Planet Tennis vs Planet Earth
What We Can and Can't Learn From the Pros
If you've been watching tennis as long as I have, you've seen a lot come and go, styles of play, styles of dress, hair styles, ball colors, racquet designs, scoring systems, just about everything except the dimensions of the court and the height of the net at the middle. Inside the lines, over time, there's a moving picture of the game, alive and transforming. And if you like to study the game, as I do, the changes are both informative and provocative. I sit in front of my TV like a man starved for information. I'm alarmed and delighted by the changes. But, bottom line, as much as the game does change, one thing stays the same: the pros all come from Planet Tennis, athletes whose strength, speed, fitness and skill are on the level of superheroes to us folks from Planet Earth.
Think you're ever going to cover the court like Rafael Nadal? Only if you find a surgeon who can graft about a hundred Energizer Bunnies on your back. What about hitting a serve at 130 m.p.h., common for most men pros? In your wildest dreams, baby. Okay then, what about a 120 m.p.h. serve, routine for Venus and Serena Williams? Next incarnation, perhaps. Ever had a point last twenty or more strokes? Oh yeah, that's when your club had to bust out the defibrillator. And what if nearly every point lasted that long, as can happen at the French Open? Right, even in the bloom of your youth, you'd wilt.
Even top-ranked college kids play at a level that's beyond most recreational players' dreams. And the leap from college ranks to the pros is about as big as the Grand Canyon. Very, very few become successful ATP pros. So, if we don't have a wisp of a chance to play that well, what can we learn from the pros? Plenty. And then again, not so much. We're never going to match the physicality of the pro game, not even close. And, likely, we can barely imitate the techniques of the pros, but some aspects are worth copying. And certain pros can actually teach you how to play a point at the mortal, recreational level, if you know what to watch for.
Following are aspects of the game that I believe can be improved by watching the pros, and some aspects of the game that recreational players shouldn't emulate.
I couldn't count the hours I watched Steffi Graf's footwork. Okay, part of that, admittedly, was because her legs were designed by Michelangelo. Talk about shape! But in her prime, that woman moved with pure, animal grace and speed. She played always on her toes, as all pros do, but she also had nearly perfect erect posture, so that she seemed to float as well as move, bounce into a split-step and lift off as if the court propelled her.
I've written about this in another tip, but one of the poorer characteristics of recreational play is footwork. I see so many players on their heels, stationary, bent at the waist, butts out, as if they're ready to dive into a pool rather than play a tennis point. It's one thing that we're turtle-slow as compared to the pros; it's another thing altogether that we don't move the feet God gave us. People, people, people! Running is fun! You can relax after the match; during it, move!
Next time you watch a pro match, for a few minutes watch just one player. And don't look up above, no matter how cute you think Rafa or Wozniacki are. Just look at their feet. From the beginning of the point to its conclusion, you will never see a pro player on her heels or her feet at rest. All the movement is on the toes. You'll see stutter steps as they're waiting in ready position, then a split-step right as their opponent is hitting the ball, then a pivot prior to running for the ball, then side steps as they recover back to the middle, and then begin again to stutter step in ready position. So, okay, Nadal does this faster than the speed of light, but if we simply kept moving during the point, stayed on our toes, and made a split-step when our opponents were hitting the ball, our tennis would go through the roof. One of the reasons that defensive players are reactive psychologically is because they're physically static. Aggressive players are on the move to attack the ball. It's night and day, tennis life or death. No matter how slow your feet are, if you move them, you'll be a better athlete and player.
Want a free million dollar tennis lesson? Watch Venus or Serena Williams turn their shoulders and get their racquets back. You won't find cleaner or quicker backswings. No matter how fast the ball is coming to them, (and it's flying, believe me) they're ready with the first part of their swing. Now, if their opponent's placement is good enough, they may not have time to get in great position to hit their shot, but it's never because they've been tardy with their preparation. So, so important. My Coach Joe said that the backswing was, "the blue-collar part of the stroke, where all the grunt-work took place." How right he was. The forward swing may be relatively soft or hard, but the backswing necessitates effort and speed.
Here are some things to watch about the Williams sisters. The first part of their swing is a pivot and a shoulder-turn, not steps to the ball. Think of it as a free table of sweaters in Macys or, in my case, a table full of steaming pizza. If you want to run your quickest to get the prize, the first thing you do is pivot your feet and turn your shoulders toward the goal. If, rather,on your forehand, for example, you let your left foot cross over your right as you turn your shoulders, you can move sideways but not forward; you'll be all tangled-up. This pivot and backswing is hard, actually, because we do indeed want to get our feet moving quickly. But watch just their pivot and shoulders turn; then comes the running. Notice also that on their forehands, their left hands leave the racquet immediately; keep that hand at the throat, and your turn won't be complete. Also, on their backhands, both hands get close to their left sides or hips, the head of the racquet pointing to the fence behind them. Finally, look how the backswing is finished before the ball hits on their side of the court. The measure of readiness? Beat the bounce with your backswing.
A tennis point is usually going to feel somewhat frantic. The quicker your backswing, the more ready you feel, the calmer you play. Preparation and poise? Kissing cousins.
There's a reason God put knees in the middle of your legs: to bend and to stay down. It's sometimes hard to see this these days because the open stances of most pros find them leaping up as they hit (more on that later), but watch Clijsters for a few minutes and you'll see what I mean. She hits a relatively flat ball for a contemporary player, not unlike the strokes of most recreational players, just ten times harder. How does she control those strokes? She stays down! Look at her finish: back straight, knees bent, butt down as if sitting, while her weight is moving forward into the shot. Dear Lord, do more than watch her. Get a tattoo of that image on your forearm and consult it before every point.
Of course, staying down isn't easy to do. For one, it's hard not to want to jump up as we hit, driving up from the court with one of the strongest parts of our anatomy, our legs. But think about where your weight is and what your legs feel like when you throw a ball or bat a baseball. You drive your legs forward, toward the target; leaping up wouldn't do the trick. As well, there's another thing: eyes, eyes, eyes. We want to look up to see our shots and the glory that's about to be ours, lifting us right out of our sneakers.
Watch some of the taller players and you'll see an extra effort in this regard: Sharapova, Safina, Venus. In fact, watch Venus Williams' forehand. You'll see her often pull up and back from this shot, which is why she misses more on that wing. Don't be a Venus! Stay down.
Learn Some D
Likely you've seen a pattern here. Most of my study is around women pros--but not because of what you're thinking! Well, okay, a little bit of that. But mostly it's because the women play at a somewhat mortal speed, and most of them aren't 6'6" with legs like tree trunks and shoulders like cliffs. They're almost recognizable as athletes, even though they're hatched on Planet Tennis. But there's one guy I like to watch and direct my students to watch: Andy Murray. I know, when he's losing, he pouts and mopes and whines and carries on like a brat and a baby. Don't watch that part. Instead, watch his D, his defense.
It's so easy to get caught up in the power of the pro game, a Roddick serve, a Serena backhand, a Federer inside-out forehand, any kind of a Del Potro forehand, Venus' swinging volleys. Studly, to be sure. But folks from Planet Earth just can't play that way. It's bad enough they build the fences too low as it is! And if you watch carefully, you'll see that even the big bangers on the pro tour don't crush the ball all the time. Murray has incredible variety. Focus on him alone, and see how often he hits a neutral shot, slowing down his swing, aiming high over the net, and looping the ball deep into his opponent's court. By slowing down this way, he keeps himself in the point, cuts down on unforced errors, and deprives his opponents of short or weak balls that they can pounce on. Murray will do this shot after shot, if he needs to. It isn't glamorous, but it's way smart. Brad Gilbert was great at this, too. Relatively slow and weak for a guy from Planet Tennis, Gilbert had a winning record over many players that were better athletes than him, simply because he was an incredibly intelligent defensive player. Hingis was another one. Whether you're a singles or a doubles player, learning when to play offense and when to play defense, and how those two instincts braid to make one point is one of the hardest parts of the game. After all, Murray is by no means passive; when he gets his chance, he takes it by playing very aggressively. Turning the switch on and off is the hard part, but for recreational players, seeing that there's an off switch is the first step.
Build on Strength
Michael Chang only won one Grand Slam, the French, but he did it at about 5'8" tall, and my guess is we'll never see that happen again. They're growing them large, these days, on Planet Tennis. As you might expect from a guy that short, Chang didn't have a lot of firepower. He was the first pro, in fact, to go to a longer racquet, just to get an extra quarter-inch of height on his serve. But, still, he wasn't going to ace his way through a match, or burn down the court with the power of his ground strokes. What he did have, though, was a first rate pair of wheels. He was so speedy around the court, flagged down so many balls, and stayed so long in points that his defense became an offensive weapon.
Think about what you do well, just one thing. Are you steady? Do you have a big forehand, I mean, for Planet Earth? Can you hit a slice serve? Do you like to poach? Do you have good underspin ground strokes? A nice wardrobe? Wait, that won't help. But you get the idea. If you've been around the game for awhile, you know what about your play stands out. Build your game around that. For example, let's say you've got good underspin on your ground strokes. If you came to me as a coach, I'd say, "Great, but let's also learn to drive the ball." You might reply, "Been there and tried that. No go. Teach me how to win with what I've got." And I would. And you can.
It's a good and wonderful dream to have a fully developed game. But you don't need it to win. Graf, she of the lovely legs, could barely drive a backhand, but she could flat-out cream the forehand. Her husband, Agassi, had to have a Sherpa and a guide dog to find where the net was, but who hit cleaner from the baseline? Federer's one-handed backhand looks plain fragile and weak at the French, but he's one of the greatest players of all time. Hingis' forehand? Just ugly. But what anticipation and court sense. Davenport's foot speed? Please. She needed to take a taxi to catch up with the ball, but no one hit a heavier one than she did, so flat and hard. Dementieva's serve? Truly demented. But she's so steady from the back court. Figure out your strength and build on it.
Get An Attitude
Even among the citizens of Planet Tennis, the champions stand out, men and women whose grit and poise and determination combine in such a way that they command respect and admiration. Others, not so much--the whiners, shoulder-slumpers, racquet throwers, complainers. Watching those sad displays, we just want to say, grow the hell up. Still, some part of us can empathize. I'm fine in a private lesson, but put me in front of a group lesson and the man of a thousand words can stutter. I can't imagine the pressure of playing before thousands, fame and fortune on the line. Even in a social match, I can get tight. So, it's all the more compelling that some athletes stand out and, even in defeat, maintain their grace and composure. And it's those same athletes that you'll never see quit. Even when it seems impossible, they try, they lift themselves toward the moment and any glimmer of possible greatness. Federer and Nadal stand out. Serena and Clijsters. Chris Evert was huge for me, as was Sampras. I learned to adore Agassi. Choose your own idol. Keep an image in your mind of these players when they're down--their determination, their will to win. You know they hurt inside just like you and I do when we're losing. But look at those strong faces, the fire in their eyes. When you're down, remember that look of a champion. It may help you summon your courage when you need it most.
I hesitate to say this, because I believe I'll be able to pay off my mortgage early from the money I've earned curing wristy forehands students have been taught by other teaching pros wanting their students to look like Federer and Murray. I'll admit that I'm somewhat of a dinosaur in this regard, but I've taught a lot of very good recreational players, and I've never had one that could control that wristy finish across the waist. In fact, the topspin they're supposed to earn by this finish instead makes the stroke too level and flat, and they hit long, and I mean long. And when I'm changing their strokes, I also point out to my students that there are great players on the tour don't use that finish. You wouldn't see Venus or Serena hit that way--ever. Sharapova--no way. And even Nadal has changed his forehand finish, now regularly using a reverse follow through over his left shoulder.
Here's the deal. Topspin has nothing to do with hitting the ball's top. It's over- or forward-spin, created by hitting up the ball's back. So, even those wristy forehands that finish across the waist are low-to-high swings (proven by high-speed photography), but that's the part that recreational players don't correctly see and have a very hard time imitating and controlling. For a pro, the effectiveness of the whip finish is that wrist adds more racquet head speed, and by bringing the racquet quickly down after the low-to-high swing, the forward length of the stroke is abbreviated, making it harder to hit out. But for the recreational player, the opposite is true: we hit level strokes which create no topspin, and we hit long. We just don't have the hands. Naturally. We aren't from Planet Tennis.
Finish up and across your opposite shoulder. If it's good enough for Serena, it's plenty good for you. And it's so much easier to learn and control.
Open Versus Closed Stance
They've got fancy names for new Planet Tennis techniques. The step-into-the-ball, old-fashioned ground stroke is said to be "linear" and "closed." The new-fangled, open stance is "angular." Is one better than the other, provide more power, increase recovery speed to the middle of the court? You bet. Except for the "better" part. The open stance that you will see almost every pro use, especially on the forehand wing, is said to be more powerful and able to get you back toward the center mark more quickly, both good things. But is it better for folks from Planet Earth? It depends. Most of my students are doubles players, and I'm a huge fan of aggressive tennis, encouraging players to take the net, especially off their returns. For them, I never teach the open stance as the default ground stroke, because properly executed, the swing finishes with the body jumping backwards, (for a forehand) landing on a left foot that's behind the right. Why would a player wanting to take the net use a stroke that first moves them backwards? The same would hold true for a singles player wanting to get in. The old-style, step-in-toward-the-net stroke, is better for approach shots. Current pros aren't hurt by this because very, very few even know where the net is, let alone possess an active desire to move in and risk getting passed.
But can recreational players benefit at all from an open-stance technique? Absolutely. I teach open stances to encourage control of particular shots, closed stances for other placements. Let's say you're an ad court returner and you want to rip a forehand from inside the court and pass the opposing net player down-the-line in his alley. Use an open stance. By keeping the left foot on the left side of your body and your shoulders more square to the net, you'll find that your balance more naturally helps you hit earlier and bring your finish more quickly across your body, encouraging your inside-out placement. For the same reason, if you're a deuce court receiver wanting to pass with your forehand down-the-line, close your stance. Being sideways to the net will help with later timing and help keep your finish toward your target. Here's another example. Paying attention to what your opponent's ball does to your shoulders and stepping foot can help you improvise your placements. Say you're the ad court receiver and the serving team has gone into "I" Formation against you. The serve is usually going to the middle of the court. Which sideline should you attack with your return? Whatever one the ball directs you to. A serve really tight to the T will turn your shoulders and make you step across your body; hit cross-court, inside-out. A serve into your hip will open your shoulders; hit down-the-line, inside-out.
Western Grips on the Forehand
I hate to date myself, but when I was a kid, a pro before my time named Jack Kramer had invented the "modern game" by switching his grips more to the top of the racquet, the eastern forehand and backhand grips. Kramer wanted to serve and volley, and he found that moving his semi-western forehand grip to the backhand grip was too big a shift and took too much time, so to simplify and expedite grip changes, he moved to the eastern grips, using the continental grip for his volleys, right in between the two ground stroke grips. So, the current version of the modern game is historically reactionary, a throw-back to old timey tennis before Kramer, when full western grips were used on the forehand. The current folks from Planet Tennis do this for increased topspin and because, as mentioned, they have no intention of taking the net unless they're forced to do it. Should a recreational player go to the full western grip? If I were teaching a junior with tournament expectations, I would likely recommend it, depending on whether it felt right. If the semi-western grip felt better, no problem. It works for Federer. But for adult recreational players, I avoid the full western grip. Getting used to having the forehand grip rotated in such an exaggerated way discourages net play, because the continental grip is so different. And even at the baseline, the grip changes between the full western forehand and backhand grip take too long--for folks from Planet Earth.
Most pros use a kick, or topspin, second serve, and for good reason. Their opponents' ground strokes are like cannons, and if they give them a look at a waist-high bouncing second serve, the return is going to put the server on the defensive right from the first stroke. So the folks from Planet Tennis use a high-bouncing serve, trying to get the ball quickly up in the returner's strike zone, preferably above his shoulders. A spin, or slice, serve won't do that, so the pros kick the second serve. However, though I'm a strong advocate of having competence with both a flat and a spin serve, I hardly ever teach a kick serve to recreational players. I teach a slice serve, instead. For one, proper execution of a kick serve requires that the toss change, going up and over the left shoulder of the server. That toss is a dead giveaway that the kick serve is coming and, thus, makes it not a good candidate for a spin first serve, to change the pace and keep the returner off guard. I like spin serves for their added control but also their added variety. But to use spin as your first serve, the toss and everything else about the motion should look exactly like your flat serve. Disguise is everything. We may not have the strength and power of players from Planet Tennis, but we do have our brains. Have you been pounding the T with flat serves on the deuce court, punishing the returner's crappy backhand? Is it 40-15? On first serve, now's the time to slice one slow and out wide to the forehand you've been starving. See if you can get the returner to make up a two-point deficit with one swing of the racquet. Right into the fence! Learn a spin serve, but off the same toss you use on your flat serve.
Jumping on the Serve
Uniformly, the folks from Planet Tennis jump to hit their serve, leaving the ground like rocket ships bound for home. Does it add more power to the serve? No question. Leverage for the serve (or any throwing motion) comes from the ground; the power of the serve is primarily derived from a push from the legs. Should recreational players try? Absolutely--if it feels right. To most folks from Planet Earth, it doesn't feel right; they're too out of control, or at least feel that they are. That's enough. However, some students take to it quite naturally, even figuring it out on their own. Good for them. The most important issue for this, the most important stroke of the game, is comfort and security. Do what feels best. An embarrassing number of years ago, I got to see an aging Poncho Gonzalez pin the ears back on a college kid named Jimmy Connors, already possessed of his trademark, incredible returns. But, in his prime, Poncho's serve was so good, he just about beat everyone with that one stroke, one of the most famous strokes of Planet Tennis. Guess what? He never jumped to hit the serve.
Doubles One-Up and One-Back
Down at Stanford recently, I got to see the Williams sisters play doubles. I was sitting about twenty rows up from the court, but after some cowardly fans below me ducked, I got hit in the foot by a Serena overhead. Though it came from about one hundred feet away, it hurt! These girls are so powerful that they can play singles when they play doubles, keeping the baseline player back all the time. Even folks from Planet Earth know that one-up/one-back doubles is the worst formation to play, but not if you're a Williams sister. The baseliner just pounds on the other team, and often down-the-line, breaking the first commandment of doubles at will: thou shall not hit down-the-line at the opposing net player. Don't copy this! Recreational players don't win in one-up/one-back formations, and even most of the pros don't play this way. The networks hardly ever show doubles, but if you get the chance, watch established teams that come in to net, especially behind their serves. (Often returners get pinned back against the powerful pro serves.) Every player is making an effort to come in, and because the serving team usually gets there first, they hold. Watch the poaching, the communication, the encouragement of the partners between every point. Watch the footwork, especially of the server's and returner's partner, moving their feet even though they aren't involved in the first two strokes of the point. And watch the Williams sisters, too, just for the pure physicality of their play. But, please, don't imitate them. Go forward, toward the net!
Run Around the Backhand/Powerhouse Baseline Singles
For me, the thing that's changed the most over the years is how the baseline has become an offensive platform for singles players. Back in the day, when such luminaries as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratolova, Stan Smith, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and others were playing, the idea was that you served and volleyed, or, if stuck at the baseline, used your ground strokes to provoke short balls that let you take the net. That was aggressive tennis. The Bjorn Borgs and Chris Everts had their place, too, but even those baseliners didn't blow you away so much as they wore you down. Now, the players are stronger, fitter and faster. The racquets are more powerful, the strings more controlling. And offensive tennis is played from the baseline, forehands that thunder off racquets, backhands that get ripped down-the-line, topspin that kicks up high as your eyeballs--it's a whole different game. And it's a game that's successfully played only by folks from Planet Tennis.
If you're doubtful, just try running around your backhand and playing the court from the backhand sideline, like the pros. There's just no way you'll cover the exposed court on your forehand side if you're a recreational player. And if you can't match the footspeed of the pros as a recreational player, even a solid 4.5 or 5.0, the idea that you can match the pros' power and hit your ground strokes so hard that you'll take the racquet out of your opponent's hand is the stuff of dreams and delusion. Ain't gonna happen. The court is just too damn big, and control of high-speed strokes over those lengths is just too hard to master. The typical result is that for every blistering put away you hit, there's going to be five shots into the fence; you'll lose on unforced errors. For recreational players, steadiness is the primary virtue of singles play. Keep the ball in play and keep it deep, you'll win. If you can rip a winner every now and then, so much the better, but it's very unlikely that creaming the ball on every stroke is going to wind up as a W. Instead, learn to approach on short balls and pressure your opponent by coming forward. Learn to change paces and spins. Grind your opponents down with your patience, not your pace. Don't run around your backhand. Learn to hit one, instead.
c Keith Shein
Singles Clinic, Part 1