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What Ever Happened to System Five?
by Tony Severino
PTR Certified Instructor 4A

Tony Serverino Photo
Tony Severino

When you talk to younger pros, most have never heard of System Five. Many of the older pros who have did not seem too enthusiastic to talk about it. They merely shrugged it off as "oh that 'thing' where everything is divided into fives."

That could be a way of describing System Five, although somewhat abbreviated. Seldom do you encounter any kind of excitement over it.

In 1991 System Five was USPTA's latest hula hoop. It was not intended to revolutionize tennis teaching, but was to be a companion piece to tennis instruction.

It was the brainchild of a young teaching pro with impressive credits, Australian Brett Hobden.

That "'thing' where everything is divided into fives" was intended to be a collection of teaching tools to help coaches produce better tennis players, faster.

Originally, five components were planned:

  • The 5 Keys to Tennis
  • The 5 Progressions (a unique, turnkey children's program designed especially for schools)
  • The 5 Keys to Mental Management
  • The System 5 Drills Manual
  • The S.T.E.P. Method (a framework to help coaches.)

Funding to develop all five modules vaporized and with it the initial enthusiasm for the system so today the surviving component is The 5 Keys to Tennis. Even so, after fifteen years and despite lack of marketing, pros in many tennis circles are aware of System Five and still use it in their teaching.

The keys are based on:

  1. Zones: being aware of where you are on the court.
  2. Phase of Play: assessing the difficulty of the approaching ball.
  3. Stroke Length: how much back swing and follow thru to take.
  4. Heights: how high over the net to hit the ball.
  5. Response: a guideline on how aggressive you should be in returning it.

When released in 1991, the first of the System Five modules -- The 5 Keys to Tennis -- caused a considerable stir among coaches. Individually, The 5 Keys to Tennis were not new. Most of the elements, court position, swing length, net clearance, and general tactics had appeared in various forms in teaching systems around the world.

However, The 5 Keys to Tennis extended and integrated the various elements, in the end creating a powerful, "user-friendly" set of guidelines for players wanting to win more tennis points.

Hobden recognized that the full System Five needed rethinking and regrouped with a new crew around him. They regrouped from System Five into a more complete approach -- which he called an "integrated approach to Modern Tennis."

The integrated approach to Modern Tennis became Hobden's new passion. In this approach, Hobden's concept was to help coaches teach the modern game more successfully with a strong coupling of technique and tactics to provide technical solutions to tactical problems.

Hobden also observed the teaching pendulum was swinging too far toward a tactics only approach. "Tactics and technique," says Brett, "must be tightly coupled if players are to reach their potential."

Hobden's version of Modern Tennis tries to bring, perhaps before too long, the pendulum back to the middle, mixing technique with tactical. Like love and marriage, (you can sing along) "you can't have one without the other."

Gord Runtz, an associate of Hobden's, points out "the pendulum has swung too far -- from all technique, now it's all tactical."

First a word about "Modern Tennis" today.

What's Happening in the Tennis Teaching World?

At the PTR Tennis Instructor's Symposium on Hilton Head Island this past February and a weekend at the USTA Middle States Tennis Conference in Princeton in March, a number of versions of "Modern Tennis" surfaced.

The cry is the "old way" of teaching stroke production is too much technique-oriented. This method is claimed to be boring and seems to break down in game situations. That may be true, but who worth their salt teaches only technique and no game situation tactics?

Anyway, the new hula hoops in tennis teaching are the "Games Based Approach" (GBA) and "Learn By Discovery" (LBD). You don't teach anything; just start your students playing "Kings and Queens" or "Chicken in the Middle" and they will "Learn by Discovery" (LBD).

Certainly there is merit incorporating GBA in instruction programs and often LBD takes place. Good instructors use both. GBA and LBD are particularly effective with children because of their short attentive span. Adults, however, want to be instructed in technique as well as tutored in game situations. Tactical strategies can be pointed out during games. That's what they pay their hard earned money for. "Learning By Discovery" can only be beneficial when there is a sound technical foundation.

Can you imagine a dance instructor telling the class, "I'll put on some Tango music and you all go out there and just dance. You'll learn by discovery." I'm sure some crazy antics resembling the Tango would evolve, but would they ever understand the dance?

Gord notes the "Technique-Based" approach that's been standard for decades lost favor because technique was usually divorced from tactics. Students often had success in lessons, but fell apart in game play. The stroke they worked so hard to perfect in their lessons was ineffective in live tennis."

Brett observes: "The much-touted "Games-Based Approach" goes too far in the opposite direction. It advocates that instructors focus not on technique, but on tactics, on game-play, and leave players to figure out the appropriate technique, largely by trial and error."

That doesn't work for Tango and doesn't work for tennis. Very few players are able to learn that way. Notes Brett, "An increasing number of instructors who have tried this approach are uncomfortable with it. At best, it produces a scruffy player with a sub-standard technique."

Brett explains, "Modern Tennis recognizes that in a play situation not often do you receive two balls in a row that are identical. Players must continually adapt their strokes to the situation -- especially to the nature of the approaching ball."

"I suspect that one of the reasons technique was given short shrift in GBA is that so few people really understand modern technique. Coaches know it has changed for sure, but they also see a confusing array of stroke "forms" and footwork patterns on the pro tour. The faulty conclusion has been that in the modern game different players have different hitting 'styles.' That, I think, has led to the near abandonment of technique in GBA coaching, leaving it up to players to find their own style."

"Of course, what we're seeing is not a diversity of "style," but a greatly-expanded array of shots (e.g., seven different top spin deliveries and over twenty applications to the forehand stroke alone), all of which require different technique and look different -- sometimes dramatically so. The top pros can hit them all. All these shots need to be taught. That's what so few people realize. And of course that's what we hope to change."

"In a typical "traditional" tennis lesson players are fed a sequence of nearly identical balls -- same speed, same spin, same placement -- allowing them to "perfect" a particular stroke. The problem is that the stroke will not work for every ball they receive in live play. In point-play, every stroke must be adapted to the situation. The question is: How?"

Before we address that, let's backup a bit and look at the one System Five module that was released, the The 5 Keys to Tennis, because they are still a companion tool kit to Hobden's integrated approach to Modern Tennis. In fact, the The 5 Keys to Tennis are still being taught in several countries, notably Spain and Japan. Examining them will answer the question: How?

The 5 Keys to Tennis are these: Zones, which divide the court into five longitudinal areas, Phase of Play which address the difficulty of the approaching ball and how to respond to it, Stroke lengths, which tell how large a backswing and follow through to use, Height above the net to aim the ball, followed by Response which discusses how aggressive to be in returning the ball.

Here's how some of it works. How often do you hit the ball long or land it too short in the court, allowing your opponent to launch an attack? A combination of three of the keys addresses depth control: Zones, Stroke Length and Heights.

Let's examine all the keys more closely.

  1. Zones. Where you are on the court when you hit the ball? There are five zones.

    1. At net (within six paces of the net --volley territory).
    2. Mid-court (traditionally "no man's land").
    3. Inside the baseline (about two large paces).
    4. Just behind the baseline (within two large paces).
    5. Deep back court.

  2. Phase of Play. The second key suggests how aggressively you should play. That depends on the difficulty of the approaching ball. There are five phases of play:

    1. Attack -- very easy ball, go for a clean winner.
    2. Challenge -- easy ball, up the ante, make it a bit more difficult for your opponent.
    3. Rally -- neutral ball, not too difficult, but play it safe, wait for an easier ball to become aggressive.
    4. Counterattack -- difficult ball, return a difficult shot with an aggressive shot. advanced players should return the favor.
    5. Defense -- very difficult ball, defend; just try to stay in the point if you can get your racquet on it.

  3. Stroke Length. How large a backswing and follow through to use?

    Divide your backswing into five roughly equal segments using the contact point as the starting point. Do the same for the follow through. Match your backswing to the zone you are hitting from. In Zone 2, for instance, the backswing would be slightly back--slightly less than half the full backswing. However, whatever the length of your backswing, always accelerate the racquet head through the contact point, generating enough racquet head speed to result in a full 5 follow through. Of course, this would be different for specialty shots, drop shots, half volleys, etc.

  4. Height. How high over the net to hit the ball?

    This is measured in racquet head widths and corresponds with the Zone and the Backswing numbers. So at the net, which is Zone One, the first segment of backswing applies and the target is one racquet width above the tape.

    Are there any exceptions? Of course. The above guideline for groundstrokes assume that your opponent is at the baseline, and that you want to keep the ball deep. If your opponent has come to the net, keeping the ball deep is irrelevant. What you need to do now is get it by your opponent, either by lobbing, or by hitting a passing shot. If you opt for the passing shot, you should use the appropriate swing length for the zone, but lower your net clearance to 1 or 2 racquet widths. Otherwise the ball may be too easy for your opponent to volley.

    Another exception is when you're hitting underspin or slice. To keep the ball deep, you'll need to lower your net clearance, usually to 1 or 2 racquet widths. Underspin keeps the ball up, so if you match Height and Zone, the ball will likely float long.

    One basic exception, passing shots should use one-half the zone number for the height above the net. Zone 2 often calls for a passing shot which should be directly above the tape with pace. Four racquet widths above the net in doubles is a poachers dream.

  5. Response. The fifth key deals with five possible responses to situations and keeping an opponent under pressure:

    1. Consistency -- adapt your strokes to getting the ball in.

    2. Placement -- Generally keeping the ball deep when an opponent is at the baseline is part of this. Hit the ball deep to keep your opponents pinned to the baseline, which makes it difficult for them to launch an offense. It's also more difficult to deal with a deep ball.

      Moving the opponent around is another good tactic. It's always tougher when you must run to hit a ball than when it comes straight back to you.

    3. Increasing pace -- When you receive an easy ball, consider increasing its speed. This will challenge your opponent's ability to prepare in time.

    4. Varying spin & speed -- Mix it up. Don't send back the same type of ball every time. Be unpredictable. Many players have trouble adapting to change.

    5. Taking the ball on the rise -- meeting the ball as it rises off the bounce. This puts you more into the court; the ball gets to your opponent faster, again challenging their ability to prepare on time.

There you have the How. You can see why the system was named System Five?.

So "What ever happened to System Five?"

System Five is alive and kicking and continues to live as part of the tool kit in Hobden's integrated approach to Modern Tennis which is currently being well received in recent tennis conferences.

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