So the story goes, as a youngster in Los Angeles, Pancho Gonzalez had a “mentor” at a public park. Pancho and Mentor would scan the courts, and select (probably with the Mentor's guidance) a suitable stroke, perhaps an underspin backhand approach shot. Pancho would study this particular person and exactly how that stroke looked – the grip, the position of the arms and hands during preparation, nuances of the feet, tempo and length of the follow-through, and probably more. Pancho would then commit these images to memory (important to note there are no words or cognitions in this mental picture) and work diligently to copy this stroke until it became his own.
Click photo to hear Jim McLennan talk about the value of quiet observation.
As a coach I thoroughly believe in the power of images, the inherent logic in using professional form as a model. In many, if not most, instances, we can learn simply by watching, if, in fact, we are attempting to learn when we watch. Certainly babies do just that - from the floor, they observe everyone walking around them. They don't go to “walking school” but sooner or later they rise up onto wobbly legs to copy the movements they have seen around them.
With that said, and with the Australian Open looming on the Southern horizon, are there styles of play we can observe, and with assistance, perhaps glean one or two elements, commit the images to memory, and then develop these elements of style into our own?
(An apology in advance to any of you who disagree with these examples – they are simply footnotes to embellish the story – and are generally accurate)
The big hitters – Andy Roddick, Tommy Haas, Serena Williams – power rather than court position are key, crosscourt play is less an issue than cracking the ball to the opening. If you want more of this in your game, note how much (repeat how much) they crouch prior to the strike – legs torso everything is down and flexed to uncoil into the hit. This tremendous racquet speed is generated from the body.
The big hitters: Tommy Haas, Serena Williams, Andy Roddick
The best example in recent memory of the big hitting style was the 2004 Wimbledon Final, where Andy Roddick nearly blew Federer off the court. In the first few sets his power was truly unbelievable, at one moment I even imagined Federer could have been hurt (Becker and Agassi have both injured if not broken bones in the wrist from mishit forehands).
The backboards – Lleyton Hewitt comes to mind. Note the quickness of the get back step and the predominance of cross court play. The backboards are willing to hit one more ball, nothing more, nothing less. If you can keep the ball in play for six hits, they will make the seventh; if you can keep it play for ten hits they will make the eleventh. But in addition to consistency, the backboards are rarely out of position, and they accomplish that by a near instantaneous recovery step a moment after contact (note not before or during contact, but rather a moment after contact). Conditioning, intensity, uncommon focus, and a deep well of patience are the keys here.
Lleyton Hewitt: lightning quickness and steadfast consistency.
The magicians – Fabrice Santoro – the one and only underspin forehand on the men's circuit, and how fascinating to see him release the racquet from his right hand and follow through on this underspin forehand with his left hand only. He is my absolute favorite player because he simply does so much with what appears to be so little. Not a big serve, not a big forehand, not a big backhand – but oh what angles, oh what shot selection, if you have never seen any of his matches you are in a for a treat.
The counter punchers – David Nalbandian – note the change of tempo, and the ability to entice over hitting and or overplaying. To add more of this to your game, emulate the look of the spinney, skidding underspin backhand and a sharply angled short crosscourt forehand – both are used to create errors from the opponent. Much like a boxer or martial artist, the counter puncher uses the opponent's tempo and placement to guide their own shot selection, but always with an eye for uneven rhythm
The attackers (in this case referring to court position) – Taylor Dent, Tim Henman, Stefan Edberg – court position is everything here. Note how eager they are to move forward, approaching from the backcourt on nearly any ball that is not terrifically deep. If you want more of this in your game, note how brief the preparation appears on the approaching shots, and how the players appear to move through the approaching hit. Nothing static or planted about this footwork. And finally note the agile split step, for these guys will have to cut sharply and quickly to cover many an opponent's passing attempt.
Click photo to view Taylor Dent, one of the few true net rushers on the men's tour.
I have read research on modeling behavior that explains how we play slightly better after watching a televised professional match. Our brains have observed how it should look, and surprisingly, the slightest amount of that actually creeps in. The converse is also true. If you watch a lot of inexperienced play with uneven strokes and unique (how is that for a euphemism) styles, those same elements will also creep in.
So take a page from young Pancho, make a point of imprinting the style of a player you want to emulate. Rehearse until you can clearly see those images in your minds eye. Then go on court armed with a new vision and perhaps a new you. Sounds like a New Years Resolution to me.
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Jim McLennan TennisOne Editor
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