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Talking Tennis
By Tony Severino
Certified Instructor 4A
Professional Tennis Registry

Tony Serverino Photo
Tony Severino

About mid-way through my more advanced beginner classes, I like to schedule a classroom session to go over many items that otherwise take up a lot of valuable court time. Court time is better served teaching strokes, running drills and playing games. The class is called "Talking Tennis."
What do we talk about? Many things, and along the way we become acquainted with some of the top teachers in tennis. Instructors, for the most part, teach the "how to," while the great teachers impart tennis wisdom.
The classes usually go like this:
I. Where are you on the Tennis Scale? (NTRP)
We describe the National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) chart; the areas tested are along the top, namely, forehand, backhand, serve, volley, specialty shots and playing style, and down the side are the numbers which reflect the level of proficiency acquired in each area, the rating numbers 1.0 thru 7.0. .
We walk thru one or two of the rating requirements to give feel for the system. It really helps people new to tennis who wonder what those numbers that people toss around mean.
For some strange reason NTRP has been relegated to a self evaluation program. It's amusing how many folks delude themselves into thinking they are 3.5 and 4.0 players. It would be so much better to get an impartial assessment from a team of USTA qualified evaluators. It's certainly encouraging to tennis novices to get a real feel for where they are in tennis.
II. The Learning Curve
Meet Dr. Jack Groppel "World-Class Tennis Technique: Master Every Stroke"
The first time I read about The Learning Curve, it was in an article by Dr. Groppel. He has authored many articles and coauthored the wonderful book cited above. In class we explore his four phases of The Learning Curve. It correlates nicely with the NTRP rating scheme. Briefly it goes like this:
Phase I: Unconsciously Incapable -- raw beginner. (1.0)
Phase II: Consciously Incapable -- some lessons, but still doesn't quite get it right. (Maybe 2.0)
Phase III: Consciously Capable -- does it right, but must think thru each stroke progression. (2.5, 3.0)
Phase IV: Unconsciously Capable -- after hundreds of repetitions, just does it. When problems arise, step back to an earlier phase to adjust or get professional help. (3.5, 4.0 or better)
III. Court Dimensions
I have a green cloth the size of a small throw rug with the white lines of a tennis court painted on it. With it we go through the court layout. It's revealing to newcomers that the service box is 21 feet deep and thirteen feet and seven inches wide. (It really is. Check it out.) Although it doesn't take much time to do this on-court, the classroom setting engenders discussion. It works well. The same cloth is used to explain scoring with the use of little game pieces, and doubles strategy using a laser pointer to move like the ball.
IV. Doubles Strategy
Meet Pat Blaskower -- "The Art of Doubles"
Pat notes there are three kinds of doubles players:
Those who make things happen; those who watch what happens; and those who wonder what the heck happened.
Another reminder from Pat: "Never Hit Long to Short!" The net person has all day to size up the return. The classroom setting allows us to explore this and several more of Pat's axioms.
Meet Chuck Kriese - "Coaching Tennis"
I must have over seventy books on tennis, and I'd probably have more if I had shelf space for them. There are some really good ones there, but if I were allowed to keep just one, this would be it, "Coaching Tennis" by Chuck Kriese. He has been one of the most successful coaches in the country at Clemson University for many years.
Coach Kriese points out that in doubles four people cover an area just a little larger than the area covered by two people in singles, therefore, positioning is most important in doubles; shot making in singles. We explore this in class.
He views tennis as having three distinct parts: - Physical, Mental and Emotional.
The physical part is developing the strokes. The mental part is learning how and when to use them. The emotional part comes with pressure in a match. At this point you can only dance with the partner you brought, your strokes and your mental approach. No inventing new stuff here. As Coach Kriese points out: "Crunch time; regular stuff is good enough." It's really the only thing you have.
Position Responsibilities
Server -- Coach Kriese points out that on your first serve the receivers are thinking defense; on the second serve they are thinking offense; hence you need a good second serve. As the saying goes; "You're only as good as your second serve." The server also needs a good first volley, down the middle, the point of confusion with difficult return options.
It goes without saying that the primary job is to get the first serve in a high percentage of the time to be successful. The big serve works about once a game.
Receiver -- Basically return low and cross court to the advancing server's feet. It's a mortal sin, says Coach Kriese, to hit out wide or into the net. Failure to make a service return is the same as a double fault.
Server's Net Person -- must be active and cut off any ball that can be reached, especially floaters. You should poach at least once in the first game, at least to send a message to the opponents they must be wary of you. Moves and fake moves keeps them concerned about you. Receiver's Net Person, the Hot Seat -- for this, let's go meet Pete Collins.
Meet Pete Collins -- "Successful Doubles"
Pete is an internationally acclaimed guru of doubles. Here we introduce newcomers to a few of his concepts.
Receiver's Net Person -- this is the initial non-hitting position. Did you ever notice the net person in many recreational doubles matches, standing stationary like one of Pat's watchers and wonderers?
In Pete's "Successful Doubles" the partner of the person hitting the ball is the "non-hitting position" and that is the most important spot on the court. It controls the flow of the point.
Pete notes that title crosses over each time the ball crosses the net. Both net persons are in constant motion, up and back on every exchange. When the return goes through to the back person, the non-hitter moves to the net position. If the net person reacts, stand ready.
Initially, the job of the receiver's partner is to face the opposing net person and stand back at the service line to call the line and also be out of the way of the return. Pete also adds, "Don't get beat down the middle."
On court coverage, Pete divides the court into thirds based on where the ball bounces. If you aim down the middle it really doesn't leave much uncovered court for a return: one-sixth on each side.
In the class we also review Pete on poaching and covering lobs.
V. Meet Paul Wardlaw - "Pressure Tennis"
"Wardlaw's Directionals" Up till now you probably think it's just forehand and backhand. Not so fast! Paul Wardlaw is the coach of the University of Iowa women's tennis team. All they do is win national championships. Why? Largely due to the system developed by Coach Wardlaw called Wardlaw's Directionals.
Quite simply the system predetermines where to hit your return. You don't have a decision to make, which makes life simpler and your percentages higher.
First off, it's not just forehand or backhand. It is an Outside Forehand or an Inside Forehand. The same holds for backhands. If the ball coming to you will go around your body it is an outside forehand or outside backhand. Outside balls are returned in the direction from which they came. High percentage tennis. A ball coming at you is and inside forehand or backhand. These are the ones on which to change direction.
Certainly there is more to Wardlaw's Directionals than what is noted here, but it's great to introduce them in a classroom setting because there is so much more.
VI. Meet Ken DeHart - "Monsters of the Mind"
Ken is a Master Professional with USPTA and PTR and has several instructional videos and CDs to his credit. He identifies several monsters that haunt your tennis game. They are:
Double Faults
Johnny Mercer wrote a great song which says:
"You got to accentuate the positive.
Eliminate the negative.
Latch on to the affirmative.
Don't mess with Mr. In Between."
Ken picks up on that idea noting that awareness of the negative thought "don't double fault" puts the thought there. We tend to skip the negative and think "Double Fault. It's better to sing along with Johnny Mercer.
Ken names three speeds useful in coaching: #3. the hard hit if it's reliable; #2. rally speed for consistency; #1. easy looping shots, drop shots, spin, slow pace shots. They may be ugly but they win points. It's a more meaningful to use the speed number when coaching during a match.
Playing Better Players
You can be intimidated by playing better players. But they can become over confident and dismayed by your good shots. Coach Kriese says, "On my serve play like me; on their serve play like them!" Steal their thunder!
Score: 4-1, 5-2, 40-love
Dennis Van der Meer would advise you to play as though the score were reversed. Play to win, not to not lose.
Ken goes on to report that at 30-love you have an 80% chance of losing next point; at 30-15 you have a 65% chance of losing next point. How important is it to win that next point!
Who's Watching
It's tough when people are watching your match. Your mind goes to the watcher, wondering what they think of your playing. But they really aren't. They are thinking "what would I do in that situation?" Push them out of your mind and concentrate on the match in front of you. Arthur Ashe pointed out: "You are really playing yourself; your own high standards."
Questionable Calls
Some players decide the call as the ball crosses the net. You can ask if they are sure, but it's best to forget it. You really can't do much about it. If it continues, call for a referee.
Technique and Placement
Ken says, practice well. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Remember your good shots and keep a mental picture of them. Expect to win. Even keep a journal. Have your matches charted.
VII. Charting Matches
As a high school coach I like to have the players who are not playing chart their teammates matches. There are a number of systems, some more elaborate than others. I like to keep it simple and go over it with the player after the match. It's a great learning tool. In class we chart a fictitious game and have the class decide the next point. It's also fun.
VIII. Review: Elasticity, Resiliency, Grips, Strokes and Stances
Probably the most animated segment of the class is the discussion of grips, strokes and stances. We make recommendations on each and the discussion ultimately leads into spins.
Here we talk also about elasticity and resiliency. When a tennis ball hits the strings it flattens to egg-shape; the strings bend inward and the frame bends. This is elasticity.
The counterpart of elasticity is resiliency. Resiliency is where stretched out elastic things want to return to their original state, like a stretched rubber band. When all three react together, there's a mini implosion: power!
This idea can be explained quickly on-court during a water break, but a more expanded treatment takes place in a class room environment. This leads to discussion of strings, racquets, frame technology and what's going on with them each year. This segues nicely into Item IX, Questions and Answers.
IX. Questions and Answers
Interestingly, the Q&A period often spills over into the next on-court class. The water break is a good time to deal with it.
"Talking Tennis" sessions really work well, especially when you can call on great tennis teachers like Jack, Pat, Chuck, Paul, Pete, Ken and Dennis. I'm just a certified instructor, but when I grow up I want to become a tennis teacher like them.

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