Don’t Try This at Home
by Tom Perrotta
(original publication date: August 24, 2012 – The Wall Street Journal)
posted September 18, 2017
With the U.S. Open starting next week, many tennis fans will be watching Federer, Murray and Serena Williams for tips on how to improve their own games. Why it’s a mistake to try to emulate the bigger, stronger, faster pros.
You worship Roger Federer’s grace, his style, his exquisite timing and technique. You want to serve like Andy Roddick, smash swinging volleys like Serena Williams and hit running down-the-line winners like Novak Djokovic.
Well, you can’t—and it’s a bad idea to try. When Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slam titles, and the rest of the world’s best pros come to New York for the U.S. Open next week, they’ll perform all sorts of intricate feats that are nearly impossible to imitate, brutal on your back, and rough on your knees, elbows and shoulders. Your browser does g.
Pro tennis looks great on television, but be warned: What top athletes do won’t work for the weekend hacker. Former world No. 1 Mats Wilander shows us the right way for recreational players to play.
For many recreational tennis players, this is unwelcome news, and a big change from what they learned as children.
It used to be a laudable goal to model one’s game on that of a top professional. Teaching pros all over the world would preach the virtues of Rod Laver’s effortless style, or Chris Evert’s simple, clean and incredibly consistent strokes.
As modern tennis players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger and learned to hit the ball harder and with more spin, the gap between them and recreational players has grown. They’ve adapted to a faster-paced game with time-saving shortcuts and powerful flourishes that look great on television, but when attempted—and, inevitably, incorrectly copied—by weekend hackers, result in bad habits and even injuries.
“I don’t think people should ever copy pro strokes,” says Nick Bollettieri, who has worked with 10 No. 1 players, including Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova. “You’re looking at people who are doing this to make a living. They do this a thousand times a day.”
Another concern: Cutting-edge technology is great for pros. For rec players, it can be a mixed blessing and, at worst, dangerous.
Pros now favor polyester-based strings, which are dead and slick and require players to swing incredibly hard—which creates inordinate topspin, pulling the ball down into the court, in the right hands. For an ordinary player, swinging with abandon is fun for five minutes, “and then the next day you can’t move,” says Roman Prokes, a veteran racket-stringer to the stars. “I always recommend natural gut. Nothing feels better, it’s easy on the arm and you can play every day.”
Pros swing the way they do and use the equipment they use because they have to. They don’t have time to turn completely sideways and step into the ball with their front feet, so they hit most of their shots with an open stance, with their feet almost facing the net. They can’t afford to hit serves with their feet on the ground, as Evert did, so they propel themselves into the air. They barely have time to get to the net anymore, because the pace of the game is too fast and the passing shots too accurate. They need all the power and topspin they can get, and will sacrifice the feel of gut strings to get it.
Recreational players have more modest needs, ones that haven’t changed in decades: Consistent strokes that hit the ball deep in the court, patience, reliable footwork, well-placed serves and strategic acumen.
Jazzed up after two weeks of watching high-level tennis nonstop, that’s not what ordinary players want to hear. “The worst two weeks in the life of a teaching pro are the two weeks after a Grand Slam,” says Greg Moran, an instructor for 35 years and the director of tennis at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Conn. “Everyone comes down with I-can-do-it disease, and you don’t want to tell them, ‘I know you can’t do it.’ “
Peter Burwash, a former pro whose company manages tennis facilities at resorts and clubs around the world, tells people that they shouldn’t try to be like Roger, Serena and the rest because what they see on television is misleading. The pro game happens too quickly for the layperson’s eyes to comprehend it. “The speed of the game is so phenomenal and the ball is on the strings for so little time,” Burwash says. “People no longer understand basic things like contact.” Burwash bemoans the windshield-wiper finish that accompanies almost all modern forehands. In high speed, it looks like the player whips across the ball with a lot of wrist snap in an upside-down U-shaped motion.
In reality, the wrist is passive (the forearm rolls) and the hitting arm extends fully at contact, out toward the target over the net. The pro follow-through is a function of how hard pros swing and how well they set their feet and turn their shoulders. Copy the finish without the beginning and the result is a sloppy, whippy stroke that produces inaccurate shots and errors.
That’s just the beginning of what you shouldn’t learn from the pros at this year’s U.S. Open.
Open-stance forehands, which are hit off the outside foot (the right foot for a right-handed player): Past pros used to step into the ball with the inside foot on forehands (the left foot for a right-handed player). Pros rarely do that today, because they have little time to prepare when the ball moves so fast. Former No. 1 Mats Wilander, who now travels the U.S. and Canada to give tennis clinics, says the open stance makes recreational players lazy. “They wait for the ball to come to them,” he says. “The point in tennis is to take the ball as early as possible and take time away from your opponent.” Recreational players should step into the ball as often as possible.
Playing to your forehand: Pros generally shade way over to the left (or the right, if they are left-handed) and dare opponents to hit the ball to the forehand side. Recreational players are generally too slow to cover that much open court. John Evert, the director of high performance at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., sees a larger problem among juniors he teaches: “What happens is, they play too much on one side of the court and they don’t develop their backhands,” he says. His 57-year-old sister, former No. 1 Chris Evert, can still confound top juniors by playing in the center of the court and rallying endlessly cross-court. “She doesn’t miss,” John Evert says.
Jumping: Pros don’t “jump” when they hit; the force of their rotation and swing propels them off the ground. If you jump, you’ll likely be off-balance. Pros like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are pulled into the air by the force of their strokes, but ordinary players shouldn’t try to copy them by leaping.
The buggy-whip forehand: See how the right-handed Sharapova sometimes keeps her forehand swing on the right side of her body and finishes high above her head? Don’t do it. “Most club players swing too hard and try to roll over the shot to hit topspin,” says Rick Macci, who has taught Roddick and Venus and Serena Williams, among others. “They don’t learn to hit through the ball.”
The swinging volley, where the ball is hit out of the air with a full swing: This is another Sharapova specialty that’s too difficult to time for regular players, and almost always unnecessary. “A lot of pros will swing at a volley that is below the level of the net and hit it with topspin,” says Lynne Rolley, who taught a young Lindsay Davenport. “Lindsay used to do it with balls at her ankles and I would be flabbergasted. She had unbelievable hands.” Note to recreational players: Your hands are not unbelievable. A simple punch volley will suffice.
The delayed service motion: Most of today’s pros don’t lift their tossing and racket arms in unison, as almost all players used to do. They delay their racket arm and build up incredible racket speed (serves of 125 miles per hour are now ordinary in the men’s game). Roddick’s motion is among the most extreme examples. For regular players, the old technique is better and easier to execute. “The reason Roddick hits his serve 140 mph is because he’s Roddick, not because of his stance or the motion,” Macci says. Rolley has another serve tip: Don’t jump. “If you can’t toss the ball in front and hit a solid serve in the court while standing still, you shouldn’t be doing anything else,” she says.
Changing the direction of the ball: It’s easier to hit the ball back where it came from. That’s not good enough for pros, who more than ever take cross-court shots and redirect them down lines to catch their opponents out of position. Djokovic is the best in the world at doing this. “You have to have perfect balance to do this—if you wobble a little bit, you lose,” Bollettieri says. So ask yourself, “Is my balance perfect?” No, it’s not. The better-percentage play is to hit ross-court or even down the middle until you have an opening.
One-handed topspin backhand: It’s perhaps the most beautiful shot in tennis, and one of the hardest to execute. The body control, torque and timing it takes to consistently crack a topspin backhand like Federer’s or Richard Gasquet’s is uncommon among pros, never mind ordinary players. Macci’s advice: “Master the slice.”
So is there anything to learn from the pros at the U.S. Open, once they get you fired up with two weeks of sterling play? Bollettieri says the most important thing to mimic is how they compete and how they’re always ready for the next shot.
“The biggest thing you want to observe is their movement, their determination, their recovery,” Bollettieri says. “How early do they get ready? What do they do after they hit a wide ball, do they just stand there? No! Copy that. Go out there and try harder.” Their swings, you can do without. ~