A Feel for the Game
I heard this at Wimbledon and have been thinking about it ever since. In the match where Andy Murray upset Andy Roddick, the announcers made repeated reference to Murray’s “feel for the game.” Similar comments were made about Marcos Baghdatis, and I wondered why that reference is rarely if ever made about American players.
Andy Roddick and James Blake both big hitters to be sure but do they have a natural feel for the game?
A “feel for the game,” to my mind, describes a knack for court management, an ability to change speeds and spin, vary tactics and tempo, and deprive the opponent of the rhythmic sameness offered by the big hitters. Notwithstanding the success of James Blake and Andy Roddick (among many others), as regards a “feel for the game,” these guys are bangers rather than thinkers, hitters rather than players. And when I reflect on much, if not all, of the instructional material offered in magazines, sport science journals, and biomechanical analyses, it seems that all the material is aimed at how to hit the ball, and generally how to hit it quite hard, without much reference to how to use the court, vary ones shots, and ultimately how to “play the game.” Certainly Martina Hingis is just such player with a “feel for the game,” and let no one forget John McEnroe’s feel. None of his strokes looked particularly classic, but his mind (and Martina’s) was miles past the others when it came to playing the game.
So what are the elements that define a feel for the game? What are the shots and tactics that Murray and Hingis and a few others (this definitely includes Federer) use? And how can your appreciation for their style of play migrate across to your own game?
Have you noticed how often you play just a little better after watching the finals of a tournament. There is something about watching skilled performers that causes the slightest subliminal influence within the observer. Such that instead of watching the finals of a tournament and going out to bang a few balls, perhaps there is a chance that you might go out and experiment with a feel for the game.
Click photo to go to website: Hingis varies her shots from topspin to backspin, from pace to floaters, from angles to depth and her opponents are much less able to anticipate and get a jump on them.
First and foremost these players employ a wide variety of shots. Variety can disrupt an opponent’s rhythm and confound an opponent’s anticipation. When Hingis varies her shots from topspin to backspin, from pace to floaters, from angles to depth and her opponents are much less able to anticipate and get a jump on them.
In addition to topspin and backspin, Murray uses the occasional sidespin on his one handed backhand and when coupled with his driving two hander hit with the same stance, the opponent is often left flat footed. Further, as these two players use nearly every square foot of the court, the opponent may actually guess rather than anticipate. And in those instances Andy and Martina can easily change their shot to hit behind their opponents. A feel for the game is first an understanding that variety deprives the opponent of sameness, of rhythm, and of predictability.
Degree of Difficulty
In each and every situation, players must decide whether to play crosscourt, to the middle, or down the line. The decision also includes whether to add or borrow pace, how close one aims to the line, and how to adjust court position after the shot. But whether in the recreational or professional ranks, players sometimes choose shots that are nearly impossible when something far less difficult would do the trick.
Click photo to go to website: Can Jimmy Connors transfer some of that all court magic to Roddick?
In the last few days I marveled at Andy Murray’s lob winners, reminding me of another player from the past with a real feel for the game, Jimmy Connors. In a number of instances, the opponent approached crosscourt to Murray’s backhand side. And truly, Murray has great feel for the two hander, playing with disguise and power up the line as well as crosscourt. But in these instances, Murray hesitated just slightly, allowing the opponent to take just one more step into volleying position, only to deftly roll crosscourt topspin lob winners. If the opponent attempts to guard against just such a lob in subsequent situations, they may shade just slightly deeper, which then opens the court for Murray’s pinpoint passing shots.
This one is all about footwork, and on this score I believe the Americans have ample room for improvement. If you watch Murray trade backhands with Roddick or Blake (and the same goes for Hingis trading backhands) there is often the slightest “tell” in the rhythm and hitting stance that gives the shot away. Where Blake and Roddick pound the ball heavily, Murray swoops to the ball, but in the swooping lies the disguise. Murray, Hingis, Federer, McEnroe, Connors, they can all play crosscourt or up the line with the same stance, arriving early and somehow neutral so the feet and tempo don’t give away the shot. But to confound the opponent, they don’t disguise every shot, just the occasional one.
And when you combine variety, simple shot selection, and disguise; you truly play the game at a level far above the norm. Players rather than hitters. Thinkers rather than bangers. This is Andy Murray, this is Martina Hingis. Watch them this summer, it might just become a little bit of you.
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