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Turbo Tennis
November 2001 Article

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Winners…Creatures of Habit?

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

For some months now, I have dedicated my column to providing readers with the basic tenets of stroke production. Hopefully, if you have been looking to improve a particular stroke, there has been a column that answered your questions.

Tennis, to me, is an extraordinary game. To win, one needs good physical conditioning, reliable strokes, sound strategies, and mental tenacity. Given the scope of the challenges that tennis provides, it is no wonder that any player can find areas for improvement. Even Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati have coaches. They all realize that to continue to win, they need to work on every aspect of their games…and they do.

Most of us who play the sport do so in a somewhat more recreational way. We probably play more tennis in the warmer months and put the racquets to rest during the depths of winter. We come back to our sport in earnest as spring returns, and hope to pick up where we left off.

Year after year, we play the same opponents with usually predictable results. After all, we are creatures of habit.

If you are a faithful reader of this column, you are probably a tennisphile who seriously wants to improve the level of her/his game. So, I would like to take this November column and put forth some goals for your consideration this winter. (Fortunately for those readers who live south of the Equator, things should be warming up by the time you read this. Still, these are useful goals.)

GOAL #1 - Play tennis at least three times per week

Regrettably, this may be a close to an impossible goal for many. Assuming that you have access to indoor facilities, winter tennis is not only possible, but also a great way to break the doldrums of winter. Usually, tennis clubs will have packages that make playing three times per week reasonably affordable…particularly if you are willing to play the "early bird" slots. Leagues are a great way to meet new players and to compete. USTA sponsored leagues and competitions abound across the nation, and almost every indoor club I’ve seen has interclub competitions, as well.

Another way to practice and play during the winter months is to use a wall or backboard. I will often times find myself spending a day or two per week using the gym wall or a racquetball court wall for backboard practice. I find that this type of practice is an excellent way of introducing new grips to my game, or perfecting the finish on my strokes. Whenever I hit on these walls, I make certain to really focus on hitting every ball with proper form. Groundstrokes, volleys, overheads, and even serves can be practiced when using a backboard. Their added advantage is the fact that you can hit lots of balls in a very short period of time.

I have a friend who actually uses a wall in his basement as a backboard for winter hitting. Now, not everyone will have such a space in her/his residence, but if you look around long enough, you can probably find a location somewhere that can serve as your winter backboard. It is well worth the search!

GOAL #2 — Strength Train

In my youth, I was never one who spent lots of time training with weights or engaging in any other form of strength training. As I have aged, I have learned how important such training can be.

Every pro on the pro tours, male or female, works throughout the year on strength conditioning. However, during those rare times that they are not actively involved in competition, the level of this type of training usually increased. I always increase my strength-training regimen during the winter.

Strength training will not only make you a stronger player, it will help you prevent injury. The more conditioned all of your muscles are, the less likely it is that you will injure them during tennis play. This kind of conditioning is even more important in preventing injury when you are not playing tennis everyday.

Join a gym, buy some free weights and/or start a calisthenics program. Two to three times per week is usually best for most tennis players. If you are inexperienced in this type of physical conditioning, find yourself a personal trainer who can make certain that you get the most out of each workout.

GOAL #3 — Improve your speed and footwork

Imagine how many points you could have won last summer if you were one step faster. Let’s face it. Speed is as important as endurance in the game of tennis. Yet, most players I know simply run mile after mile on roads, tracks or on treadmills. This type of running will build some endurance, but will not really make a player faster. In fact, this kind of training may actually slow down some players.

Every winter, I make it my goal to run lots of sprints. I time every sprint and force myself to push harder and harder. Eventually, I find myself developing what I call a competitive "wind." By this I mean that I not only move faster, I do so with less strain on my breathing.

Think about those long points that can occur in a game of tennis. If a player is scrambling back and forth throughout a point, it is easy to get winded. Doing lots of sprints this winter will greatly help reduce the "gasping" effect that these types of points can create.

GOAL #4 — Take a personal audit of your game.

Winter can be a great time to come to terms with what you really do well in tennis and with what you do not do well in tennis. When you play during the winter, take a camcorder out to videotape your practice session…even if all you are going to do is use a backboard. Believe me, when you play back the tape, your true strengths and weaknesses will be evident. Weaknesses become more obvious when you are not playing everyday. The key is to be honest with yourself.

It certainly would be helpful to take a few lessons with a certified teaching pro. She or he will be able to give you a frank assessment of what needs work and what does not.

GOAL #5 — Find solutions

Once you know your weaknesses, you can come up with a game plan to address them. Now, most of us think that virtually every one of our strokes could be improved in some way. Of course, this is true, but you need to prioritize what is really causing you to lose points, sets, and matches. If you can change one thing in your game this winter what should it be?

Hopefully, you will be able to make some changes that will result in more than one improvement. However, one improvement is better than none. I highly recommend Bob Litwin’s "Focused Approach" to the game of tennis. He travels the country giving lectures and seminars in addition to his tapes, and publications. I think he has it right when he promotes taking each section of your game and improving it one step at a time.

Search the back issues of Turbo Tennis, which are available through the Turbo Tennis Archives. In the five years that I have been writing this column, I have probably addressed in one column or another most of the information you need.

From time to time, readers send me videotapes of themselves playing matches or practicing strokes. For a small fee, I review the tapes and offer what concrete suggestions I can to change and improve what may be going wrong. Believe me, I have seen some unusual strokes…your stroke will not surprise me.

Of course, certified teaching pros are a great resource in getting answers to the problems you are facing in your game. Find a pro who wants to develop the game that you want. If it doesn’t feel right, move on to someone else. Each summer, a dozen or so readers, who follow my column, will take the trek up to New Haven for a private lesson with me. All too often, they will tell me stories of how a teaching pro has insisted they do a stroke a particular way…even when it causes them pain to hit the ball in the prescribed manner!

Not everyone hits the ball the same way. Look at John McEnroe. Does his serve look orthodox? Of course not! You know what, he won lots of Slams with that unorthodox serve. Stephan Edberg’s forehand groundstrokes were struck with the continental grip. Now, this grip hasn’t been taught for years. Guess what. It may have been Edberg’s weaker stroke, but it wasn’t that weak! Monica Seles hits a two handed forehand…different, yes…but deadly when she gets the short ball.

Look for the literature, audio programs, instructional videos or teaching pros that mesh well with your strokes. Don’t be afraid to change a grip or stroke, but only do so when it meets your objectives. Remember. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

GOAL #6 — Straighten out your mind

This winter spend sometime looking at how you strategically approach the game of tennis. Break out those videos of past WTA and ATP professional matches and watch them over and over again. If you don’t have any, tape some of the winter-based matches that appear from time to time on television. Turn down the volume. Forget the color commentary. Watch the match and figure out for yourself…what is happening…why is it happening…and what could be done to change it. There is a wealth of information to be learned from answering just these three questions.

Try to craft at least three different game plans this winter…and make certain you write them down. Try to match these game plans to surfaces and/or specific opponents that you are likely to face.

Start working on your mental game. My colleague, John Murray, who writes the Mental Equipment column, has, in my opinion, the best grasp of the mental dimensions that go into tennis competition. Read his book, Smart Tennis. Take his suggestions and incorporate them into your practice sessions. When you start practicing your mental game as much as you do your physical game, you will begin to see dramatic improvement.

GOAL #7 — Eat correctly

The old adage, "You are what you eat" couldn’t be more true than in tennis. Working with your physician, and perhaps a certified dietician, develop a realistic and consistent dietary plan. This plan should be designed to provide for the energy needed to compete without compromising the weight that works best for your body. Fad diets in the spring may provide some short-term benefits…but what serious players need to do is commit to a healthy dietary plan…one that will serve not only their games, but also their lives.

GOAL #8 — Understand why you play the game

In his seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey raises the question of why a person plays tennis. Although I believe he presents a list of possible player types that is too narrow in scope, I do think he is wise to ask what kind of player are you? This is a critical question to consider if one wants to move forward in his/her game.

Are you one who uses tennis as a recreational and social vehicle? Is tennis mostly a means of achieving some physical fitness? Is tennis primarily a means to allow you to enjoy the thrill of competition? Is tennis a means to a college scholarship, or perhaps a career as a pro or teaching pro? Is tennis a sport you choose to play or is it a sport that others "impose" upon you? If you never were to win another match, would you still want to play tennis? Why or why not? Does doubles play provide more or less satisfaction? Why or why not? How much of your own self-identity is involved in your tennis play? Do you prefer practicing to competing? Why or why not? What is the best thing about tennis? What is the worst thing about tennis?

I am not proposing that there are any right or wrong answers to any of these questions. Rather, I am merely suggesting that you take some time to reflect on these questions in a totally honest manner. This reflection will almost always lead to clarity of purpose that is essential if one wants to move forward…however you define forward.

So this winter, try not to become the creature of habit that has dominated the past. Don’t lock your racquets and your game away in a closet. If you don’t, I am sure that come spring, you will be 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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