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There are so many darn ways to hit the ball, and so many ways to play the game, that sometimes we overlook the obvious -- we move past the basics and do not pay enough attention to the simple fundamentals that rule the day. Posture and balance seem to be rarely addressed, but when in poor posture or off-balance, the entire stroke becomes corrupted, vision becomes compromised, and a game that can be smooth and flowing becomes effortful, muscular, and ultimately difficult.
I played all through high school and college and then had the great fortune to meet and be coached by Tom Stow. Tom coached many of the leading players in Northern California, and Gladys Heldman, the editor of the magnificent World Tennis magazine, dubbed him the “Maestro.” Among his protégés was Don Budge, America’s only Grand Slam Champion.
For Tom, it was always about balance, but in a manner so meticulous it defied expectation. And for someone (me) who I thought played reasonably well, he showed me how easily I became out of balance, sometimes grossly and sometimes only in minor ways, but there I was.
Tom was always in search of the perfect weight shift, perfect posture, and perfect balance against the ball. I had played 10 years and never had my game so completely deconstructed. But with each lesson and each month, as my balance and posture improved, I became more accurate, more confident, and more powerful.
Within the TennisOne library (available to TennisOne Members), we have three overlapping references to balance and posture. The Tom Stow suite explores Tom’s methods, his approach to hitting the ball, and how to play offensive tennis by always moving forward. But as always, the overriding feature was balance, posture, hitting heavily but without effort, and placing one’s weight against the ball.
Gary Adelman has written extensively about the Alexander technique, and its relevance to tennis. The Alexander technique, developed in Australia, worked to improve the posture and bearing of stage performers, where the task is to open the shoulders, lengthen the spine, and lift the head; not with effort but much like a dancer, in a graceful manner. Interestingly, our greatest champions move with a grace, posture, and bearing, much like those stage performers who are trained in this method. And my personal Alexander teacher, Ed Avak, has likened nearly all of Federer’s moves about the court to the body awareness promoted by this unusual training.
Finally, Jack Broudy has written many articles about the 8-board and how it feels to remain centered, on-balance, and turning into the hit without extraneous effort. I use the 8-board both personally, as well as within lessons. The player stands on two independently rotating platforms to explore the nuances of turning the body while maintaining balance. Ultimately, one becomes much more aware of balance and posture, whether or not one “wobbles” when turning, and how it feels to have the center lead and the arms follow.
In the main, this theoretical overlap, to my mind, demonstrates that balance and posture are the building blocks of the game. And despite semi-western grips, high-tech racquets, physical conditioning, and excellent nutrition, if you are off-balance, if you are leaning forward and over the ball, the stroke just won't feel right. And until you discover your own posture and balance, you may never really know how awkward many of your shots look and feel.
Ready, Read, React
First things first; consider the 3 – R’s; ready, read, and react. You are on the baseline (or at the net) awaiting your opponent’s shot, and at contact you must ready yourself so that when you read the direction of the shot you can quickly react. But somehow this “ready position” appears more like a straight legged bent at the waist version, and in so many lessons, whether adult or junior, the command, “Get Ready” becomes translated as crouch over with the shoulders down and forward.
Federer turns to his side with his weight on the back foot
Watch the professionals when they're awaiting serve -- many crouch and lean forward, but the moment prior to the hit they straighten up into a position (known as monkey within the Alexander technique) where the back is absolutely straight, and the knees and ankles are lightly flexed. Monitor your own ready position. Observe others on adjacent courts. This one is all about posture.
Starting correctly - turning to the side on-balance. The introduction to lessons with Tom Stow, generally commenced with his command, “Show me your turn, how do you prepare for the forehand (or backhand)." Often this was performed amidst the crowded pro shop, ladies dresses everywhere, where the initiate would perform awkwardly their initial move.
Tom found fault with all performances – either off-balance, poor posture, hands too high, or where the hapless student had stepped in where Tom simply asked to see the first move. And truly, most recreational players do in fact step in when turning to the side, such that the weight shift (stepping in) occurs much too soon. When done correctly, and with hours of practice, this move was completed when the student could place their entire weight on the back foot, with their shoulders and hips turned to the side, and the front foot loose and the knee flexed. And in this special position, one could truly feel both one's posture and balance.
Click Photo: Andre kept his weight on the ground and balanced against the ball.
Finishing correctly - turning in to the hit on-balance. “Hold your finish!” “No, no no. Hold your finish.” I can still hear Tom, not exactly yelling, but displeasure ringing across the court as I struggled to get on-balance as I finished the stroke. You can experiment with this as well. Can you stroke the ball; finish with all your weight on the front foot, posture erect, shoulders open, head up, and lightly tapping the back foot? Certainly, this doesn’t at all matter when on the run, when playing defense, when scrambling about the court, but it can be done when returning basic shots. We overlook these basic shots because at the end of the match we are prone to remember more the dramatic winners or untimely errors, rather than how well we did on those simple shots.
I know many of you will tell me (and I do enjoy the emails) that the game moves much too fast and one cannot always stay on-balance. And further, professionals jump, leap, and do everything but play on-balance. Well, I disagree. Agassi kept his weight on the ground and balanced against the ball, as does Federer. And when returning serve, especially the opponent’s second serve, rarely are we forced to run, leap, or lunge. The return of the second serve offers the perfect opportunity to play on-balance, weight against the ball, impeccable posture, truly graceful, forceful and consistent.
Go back to the basics. Are you on-balance? Are you aware of your posture? Spend some time there; it will be well worth your while.
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Training an 8-year Old
Progression Drills: From moon balls to taking the ball on the rise. Dave Smith and his daughter Kyla are now in their tenth month of training. Here Dave shares many of the more advanced live ball drills they are working on. Though they are moving towards live ball rallies, they still employ many “Pro-fed” drills to continue her development in a logical progression. The emphasis here is to improve her ability to move to the ball.
Return of Serve Drill
The two most important shots in the game are the serve and the return of serve because they are the first two shots played on every point. Here, tennis fitness guru, Pat Etcheberry, presents a drill he created for Pete Sampras specifically designed to help improve the return of serve. Learn to move quickly and stay low, plant your outside foot in front of your inside foot, and shorten your stoke and you to can develop a world class return.
ProStrokes Gallery - Juan Carlos Ferrero's Serve
Nicknamed the Mosquito, for his tenacity and court movement, this 27 year old Spaniard was ranked number one in September of 2003. He reached the final of the US Open that year, losing to Andy Roddick, and owns two French Open titles from 2002 and 2003. Primarily a clay court player, Juan Carlos is currently ranked 21st. His whip-like forehand is deadly accurate, and with a few wins this year at key moments he may yet again crack the top ten. Check out Juan Carlos Ferrero's strokes in the TennisOne Prostrokes Gallery. New this issue, Juan Carlos Ferrero's Serve.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
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