When tennis enthusiasts visit a professional tournament, especially one like the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, California, initial impressions usually involve subjective observations like being awed by the footwork speed of nearly all pros or impressed with the power of their serves or groundstrokes. Certainly, the close proximity of the pros to the fans gives tennis aficionados a real taste of life at the top of the game; for many first-time visitors, it can literally be a moving, memorable event. Let's face it, tennis on television (high definition not withstanding), just doesn't do it. And few tennis venues allow fans to get as close to the pros as the Pacific Life Open, especially on the practice courts.
Interestingly enough, many of my students, after watching these pros hit, seem to have a strong desire to go out and play. And many of the same people tell me they play some of their best tennis, after watching professionals and there amazing arsenal of weapons. So, why is it that we seem play so well after watching the pros?
Repeatable Swing Patterns
While nearly every pro possesses characteristics and idiosyncrasies that define their games and “tennis personalities,” there is one commonality that clearly separates the pros from the recreational player. This shared element is the fact that all pros stroke similar shots with very regular, repeating patterns. You could define professional strokes as being “Machine-like” or “Robotic” in the production of dynamic, dependable stroke patterns.
These repeatable swing patterns allow pros to respond to hard-hit shots with unwavering consistency. In addition, aiming becomes so much easier when the stroke is dependable and consistent.
On this running forehand (left) and this inside out forehand, Tommy Haas uses the same repeatable swing pattern necessary to produce effective shots.
Watching the typical club player, you will often see two or three different swings, usually based on their position relative to the ball and their balance, (or lack there of!). Even when pressed to return a difficult ball, the pros are able to move, set up and stroke the ball with a using the same swing pattern as if they have routinely hit that same shot hundreds of times (which, of course, they have)!
Club Player Breakdowns
There are really is two general components of a stroke that recreational and club players usually fail at…it can be one or both, and one can cause the other to fail.
Swing Pattern: This technical side of tennis is usually the most often written about. You pretty much can’t buy a book or DVD without the issue of stroke production being discussed. If your swing is unreliable, then certainly the resultant shots hit will be unreliable also. If you use wrist, swing with different swing paths, or change your body position for each shot, you won’t be able to hit too many balls with the same result.
You must remember that aiming in tennis involves three dimensions: Height, depth, and lateral direction. Too high, too low, too far left or right, too short, or too deep all will result in an error. So, if your swing changes on every hit, aiming becomes extremely problematic. For example, let’s assume you hit with a racquet face that “rolls” from open to closed and hit it late. The result will be a ball hit too long. If you aim lower, but you hit the ball earlier, your ball goes into the bottom of the net. Based on this second swing, you should have aimed higher not lower!
Click photo: Seen in slow-motion, you can easily count the number of steps taken by Juan Carlos Ferrero between shots.
Body position/Balance: This second component of a good swing is often generalized under the category of “footwork.” Because footwork determines the position at contact as well enabling proper balance, players who don’t move appropriately or effectively will end up in a inferior position to strike the ball even if they have a great swing pattern. Positioning oneself too far from the ball or too close, or if a ball is too far out in front or hit too late, the resulting direction inconsistent …significantly different in many situations!
Pros move their feet an average of 10 to 12 steps between every hit. Similar studies show that top college players move 8 to 10 steps, high performance club players (4.5 to 5.0) move 6 to 8 steps, 3.0 to 3.5 level players move 4 to 6 steps and players below 3.0 can be seen moving only 2 to 4 steps.
Watching the pros up close, you can get a real feel for this movement: the persistent “chirping” of tennis shoes screeching around the court is a constant reminder of all these steps the pros are executing in every single rally.
So it is easy to see how flawed balance caused by poor footwork can cause errors to creep into your stroke technique. Thus, there is a marriage between movement and stroke production that all players must perfect: for pros all the way down the ladder to the lowliest of club and recreational players.
How Can Watching Pros Help You Improve?
Understanding this relationship of repetitive swing or stroke patterns coupled with getting to balls under balance and in correct position is literally the first step in hitting more confident and consistent tennis shots.
When watching the pros there is another element that is subtle, but noticeable; this ingredient can be used by all of us to improve our games.
Hit and Hold
This simple phrase, one that I have talked about in other articles, is one of the most powerful concepts in terms of developing more consistency and accuracy. You can see it among the pros, but, more importantly, the consistent use of this phrase can help you hit better shots too.
Hit and hold is the idea of holding your finish after a shot. This means to hold your feet as well as your follow-through for a moment.
Roger Federer holds his finish very well after
The idea is to create a start and finish to every shot. In addition, by intentionally moving so that you know you will hold your finish, you will hit with better balance and body control. One of the biggest faults I see among recreational players is their inability to stay balanced on most of their strokes. Granted, there will be shots you simply have to run for and won’t be able to hold any finish. However, most players move minimally and reach for the ball, causing their center of gravity to be well off during and after each swing.
If you watch the pros, even at the high speeds of their shots and the speed of having to react to an opponent’s shot, you will see them hold their finish in most all situations.
If you work on moving with the intention of holding your finish, you too will be well on your way to playing much better tennis!
If you work on moving with the intention of holding your finish, you too will be well on your way to playing much better tennis! Your ability to create a more reliable and repeatable swing pattern will begin to develop and your level of consistency will improve. When your consistency improves, your confidence becomes enhanced and this creates the opportunity to hit more effective shots, the cornerstone of more advanced play.
A lot of people don’t believe that watching pros or emulating professional level strokes can be helpful. In my opinion, this is far from the truth. In fact, for the most part, while pros swing with significant force, their stroke mechanics are usually very sound and efficient. But, more importantly, they exhibit more discipline in their stroke mechanics and you can see that very clearly in watching them up close. However, even up close, observers can miss many of these stroke nuances and key points. Using high-speed video analysis like that found on TennisOne can make the invisible visible and the processes understandable.
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