Wimbledon, the Detroit Pistons, and Playing the Right Way
So as tennis changes (or does it?) can the same be said for the style of play at Wimbledon? Bjorn Borg holds 5 consecutive titles, and though he served well and volleyed comfortably, his formidable baseline play carried the day. Sampras entered the scene with the best service action since Pancho Gonzalez, and his seven titles were earned on the strength of his serve and volley (repeat after me - serve and volley). Then in 2001, Lleyton Hewitt captured the title and when interviewed, had the audacity to say that he did not serve and volley one time in winning the title, implying for any and all within earshot that he did not need to serve and volley so why bother. Finally, after last year's Wimbledon, the Roddick-Gilbert camp acknowledged that he would work in the intervening time to improve the following volley to his massive serve, yet there was no, repeat no, serve and volley in evidence in his first round win.
So what is the big deal with serve and volley? Borg had quite a good serve; he volleyed competently, and often followed his serve to the net. Hewitt never volleyed, though he was quoted earlier in the year that he was working to improve his approach shot and volley. Roddick volleys reluctantly. And then Martina Navratilova wins her first round match at the tender age of 47, displaying serve and volley tennis, a rarity on the women's (and men's) tour. Now I read she will open a tennis academy in Florida to teach (if not re-teach) the fine but lost art of moving forward and finishing the points at the net.
Hewitt never volleys and Roddick volleys reluctantly.
The Detroit Pistons remarkable NBA championship was earned by playing the "right way." I believe that Coach Larry Brown's principles for playing the right way include: - everyone hustles, everyone plays defense, and everyone shares the ball. Announcers kept referring to Brown's "playing the right way" so often that I wondered what playing the wrong way would mean. I would assume, as regards the teams (read team) they beat, the wrong way occurs when everyone does not hustle, when everyone does not play defense, and when everyone does not share the ball. Hats off to the Pistons, a basketball title goes to a team rather than an assortment of players, and a new (to me) term in our sporting lexicon: playing the right way.
And just as Larry Brown's "playing the right way" refers to a style of play - how would that look in tennis? Going back to Chet Murphy from the previous two newsletters, "Good form is whatever sequence of movements enables a hitter to accomplish their purpose (or in this case style) with the least expenditure of energy." So as regards styles of play, the baseliner would compete differently than a net rusher, and a power player would employ a different style of play from a counter puncher.
Taylor Dent, Tim Henman, Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker - serve and volley, finish the point at the net whenever possible, relentless offense. In this model, playing the right way includes: a high percentage of first serves, crisp volleys to the open court, killer overheads, and a steely determination not to allow the opponent's passing shots deter this player from their relentless attack. Opponents often use the lob to blunt this attack, but the true serve and volleyer will always take the lob in the air. Interestingly, returning the lob by allowing it to bounce and then stroking it between their legs is now known as the "tweener." Ever wonder why none of the above mentioned players ever hit the tweener? Simple, playing the right way in this style of play means never allowing the lob to bounce. Never means never. Moving forward means moving forward, and offense means offense. Limitations of this style of play occur when the opponent returns and passes well, and certainly Andre Agassi has had many wins over the players listed above.
Taylor Dent is one of the very few willing to finish a point off at the net.
Andy Roddick, Jim Courier, and Ivan Lendl: huge forehand, run around the backhand, open the court and finish the point with a forehand groundstroke. Playing the right way includes running around the backhand, playing the forehand generally inside out, playing patiently on the backhand side, volleying rarely but competently, but always looking for the big forehand. And there are a lot of Grand Slam titles that have been won with this style of play. Limitations of this style of play occur when the opponent can expose the backhand, or when the attack rushes this player into forced errors, as occurred when Edberg thoroughly swamped Courier in the 1991 US Open final (6-2, 6-4, 6-0).
Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Corria, and Bjorn Borg: patient counterpunching, keep the ball deep, defeat the opponent with determination, fitness and grit. Playing the right way in this manner includes consistency, patience, and ball control, a predominance of crosscourt groundstroke play, more consistency and more patience. Matches are often very long, and terrific distances are run by these players. And again, there have been many Grand Slam titles earned with this style.
Now, how would the above three styles match up against one another? On fast grass courts the serve and volley generally prevails over the big forehand and the counter puncher. There are obvious exceptions, but in general, the speed of the court and the low bounce on grass favor the serve and volleyer. Interestingly, as the grass is groomed to play slower than years past, and the balls are made heavier and less lively, the serve and volley has been slightly muted. But in general, this is why the Roddick/Gilbert camp knows that when mastered the serve and volley game would elevate Andy's status and chances. On clay it appears the counter-puncher prevails, and certainly the French Open victor's rolls confirm that. The ball doesn't shoot through as on grass, and many times what appears to be an open court is blunted by the opponent's foot speed combined with the slow court. On hard courts it appears that the big forehand style may have the best opportunity. Lendl and Roddick have found the hard courts of the US Open slow enough to mute the serve and volley ever so slightly, but fast enough to reward their big forehands.
So to return yet again to Chet Murphy, "Good form is whatever sequence of movements enables a hitter to accomplish their purpose with the least expenditure of energy" then it does follow that there are many ways to hit the ball, and indeed many styles one can use to play the game. Further, based on the strengths and weaknesses of any given player, there will be an optimum style - for certainly Sampras' serve and volley was better suited to attack than counterpunching, and the contrary is also true that Hewitt's movement and tenacity may be better suited to counterpunching than attacking.
Further, coaches will also favor a particular style of play. While I confess that a defensive and counter-punching style can be very effective, and even win championships, I do believe there is, if not a "right way" to play tennis, then a "best way. The legendary tennis coach Tom Stow (one of my teachers) called it the all-court forcing game. Much like the saying, "winners make it happen, and losers hope it happens" in this case winners move forward, they force the issue and they look to finish the point. Indeed, whenever the top ten players of all time are mentioned, the list is generally dominated by the forcing, serve and volley, offensive players. Rod Laver, Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Jimmy Conners, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Obviously Agassi is an exception playing both with a big forehand, terrific backcourt consistency, but not really a net game.
According to Tom Stow, the forcing game is based on the principle of continuous pressure. It is a game for advanced players who have acquired all the strokes and therefore are able to control the ball from all positions. It should be called an "All Court Forcing Game" for it is too often confused with just a net game. Coming into the net is definitely a part of the game and should be used as a climax to many rallies or when the opponent hits a short shot, but is only a part of the whole. A player who can make sound "coming in" shots and can volley accurately will be a constant worry, for his opponent in trying not to hit short balls will tend to make more errors than he would otherwise.
To play the "All Court Forcing Game" it is necessary to have:
- A strong first serve and an accurate spin for the second serve. A hard first serve, which will put the opponent on the defensive and cause errors, is of course the best. However, this is not absolutely essential but a serve that will keep the opponent from making a forcing shot is essential.
- The ground strokes, both forehand and backhand must be sound so that (a) the return of the serve be deep: (b) the shots from the back court be firm and well placed and (c) the coming in shot be hit flat on the top of the bounce.
- The volley must be accurate and fast enough to put the ball away. A blocked volley is not enough; a player with only this type of shot cannot win the point when the opening appears.
- The smash is a must in this type of play for the opponent of a player with a weak overhead can lob defensively too often. This does not give the forcing player enough percentage off of his approach shots and he will find himself in trouble. Smashes, like volleys, must be put away, not only from the standpoint of winning the point but also the mental effect such shots will have on the opponent.
The player of this "All Court Forcing Game" must always keep in mind the fact the he is playing another human being and that the pressure he is applying has a very definite effect on the mental attitude of his opponent.
It takes nerve, determination, and strokes to play this type of game and only the strong will master it. However, from these few will emerge the future great players of the world.
Related articles within the TennisOne.com library include:
- Percentage Tennis
- The Tom Stow Library
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