Spring Training 2008 – Revisiting Old School Tactics
Over the holidays I have been in a wide ranging email stream with many colleagues about the state of the game – and more importantly – how the state of the professional game influences recreational play. And much like the differences between Republicans and Democrats, there appears an equal divide between Old School and New School when it comes to how our game of tennis is viewed and taught.
In the Old school (you can clearly see this in videos of 1970 or 1980 Wimbledon or US Open matches) the players were crafty, much more often at the net, the racquets did not offer nearly as much power, and though definitely fit, the players did not move as robustly as we see today. In the New School, and you see this with the men and women on tour, the players hit much bigger forehands, volley rarely, and in many instances trade huge groundies with little regard for patterns or court position. The question in my mind is whether these New School trends can be adopted with similar efficiency by you and me. And as you may surmise by this point, I firmly believe the Old School model makes far more sense.
To my mind, Old School had much more to do with court management, hugging the baseline, the willingness and ability to finish points at the net, a reliable and accurate return of serve, and an effective though not necessarily massive serve. And more than any other player, Jimmy Connors epitomized that style of play. Consider a competitive record that included 8 grand slam titles, 160 consecutive weeks ranked # 1, US Open titles on grass (1974 over Rosewall), clay (1976 over Borg) and hard courts (1978 over Borg yet again). But more than any of this consider Connors’ 1991 run to the US Open semifinals at the tender age of 39. Rarely do players compete successfully at such an age; others that come to mind include Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez, but truly that feat speaks volumes about tactics, about understanding the game, and about the mastery of basic skills that you and I (as well as many of our modern big bangers) may unfortunately overlook.
So as you and I prepare for the upcoming USTA season beginning in April, I believe much like baseball players who retreat to Florida and Arizona in winter for their spring training, we can step back to re-emphasize and retrain our fundamental – but in this case with special reverence for if not adherence to the Old School style of play, with specific attention paid to court position, shot selection, and the ability to think about and embrace a tactical style of play. The following elements were the cornerstone of Connor’s game, and have little to do with blazing power or ripping forehands, but more to do with simple tactics that ultimately rule the game.
Hold Your Position on Defense
Connors played the underspin backhand from relatively close to
Hold your position on the baseline when floating the defensive underspin backhand. This shot is now used throughout the game, when players are pushed wide and well into the corner; the floating underspin cross court backhand slows the ball down and provides just a little more recovery time. But note Connors or Agassi, played this defensive shot from relatively close to the baseline. Holding that position allowed an easier transition to offense if the opponent did not capture the advantage.
Consider that Federer is so darn good at moving quickly from defense to offense, and this has to do as much with his court position. On the contrary, players who chip from well behind the baseline (Roddick) generally play the remainder of the point in the defensive mode.
Set the ball machine to play difficult balls out wide to the corner, and practice crafty underspin cross courts standing as close as possible to the baseline.
Get the Return of Serve in Play
Connor’s strokes were short, compact and simple, much like the returns of Andy Murray who leads the ATP winning, 45% of his return games.
Get the return of serve in play every time. Jimmy Connors’ return was as good as it got in the 1970’s. Holding his ground, his return of the first serve was reliable, and his return of the second serve was often deadly.
In the modern game many of the big hitters (Roddick and Blake) return inconsistently. Connor’s strokes were short, compact and simple, much like the returns of Andy Murray who leads the ATP winning 45% of his return games and 44% of the points when returning the opponents first serve.
But to master this, you (and I) need regular return practice, not once a month, but actually at least twice a week. Hold your ground; use the incoming pace to block the ball, crosscourt more often than down the line. Get every ball in play.
Move Forward on Short Balls
Move forward on short balls to finish the point with a winning volley. You must hold your position on the baseline when rallying, playing defense, and returning serve – the next step is your willingness and ability to move forward to take control of the point.
In so many instances within Connors 1991 US Open run, long rallies were punctuated by his crisp up the line approach followed by decisive cross court volleys into the open court. Certainly we see less and less of this in the modern game, perhaps because the players use much more power and topspin to deter the volleyer. But it may also be because so many of our current professionals were fed a continuous diet of baseline groundstroke play, so they never perfected their net skills. But opponents do play the ball short, and create golden opportunities to move forward. Be like Connors – finish at the net.
Improve Your Second
You will forever be as good as and known for your second serve. Sampras credits his seven Wimbledon titles to what he described as “the best second serve in the game.” And though not nearly as deadly on his first serve as Pete, Jimbo had a reliable, accurate and confident second serve.
Jimbo had a reliable, accurate and confident second serve.
Too often players practice their flat first serves but overlook the importance of regular work on their second serves. Placement, spin, and consistency are the hallmarks of this shot and you will only make progress with regular practice.
Make a regular commitment with a practice partner and once a week serve a bucket of second serves and have your partner practice returns, then reverse the drill.
Revisit your fundamentals this spring. Hold your position on the baseline. Float the underspin backhand when pushed wide and into the corner. Get every darn return of serve in play. Move forward on short balls to finish the point at the net. And finally, and most importantly, improve the consistency and reliability of your second serve. At the end of the day this may be much more important than a huge forehand.
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