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Reflections on Spin
As both teacher and observer, I sense the reluctance of many players to explore the unknown on the tennis court. Baseliners seem unwilling to learn the nuance of angle and backspin at the net,
net rushers (the author) unable to harness the extreme topspin of the semi
western forehand grip (though at this end I am still trying). I also see players
with adequate serves settle for flat hits using an eastern forehand grip rather
than going to the other side of the street to experiment with and ultimately
learn a sidespin serve with a continental grip.
But of the many elements and possibilities on the tennis court, which include consistency, power, footwork, and court management, it may be that if one wants to move up to the next level, it is as simple as harnessing more spin on a particular shot. However, no matter which shot this “project” might be, some embrace the challenge, while others avoid it.
As a teacher my biggest challenge occurs when someone (unfortunately) believes they cannot learn something new. And though I doubt Albert Einstein played tennis (though I do have a wondrous poster of him bicycling in a courtyard) his comments ring true: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
Consider the following tennis "values" taught by Fred Earle, a wonderful teacher, coach, and for me a special mentor and friend who influenced a legion of players and coaches in Northern California. According to Earle, these values promoted self confidence and by extension the growth in one’s tennis game. If, at the end of a match, lesson, or practice session, you can answer “yes” to each of the five statements below, you have been successful and your confidence will grow. And more to the point, if you can answer yes to the following five questions when working on a stroke with more spin, then there is a good chance you are making daily progress and the end is in sight.
I put our 100 per cent effort today. I gave it all I had.
I maintained and sustained a positive mental attitude.
I remained patient.
I allowed myself to make mistakes.
I accept full responsibility for myself today.
Taken as a whole, Fred believed that one could only grow when all these things occurred in concert. But the difficulty in progressing from a 3.5 to a 4.0 is highlighted by the middle three statements.
If you are looking to master the sidespin serve, or to consistently feather a mid court backspin drop shot – the problem occurs when trying something new and unfamiliar. Somehow this “newness” may elicit negativity, may test one's patience, and simply will not work in an environment where one cannot tolerate their own mistakes. But in fact if you can be positive, patient, and willing to make and learn from mistakes, then perhaps you can try and learn something new. And if you haven’t checked out yet, then let’s go down the road of “swing and string.”
My first coach Blackie Jones was fond of a demonstration where he would gently hit the ball up, known as “ups.”
Standing quite close, looking me in the eye as he juggled this ball, he would first show how a flat or horizontal racquet face and a perfectly vertical hitting path sent the ball perfectly “up” and without noticeable spin. But after the fifth or sixth hit, again with the horizontal racquet face he would hit up and across the ball. Now the ball spun quickly, but for Blackie the demonstration was that the ball no longer went directly up but rather up and slightly to the side, in the direction of the swing. Then he would start over again. This time on the fifth or sixth hit he would again swing up and across, but now with an angled racquet face so that the combination of hitting up and across was counteracted by the angle of the racquet face. And from this demonstration I and countless others were introduced to the wonderful world of spin. Side spin serves, kick serves, backspin backhands, topspin forehands, and all the while balancing the angle of the string with the direction of the swing.
Federer opens the racquet face as he hits down on this underspin backhand.
Said another way, if you are swinging down at the ball the racquet must be tilted every so slightly up. Swing down more forcefully, and one tilts the racquet ever more up. When swinging up at the ball tilt the racquet face down. When swinging forcefully up, tilt the racquet face ever more down.
Sounds logical, but the secret is in the feel. And I believe, one of the keys to your own personal improvement is to find a shot within your game that would be improved were you to spin the ball more, and in some cases were you to spin the ball much more. Spin may be the defining element, within the various levels of the game of tennis. Allow yourself to learn something new, all the while being positive, patient, and learning from your mistakes. In the end you may have a wicked sidespin serve.
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