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TennisOne Lessons

What Can We Learn from Watching the Pros?

David W. Smith, Senior Editor TennisOne

Barring some inclement weather, this year’s Pacific Life Open (2008) in Indian Wells, California, should come near to breaking attendance records. A solid field of players, one of the best—if not the best—tennis facilities to watch the pros play and practice, and the usually warm, inviting weather associated with the Palm Springs area should bring in the crowds. In what is often referred to as a “fifth grand slam," the Pacific Life Open sports the second largest stadium court in the world. On top of that, the outer courts can be as big of a draw as the stadium courts when the big names are out warming up, working their game, and tuning up for up-coming matches.

Click photo: The secret to playing at the upper levels is having a repeatable, dependable swing pattern.

Accessibility to the players is the thing that separates the Pacific Life Open from many of the other great tournaments around the country. Here, it's not unusual for top players to interact with fans while playing practice points or just walking from the player’s locker room or lounge out to the courts. In fact, It isn’t rare to turn around and see a John Isner, Nicholay Davydenko, or Marion Bartoli casually strolling past you. But, what, if anything, can the typical recreational, club, or tournament player take home from such an event?

Taking my 9-year old daughter to her first big-time tournament was something I was looking forward too; however, she was more concerned with getting autographs than analyzing the swing components or footwork patterns of the pros. Well, who can blame her? It was really fun watching her as she gazed in awe at some of the stars she'd only seen on television. And when they signed her giant ball, well, that's got to be some kind of tennis nirvana. That kind of experience can have a lasting impression on someone so young.
           
What to Look For

As a teaching professional though, when I roam the grounds at Indian Wells, I look for things that might help me become a better instructor -- something I can pass on to the playing public. I was always blessed with a keen eye for seeing the subtleties and the nuances in any player’s swing. Some of these elements are idiosyncratic, that is they are evolved characteristics that a pro has personalized over time yet. but don't really impact the basics of the stroke. Yet, beyond those things that separate one pro from another, in terms of stroke mechanics, the non-professional player can begin to isolate the pro’s foundation, a foundation that is usually common across the board, and one that any player would do well to emulate.


Today's pros are tremendous physical specimens.

While many spectators at professional events are not necessarily there to analyze the professional game nor expect to re-tool their own game, there are things that every level player can gain from watching so many pros hit. It is all dependent on what you are looking for.

In addition to watching and seeing how the players strike the ball, one of the most impressive things that I noticed is the incredible condition the pros are in. In the desert heat, the pros shed their shirts and often work out in very sparse hitting gear. The ripped abs, the toned arms and legs, and the overall work-ethic make tennis professionals some of the most finely toned athletes in the world. This aspect of the pro game often goes unnoticed when watching players on television. Seeing them in person for the first time can create a striking impression-- to me that is, not so much the daughter.

Simplicity

So what can we learn about our own games by watching the world’s best players up close? While the pros can—and do—hit with amazing power, pace, placement, and spin their shots are struck within a conservation of stroke manipulation not usually seen at the club level. It is the efficiency of their swing patterns that allows them to add the power, pace, and spin.

The problem with most recreational players is they often put the cart before the horse. That is, to add power, pace, or spin, they swing harder, but they haven't yet mastered a swing pattern that is defined, refined, and dependable. In fact, when I watch the typical 3.5 level player, I am usually amazed at how much extraneous and unnecessary movements are being executed. It is no wonder these players become exponentially less effective the harder they try to swing.

Click photo: Under pressure, pros will use a variety of strokes to neutralize an attack and turn things around.

From my perspective, watching the pros is tantamount to watching a well-oiled, finely-tuned machine crank out similar movements with repetitive refinement and precision -- no wasted movements; no loss-of-balance swings. When faced with a ball out wide or any difficult shot, they seem to shorten their strokes, blocking or slicing balls using a safer stroke, instinctively working to move the ball into a neutral position rather than take themselves out of a point completely. The recreational player, in comparison, will often swing wildly at such shots; the more difficult the shot, the harder they swing. Success, is very unlikely. Let's face it, whenever we embellish a swing pattern with elements that create the need for more precision in timing, we diminish accuracy as well as increase the probability of miss-hitting or miss-timing any the shot.

Practice Courts

This concept of seeing the pros create these repeatable, reliable swing patterns is probably most observable on the practice courts. For those who have never been to Indian Wells, California, there is no better facility to catch the pros working with their coaches or hitting partners. Spectators are allowed to stand right up against the short dividing fences that separate the fans from their idols in a way that creates a special intimacy rarely found at other tournaments.

Hitting with partners or coaches, the pros work on specific shots over and over, giving the fan a chance to really observe the repetition and stroke precision that each pro has. Whether it is hitting crosscourt groundies, volleys, overheads, serves, or returns, the practice court is where the pros continue to hone and perfect their already superb games.

It is also interesting to watch many of the pros work from dead ball feeds on specific shots. It actually surprised me somewhat to see a coach bring out several dozen balls and feed specific shots from a dead-ball position.

When you're nine years old, it's all about the autographs.

Two of the things I hope my daughter Kyla learnes from this experience is to see how intensively the pros train and see that the drills the pros execute are really not much different than the drills she works on at home.

Conclusion

The experience at Indian Wells is a must for anyone who plays and follows tennis. I was talking to a 40ish woman who was trying to get an autograph of Maria Sharapova (for her daughter…yeah, right!) after her practice hit. She was a newbie, never having traversed from Modes to to see a pro match.

“This is so awesome,” she said, mentioning that she and her family had considered going to the U.S. Open this year. “No way are we going to New York; we are coming back here next year,” she added. That's the way it usually goes after someone gets to stand a few feet away from a Maria Sharapova or a Roger Federer.

But students of the game can come away with much more than just a close encounter with their favorite players. They can see first-hand, the very elements that define the pros; and that players of all ages and abilities, can indeed work to emulate and incorporate, within their limitations, the things necessary to make them better players.

So what did my daughter take-away from her first professional tournament? A giant tennisball covered with autographs and a good time with her friend. Hey, she's only nine years old, what did you expect?

Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about Dave Smith's article by emailing us here at TennisOne .

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And check out David Smith's other articles found here at TennisONE.com

Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about this article by emailing us here at TennisONE.

David W. Smith is the Director of Tennis for the St. George Tennis Academy in St. George Utah. He has been a featured writer in USPTA's magazine ADDvantage in addition to having over 50 published articles in various publications.

David has taught over 3000 players including many top national and world ranked players. He can be reached at acrpres1@email.msn.com.

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