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What I Learned at the Pilot Pen…and Why Every Player Needs to Know What I Learned

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Those of you who have followed my column regularly may know that one of my passions is sports photography. I run my own photo service known as Photosportacular. Each year in August, I am treated to some great photo opportunities at the WTA Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament. I am credentialed as a media member, and I get to shoot some of the world’s best tennis pros at a time when they are getting ready to compete in the U.S. Open.

My friends all envy me and say, "Gee, you have the best seat in the house when you sit in photographers’ row." I respond that I don’t get to watch tennis. Rather, I am working on capturing the right image. For those of you who are interested in seeing some of my work (perhaps, you might even want to purchase a photo of your favorite WTA Pro), you can access my images from the 2003 Pilot Pen at:


When you reach this site, simply put the password, "tennis" in, and you can see close to 200 of my images from this outstanding event.

When I am not taking images, I try to spend time at the practice areas. I am always fascinated by what advice coaches will provide their charges…especially, when the pro is early in her career. I listen to the advice, and watch the practice sessions carefully.

This year, I made it a point to take a minimum of one hour to watch these practice sessions. What amazed me among the younger, more developing players is that they often times are making the same mistakes that club players make. They may have great weapons, strength, speed and endurance…but they are learning to play the game better…by making fewer errors and going for winners when the time is right.

So, I decided to take this month’s column and share with you readers some of the insights that I gained from attending this tournament. I assure you that many of these will strike a chord of familiarity with you…they did with me.

On the pro level, a player cannot afford to miss an opportunity!!! They just don’t come that often in some matches. Short balls (balls that bounce inside the service box area and do not have much pace behind them) are opportunities that all pros pray for. The problem is that, too many times, the pro will miss the opportunity and blow the put away shot associated with the short ball opportunity.

In listening to the international ensemble of coaches, this area was the most commonly discussed and practice area. The most commonly identified problems with hitting these short ball put aways, was attributed to "rushing" and "not quieting the head during the stroke."

Rushing is usually caused by improper preparation and mental focus. The short ball comes as a surprise to the player and she scrambles to get into proper position for the winner. To facilitate short ball awareness and preparation, coaches wait until the pro is fatigued from the practice. The coach is feeding/hitting balls to the pro and forcing the pro to hit groundstrokes. Without warning, the coach will hit a short ball. The pro must react and put the short ball away with her reply. By waiting until the pro is fatigued to practice these short balls, the coach is making it more difficult for the pro to hold form and react quickly. As the pro approaches the short ball, the coach tells her where to hit the winner…crosscourt or down the line.

When we hit put aways, we are frequently too eager to see where our ball is going. Freezing the head through the stroke and making it motionless through contact and finish, greatly helps the consistency associated with these winning shots. After all, if it is truly a winner, you don’t need to see where the ball is going. Either the opponent or the linesperson will call it in or out. Either way, it is not your call. So, you have to live with the result. Better to quiet the head and to execute the put away properly.

Club players with hitting partners or teachers/coaches can and should practice this drill. How many times have you missed a clear winner off of a short ball?

The second most common area that coaches at the Pilot Pen worked on was returning serve. Again, this is an area that many recreational and scholastic players do not address.

Coaches would serve from the service line…not the baseline. The pro would have to return to a predetermined area…crosscourt or down the line. By serving from the service line, the coach makes his/her serve more powerful, and cuts down on the reaction time that the pro has. The goal of this drill is not to produce powerful returns. Rather, depth and angle control are the real goals.

Coaches of the pros on the WTA realize that the women competing today have huge serves. Strength training and racquet technology make 100 + MPH serves a common phenomenon on the women’s side of the tour.

Coaches realize that the return is not the time to win the point. Instead, the goal is to get the ball back and to get it back deep. Putting it to a predetermined side (backhand or forehand) is the secondary goal. By practicing the return of serve this way, the pro learns to start the point…hopefully, in a manner that puts the return to the server’s weaker wing.

We non-tour players can similarly practice our return of serves with a hitting partner or teacher/coach…and we should. Too often, I see recreational and junior players who seek to win the point outright off of the return. Statistics on any level of the game indicate that this is not likely to happen. I think this return drill will go a long way to help all of us to "control" our returns. It should be noted that the placement of the return is always predetermined…as are the serves that we are returning.

Footwork is the third most common area addressed in the sessions with coaches of the pros on the WTA…at least from my observations. The two goals that are identified are: taking a powerful first step…followed by lots of little steps as the pro approaches the ball. Coaches are constantly monitoring the footwork of their charges. They are particularly aware of footwork, once the pro has become fatigued from the practice session. Holding footwork form when a player is tired is no easy feat (forgive the pun).

Here, I think we can all benefit from videotaping our practice sessions. We can play the tapes back and see when and why our footwork is breaking down.

If you watch pros when they play, they rarely, if ever, stop moving their feet. They bounce, "trot in place," and move up on their toes. Lots of sprints, strength training, running hills or stairs, and "resistance running" (where an elastic band is tied to the waist of the pro as she/he tries to run forward) make for the strong legs and speed needed in today’s game.

In addition to videotaping your practice sessions, I think every player needs to address footwork…especially with respect to speed. During off-season, much time should be spent on developing speed through sprints. Jumping rope will help your footwork immensely. Try not to focus on distance. Rather focus on speed. Periodically, time yourself running sprints like 100 meters. Record the times and work on your speed. How many times have you been a half step away from hitting a better shot?

The last area that the coaches at the Pilot Pen seemed to focus on was the serve. On either side of the pro tours, players need to be able to hit the "heater." Big, flat serves are the norm for first serves. However, these serves are no good to the pro if they do not land in the service box. In addition, they need to be placed with precision.

To increase power, the coaches are constantly addressing knee bending and flow. By putting more "leg" into your serve, you can significantly increase your power without necessarily sacrificing precision. Whenever the flow of the serve is interrupted, the pro is said to have a "hitch" in her serve.

Now, I am not known for having good knees. I have had surgery on one knee, and my life as a baseball catcher did not help the other. Still, I am working on integrating more knee bend in my first serve motion. Even a little knee bend will produce more power…and save your arm and shoulder from unnecessary injury.

Serve flow and the elimination of any "hitches" are a bit more difficult. Videotaping your serve is a good way to start. You may see a hitch and begin to experiment with different tosses, etc. to eliminate the problem. However, the trained eye of a teaching pro or coach may be necessary to truly eliminate a hitch. Hitches are usually very ingrained and are not easily eradicated.

So, the four main areas that coaches seemed to address at this year’s Pilot Pen were:

    • Short ball put aways.
    • Return of serve.
    • Footwork.
    • First serve power.

My guess is that each of us more "mortal" players could greatly benefit from improvement in these areas. If you are able to focus on improving these four areas, I have no doubt that you will certainly be well on your way to becoming 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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