Federer, Relaxation, and Effortless Play
How He Makes it Look so Easy
As we are all both tennis players and also tennis fans (assuming you are like me on this), our games and styles of play are influenced by what we see both on television as well as on adjacent courts. But just as modern players are more fit and their swings more vigorous, we may lose sight of the feeling of “effortless play.”
In a recent article last month entitled “Tension is the Enemy,” I explored the feel and outcome of a stroke with as loose a grip as possible. Quite a number of readers responded favorably to the idea of holding the racquet as loosely, throughout the swing. I can recall Whitney Reed playing with a similar style, and was told of the “soft” hands of Erik Van Dillen (former US Davis Cup star) and how calm, quiet, and relaxed his grip appeared when volleying. Well, if loosening the grip is a valuable experiment, I would like you to consider taking it one step further.
Contrast the style of this years US Open titlists, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova. Pictures of them side by side at or about the moment of contact are quite revealing. Roger appears calm with an unfurrowed brow, and Maria fighting, tense, almost up tight. Further, Maria’s grunting (reminiscent of Monica Seles) is in sharp contrast to the silent fluidity of the Swiss Genius.
It is not my place to criticize in any way the stellar play of Sharapova or Seles before her, but there is something to learn when watching players who do not fight the ball, who do not grunt loudly with each hit, and who do not betray the tension of the stroke (if not the game) in their faces. In fact, we have an excellent young player at our club who grunts with every shot. And on one level she exudes tremendous effort and concentration, but on the other hand, there is not yet an awareness of efficiency or of the ability to get the most out of the shot with the least input of energy.
A similar comparison can be made between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, for when stroking the ball side by side, as incredible as it may sound, simply examining their facial expressions tells you which stroke is the better. There is a singular effect of this tension in that it might just pull the shot off line, and there is a cumulative effect of this tension that accrues over a long match if not a long season. But at the end of the day, it is all the same, tension in any body part migrates from the part to the whole.
As a player and student of Tom Stow, whom I rarely if ever pleased with my play, I can remember him saying, “Nice shot Jim, but I can’t really ever remember Don Budge tightening his face like you do when he was hitting the ball.” And I came to learn from that comment that Tom expected me to hit the ball quite hard, but without extraneous tension and effort.
On a similar note, Nick Saviano, former USTA Player Development coach, identified the fundamentals of world class play in a seminar at a national USPTA conference in Phoenix. They included the split step, posture, optimum hitting zone, loading of the muscles for power, footwork, hitting through the ball, and finally an awareness of tension or lack of it in the face.
At the recreational level, one’s face speaks volumes about a player’s state of mind, his confidence, and level of play. But even the word “play” means different things. Playful, describes an activity for amusement or recreation. On the other hand, play in our context means the action or conduct of a game.
But I can clearly see those who are playful and those who are playing, and it shows in their faces as they hit the ball. The same is true of Roddick, of Sharapova, and of Federer. If a loose grip works, and in fact it does, then the next time you are on the court, start to monitor your brow, your jaw, how you feel, and how that is reflected in your face. Federer knows so much more than the rest of us when it comes to playing. Let’s try and take a page from his book.
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