The Art of Playing Tennis
David Smith, Senior Editor TennisOne
When one hears the word “Art” or “Artist,” it's easy to picture the flowing expression of creativity and imagination by a talented and highly skilled person. We sometimes apply this concept to athletics. Ice Skating certainly comes to mind when we think of a sport that is considered artistic. But, we often hear announcers in other sports label particular performers or performances as being artistic. In tennis, subjective criterion is often lost amid the pure power, speed, and explosive nature that modern tennis has become in recent decades. Look closely, however, and you will see there is more to the game than brute force.
It was only a few years ago that the game had evolved into a serve-slugfest, with people complaining that long rallies were a thing of the past, and matches were almost predetermined by the power of the serve. Yet, today, we now regularly see long rallies punctuated by drop shots, angles, (both volley as well as intricate topspin angled groundstrokes), lobs, and even a few interesting trick shots on occasion. (Tweeners, behind the back shots, etc.)
But, can we mere mortals, recreational or club players, apply the concept of “art” to our game as well?
The answer is, yes!
Being able to play artfully depends on two general concepts: first, a player needs to have command of his or her game. It helps greatly if the player has learned the many aspects of what I call the “Advanced Foundation.” (That is, learning a foundation that is based on advanced technique instead of learning methods that must change later to advance to higher skill levels.) Learning such methods are analogous to learning to play the piano with all the fingers; if we only learn to play the piano with our two index fingers, we not only will learn very rudimentary songs, we will probably die of boredom after only a short while. Likewise, if we learn to play tennis using underdeveloped methods, we will only be able to play tennis within the limitations of such techniques.
The second concept that can lead to playing tennis more artistically is the player’s intent. Many players approach competition within an angst -- they more or less hope their shots will go in. Instead of anticipating and looking to hit specific shots, players wait to see what comes their way and then react, not because the want to, but because they have to.
Click photo: Raw power is a big part of the modern game but it isn't the only part.
Artistic players have options. That is, because they have learned the game well, skilled players can call upon several options in a given situation. A drop volley, an angle volley, a volley lob, a drive through the net player, etc., are examples of what a skilled player can execute when given a particular ball at the net. However, to begin with, the typical 3.0 player approaches the volley with fear and trepidation, they then often stab at the ball, over swing, or hit the ball without conscious control. In short their happy if it just goes in!
You too Can Become an “Artist”
So how can a player overcome this “reactive” tennis and execute more effective shots (and more successful shots)? The answer is in “Intent.”
Intent is a predetermined set of mental instructions that are (what I call) “grouped” as a single mental image. We all have heard or even experienced the saying, “my life passed before my eyes.” This cliché actually summarizes this idea of “grouped” images. If we picture a particular shot as an image, we can forego the conscious thought of the specific stroke mechanics that any shot may entail. Instead, we visualize the overall shot as a short video clip in our brain.
How often do we watch a great match on television and then proceed to go out and play some of our best tennis? It happens a lot. The reason this phenomenon occurs is that players are “grouping” images seen on television, (because they are indeed fresh in their minds), and when they see the ball at or near contact, they are connecting the image of how the pros hit balls with themselves. So, instead of dreading a shot or fear missing a shot, they instead are seeing themselves executing the shot successfully a moment before the shot is actually hit!
This same concept applies to playing any given match. Picture yourself hitting a particular shot. It very well might not be the shot you actually are faced with. However, because your mind has a purpose for a ball that might come to you (or one that you go get), you are not hitting with fear; instead you are focused on a successful image.
The idea of intent initiates movement with command. Instead of playing the net and waiting to see if a ball is "getable," you are looking for opportunities to execute specific shots. While this won’t guarantee success, it will improve your ability to move with purpose and proactively. If a player never moves to get a ball, they will never learn what shots would indeed be makeable.
All of this intent makes it possible for players to indeed play artistically. That is, for example, a player returning serve is picturing one or two specific shots, knowing he or she is going to be getting a soft second serve: Drop shot could be one, lob over the net person, another, an angled topspin a third option. Anticipating a ball based on observing how an opponent hits is critical thinking at its best! I still see players forced to come running in to get a soft, short second serve because they were way behind the baseline, despite the fact that the player couldn't crack an egg with that second serve.
Proactive players anticipate things; a short second serve is something that a good player should be looking for and then doing something with. Yet, we still see recreational players hitting these soft serves right back to the person at the baseline and then wondering why they themselves are lobbed or so easily passed!
Playing with intent doesn’t prevent a player from missing shots. Players need to understand that you will need to miss many shots to learn how to hit them effectively and at the right time. Too often, however, players try a drop shot, for example, and end up missing it or hitting it too deep, only to never try the shot again! We see the similarity when someone learns to use the right grip for the serve. She double faults and immediately reverts back to the “safety” of her old, familiar eastern grip.
Next time you play, imagine your options ahead of time. What shots are available? Lobs, drop shots, angles, big topspin returns, slices, etc. Which ones can you imagine hitting? When you start looking ahead and looking to hit specific shots, you stop worrying about missing or making mistakes.
My guess is that you will have a lot more fun playing tennis too!
(Click link to purchase Dave Smith's new book Coaching Mastery. Over 400 pages, including over 75 drills, 50 by Master Pro Ken DeHart.)
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