All About the Russians - Meaning it's All About Footwork
Women's tennis 2004
Truly an amazing year, Russian winners of the women's singles at the French Open (Myskina), Wimbledon (Sharapova), and the US Open (Kuznetsova) as well as a Russian finalist at both the French and US Open (Dementieva). Truly, from any vantage point, the Russian contingent is simply overwhelming. Elena Bovina, Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova, Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, and Svetlana Kuznetsova - and there may be another 20 waiting in the wings.
Russians Myskina, Sharapova, and Kuznetsova won three out of the four slams this year.
I studied an article in the New York Times prior to the US Open, and what struck me was how "hungry" the Russian women were portrayed. Overcoming imperfect practice facilities in Russia, many have succeeded in spite of earlier hardships. But I think there may be more to the story.
To my eye, these players are generally unremarkable, without crushing serves (a la Williams), without all-court forcing games (Davenport), no one possessing elegant one-handed backhands (Mauresmo) or even killer forehands (Steffi Graf comes to mind but on this score Kuznetsova strikes it pretty well). Somehow these girls know something about movement and balance that sets them apart from the international field.
Click photo to hear Jim McLennan talk about the art of movement and the center of gravity.
I queried a tennis coach friend from Southern California, Eric Mann, who has coached international caliber juniors and has participated within the USTA high performance coaching ranks. Eric told me he had seen many of the girls over the years at the international junior tournaments, and he knew "they were coming." To quote, if not slightly paraphrase Eric, "The promising girls work with Olga Morozova (former Wimbledon finalist to Chris Evert) and an elderly ballet teacher at the Institute of Sport in Moscow. When they first start, before tennis they work on balance and ballet, similar to the efforts years ago by the renowned Welby Van Horn at the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico. Welby trained balance first and then put a racquet in their hand.
Presently, it appears that the Americans focus on hitters hitting the ball hard, whereas the Russians focus on balance and movement. Once balance and movement are mastered then the Russian system focuses on point construction (and certainly we saw just that in the French Open when Myskina mowed down the competition in her last three matches). The Russian crop have come up with that approach - ballet - then movement - then tennis strokes - then tactics and strategy. One of the primary fundamentals often overlooked, is that balance and movement wins matches, and certainly the Russian system embraces just that.
Click photo to hear Jim McLennan talk about why the Russian girls seem to move so well.
I shared this story with an early morning foursome at the club on a recent Saturday morning. They interrupted me mid-sentence to acknowledge that they all knew the Russians had studied ballet. I asked how they knew. "Isn't it obvious in how they move," they blurted in unison. Synchronicity, there must be something here, even I knew that.
In the physical world, balance is about the relation between the center of gravity and base of support. Imagine a brick, or smaller but similarly shaped cell phone. Lying flat on its largest surface, the brick is most balanced or stable as its base of support is large and its center of gravity is low. From this position the brick (or cell phone) can be moved, but it cannot be tipped or knocked over. Balancing the brick on its side, the center of gravity is higher, the base of support is smaller, the brick is still balanced but now more easily tipped over. Finally, balancing the brick on its end, the center of gravity is highest, base of support smallest; the brick is most easily moved or knocked off balance.
Stay with me now. When the brick moves from its balance point, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. Potential energy is the ability of an object to do work. If I lift a bowling ball (or brick) up to a mantle, the bowling ball has attained significant potential energy, as were it to fall from the mantle the falling ball would do significant work if not damage to what lied below. Well truly, this relation between center of gravity, base of support, and conversion of potential to kinetic energy, is what dancers know, and what movement trained tennis players can feel.
The stick balancer (below) shows us the ebb and flow of movement. In this example, a cart moves left and right with a stick balanced upon it, but moves in such a way that is does not drop the stick. This is a somewhat common physics experiment in control theory. But for our purposes, note that the cart shuttles left to get the stick off balance, then the cart chases the stick and only moves past the stick at the end of the run to once again rebalance the stick. That is, the stick rests vertical when the cart is directly below it - stability. The stick moves right when the cart is slightly left of the sticks center of gravity - dynamic instability, and the stick regains its vertical balance when the cart moves slightly past the stick. The motions are hypnotic (at least to me) and provide an excellent metaphor for effortless dance like movement.
The stick balancer in motion.
I believe the Russians, and other dance oriented tennis players, learn to move much as the stick, by capturing dynamic instability. In these cases the footwork appears quick rather than explosive (Myskina in spades) with a dance like fluidity. But when hitting, the dancers are trained to widen their base of support, and lower their center of gravity (Myskina and Dementieva are good ones here) to improve their stability and balance while driving forehands and backhands. Finally, when hitting on the run, these dancers move their base of support beyond their center of gravity (just as the cart does to decelerate and rebalance the stick) so as to create an immediate recovery movement. Again watch the stick balancer to visualize movement to the ball and then back to center.
There may be a subtle seduction with the power game. High tech racquets are all and always about increasing power. The flamboyant professionals (not including Federer) are generally known for blinding power (Roddick and Williams) rather than cat like cunning. But there is more to this wonderful game than just the hitting. Should you and I go our and join a ballet class? Not necessarily. But if any cross-training made you more aware of your own movement, you would be the richer. I guarantee.
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Jim McLennan TennisOne Editor
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