to take little steps whenever possible. Small steps allow you to properly set up for any shot. They enable you to maintain balance while still moving with speed. Little steps (less) will improve your court mobility and shot preparation (more).

Second, whenever you are inside the baseline, make every effort to stay up on your toes. Volleys, half volleys and approach shots require quick reactions. When you are on your toes, only half of your foot is on the ground (less). Being on your toes will definitely help you make those last minute adjustments necessary in these situations (more).

Lastly, know when to run and know when to slow down. Most coaches and texts that teach the volley encourage the student to learn to split step as she/he approaches the net. The idea behind this advice is to allow the player the opportunity to move in any direction that her/his opponent’s shot may go. I fully agree that split steps are advantageous. However, most recreational and club players don’t have the time necessary to infuse these split steps into their muscle memory banks. It takes some time before these split steps become second nature. However, there is one thing that every player can do that will yield similar results…simply slow down as your opponent strikes the ball. By slowing down (less), you will enable your body to move in any direction (more). Thus, you are less likely to be passed by your opponent when you approach the net.

WINNERS

There are those days that every player experiences when every shot he/she hits seems to drop in for a winner. These are the days that we are "in the zone." Unfortunately, these days don’t come around often enough…especially if you can only play one or two times per week.

Very simply put, errors determine the outcome of a match more so than winners. The player who makes the fewest errors wins more often. The player who hits more winners frequently loses…if she/he is also hitting lots of errors. Regrettably, trying to hit winners often results in errors.

I am not advocating that you never go for a winner. However, by going for fewer winners (less), you are very likely to hit fewer errors (more). It’s just that simple.

ANGER

My colleague, John Murray (he writes the Tennis Server column entitled Mental Equipment) has written what I believe is the best book on the mental side of the game entitled, Smart Tennis. I strongly encourage every reader to purchase, read and re-read this work. It will clearly make a big difference in your game, and equally important, in your enjoyment of the game.

John knows how counterproductive anger can be, and I couldn’t agree more. Anger produces profound psychological and physical effects that hinder your ability to perform well under pressure. The problem for many players is how to stop the cycle of anger…well. John has some great advice for you!

For me, winning the battle over anger and negative emotions became easy when I began to "pretend" a little. Whenever I find myself succumbing to fear, anger or nervousness, I pretend that I am not competing. Instead, I pretend that I am simply training and that the match is nothing more than a practice session. Believe it or not, I can actually deceive myself into accepting this as reality. Once I adopt this posture, I find that my breathing slows down, my muscles relax, and more important, I forget about losing or winning. Rather, I begin to focus on executing. I try to see the ball better. I try to shorten my backswing and prepare a bit earlier. I freeze my head at the moment of impact similar to what golfers do when they strike the ball. I concentrate on placement through visualization. All of these translate into better shots. Better shots inspire confidence. Confidence promotes positive thoughts and emotions. The negative cycle of anger has now been completely reversed. I may not win the match (frequently I do), but I have won the battle…the battle inside me.

Imagine that you are playing doubles. Your partner is the person in this world that you like the most. How would you treat him/her? Would you get angry with him/her? Would you give up and tank the match if you fell behind? Would you like him/her less if you lost the match? Would you never play with him/her again?

Hopefully, you can learn to perceive yourself as kindly as you would the player in the previous example!

Eliminating anger and negativity in your game (less) will improve your results and certainly help you enjoy the game of tennis (more). If you aren’t enjoying your tennis, John Murray’s book can definitely help rekindle the joy while raising the level your game.

These are a few of the ways in which less can be more. I hope that you will be able to incorporate some of these into your game. If you do, I feel certain that in a very short time you will 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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