What We Can Learn From the Pros
Joe Dinoffer, USPTA and PTR Master Professional
More and more top level tennis is broadcast on television than ever before. And, if there’s a smaller event that is not on cable, it’s often available on the Internet through live streaming technology. It’s a great time for those who love watching tennis. In contrast, not that long ago, tennis used to be televised only four times a year during the Grand Slams plus perhaps during the occasional Davis Cup or Fed Cup match. That was it. Yes, times have changed. And it’s all good for tennis.
Unfortunately, most tennis players watch pro tennis for entertainment and a little general inspiration, but not much more. Few tennis players actually watch tennis to also learn and improve.
Top professional tennis players have an entourage of supporters, ranging from coaches to hitting partners to fitness trainers to managers. One of the primary responsibilities of each of these team members is to ensure consistency in all aspects of the life of their player. Many of these patterns become grounding rituals that stabilize the player and help them improve. Rituals can provide the foundation on which a player can stand tall, much like a public speaker standing on a solid stage.
Click photo: On-court rituals are a part of the game. Here we see Novak Djokovic bounce the ball five times before he's ready to serve, but it is not uncommon for him to bounce the ball as many as fifteen times or more.
Consistency in rituals breeds consistency in real play. Easy to say, hard to execute. In the context of this discussion, we will discuss rituals, which are defined as any consistent behavior pattern that helps a player’s performance.
At the professional level, the team members’ cumulative responsibilities start when the player wakes up in the morning all the way through the quality of their sleep at night. Of course, non-professional players like us cannot dedicate 24 hours a day to playing tennis. The question for the recreational player is which rituals are the most important and reasonably easy to implement.
In this article, we will cover two types of rituals. One will be on-court and the other will be off-court. You may be surprised that many of the basic rituals embraced by professional players are easy enough to replicate for us mere mortals. Please note that each one of these rituals could be explained in much greater length, and we are sharing just a few ideas to get you started.
- Practice like you want to play – Consider just two things on this topic. Intensity level and style of play. Decide on a desired level of intensity that includes focus and movement. Then practice that way. Every time. This will help you play as you practice. And, if you’re a steady baseliner, practice with drilling patterns that you want to use in real play. Likewise, if you mainly play recreational doubles, then practice patterns to help your doubles, working mainly on serve, return of serve, volleys, lobs, and overheads.
- Serve rituals – This is an easy one to see and learn from on television. Top tennis professionals perform the exact same ritual every time they walk up to the baseline to serve. Starting position, relaxation, ball bounce, breathing, etc. Since the serve is the most frequently hit shot in tennis, it makes sense that it needs to be among the most dependable shots in your arsenal.
- Return of serve rituals – What is the second most frequently hit shot in tennis? No doubt about it. The return of serve. The problem is that it is also among those least practiced. Rituals for returning serve include a starting position (that can be adjusted to each server you face), balance, planning, having intended targets, etc. What is one of Roger Federer’s rituals each and every single time he gets ready to return serve? He twirls his racquet. Is it a nervous habit or is there a purpose behind that fidgety looking ritual? Try it yourself. If you fall into the trap of gripping your racquet too tight, you may benefit from this ritual. Just be sure to breathe while you twirl and then swing away.
- You’re only as good as your second serve – While some of the top ladies have their bad serve days, most players can’t get away with more than just a couple of double faults in a match. Remember that for each free point you give away, you have to win one point just to make up for it. If an average two-set match contains 120 points, then giving up a handful of extra points by double faulting can make all the difference in the world. The answer is to work hard at developing a second serve. It is arguably one of the most important shots in tennis.
Click photo: Practice like you want to play. If you primarily play a serve-and-volley game, set up drills to practice that style of play.
- You are what you eat – This sounds so cliché, but it is all to true. Our body is an energy system and tennis requires energy to be played. There is an abundance of helpful information available to players on what to eat and when (both before a match and after). The slight adjustments for many of us to perform better are often surprisingly simple. It’s worth investigating and is a topic that has undoubtedly been covered in more detail on Tennis One in the past.
- You are what you drink – If you’ve ever felt really thirsty, this tip is for you. You see, by the time you are really thirsty, it is usually too late to expect optimum performance as you are undoubtedly partially dehydrated or you wouldn’t feel that thirsty. Keep in mind that on particularly hot days, just drinking water is not enough. Mixing water with some type of decaffeinated sports drink may be called for. But, just like diet, best is to consult with your doctor and do your own research to find the right balance for your own particular needs.
- Warm-up off the court – Growing older has its benefits, but unfortunately, staying injury free is not one of them. One proven way to help minimize the risk of injuries is to warm up gradually off the court. To many, the thought of warming up sounds boring, but think of the option. Science tells us that if you increase your core body temperature by just a little bit, you are significantly reducing your chance of injury. Take a few minutes to get a little sweat going and you will also improve the quality of your movement and therefore your performance as well.
- After play – We’ve all felt stiff or slightly sore a few hours after play. If you would like to minimize the amount of soreness, it’s really not that difficult. Invest 10 minutes and do some light stretching. Not only will a little added flexibility help your performance and make you feel better, it will also help you minimize your overall risk of injury. Other simple yet sage advice is to eat a light snack shortly after strenuous exercise and be sure to rehydrate.
In addition to trying some of the rituals discussed in this article, I want to share a fun improvement-based exercise you can do in your own living room while watching your favorite players on television. The viewing angle for tennis on television is generally end to end and we watch from behind one end of the court. The perspective is like you are standing behind the player closest to the camera.
Here’s the tip: Since early preparation is a key to better play, try preparing with the player closest to you. Stand up and pretend you are holding a racquet. As the player across the net is serving or hitting their shots, turn and set your imaginary racquet for either a forehand or backhand. Don’t guess, but actually try and pretend you are the one on the court who is playing. Your task is to try to read the direction of the incoming balls. Then compare your preparation speed to the player closest to the camera. This may not be an easy exercise at first, but, over time, you are certain to improve your own preparation speed by regularly playing the pros in your own living room.
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