In my previous newsletter I discussed a “Feel for the Game,” as seen most clearly in the play of Andy Murray, Marcos Baghdatis, Martina Hingis and a few others. This feel, as the announcers call it, concerns these players abilities to vary their shots, spins, speeds, and court positioning. And though none of these players have reached the last rounds of the current US Open, their style of play can serve as a great model for you and I in our recreational pursuits. But just as there are many ways to hit the ball well, there are many styles of tennis that one might choose to play. And what follows does not imply that this is the best or the only way to play, but after nearly 40 years of playing and teaching, the following has been distilled from renown coaches and brilliant players. I believe it works, and equally it is so apparent to me when others play less well because of their inability to approach this “feel.”
There are a few immutable rules of play that flow from a simple awareness of time and angle. All considerations of tactics and strategy involve either time, angle, or a combination of the two. If your opponent is out of the court, and you take the ball early or hit the ball hard, you deny time to your opponent to run down the ball. On the other hand, if your opponent is out of the court and you float the ball back, the opponent has ample time to recover.
As to the angle of play, the farther one is from the net, the smaller the available angle of play, the closer to the net the greater the angle of play. But the simplicity of these statements belies the difficulty to make the correct decisions with each and every shot and that in a nutshell is the nature of a feel for the game. Whether watching junior or adult play at our club or in the local tournaments, it appears that most players simply knock the ball around the court without really coming to grips with these variables. The winner simply makes a few less errors, the loser a few more, but these players are “eaten alive” when competing against someone of equal hitting skills but a greater “feel for the game.”
So I encourage you to experiment with the following. Not in your next practice session, but rather for the next few months. See which of these plays you can execute, which of these plays you need to practice, and perhaps which of these plays require professional consultation (if what follows does not suffice).
It is All About Errors
The club champ is, in most case, the most consistent player around. In spite of the powerful racquets and massive topspin on the professional tour, at its base, tennis is a game of error management. At the end of the day if one player can keep the ball in play and the other cannot, it is easy to know who will be the winner. The “pusher” as they are so often derided, simply keeps the ball in play, content with long rallies, patiently waiting for the opponent to unravel. And this isn’t about grips or even technique; it is about footwork and concentration. Pushers often play with ungainly strokes, but they are always keen and quick on their feet. All that follows will not be readily executed if you are neither.
When moving to the corner (either forehand or backhand) and hitting the ball on the run, first and foremost you must be able to stroke the ball crosscourt. Not now and then, but nearly all the time. The net is lower, the court is longer, your recovery is minimized, but most importantly, you are keeping the ball in play from a difficult position and tempting your opponent to play across the highest part of the net if they attempt to finish the point. This is the most basic play in the game when in trouble, but for most juniors and adults this is not a “no-brainer” and it must be. When hitting on the run, develop a feel for the crosscourt, not a winner. Spin doesn’t matter all that much, just the ability to hit on the move and time the ball crosscourt.
When in real trouble, and generally this occurs when you are well cornered and well behind the baseline (you may or may not be on the run), you must learn how to float the ball. Might be a moon ball, might be a under spin, perhaps even be a lob. But the key is to restart the rally, regain your court positioning, and totally slow things down.
Pushers understand this. So does Roger Federer. The announcers routinely acknowledged how well he “defends” his court. The game is not always about power (and James Blake will be learning this for in spite of his incredible athleticism the announcers have yet to praise his defensive skills). Change the pace; vary the rhythm, slow things down at just the right moment. Acquire a feel for defense.
Varying Court Positions
Your opponent does not hit all his shots with equal length and speed. But that said, I rarely see players who vary their court positioning to suit the variety of shots they receive. To my eye, these players are much more adept at moving laterally along the baseline (though generally a few feet behind it) than they are at moving diagonally for the short crosscourt or retreating diagonally for the deep ball. And whether the error is on the short angled ball or the deep moon ball, these players always blame their shot making rather than their positioning.
If an opponent plays a ball short, you must move forward every bit as quickly as you would when chasing a ball across the baseline.
If an opponent plays a ball short, you must move forward every bit as quickly as you would when chasing a ball across the baseline. If an opponent plays a ball high and deep you must move back every bit as quickly as you would when covering a wide volley at the net. Players often tell you that they play much better when hitting with the club pro – the reason is the club pro controls the difficulty of the rallies and generally varies the width rather than the length of the shots. These players self destruct when playing their colleagues, who spray the ball much more randomly than does their pro. If the opponent’s shots are random in length and width, you must be willing to move and play the ball and the game from all positions on the court.
Awareness of the Opponent
Finally, learn to direct your focus across the net. It is so easy to dwell on errors, over analyze one’s strokes, and fall prey to the supposed pressure of the point. Well, pressure is not external, the ball doesn’t know it, and the score doesn’t know it. You and you alone create this condition called “pressure.” Once you learn to get outside of yourself, then the fun is to observe. And just as my friend Gil Grissom said in a recent episode when asked how he could discern the slightest nuances in a tape recording, he remarked blandly, “I listen.” Well equally, as your match progresses, you must watch. The opponents have many tells. They may slump their shoulders, if so turn up the heat. They may lose their nerve and bounce a lob selecting a safe forehand rather than a definitive overhead, if so take heart and lob more. They may exclaim, “How could I miss that shot!” which generally means they rarely every make that shot. If so repeat the situation. At the end of the day, winning is as much about error management as it is about making the opponent hit the shots they trust the least.
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Threading the Needle – the Down the Line Backhand
The modern game features more backcourt play and much of it on the backhand side. The crosscourt is safe, the net is lower, the court is longer, and the recovery simpler, such that these shots become predictable. Playing the ball down the line, when not successful, exposes a player to punishing counter plays, either a wicked crosscourt into the open court or an attacking drive back down the line. But for Jim McLennan, the ability to take the ball down-the-line enlivens the point, and generally separates the men from the boys.
Pre-stretching the Forearm on the Forehand
How do pros like Andre Agassi gain such great racquethead speed with a very short swing? They pre-stretch the forearm turning it into a rubber band! Vic Braden uses the APAS system to create a skeletal view to analyze Andre's unique forehand. In the video, you will see how he pre-stretches his forearm muscles in the middle of his stroke. Watch carefully how his forearm goes forward while his racquet moves back. This pre-stretch is the source of great racquethead speed.
Serve Your Way to Playing Better Tennis
The serve is the most important shot in tennis because it begins every point, that is a given. At the very least you have to get your serve in so the point can begin. However, if all you can do with your serve is just get the ball in, it is unlikely that you will win many games, let alone matches. Dave Kensler believes many players have way too much information on their minds about how they should hit their serves that it is little wonder they become tight.
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