Constructing a Point: Andy Murray and Brad Gilbert
Darren Cahill, the coach of now retired Andre Agassi, has been a candid and prescient commentator at this year's Australian Open. Cahill speaks plainly and has a wealth of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of the professional game. His remarks about Andy Murray are worth a closer look. Cahill is impressed by Murray, and said that more than having a shot at the top ten, he is top five material because of his ability to “construct points.” Certainly Federer creates patterns, shifts from defense to offense, and varies pace, spin and court positioning. But there were telling comments from both Agassi and Sampras, when interviewed on screen during the first week of the Australian Open, and both seemed to imply, if not outright state, that most of Federer’s competitors lack variety, they are more hitters of the ball than players of the game. Murray is an exception, and there may be a few things he does that you and I can learn from and try in our own “recreational” way.
Andy Murray may be top five material because of his ability to construct points.
Brad Gilbert, author of Winning Ugly, and former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, is now both coaching Andy Murray and working for the British Lawn Tennis Association. As a player, Gilbert was able to get more from his game than perhaps any player on the tour in his era. Without a big serve, or any other particular weapon for that matter, Gilbert won by smarts. In college he played for Tom Chivington at Foothill Junior College and then for Allen Fox at Pepperdine. Chiv and Fox were (and are) astute students of the game, and honed an appreciation for tactics, strategy, and a keen awareness for winning skills in their willing student. In fact, Fox’s book, If I am the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win, may actually be the heir to Winning Ugly. And to this day Gilbert, Chivington and Fox remain thick as thieves.
When estimating the point construction abilities of former players, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors both come instantly to mind. Mac and Jimbo had it all, knew the game inside and out, and both had remarkable results well past their prime, which is a telling testament to their skills. And as a rapt viewer, some of their matches at Wimbledon and the US Open were amazing smorgasbords of tactics, strategy, and incredible shot making. Sampras rode his serve, Agassi his ball striking skills, but when it came to variety and using the entire court, it was all about McEnroe and Connors. And something else. Lacking a killer serve (Sampras), massive forehand (Lendl), or incredible foot speed (Chang), these guys, and this includes Murray, had to construct their games from many interrelated elements.
So what can you and I do to enter this territory, learning how to “construct points.” First, it must be said that points end in one of two ways, by either an outright winner or, much more likely, an error. Errors can be forced by extremely good shots or unforced, without real cause. When it comes to tactics and strategy, every player has to evaluate his/her own strengths and weaknesses, and equally evaluate an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. So in the simplest form, tactics involve reducing one’s errors and inducing an opponent’s errors. But at a deeper level, point construction involves the patterns, spins, and court positioning that ultimately influences the ebb and flow of errors. At the end of the day, awareness and variety may be the keys to this thing. Let’s explore.
Learning the game, we focus on hitting the ball, mastering footwork, and the nuances of grip and spin. But this process occurs in close quarters, all about how the shot feels at the moment of contact. Unfortunately, many players do not really progress to the other side of the net, and that is to develop the awareness for their opponent's tendencies, their court position, their most and least favourite shots, and when and in which situation are they most likely to choke. But this skill is about the ability to constantly shift focus from the ball at contact to the other side of the net, and then back again. Some of us look up before we hit the ball; others never really look up and over the net at all. But in order to construct a point, first we must be aware of all the options available because of what is happening on the other side of the net.
With our junior players we practice a drill called “offense-defense.” Two singles players position on opposite baselines. I toss the ball deep and well into the corner, encouraging a defensive cross court shot. The opponent, awaiting the reply, must evaluate the quality of the incoming shot and equally see how quickly the defender recovers. But truly, this is a very difficult drill. Experienced players (5.0 ish) can quickly decide when to move forward and volley the defensive floater, hold their ground and drive the ball to the opposite corner when the defender has hit the ball too hard or short, return a defensive crosscourt floater if the opponent had played the ball extremely deep and captured sufficient recovery time. And though at the professional level the coaches do all the scouting as to a player's strengths weaknesses and tendencies, it is left to you and I to see all these things on the other side of the net - focus on the point of content followed by awareness of the big picture.
To expose an opponent’s vulnerabilities, one must own a wide array of shots. Murray changes pace and spin in a very unpredictable way, from similar positions and stances he may rip the ball, roll the ball, drive the two hander, or slice a one handed backhand. But similarly, the trick for you and I (when practicing with either a partner or ball machine) is to vary speeds, spins, and targets.
Murray changes pace and spin in a very unpredictable way, from similar positions
At our club, the general routine on the ball machine is to practice the same shot again and again and again. Rote practice without variation. Certainly that is the surest way to master a stroke, but once mastered my question is whether that practice regimen actually reduces one’s tolerance for, if not awareness of variety? And as a personal digression, I believe that most of the players produced at the junior factories learn and then play just this way, big drives, powerful hits but no imagination. So the next time on the ball machine, I suggest placing three targets in different places, and then attempt floaters to the corner, topspinners short and crosscourt, and booming drives deep to the backcourt.
Now let's sit back and watch this young Scot’s career flourish – talented, young, getting stronger, and well coached (why did the US let Gilbert get away – good question).
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