Part Four:

Graf's forehand.  Agassi's endurance.  Serena Williams' power.  Sampras' serve.  Hingis' court sense.  Federer's forehand.  Chang's foot speed.  Henin's backhand.  Edberg's backhand volley.  McEnroe's lefty serve.  Navratilova's serve and volley.  Nadal's topspin.  All these great stars, with games so incredible that a recreational player couldn't realistically aspire to any part of them, yet we remember these champions usually because of one thing they did remarkably well.  So, okay.  If we come from Planet Earth rather than Planet Tennis, we're never going to hit the ball like the pros.  But all of us, at every level, can cultivate one thing that we do best, one weapon that we can rely on, one shot we love.  Like Coach Joe said, "Get it done with what you're good at."

Following are some examples of weapons that students of mine have developed and how they use them in actual play.  As always, the names have been changed to protect the notable.  No one wants to have to answer their door late at night to satisfy an autograph seeker.

Get A Weapon

Gary With the Scary Forehand

Years ago I coached the men's team at a local college.  One young man, Gary, had a forehand like a cannon but not much else.  And Gary liked to play the ad court in doubles, the hot seat, as we all know.  He loved to return down-the-line.  I explained things to him.  I said that the first commandment of doubles is Thou Shall Not Hit Straight Ahead to the opposing net man.  Because that's what Gary wanted to do, not pass down the alley but perforate the net man.  I said no, no, no!  I put my hands on my hips.  I mentioned that ad court players often have the game-deciding points on their racquets, and that discretion wasn't a bad thing.  But Gary just kept at it, often with a grin, because it most always worked, even after his opponents started to look for it.  Gary took the ball so early and hit it so damn hard, it was not unusual to see opposing net players go sprawling and hit the court.  He made few friends around the league but he made a believer out of me.

Sarah With the Suave Lob

Sarah's an A level league player, a thin, small thing of a woman who can hit big off the ground.  But Sarah plays the deuce court and where she really excels is at the net.  As she made it up the ranks of A women's tennis, she found that her power off her ground strokes wasn't really exceptional, especially hitting cross-court to forehands.  Opposing baseliners had seen it and more, and Sarah's deep drives didn't often produce the high volleys she wanted at mid-court when she charged the net.  So she learned how to hit a lob with underspin, this little punch at the ball that could take the hardest serves and deftly float them over the server's partner.  She can do it off the forehand and the backhand.  And she does it all day long, lob, lob, lob, forcing the server to run behind her partner and pinning the server high on her backhand wing.  What she gets in reply is another lob, and with Sarah and her partner both waiting at the service line, one of them has the loveliest overhead to put away.  Sarah backs up the lob with drop shots and sharp chips.  As soon as the server's partner backs up to take away her lob, Sarah stops fearing the poach, and feathers the ball over short cross-court with the same-looking preparation as her lob.  So, it doesn't matter to Sarah whether her opponents know she's going to lob, and believe me, she has a reputation.  Her weapon is underspin, either lobbed or chipped, and she's going to get you one way or another.

Ms. Hoover Up At Net

We'll call her Ms. Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner, because she cleans up so many balls with a poach.  Ms. Hoover isn't particularly tall or possessed of a great wing span or remarkably speedy feet, but, man, does she ever poach.  She moves early and often, meaning she dares to break for the ball even when the receiver may see her, and she keeps poaching even if she's missed a shot.  Just relentless.  And as soon as she gets into the heads of the receivers, she starts winning points without poaching.  She baits receivers into going for passes down-the-line, to hit harder and harder, to make placements more sharply cross-court away from her.  The result?  Mucho unforced errors off the return, and wide balls toward her partner's alley which set her partner up for a pass down-the-line.  When I asked Ms. Hoover how she got so good at poaching, she said something amazing, "I was unsure of what I could reach, so I just kept trying to cover more court."  That's just the opposite of most players who respond to the uncertainty of what they can reach by not trying at all, nervous of a mistake.  Not Ms. Hoover.  Fearless.

Trevor With the Tricky Backhand

Trevor (actually a female student) is a great deuce court player.  He's got a huge forehand that servers quickly learn to stay away from,  which presents a problem for Trevor because his backhand's comparatively weak, and he just likes to get the ball into play with a chip.  Pretty soon the server's partner gets wise and starts to poach off Trevor's weaker, slower backhand.  But Trevor has turned a liability into a strength with a trick shot.  After the first poach, the next time the server makes a placement to his backhand at the T, Trevor takes the serve from the middle of the court and chips it down-the-line into the server's partner's alley.  Then he does it again.  He only has to do it a couple of times early in the match to make his point:  don't move on me, or I'll pass you.  As no net player really expects a pass down-the-line from the receiver's backhand at the middle of the court, opponents are always surprised.  Astonished, is more like it.  And Trevor doubles down on his trick shot by lobbing off his backhand with the same chip.  By the time the match is done, Trevor usually has the server's partner backed up to the service line and hugging the alley, absolutely marginalized.  Not bad for a pretty weak backhand.

Early Edith On the Return

Talk about quick hands.  Edith can wave hello, adjust her visor and rip a forehand for a winner while you're saying, "Hi," in reply.  She drives her returns with very abbreviated backswings, ala Agassi.  However, even though she's a high A level player, in women's tennis she doesn't see a lot of high-powered serves.  So Edith crowds the service line for her returns.  I mean, four feet behind it, just camped there, intimidating the most confident servers.  Serve against Edith and you feel claustrophobic, like the court's been made shorter and there's not enough room.  Naturally, servers take the challenge and try to hit harder and harder, as if Edith cared.  She just takes the ball on-the-rise and rips it.  That's if the server gets the serve in, because Early Edith forces a lot of faults, pressuring the server out of her comfort zone to find more pace.  Or servers are tempted to make placements nearer to the lines.  But Edith's early position in the court leaves her better able to cut off the server's angles; servers wind up playing to her strength.  Just this simple distortion of the court, crowding the service line, makes Edith a singular and feared returner.

Billy the Backboard

It's a guy thing.  The same disinclination to ask for directions, even if means getting terribly lost, also finds many men thinking that they don't need tennis lessons.  They'll figure it out on their own, watch some pros on TV, check out the better players at the club, copy them and that'll be that.  That'll be a disaster, usually.  By the time Billy actually decided that he needed lessons, his strokes were--well, to put it kindly--a jumble.  A forehand with more wrist than a squash player gone berserk, a one-handed backhand but with his shoulders fully open on the finish, follow through pointing to the court next to us, a serve that's difficult to politely describe.  I pride myself on being a good stroke fixer, but Billy was more than a challenge.  His habits were nearly set in stone, four solitary years of wacky do-it-yourself education.  Bottom line, if Billy tried to hit hard (another guy thing), he was a recipe for an unforced error.  So, because we couldn't significantly change his strokes, Billy changed his game to become a retriever, relying on good, quick feet and daunting patience.  He's prepared to stay in the point until tomorrow, which means he's very tough to beat.  It isn't exactly pleasing to watch, but Billy's got the temperament of a bull dog and he wins match after match just by getting one more ball back onto play.  He infuriates his opponents to death.  Of course, his opponents are guys, particularly vulnerable to Billy's steady diet of spin, moon balls, drop shots, pokes and pushes.  Guys think guys should hit hard.  Billy thinks he should win.

Chrissie and the One-Handed Chip

My student, Chrissie, came down with a nasty case of tennis elbow.  We tried the obvious thing, switching her one-handed backhand to a two-handed stroke to relieve pressure on her arm.  Chrissie is a talented athlete, and though she had years invested in her one-handed stroke, in about two months she'd learned a really good two-handed one.  She hit it harder than her one-handed backhand, and she was immediately better going down-the-line for passing shots from the ad court, which she plays.  And her elbow problems went away!  I felt like such a good coach.  So I was a little surprised when, after another month, Chrissie dropped her two-handed stroke and went back to her one-handed one.  She'd missed her sharp, cross-court chip, her best shot, and an incredible weapon for an ad court returner.  I argued that she could use both strokes, but Chrissie felt that she'd learned the take the ball early on the chip, a timing that she couldn't duplicate with her new two-hander.  I couldn't argue with that.  Chrissie turned her back on new-found power to reclaim a trained weapon, a chip hit really early and sharply angled cross-court.  With it, she yanks opposing servers off the court and out of their shoes trying to run down her angles, then volleys behind them for winners.  When I lamented the control she'd learned down-the-line with the two-hander, she added to her repertoire, using her early chip to punch the ball low and into the alley.  That's ad-court weaponry at its finest.

Learn To Shoot

Having a weapon and using it wisely are two different things.  A tennis match doesn't offer regular opportunities for winners.  Often we have to hit neutral shots and defensive ones.  If in these circumstances we try to turn compromised positions or down scores into winning shots with our weapons, our big shots usually break down and we make unforced errors.  Following are some examples of how players adjust to different situations.

Chrissie Versus a Lefty Server

Chrissie's sharp chips from the ad court are typically against right-handed servers, attacking their backhands that usually have a tough time going down-the-line to pass off her angle.  But what if the server is a lefty?  Now it's a forehand pulled wide, and Chrissie has jeopardized her partner's alley by using her favorite shot.  No good.  Chrissie, smart lass, counters.  She chips a lob down-the-line, attacking the server's backhand.  Once she gets the server thinking about that lob down-the-line, Chrissie waits to see if the server takes a couple steps closer to the center mark to run those lobs down.  Then Chrissie counters again by returning to her sharp chip, cross-court.

Billy Backboard Versus Another Counter-Puncher

Billy counts on opponents' impatience.  They're just guys, after all, he reasons, they can't help but try to over hit.  Mostly he's right.  But what happens when Billy comes up against another counter puncher?  The points last forever, and Billy does have a life besides tennis.  Billy doesn't fall into the trap of trying to hit harder or make better placements to win the point.  That would make him like any other guy in what passes for typical guy thinking.  Instead, Billy uses two different strategies, both involving the net.  First, he takes every opportunity of a short ball to reply short into his opponent's court, drawing the man in.  Billy tests the guy's net game.  Can he volley, hit an overhead?  If the answer is no, Billy has his solution:  drop shot, pass, drop shot, lob.  But if the guy likes it at net, Billy takes the short balls on his court and launches deep approach shots.  He takes the net more often himself in order to shorten the points.  Flexible guy, that Billy.

Early Edith Versus a Savvy Server

Not all the servers are dumb all the time.  Some servers, seeing Edith crowding the service line, comprehend the obvious:  the girl's got quick hands and she likes speed.  High, slow, loopy serves can throw a player like Edith off.  She's used to pace; she anticipates it, welcomes it.  Her short backswings make her more than ready for it.  But what if Edith gets no pace?  It's easy for her to get ahead of herself and swing too early, the same way a baseball pitcher catches batters off-guard with his change-up.  Naturally, Edith has an answer for servers that slow down the pace.  Edith switches to a loop backswing, a longer gesture that helps her eat up the time it takes the slower serve to get to her.  Edith still takes the ball early, from just behind the service line, but she has to slow down her swing, timed to the service.  And for those servers that go at Edith's body, dastardly girls?  Edith chips.  It almost looks like she's hitting a volley.  But she lifts her already shortened backswing into chip position and reaches in front of her to cut off the placement before she gets jammed.

Scary Gary and Ms. Hoover Versus the Score

Though Scary Gary made a believer out of me in breaking the rule of going down-the-line against opposing net players, I made a believer of Gary in playing the score.  Gary had the green light to slam his forehand down-the-line but only if the score was in his favor, early in the game or in the set, but most particularly if he had a lead.  In part, this had to do with the relative weakness of Gary's backhand return and other parts of his game.  These weaknesses forced him to think that the only way he could win was by blasting forehands, and when he relied on that stroke too much, it broke down, good as it was.  This was a natural result of negative thinking, feeling that he couldn't win any other way.  But the other issue was that, particularly as an ad court player, Gary needed to be cognizant of the score.  If he took risky chances at 30-15 and missed his return, that gave the server a 40-15 lead and a near-guarantee of holding.  But at 15-30, it was Go, Gary, Go.  The worst case scenario was a missed return or a poached return for a winner and a 30-30 score, still leaving his team with a decent chance to break.  This same caution of playing the score informs Ms. Hoover's poaching.  She learned that by poaching with a lead she really could do no wrong, whereas if she missed a poach when her partner was serving at Love-30, for example, and put the team down three break points, her partner wasn't particularly happy with her.  This doesn't mean you shouldn't take chances if you don't have a lead.  I mean, if the ball is right there, go for it.  But overall, being cognizant of the score and planning to play a conservative or an aggressive point accordingly is a sign of someone who knows how to use his weapons.  Fire away, but learn how to shoot.

c Keith Shein

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