Variety – Mix it Up – Explore
In the modern era, no one mixes spin and varies tactics better than Roger Federer and Martina Hingis.
Martina Hingis is on record saying, “How little so many of the girls know about the game.” I interpret this as regards the sameness of the baseline play, the inability to mix spin and pace, and the apparent unease we see when many of the girls come to the net. In similar fashion I have heard Roger Federer’s game described as “old school” in that he can play in all areas of the court, he mixes spin, varies tactics, and often befuddles his tactically challenged opponents.
Some months ago, on 60 Minutes, I saw clips of an academy style training program, where rote repetition of skill appeared to be the norm. However, Hingis and Federer are absolutely not the norm, so perhaps they can inspire a little more variety and exploration in you and me.
This observation came to me while watching players drill on our ball machine. In one regard their object was to hone particular strokes, groove the swing pattern, and ultimately create unconscious competence, a state where the stroke functions on automatic pilot. But on the other hand, I suspect this manner of repetition may actually stifle creativity, and limit the range of stroking options available in any on court situation.
You may be thinking, this guy is asking me to learn varying grips, varying spin, varying height and varying speed. Yes I am. Many people resist this, even though taking lessons. They imagine that any effort to learn something new might actually cause them to get worse rather than better. And to that I concern I respond, “Approach this with a beginner's mind” – with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. The term is often used in the study of Zen Buddhism and the martial arts. “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.”
So with a “beginner's mind,” let’s explore a few practice routines you might experiment with using a ball machine or a practice partner.
Alternate Spins and Grips
From the baseline, alternate forehands and backhands, but at the same time alternate spins. Forehand topspin, backhand underspin, forehand underspin, followed by backhand topspin. In each case make full grip turns for the forehand topspin, and the backhand topspin.
If you have read much of Dave Smith's articles here on TennisOne, you are well aware of the importance of grips, and further, you either know or will soon find out that a continental grip may be used to create underspin on either wing, an eastern forehand or eastern backhand grip will be much more comfortable when driving the ball with topspin.
As an aside, our ball kids worked a match with Martina Hingis many years ago at the Bank of the West tournament in Stanford, California. And watching her play from the sidelines, it was amazing to see how many grip changes and grip versions she used. Semi-western topspin forehand followed by a continental gripped forehand drop shot. (Similarly, her hand was all over the grip on the backhand side as well.)
Alternate Pace and Height
From the baseline, again alternating forehands and backhands, now vary pace and height. Drive the forehand, fade the backhand, lob the forehand, short the backhand.
Many of Federer’s baseline oriented opponents are challenged by Federer’s short underspin crosscourt backhand. They move forward and then must decide whether to approach or retreat, and this moment of decision or indecision leads to many an error. The same can work for you.
From the service line, again alternating forehands and backhands, now work on your half-volleys, where most of the time the ball is bouncing at your feet. Practice finesse, varying between placing the ball deep, and then underspinning a soft drop shot.
From the middle of the service box again alternating forehands and backhands, now work on placement, varying down-the-line volleys with delicate crosscourt chips.
The best players from any era, though on this particular skill Edberg, McEnroe, and now Federer come to mind, place the volley either deep and behind the opponent or angled in front of the opponent. Placement is key.
Click photo: Martina Hingis seems to float gracefully around the court. How do you move?
Finally, begin to monitor your footwork. But not in the normal fashion of furious feet and explosive starts. Rather, pay close attention to your effort, to the sound of your shoes on the court, for the pattern of steps to see whether you are skipping and shuffling, or whether you are gliding. This is most easily done on a ball machine, where you are moving from side to side, not rushing, and not exactly corner to corner, but moving from the forehand to the backhand.
The baseline is 27 feet wide from singles sideline to singles sideline, so set the ball machine to shoot four to five feet from each sideline, so you are moving 17 to 20 feet from one shot to the next. Further, set the timing on the machine, or with your practice partner, so you have time to get to the ball somewhat easily. Now the fun begins. Monitor your breathing. Often in this drill players take short, shallow breaths and get winded far sooner than normal.
Further, if you are skipping or shuffling you will tire more quickly than if you are turning to move and gliding. For just as important as the variety of your shot making is the quality of your movement. Quality describes effort and output, where agility is truly known as the skill of moving quickly and easily. Federer glides, Hingis floats, how do you move?
(Click link to purchase Jim's McLennan's Secrets of World Class Footwork Video.)
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