Thursday, December 24, 2009

Want some tennis inspiration?

Watch this video talk from Coach John Nelson of University of Hawaii, 26 years coaching, third degree black belt in Jujitsu...

A video talk about tennis



"Tennis is like the martial arts...
Being centered, balanced, disciplined...
Low to the ground...
Power comes from the ground up...
Your mind is your biggest weapon...

It's like success in life...
It's about daily hard work..discipline...responding under pressure...facing your fears...problem-solving...and there's a solution to every problem....you are a student every day learning...as you get better, just simplify and make it simple, clean, smooth..."

I would add that tennis is a metaphor for life...it's about on-court heroics...overcoming obstacles, barriers, injuries, setbacks...battling against the odds...formulating a game plan and then executing it to victory..

Best, Gary

Book Review: "Open: An Autobiography", Andre Agassi

"Open" is a Disappointment
I recently completed reading Eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi's highly publicized autobiography with some of those shocking revelations about recreational drug use and lying to tennis authorities about it.

Frankly, I was disappointed.

Although I have great respect for Agassi's on-court accomplishments and skills, his magnificent work for charity and the sport, and his commentator's insights into the game, I have diminished respect for some of his off-court actions over the years. And to some degree what he has admitted to in his book, and in follow-up interviews, leaves an unpleasant cloud over the sport, coming from a player with his stellar record - a record which to some extent has also been tainted.

Others have commented about how we as a society should probably not idolize sports stars. Indeed, I could not agree more that flaws, faults and failings of top stars should not be swept under the rug; rather, sports heroes have to be "called" on them, when necessary. They are, of course, only human like the rest of us, and at times need both compassion and help. Yet, we can still admire and exalt their on-court heroics without putting them on a pedestal and excusing their inexcusable actions.

In the book, Agassi comes across as a confused, lonely and depressed figure, driven to tennis by a hard-charging father, and equally demanding coaches. He, of course, grew to hate it. He turned to recreational drug use, it appears, in response to deepening depression.

Recreational drug use of a substance such as crystal meth, known as highly addictive, is not an acceptable option for depression, in my book. Agassi was wrong for taking that road, and should properly be "called" on it. The World Anti-Doping authorities and tennis federation also call it a banned substance, and he got away with it by using it and then by lying about it. Yes, we should be very compassionate, but that does not mean sweep it under the rug.

The proper option for people with clinical or other depression is get professional help.

Well, enough said.

As for the book itself, it essentially consists of 388 pages of first person "stream of consciousness" writing. The Chapters do not have descriptive headings, and there is no Table of Contents, no Index and no footnotes. There is no collection of color photos on photo paper in the book, as many other books offer such as Pete Sampras's book, A Champion's Mind.

In fact, there is not really much analysis of the game and sport of tennis. Maddeningly little, in my view.

I was hoping for many more insights and analysis of the game and sport of tennis, including topics such as tennis's growth, development and future, instruction and advice for young and up-and-coming players, and inside scoop into the pro game, and so on..A person with the caliber of his experience and accomplishments could have offered much more in that vein...

A lot of the "revealing" parts of the book seemed to consist of gripes and complaints about people in different parts of Agassi's life: Brooke Shields, Nick Bollettieri, Illie Nastase, Jimmy Connors. He did not have very nice things to say about these folks... He even goes out of his way to call Pete Sampras a cheap tipper at a restaurant. Page 346.

He uses profanity and four-letter words a lot in the book.

He basically agrees in calling Connors a certain part of the rear of a human's digestive anatomy (begins with "A".) Page 121.

And a lot of the self-discovery and personal journey he describes in the book, while quite sincere, reveals in my opinion a confused, lonely and depressed person, though with great professional accomplishments, who needed help.

And the biggest letdown of all for tennis fans: his admission that for many years he hated tennis with a dark and secret passion. Page 3.

In conclusion, the bottom line for me: It's an interesting read, but fell short of my expectations. The book - and the player too.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tennis Self-Talk: Historical Examples and Solutions

"Losing is inevitable. But defeat is optional."

I. Introduction

It's been said that the mind is always with you or against you...Self-talk in us humans is instinctive, spontaneous and eternal. And perhaps so is our need for it.

In fact, one commentator remarked that if we opened up a person's head, we would see a popcorn machine full of thoughts and emotions endlessly popping, perculating and colliding. And it's no different in the game of tennis, as we all know.

II. Agassi's formulation of the dilemma
Compounding the problem is the fact that tennis, in singles play at least, is probably the most solitary of sports...

Eight-time Grand Slam winner, Andre Agassi put it this way in his recent autobiography and follow-up interviews:
"Tennis is the loneliest of sports. In golf, you play the course - plus you have a caddie - and the game ends at 18 holes. In boxing, you have a corner man and a set number of rounds.

In tennis, you're on an island, with no clock. You can't sit on a lead. You have to win the last point to win a match."

"But I will say this - I can confidently say that tennis is the loneliest sport that exists. You're out there, you can't talk to anybody, you can't pass the ball, there are no time-outs. There's no coaching, you don't have to be good, you have to be better than one person and that one person is on the other side of the net.

It's like you're on an island. It's not like boxing where we're leaning on each other and you can feel each other. If you look at a tennis player it's like solitary confinement out there, and what happens in solitary confinement? It always leads to self-talk.

You have those Lincoln-Douglas debates with yourself. You talk to yourself and you answer yourself and you tell me if you've ever seen another sport where an athlete talks to themselves as much as they do in tennis."
Andre Agassi
From "Open: An Autobiography" (2009),
and Interview with Travis Smiley, Nov. 19, 2009

How then do we deal with the loneliness of this sport? The eternal self-talk?

The endless conversation with ourselves about the score, about errors, about losing, about letting ourselves and others down, etc.

How do we defeat the toughest opponent of all - ourselves?

III. Searching for some answers
It seems obvious that we cannot change who and what we are as humans. Thus, the road to solution appears to point to the fact that we need to manage self-talk, just as we are called upon in life to manage daily stress and worry. Indeed, if we do not actively manage our self-talk, it will most likely end up managing us...

One researcher, the late Dorothy Harris, Ph.D., Professor of Sports Psychology at Penn State, put it this way: "The only difference between the best performance and the worst performance is the variation of our self-talk...and attitudes we carry around with us." So how do we manage our self-talk to better accomplish our "best performance"?

Perhaps some specific answers to this problem can be found in examples of others, in history and more recently, who have faced the issue. How have others at the highest level in tennis successfully dealt with the problem of self-talk? And can we try and model them? Can these examples help us to develop and implement an intelligent management strategy to address the problem of self-talk?

IV. A few examples and solutions
**Chris Evert and Diffusing Self-Talk -
Early in her career training, Chris Evert was taught by her father to diffuse any negative self-talk or body language. Any such verbal, or non-verbal clues, her father said, would only serve to motivate her opponent. In fact, he admonished that it was practically like handing your opponent a free point or two.

Chris admitted though, that like nearly all of us, she was bubbling with emotions and worries just under the surface. But she knew that for her temperament, she needed to find a consistent way to short-circuit whatever emotional self-talk she could in order to stay focused and stable with her relentless baseline game.

She in fact diffused her emotional self-talk so well that she was dubbed the "Ice Maiden", in a magnificent career spanning 18 Grand Slam titles and a stunning 90% career win-loss record.

**John McEnroe and Leveraging Self-Talk -
John McEnroe is probably the epitome of the volatile fiery player who successfully used his explosive rantings and angry outbursts to spur him on to a higher level of play (We all remember that catchphrase: "You cannot be serious!") .

In one sequence made famous in sports highlight reels, he explodes at a call by an umpire in Stockholm, Sweden in 1992 demanding: "Answer my question, jerk!", and then slams his racket into a near-by juice cart. He won the tournament.

Leveraging self-talk in this way is probably not for many of us, but Mac found a way to make it work for him in a career spanning 7 Grand Slam singles titles, 9 Grand Slam doubles titles and some suburb shot-making and volleys. Getting angry for many players often makes them play worse, not better. But for some players of a certain temperament, negative and angry self-talk can elevate both confidence and relaxation of play, thus improving performance.

**Pete Sampras and Harnessing Self-Talk -
Pete Sampras who retired in 2003 with the then-record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles was known to harness positive self-talk, also called affirmations, to build his confidence and help his performance at key match times.

It was said that when he was behind and not playing well, he would remind himself that he was in this position before against the opponent and just needed to upshift gears. He would intentionally say to himself things such as: "Everthing is okay", "I need to let go of that last point and focus on the next point", "I need to stay focused on the present and prepare for the next point", "I need to get aggressive with my feet".

For certain player personality types, this personal pep-talk method encourages relaxation, lessens distraction and enables sharper focus.

**Gigi Fernandez and Coping with Self-Talk -
Gigi Fernandez is the Puerto Rican doubles player who won 17 Grand Slam doubles titles, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and World Number One doubles rank before retiring in 1997. However, it was not all smooth sailing. At times, Gigi struggled with inconsistent hitting, poor shot selection and erratic serves and volleys. And she talked to herself.

To address this problem, Gigi's coach designed specific computerized self-talk exercises to help her stay calm, relaxed and in control on court. Gigi coped with her situation by using specific verbal cues on the court: stay loose in the knees, relax the arm and hand on the forehand, and follow-though on the overhead. She was more focused also on her on-court rituals and tasks to re-direct her negative self-talk. Many players use such rituals and tasks as watching the ball, aiming at targets, split-stepping, etc.

**Jimmy Connors and Energizing Your Self-Talk -
Jimmy Connors is the eight-time Grand Slam winner who held the No. 1 World singles ranking for a record 268 weeks. Connors was a maverick, a showman and did things his "way". He was called the "brat" of tennis and dubbed the "Showboater". His gritty "never-say-die" court demeanor appealed to some, but some of his court antics and outbursts appalled others.

His self-talk and on-court emotions was different than others in that it was often directed at the crowd. Connors thrived on and manipulated the energy of the crowd, positive or negative, to drive his play especially in some of his greatest matches.

Most people recall that dramatic come-from-behind victory in 5 sets in the fourth round at the 1991 U.S. Open against Aaron Krickstein when Connors was age 39. In a stunning display of prowess and crowd inter-action, he was talking not only to himself but carrying on a conversation with the crowd and exploiting it to elevate his play.

How do these examples differ? How are they the same? Each of these players, and others, dealt with self-talk a little differently, perhaps in part based on their personality type or temperament style...Let's look at that issue more closely...

V. Personality types or temperament styles of players, and their self-talk techniques
Solving fitness issues in tennis starts with classifying people as predominantly one body type or other such as endomorph-lean, ectomorph-stocky and mesomorph-athletic. Perhaps dealing with mental self-talk issues may also call for looking at player personality types or temperament styles. Obviously, no one fits perfectly into any one category and we all exhibit parts of all types. But it's a starting point for analysis, I think.

Let's look at four (4) categories of players who have shown extra-ordinary tennis results and, by implication, strong management of their mental self-talk. (Naturally, all these players possess extra-ordinary tennis talents which naturally accounts for some of their results regardless of their management of self-talk.) Nevertheless, classifying them into types and identifying their more-often-used techniques offers some insight into the problem:

A. The peaceful and stable player - examples: Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Kim Cljisters. Personality: Calm, quiet, deliberate. Primary technique: Diffusing self-talk

B. The fun and showmanship player - examples: Jimmy Connors, Serena Williams, Don Budge, Bill Tilden. Personality: Energetic, excitable, spontaneous. Primary technique: Energizing your self-talk

C. The angry or intense competitor - examples: John McEnroe, Pancho Gonzales, Boris Becker, Marat Safin, Maria Sharapova. Personality: Controlling, self-determined, focused. Primary technique: Leveraging self-talk

D. The intelligent order-and-accuracy player - examples: Roger Federer, Martina Hingis, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras. Personality: Analytic, disciplined, problem-solver. Primary technique: Harnessing self-talk

All these players, to some degree, also seem to use coping and re-directing techniques.

VI. A suggested framework for managing self-talk
Let's re-list these strategic techniques as shown to us collectively by these players, and also consider our player personality type, as we frame an effective management strategy for our self-talk.

These techniques are, I think:
1. Diffusing, or by-passing, the most self-destructive self-talk, whenever possible as shown by Chris Evert
2. Energizing or "getting high" on their self-talk as with Jimmy Connors
3. Leveraging their self-talk as shown by John McEnroe
4. Harnessing self-talk as with Pete Sampras
5. Coping with and re-directing self-talk like Gigi Fernandez

As for each of us as players, we probably have to select our own primary technique and secondary techniques based on our unique self-talk situation...and decide when to do each and in what relative percentage to do each. Which techniques do you like best and which might work for you?

A helpful and vital step in the process might be for us as players to classify ourselves into one of the personality types above to help decide which technique to use and how often. Which player personality type do you think that you fit into?

For example, an "angry or intense competitor" type can tolerate and even benefit from frequent use of angry self-talk to spur him or her on to play better (e.g John McEnroe). Perhaps even intense grunting helps the play of some in this category (e.g. Maria Sharapova).

Conversely, a "peaceful and stable" player needs much more to keep an even keel, diffuse or by-pass negative self-talk and plod on (e.g. Chris Evert or Bjorn Borg). In contrast, an "order-and-accuracy" player might want to more often use positive self-talk affirmation to try and help fortify a game of precision (e.g. Pete Sampras).

VII. Conclusion
In summary, can we ever transform the loneliness of tennis or truly defeat our self-talk?

Probably not. But, as shown by successful player examples in the past, perhaps we can at least reduce feelings of solitary confinement by managing self-talk with effective strategic techniques. And perhaps we can sometimes even use our self-talk to better reach our match goals.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Resources:
1. Conversations with Champions, Jimmy Connors Presents: Tennis Fundamentals DVD (2006)
2. Mental Training for Peak Performance, Steven Ungerleider, Ph.D.
3. "Your Temperament and Your Tennis", Dexter Godbey, www.tennisplayer.net
4. For an interesting discussion of the Mental Self-Talk problem, visit:
Essential Tennis Podcast 97

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review: The Winner's Mind

"The Winner's Mind" is a Winner
Is tennis primarily about "winning" or "having fun and learning"? Or both, or something else, or all the above? And how about matters beyond tennis, such as life itself?

Ultimately, that is, of course, probably for you to decide...

Meanwhile, this book, The Winner's Mind, by Allen Fox, Ph.D., and as stated by the publisher: "acknowledg[es] the conventional wisdom that "winning isn't everything," [but] takes the position that winning is still eminently preferable to losing and lays out a step-by-step plan for succeeding at any of life's endeavors." In short, while fun, learning and growth are indeed critical to our games and our life, this book goes on to present a well-thought argument about the value and reality of "winning" and a formula for most of us "non-champions" to better achieve it.

Fox, a psychologist and former successful business executive, is a former world-class tennis player, ranked No. 4 in the world, and a Quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, and later a coach at top-ranked Pepperdine University. In crisp and pointed language, rich with historical and recent examples, he lays out a case why we all have a genetic and learned need to compete and advance, and what factors typically block or restrict our path to "winning".

In a stunning example at the beginning of the book, he mentions a revealing study made of World War II fighter pilots which revealed that only about 5% of U.S. fighter pilots were responsible for shooting down enemy planes. What were the other 95% of our pilots doing? They were, of course, being shot down by the 5% of the enemy fighter pilots. The point? Only about 5% of us in the population possess an exceptional level of the "winner's" competitor's fire and formula.

He then goes on to study and outline the common characteristics of people he calls "habitual winners" in tennis and other walks of life...what do they share in common?

And in the heart of the book, Fox argues how all of the us, namely the rest of "non-champions", can model or employ many of these characteristics to better attain victory in our own games and lives.

This is a self-help book with a tennis flavor, but with valuable insights into ideas and strategies such as goal setting (short-term and long-term), the power of boundless energy - mental and physical, the assumption that all problems have solutions, and the value of constantly evaluating, adjusting and changing what we do.

Highly suggested.

Best, Gary

The Winner's Mind, Allen Fox, Ph.D.,(2005) on Amazon.com

Friday, December 4, 2009

The first beautiful game...

Many people ask about the indoor sport of real tennis, also called court tennis, which is closely-related to today's modern game of tennis, and often considered it's forerunner.

Two hundred years before soccer was dubbed "the beautiful game", real tennis or court tennis was called "the first beautiful game"...It went by different names in different countries - "royal tennis" in Australia, "jeu de paume" in France, and "court tennis" in the United States.

The scoring rules are very similar to modern tennis, with matches usually won at best of three sets. The ball is the old-style cork-based variety but an optic yellow color now, and slightly heavier and less bouncier than a standard tennis ball. The rackets are made of wood, tightly strung and bent slightly to make it easier to hit corners indoors and "slice" the ball.

There are about 42 courts worldwide that offer real tennis play. The oldest real tennis court in the world opened in 1539 and is located in England - Falkland Palace (Fife). One of the oldest real tennis courts in the United States opened in 1899 in Pennsylvania at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia.

Shakespeare first mentioned real tennis in his writings in Henry V, Act I, Scene II. King Henry responds to a gift of real tennis balls from the French Prince that he will use them to play a game that defeats France's royalty.

Later, the poet William Lathum compared life to a tennis court in Sick Verse, the Penquin Book:

The world I sample to a Tennis-court,
Where fate and fortune daily meet to play,
...
All manner chance are Rackets, wherewithall
They bandie men, from wall to wall;
Some over Lyne, to honour and great place,
Some under Lyne, to infame and disgrace;
...

For anyone who wants to read more about the origins and stories of real tennis, please refer to a very nice book by a noted amateur player-author called: The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis, Roman Krznaric, Oxford: Ronaldson Pub. (2006).



Meantime, let's get back to that court next chance we get, and practice that "first beautiful game"!

Best, Gary

Thursday, December 3, 2009

History's Best Backhand: The One-Hander

The two handed backhand became popular in the era of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and later Andre Agassi...and yes it is the dominant backhand version today at the professional, college and junior level. And it's certainly widely-noted for its power and stability.

Is it the best backhand style? That is for you and ultimately history to decide...

An argument can be made that the one-hander is likely history's best backhand, if we look at all the best players in history who used it...including top pros today...

The one-handed backhand is a gorgeous shot - simple, versatile and powerful, and displays the user's supreme athleticism.

A few of the best one-handed backhands in history:

Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pancho Gonzales, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf... and in today's game, Roger Federer, Justine Henin and many include Richard Gasquet.

One hand or two, let's go hit that next backhand shot for a winner!

Best, Gary

A theory on timing and control

I. Introduction
Watching Nikolay Davydenko's recent victory over Juan Del Potro in the Barclay's Masters Tournament in London and listening to Andre Agassi's recent Interview with 60 Minutes had me thinking about a theory on timing and control of the ball...

II. The theory
What is my theory? It's this...

Timing and control, is seems to me, really about 3 things: the ball, the palm of your hitting hand, and the sweet spot of the racket head. And above all, the absolute unity and syncronizing of these 3 objects in the tennis stroke.

III. Davydenko and Agassi
What was seen at the Davydenko match and said at the Agassi inteview?

*It's about timing: Davydenko's masterful ability to take the ball on-the-rise, thereby short-circuiting the big-hitting power game of Delpo.

*It's about control: His artful short-angled shots to his opponent's sidelines, pulling Delpo out wide repeatedly.

*It's about the palm of the hand: Aggasi's re-telling of that famous story about his father's home-rigged ball machine "The Dragon" which spit out balls at over 100+ MPH at the young Agassi in training...his racket, hand, palm and ball probably became a single blur, and thus honed the extra-ordinary hand-eye coordination of the one of the best on-the-rise hitters in history.


IV. The assumptions
Now, let's look at the two assumptions of my theory just a bit closer: Only the racket head sweet spot touches the ball, and only the player's palm of hand touches the racket head sweet spot via the racket handle.

A. Only the racket head sweet spot properly contacts the ball
Bill Tilden, in his classic book How to Play Better Tennis (1950), put it this way, and it is still true today: "[The] all-important fact...is the head of the racquet and only the head of the racquet returns a ball in tennis."

Thus, since the very beginning, the only thing which properly touches the ball from the player in any stroke or rally is: the sweet spot of the racket head.

B. Only the palm of the hand is connected to the sweet spot via the racket handle
The sweet spot is located in the center of the racket head. The racket head is physically connected by a handle to the hand's palm. Thus, the palm of hand and only the palm of hand is in physical touch (indirectly) with the sweet spot.

Typically, the hand's palm is approximately 15 to 20 inches or so from the sweet spot. The challenge of the good timing, therefore, is to operate the stroke mechanic in a way so as to reduce that distance, in the player's mind-eye, down to zero.

V. Conclusion
Simply: The ball, the racket sweet spot and the palm of the hand must work in unison to achieve and maximize timing and control.

VI. Post Script: A few other points on timing made by other writers worth considering here:

1. The myth of watching the ball hit the racket strings - Vic Braden, in his book Mental Tennis explained that watching the tennis ball hit the racket strings is essentially impossible for the human eye. Based on his high speed filming and research with ophthalmologists, a ball is only on a racket string about 3 milliseconds, which is a time frame the human eye cannot record. In fact, Braden later clarified that the human eye begins to lose focus on moving objects within a 3 feet radius. Mental Tennis, Vic Braden, Little Brown (1993), Pages 180-182.

2. Keeping the head still and fixed on the contact zone throughout and after the stroke - This then becomes the actual purpose of "watching the ball". The head, which is the heaviest part of the human body, is kept quiet, and thus removed it from the equation so as to produce a balanced and stable stroke mechanic. Research has consistently shown that top level players keep their upper body, especially head, absolutely still on the their strokes. Watch how long, for example, Federer's head stays fixed on the contact point, even after the ball has left his racket. "Myth: Watch the Ball", Lee Couillard, June 08, 2008: Video

3. Feeling "connected" to the racket head sweet spot, by not gripping the handle too tightly between the fingers, but pushing it directly onto the palm. Most players simply grip the handle much too tightly, and thus "feel" not the racket head sweet spot, but just the tenseness of their forearm. A critical component of timing: the player "feels" the literal weight of the racket head sweet spot as it moves towards the ball. In fact, many players use other techniques such as aiming the butt of the racket handle at the in-coming ball on their stroke, and making use of the non-dominant hand in the take-back, to help them achieve this "feel". "Timing and Feel of the Racket Head", Don Brosseau, www.tennisplayer.net

4. The crux movement in the on-the-rise stroke mechanic - Coiling the racket and sinking the body before the ball bounce, and then uncoiling and lifting before the ball reaches it's apex is the methodology of hitting on the rise. "Two Secrets of Timing", Scott Murphy, www.tennisplayer.net

5. Jeu de Paume - The original French name for tennis was "Jeu de Paume" (game of the palm). Here is a demonstration of this original game by USPTA professional Jerry Cape: Jeu de Paume

6. Command of the racket head sweet spot is the master key to timing - Consider what Agassi recently commented about the World's Number One Player: What sets Federer apart from all the others is his phenomenal ability to control the racket head.

Best, Gary

Monday, November 23, 2009

Serve it up!


Some thoughts on the tennis serve
Most observers say that the most important shot in tennis is the serve. One report I read said that the serve (and return) can account for up to 65% of the points won in a match.

The serve historically was meant simply to start the point. As recently as the 70s and early 80s, champions such as Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors seemed to use the serve for that purpose more than any other. The story today is quite different, led by a school of big servers such as Ivo Karlovic, John Isner and of course Andy Roddick.

Now, it is primarily used, I think, to hit aces, service winners, or force weak replies and go on the offense. In fact, if a player does not try and use it for that purpose, it is probably a weakness or liability in their game...

*What causes the biggest problems to most players on the serve?
For me, the biggest problem with the serve, probably common to most recreational and club players most of the time, is that my motion is simply too tight and tense, and not loose and relaxed. More than anything else, the successful serve motion requires a loose and relaxed swing, the proverbial "spaghetti arm". Next issue for me, and probably many others, is simply losing control of the toss - simply too low or not enough out in front. The end result is too often the ball going into the net, or landing out wide, which means that the racket head on contact is too open facing the sky, or too closed facing the ground.

The successful serve is meant to be hit with racket head flat against ball on impact, and the left arm (or non-dominant arm) held up as long as possible, with the shoulders tilted to the sky at 60% or 70% angle or higher. "Serve-and-stretch", and also "serve-to-the-sky", as many instructors say...Too often, I drop my left arm too quickly, thus causing my shoulder and head to drop and the ball to fall into the net...

*How can common service problems be fixed?
A relaxation strategy - physical and mental. Think not about double faulting, missing the box long or throwing the ball into the net but about placement, spin and racket head drop. On the physical side, literally shake loose your shoulder, arm and hand. Stretch the low back. Deliberately hold the handle with a loose grip. Practice a lot of shadow swings to loosen up. Practice a lot of shadow tosses. If possible, try some practice serves from the service line, then from no-man's land, before practicing from the baseline. Focus on pronation "pops" - that pop noise when the ball smacks the middle of the racket. Keep the left arm up as long as possible and serve up to the sky...

The toss. The goal appears to be placing the ball consistently where you want it, and specifically at the point in the sky where your swing sports it's "strike zone". As Bill Tilden said in How to Play Better Tennis (1950), "You toss at your swing, you don't swing at your toss."

How do you keep the toss consistent at the same angle in front of you? Jack Kramer rejected the word "toss" the ball, and instead called it "place" the ball. To master the toss, Kramer once suggested that you place a handkerchief in an area about 2 feet in front of you and slightly to the right (if you are right-handed) - and practice until you can land 100 balls in a row on the handkerchief.

What about toss height? Roscoe Tanner is probably the most often mentioned who had a successful serve with a very short ball toss. He is very likely, though, an exception. Most instructors suggest tossing the ball up higher than the racket swing of your racket to get a little better rhythm and timing.

Should you hit the ball on its way up, at its peak or on its the way down?

It is probably very difficult for most players to hit the ball on its way up. The timing required for this is likely extra-ordinary. Bill Tilden used to do it and opponents said that it made the disguise and speed of his serve uncanny. Not easy for most of the rest of us.

Ellsworth Vines, regarded by experts as one of the best pure servers in history, said that by experimenting he found that he could get more power by hitting the ball on its way down from the toss. He thought that more power can be generated through forward thrust on a tossed ball moving downward than a motionless one at its peak. It certainly worked for Vines who served an average of 2 aces per service game.



Since the time of Vines and up to now, most instructors usually suggest hitting the ball on its way down for most players.

*What about a serving ritual or routine?
I think this is vital for most people to help with relaxation and rhythm. Many players bounce the ball several times before the serve, as I do, or have some other ritual. The ritual is also used to focus the mind and give a pause in the play. When a player misses the first serve, I think the ritual, and slowing things down a bit, is even more important to re-focus for the second serve. Too often, I see nervous and embarrassed servers launch into their second serve motion too quickly and just double-fault...

*What do you think about as you are about to serve?
I try and get a good balanced platform stance (the other popular stance is the pinpoint stance), and show my opponent a good "look" to my serve-to-come. Coaches say locate a target and visualize the ball going there. Think also about the type of serve contact (flat, slice, kick). I also try to focus on the depth of my racket drop - a deeper racket drop creates a longer "runway" to pick up power and spin. Many coaches call the deeper racket drop, the "buttscratch", and the long runway serve, the "sweep-and-serve".

Ideally, you might want to "jump into the serve" with deep knee bend, landing on your non-dominant foot, to increase power and spin, though this is considered an advanced athletic motion.

*Two recent interesting articles
I recently read 2 interesting articles on the serve - one discussed the number of serve targets available to a player and how to think about the service box, and the other about the types of service rhythms.

The author of the first article suggested that the service box should be divided into 3 parts - down the middle T, out wide and into the body. He also said that the type of serve contact - flat, slice and spin might be considered a "target" goal.

Let's take the deuce side. Since you have potentially 3 types of serves going to the 3 parts of the service box, you have 9 different targets (i.e. location of serve and type of serve).You have another 9 targets also on the Ad Side.

Thus, you have 18 targets, according to this writer.

I think that if most players can even hit half those 18 targets consistently with even just a little disguise, they will effectively disable most opponents up to 4.5, maybe even up to a 5.0. My opinion.

The author of the second article discussed the importance of rhythm and timing to the successful serve. He identified three (3) types of service rhythms most servers fall into and reviewed their checkpoints- the classic rhythm, the abbreviated rhythm and the staggered rhythm. Examples of classic (Federer, Lisa Raymond), abbreviated (Roddick, Nadal, Henin), staggered (Safina, Tsonga, V. Williams).

Take another look at the serves of these players on TV or You Tube, and see how they differ based on their descriptive titles and which style your serve most resembles.

[Thanks to "Understanding the Service Box", Paul Lockwood, Coach/Director, and "The Three Service Rhythms", Doug Eng EdD, PhD.]

*Is there a mental aspect to the serve?
From a recent ESPN article:
"As many point out, the mental component is key to the serve since it is the one stroke they have complete control over how they hit. It is also the most complex stroke, involving coordination between the racket arm, the ball-tossing arm and the legs, as well as explosive movement from a standing position. That leaves it more vulnerable to disruption."

See Why Can't the Women Serve?

*Does the serve affect the rest of your game?
From the same ESPN article:
"The impact of struggling on serve is not confined to the shot itself, observed Ana Ivanovic: "It was really frustrating, and it was affecting my whole game. I think it's not only case with me, it's with every player who has a big serve. And then all of a sudden if the serve is not coming, it affects your whole movement or your whole game."

*How would a new player learn the serve?
The short answer, of course, is practice-practice-practice. I would think that a new player might need to familiarize himself with the throwing motion itself, perhaps by literally throwing a football around on the court. I think there might be some value also to getting the new person familiar with the natural pronation motion of the arm during the serve, perhaps by watching the mechanics of the bullwhip in action.

See: You Tube Video
[Thanks to Jim McLennan, TennisOne.]

There may also be a value for this new player to learn about "pronation pops" without worrying about trying the get the ball into the box. If, for example, they hit serves with "pop" against the back fence or hitting wall, it effectively takes the service box out of the equation.

*Final comments
I think that every sport has its "sexy" shot or play - in golf, the hole-in-one; in basketball, the slam-dunk; in football, the long-bomb touchdown. In tennis, I think it's the serve, that untouchable ace that players love to hit and everyone loves to watch...

May all your serves be aces!

Gary
----------------------------

A quick look at the awesome serve - silky-smooth and powerful - of one of history's best players, Pancho Gonzales...

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Rise of the Return...

The service return most recently was the special province and domain of champions such as Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors, considered two of the greatest returners in history...

No longer...

Now, the return, together with the serve which was always considered the most important shot in tennis by most observers, has risen in importance in the game to equal the serve.

USA Today recently published some statistics to show that top level player rankings are best measured by a combination of BOTH successful service returns AND serves...

Article: Getting to the top in tennis, stats say, is all about the return (Sept. 10, 2009)

From the article:
"Last year, for instance, the most accurate statistical barometer for predicting a top-10 finish in the year-end rankings came in two return categories: points won returning first serve, and break points converted."

"Players used to attack," says 15-time major winner Roger Federer, who launched his record-breaking career in 1998. "Now they defend more. (The analysis) just confirms what the feeling is of everybody."


(Photo Credit USA Today)

Points to consider as players build their return game...

Best, Gary

Today's Tennis: The Constants Amidst the Changes

(Photo Credit Venetian Hotel)

We know about all the changes in today's modern "power and topspin" game, such as changes in rackets, strings, technology, and the rise of the baseline game, the decline of serve-and-volley, prevalence of western-type grips and 2 handed backhands, etc.

What are the "constants" or constant factors that have not changed? What has remained the same since the days of say Tilden and Budge, Gonzales and Laver, Ashe and Connors, McEnroe and Borg, Lendl and Edberg?

Since these constant factors have not changed, aren't they critical for people learning and improving their game to consider, take into account, and analyze?

Some CONSTANT FACTORS that come to mind are:
*Size and dimensions of the court
*Size and dimensions of the net
* The size and dimensions of the ball
*The laws of physics
*Principle of moving forward aggressively and cutting off angles
*The idea of watching and tracking the ball
*Fundamental strategies such as "always change a losing game", "never change a winning game", etc.
*The basics of the mental game (I think), such as building mental toughness, etc.
*Even the scoring system remains essentially unchanged

One argument of some observers, which is relevant here, is that there are also "fundamentals" or fundamental principles of good tennis that have remained the same and unchanged over time, through eras and players...

Among these FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES are:
*consistency and control as your base or platform
*use of non-dominant arm and hand to help create balance and to space one's self from the ball
*footwork, posture and balance (keeping weight half and half between both legs and feet, staying low, etc.)
*small steps vs. large steps in moving towards the ball
*serve posture: serve and stretch, i.e. keeping the non-dominant arm up after the toss
*hitting the ball cleanly into the racket head's "sweet spot"
*tennis as a "game of errors" - last person to hit the ball inside the court wins the point

Players and eras change, equipment and technology improve, and indeed the game itself advances. Yet there may also be some "constant" factors and and "fundamental" principles in tennis which do not change but endure...

Food for thought.
Best, Gary

GOAT: Who's the greatest player of all time

Date: May 26, 2009

On this perennial question at the Sunday tea party, I read an article from Tennis Week from Nov. 2007 I thought was very interesting.

But in case you may not have seen it, here it is.

Tennis Week Article

Statistical analysis of the greatest player of all time.

Criteria:
1. Career won-loss percentage
2. Best won-loss percentage for a five-year period
3. Career tournament titles
4. Tournament titles won in a best five-year period
5. Career percentage of tournaments won
6. Percentage of tournaments won in a best five-year period
7. Career Grand Slam titles
8. Slams won in a best five-year period
9. Career Grand Slam winning percentage
10. Percentage of Grand Slams won in a best five-year period

Final conclusion:
Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg & Bill Tilden (tie), Roger Federer, Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Don Budge, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jack Kramer, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry.

Best, Gary

That mad crazy thrill...

(Photo Credit AFP/Getty)

When asked why he loved tennis, Bill Tilden, the great champion from the 20's and probably the first tennis superstar, said it was that "that mad crazy thrill"...

"There is no sensation in the sporting world so thoroughly enjoyable to me as that when I meet a tennis ball just right in the very middle of my racquet and smack it, just right, where my opponent should be but is not."

*From Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, Originally published 1925



Best, Gary

Winning the big points...

Topic: Is not the nature of tennis that some points are "bigger" or more critical to win in a match or set than others? What are they and why? How can one maximize the chances and opportunities to win those big points?

A few months ago Tennis magazine suggested a slightly older book as still one of the best "overall" tennis books, and I picked it up. Total Tennis, Peter Burwash, Collier-Macmillan, 1989. It is an older book from the late 1980s, and I apologize if someone here mentioned this book (or this topic) before on this forum, since I am fairly new here. I did not see any results when I tried to search this book and topic with the search function.

For me, I got a lot out of this book, as much as the Mental Tennis book by Vic Braden on the mental side.

One of the points made in the book was that not every point in tennis is equal to every other point. The phrase "play one point at a time" assumes that each point is the same in importance. But you would not trade a king for a pawn in chess, or in tennis it seems.

A person can win a set 6-4, and still lose 40% of the points. A person can have just one break of serve, and win the set 6-4. In fact (it appears) that a person on paper can lose most of the points of a match and still win the match!

Since a tennis match is a game of physical and emotional momentum shifting back and forth, and it is impossible for anyone to maintain focused intensity throughout a match from start to finish, it's important to know which points to focus on to win.

For example, match point and set point are critical to win. If you never win a match point or set point, you never win.

Burwash says that the third point and the fifth point of every game are also critical to win. Concerning the third point of a game, say 15-15, there is a large difference between 15-30 and 30-15. If the third point is played at 30-0 or 0-30, there is a big difference between 40-0 and 0-40.

Similarly, the fifth point of a game, if played at 30-30, there is a big difference between 30-40 down, and 40-30 up.

I would add that a break point (up for you), and also game point (up for you) is critical to win.

Next, Burwash argues that the fifth game and the seventh game of a set is critical to win. The fifth game played at 2-2, the difference is 2-3 or 3-2. If fifth game is played at 3-1 or 1-3, the difference is 4-1 or 1-4.

The seventh game played at 3-3, the difference is 3-4 or 4-3. The seventh game played at 4-2 or 2-4 makes a big difference. It is now either 5-2 or 2-5.

The biggest decisive points of all are then: the third and fifth point of the seventh game. Burwash says that the champs almost always win those points, or at least know they need to.

Food for thought...

Best, Gary

Book Review: A Terrible Splendor

As a tennis history buff, I have always believed that a good tennis player and fan should know something about the history of the game. This includes the great champions and matches of the past because they helped to lay the foundation for the modern game that we see today.

I recently read this masterful, well-researched and highly-praised book on a riveting period of tennis and world history - the 1937 Davis Cup semi-final match played at Wimbledon Centre Court between Germany and the United States, as the world prepared for war. Here's my review.

If people find this post useful and interesting, I may post more reviews of tennis history books here in the future.

Thanks for reading!
Gary

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A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, A World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. Marshall Jon Fisher, Crown Publishers (April 2009). 321 Pages, 6 Chapters, 8 Pages of Black & White Photos.

(*The book's title comes from a quote from Thomas Carlyle about "Fate [which] envelopes and overshadows...[against which] human will appears but like flashes [of] a brief and terrible splendor...")

Before Federer and Nadal, before Sampras and Agassi, before Borg and McEnroe, the greatest tennis match of all, argues the book's author Marshall Jon Fisher was probably the singles match of the 1937 Davis Cup semi-final played at Wimbledon seven decades ago between the great Don Budge for the USA (ranked number one in the world at that time), and Baron Gottfried von Cramm for Germany (ranked number two).

Photo of Budge and von Cramm (Credit wsj.net):


The greatness of the match was based on more than pure tennis (though the tennis was indeed extraordinary), but also the backdrop of impending world war and the high stakes for all, especially von Cramm.

This match was a five set thriller before a raucous crowd on the edge of their seats. It ended only after five match points in the fifth set, culminating with a spectacular running forehand winner around the netpost, and after both men were exhausted and tested to their ultimate limits. One man was playing for the honor of his country - Budge. The other, Von Cramm, was literally playing for his life (as he was targeted by the Nazi regime in his home country for alleged offenses, and only his victory on the tennis court assured him safety.) In that sense, the match became a metaphor for the poignancy of the human battle and, in the words of the publisher, ultimately the "triumph of the human spirit".

Against it all, Fisher also writes beautifully about the rising drums of war across Europe and the world, interweaving the Budge-von Cramm match with the story of a world on the brink of global conflict.

The three extraordinary men of the book's title are: Budge and von Cramm, of course, and the third man - Bill Tilden, the great US tennis superstar and champion of the 20s. Fisher makes many insights into their lives and inter-relationships, traces their seminal tennis contributions and even touches on their personal demons.

Budge and von Cramm were good friends on and off the court, who genuinely liked each other. Budge and Tilden naturally had the greatest respect for each other and their respective abilities. Tilden said of Budge in a comment published later: "I consider him the finest player, 365 days a year, who ever lived." Tilden was a visitor many times to Germany and, in an interesting twist, unofficially coached the German Davis Cup team, including von Cramm and was rooting for him at the Davis Cup match, to the obvious dismay of American fans.

Bill Tilden
The first great tennis superstar, who transformed the sport from a gentile country club pastime to an arena for world-class athletes where winning was the ultimate goal and aim. Tilden in his prime simply was tennis. As sports writer Frank Deford wrote: "It was Tilden and tennis, in that order." From 1920 to 1926, Tilden never lost a match of any consequence, a record unequaled even to now. He won 10 lifetime major championships. He was also a talented writer and a brilliant student of the game. His 1925 classic book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball was studied by generations of tennis students. Consider what he wrote in his book about the "all-court player", almost a premonition about the game's future:

"What is the future of the tennis game? ... As one of the champions of today, I see vistas of progress ahead, of which I glimpse only a bit, but which the champions of tomorrow will have explored and developed. Where are these lanes of progress? Not from the backcourt. Not from the net. It is rather in the use of the forecourt for sharp angled shots, in the use of the mid-court volley, the half volley and rising bounce shots, that future progress lies. Every player who desires to succeed in the future must equip himself with every shot in tennis and then strive to explore the mysteries of the forecourt."

And Tilden was a consummate showman and entertainer. And he lived a flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle. He was famous for a reputedly 150MPH cannonball serve - with the wood rackets of old. Witnesses at matches, including Gene Mako, recalled that he could take 4 tennis balls in one hand - one between each finger and thumb and serve up 4 aces on command!

Tilden boasted a long career, playing on the pro tour well into his 40s and even 50s. In his late 40s, when he once beat Budge on the pro tour, Budge remarked that Tilden taught him a lesson, playing "the greatest tennis I have ever seen." At 53, Tilden could beat much younger stars Fred Perry and Bobby Riggs. It was said he could still be the best in the world for one set. "All they can do is beat him", wrote columnist Al Laney, "they cannot ever be his equal."

In 1950, a AP Sports Writers poll, without any real dissent, voted Bill Tilden the greatest player of the half-century.

(Oddly enough, Tilden shares a birthday with me - February 10, and comes from the same hometown - Philadelphia. I have even played at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia where he learned to play.)

Tilden sadly carried a dark secret from the public until the end of his days. He was a homosexual, and was charged late in his life of corrupting teenage boys. He was ostracized in public but always his tennis accomplishments were honored. He died of a heart attack in his hotel room at the age of 60.

Don Budge
Budge was the skinny, red-haired kid from Oakland, California, son of a truck driver, who learned the game at Bushrod public court. Later, he justifiably became "Mr. Tennis", literally inventing the "Grand Slam" by intentionally planning and winning all four majors in 1938. (In Budge's day, a sea journey to Australia to compete in their Open was 22 days.)

Pancho Segura once joked that Budge was so confident in his ability on the court that if you were his opponent, he was saying to you: "You can be my ballboy". And for good reason. His powerful backhand often hit on the rise with devastating consistency is even today considered one of the greatest in the game. Indeed, Budge's "unassailable package of power and consistency" is still viewed by many as "the finest ever", even seven decades later. In 1937-1938, he won 92 matches, 14 straight tournaments, including all the majors and 10 Davis Cup matches. He was voted by the press in 1937 and 1938 as the best American athlete.

Budge became a Hall of Famer in 1964 and retired in Eastern Pennsylvania. He died in a car accident in 1999.

Gottfried von Cramm
von Cramm was the tall, blond, green-eyed, impeccably groomed, German aristocrat with the title Baron, son of a lawyer and military officer. He was very popular and well-liked in tennis for his gentlemanly conduct and fair play. Unfortunately, he rose to prominence when the Nazi party came to power in Germany. They wanted to promote him as an example of Aryan superiority, but he refused to be used as a propaganda tool.

von Cramm was being watched by Nazi officials for this reason and others. He had married his childhood sweetheart, who was part Jewish. And there were also rumors that von Cramm was also a homosexual, a grave offense in Nazi Germany typically calling for imprisonment and punishment in a concentration camp. von Cramm was reportedly assured that as long as he kept winning at tennis, no harm would come to him.

Before the Davis Cup match with Budge, von Cramm had won the French Open titles twice, made the finals of Wimbledon two weeks earlier, and rose to number 2 in the world. Tilden had agreed to unofficially coach the German team and von Cramm, and greatly sharpened his backhand for the match.

In the years after the match, von Cramm was eventually arrested and imprisoned for the morals charge of homosexuality, and banned from tennis. He was also later drafted and served in the German Army on the Eastern front. After the war and many letters of protest from tennis fans around the world, he returned to play tennis and Wimbledon in the 1950s. He died in a car accident in Cairo, Egypt in 1976.

The Davis Cup Singles Match: Budge v. von Cramm
The Davis Cup matches were a major sporting event in tennis in 1937, closely followed around the world.

There were unconfirmed reports that just minutes before the match, von Cramm got a call from Hitler, and that he looked pale and deadly serious, answering with "Yes, mine Fuhrer."

The match itself was a five set spectator's marvel, with shot after shot thrilling the raucous crowd who rewarded a particularly brilliant point with an entire minute of applause.

von Cramm, serious and methodical and under Tilden's tutelage, took the first two sets, 8-6, 7-5 with an onslaught of net volleys and groundstrokes deep and hard to Budge's baseline, which were "like a barrage of leaden bombs." Budge who, according to Alister Cooke, played "crazy and inspired tennis", fought back by doggedly moving into net himself - intercepting von Cramm's deep shots at mid-court, hitting volleys from "no-man's land" on the way in, and took the next two sets, 6-4, 6-2.

One writer described the tennis as "winners hit off of balls which themselves appeared to be certain winners". James Thurber wrote that the level of play was an "inspired brilliance, amounting to almost physical genius..." Walter Pate declared years later "No man living or dead, could have beaten either man that day."

In the final set, to Budge's dismay, von Cramm pulled out to a 4-1 lead. Budge re-grouped and stormed back to a 6-6 tie. Point after point late into the fifth set became an epic duel, a "heroic and sustained" effort "with such gorgeous shots." It all ended at 8-6 in the fifth, after five match points, on a screaming running forehand winner to the crowd's thunderous cheers.

I won't reveal here who won but you're welcome to look it up. The important point is that both men, tested to the ultimate, hugged each other after the match, genuinely happy for each other's play - as the Centre Court inscription says - "meeting triumph and disaster and treating those two imposters the same."

For those who want to hear a Podcast Interview of Marshall Jon Fisher, the book's author, with Photo Slideshow, click here:

Photo Slide Show

Podcast

End

Watching the Pros Live (In Person)

I am wondering how many of us have actually seen pros competing live in-person, or attended a professional tournament or a Grand Slam or Master's event.

Who among us has done this? Which pros did you see? What did you learn or get out of it? How is it different from seeing it on TV? What are the benefits for your game or tennis knowledge?

For myself, I have seen in person at play: WTT Philadelphia Freedoms matches, including Lisa Raymond and Nicole Vladisova. I have also seen John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in the past 3 years at Freedoms matches. I also attended the US Open in Sept. 2008 and saw Federer, and Fernando Verdasco each playing matches, and on practice courts hitting: Patty Schnyder, Andy Murray, Venus Williams, Bryan Brothers. (I once saw Borg play live many years ago at the old Philadelphia Pro Indoors - I guess this means I am giving away my old age, haha).

My 2 cents- for me, it was an eye-opener
- speed of play is much faster in person than what it seems on TV, including the pace and speed of shots
- incredible effort by each player to put everything they have into each shot
- unbelievably huge effort by players to get into the right position (footwork so as to properly space themselves to the ball) before uncorking their shot
- incredible "intentionality" with each stroke, by that I mean a sense that they are intending to hit each shot a certain way, placement, spin, pace
- heavy use of topspin by everybody

Best,
Gary

Balance in the martial arts and tennis

It seems to me that there are a lot of similarities between the martial arts and tennis as concerns the concept of "balance".

3 links I found helpful.

1. Martial arts advice on balance
You Tube

2. How to develop balance in martial arts
ehow Article

3. Developing balance in tennis
Video

Best, Gary

Lessons from boxing...

(Photo Credit to ESPN)

Date: July 18, 2009

Last night, I took a break from tennis and decided to watch boxing, the Friday Night Fights at ESPN.

I saw the main event 10 round lightweight fight between challenger Mexican Miguel Vasquez against undefeated and world-ranked native-Colombian Breidis Prescott (20-0, with 18 KOs).

Prescott, 5'11", 137 pounds, was clearly the stronger fighter with the longer reach and height over Vasquez. Prescott was heavily favored.

Well as you may guess, it was an upset- the underdog Vasquez won in a split decision in 10 rounds.

Vasquez was the less pretty fighter technique-wise, but fought the smarter fight. He counter-punched when Prescott took any offense. He moved, bobbed and weaved, using the ring to his advantage. Vasquez was actually knocked down in the first round, but held his mental game together and scored more points in the ensuing rounds. He finally got some solid punches up the middle into Prescott, opening up a mouth bleed and closing the left eye.

The commentators were saying things like:

*It's not always about the bigger, stronger guy with the prettier punches.
*It's sometimes about over-coming brute strength with smarts, cunning and tactics.
*Boxing is about geometry, angles and timing.
*It's about keeping it together over the long haul and finding a way.
*Boxing is about moving and using the ring (space and geometry to your advantage).
*Boxing is about frustrating your opponent, keeping him off-balance and uncomfortable and giving him shots he doesn't want.


And what about that kinetic chain movement in the boxing action? Power coming from the ground up, through the core, shoulder, arms and hands into the opponent.

I walked away from this boxing match thinking about the similarities between boxing and tennis, and the lessons in boxing and how they all apply to tennis as well.

Best, Gary

Quotation from Rod Laver's The Education of a Tennis Player (Simon & Schuster, 1971), Page 19: "Boxing and tennis, however, give you as much swinging and hitting as you want. Strangely, although they may seem worlds apart, boxing and tennis have a kinship. Two individuals head-to-head, probing for weakness and attacking it. Footwork, timing and stamina are essential. Just you and your opponent in there until one of you is beaten."

International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI

(Photo Logo Credit to International Tennis Hall of Fame)

Date: July 13, 2009

The International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) in Newport, RI is considered one of the best sports hall of fames to visit...

ITHF Website

The US Open was first originally played there, I believe. Also, I heard that they have the only private grass courts in the USA on which the public can play when visiting the Hall of Fame museum.

This weekend Monica Seles, Donald Dell and others were inducted.

In addition, the Campbell's Hall of Fame finals match was played this weekend, and Rajeev Ram beat Sam Querrey in 3 sets.

Best, Gary

The swinging volley demonstration

Anna Kournikova demonstrates the swinging volley...

Video

Best, Gary

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pancho Gonzales: Warrior of the Court

Photo: US Open

Last night, Saturday, September 05, 2009, the USTA honored the legacy of Richard "Pancho" Gonzales at the U.S. Open, on the 60th anniversary of his second U.S. Open championship.

Click here for U.S Open website page report

The self-taught superstar, who learned to play tennis with a 50-cent racket on the courts of Los Angeles, is seen by many as one of the most purely talented players ever to play the sport of tennis. His ferocious serve-and-volley style showcased a remarkable athleticism and unrelenting will to win.

In the 1950s, he held No. 1 rank in the world for an unequaled 8 years. He is the only player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame while still an active player. Arthur Ashe once called Pancho his "only idol." Gonzales is widely credited with helping to break down barriers in tennis and sports to inner city youth, Latinos and minorities.

Well done, Pancho!

Gary

PS: Pancho Gonzales was the subject of an excellent sixty minute documentary on Spike TV, with interviews of Pancho and many relevant stars and figures of his day. The DVD of this documentary presents one of the best reviews of Pancho's top-ranked career and extraordinary social impact, and is highly recommended. It is available through Higher Ground Entertainment.

Here is the 6 minute trailer on You Tube:

Pancho Gonzales: Warrior of the Court



One last look at that awesome Pancho Gonzales serve:

Billie Jean King wins Presidential Medal of Freedom

(Photo Credit Sony Ericsson WTA Tour & Getty Images)

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to 16 people on August 12, 2009 at the White House.

It is designed to recognize individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

In the world of tennis, Billie Jean King, for whom the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, home of the U.S. Open is named, was honored.

Billie Jean spent an adult lifetime in sports and beyond, at home and around the world, championing gender equality issues and making measurable real-life progress in an imperfect world towards that goal.

The citation reads:

"Through her example and advocacy, Billie Jean Moffitt King has advanced the struggle for greater gender equality around the world. In an age of male-dominated sports, her pioneering journey took her from Long Beach, California, to the lawns of All England Club and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her athletic acumen is matched only by her unwavering defense of equal rights. With Billie Jean King pushing us, the road ahead will be smoother for women, the future will be brighter for LGBT Americans, and our nation's commitment to equality will be stronger for all."

President Obama said, referring to the all of the winners: "Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way. Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive."

Speaking with reference to Billie Jean, the President added: "We honor... what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone - including my two daughters - a chance to compete both on the court and in life."

Congrats Billie Jean! Well done!

Gary

More information, click here:

Article

The best baseball pitches, lessons for tennis serves

Here's a recent thoughtful article about baseball's best pitches (i.e. fastest speeds 100+ MPH) that I ran across in the New York Times and which I found fascinating, in case you did not see it.

The best way to produce the fastest baseball pitches (and also maximize injury prevention), it would seem is the same - a bullwhip-like kinetic chain motion. Maximum rotational speed shoulder. An upside-down tornado. The arm twisting and turning on the same plane as the shoulder in sequence, whipping the ball. The creation of maximum leverage.

Some obvious lessons for tennis serves, it seems to me.

Best, Gary
(Photo Credit New York Times)

Baseball Pitchers

There is more discussion of serve power on Podcast 22 at EssentialTennis.com.

Podcast

A day at the U.S. Open 2009

Date: Friday, September 04, 2009

A group of my tennis club friends took the almost-3 hour ride on a mini-bus to see the US Open matches yesterday, Friday, Sept. 4, Day 5, which featured a full session of matches. We stayed through the day session, and part of the night session.

Wow, what an entertaining (an exhausting) day, packed with thrills.

Here are the final results of Day 5.

Results

We decided to break up into groups of 2 and circulate as we wandered through the matches and courts. We all caught different parts of different matches, a mix of second and third rounds.

I made an effort, with my buddy, to concentrate on the outer courts and the practice courts, to see what came up.

I first took in some of the Tsonga match win over Nieminen at Grandstand, and saw some of Murray's win at Arther Ashe stadium. (Last year, I saw Federer play a second round match at Ashe, but my seat was so high up that it was not conducive to a good view, in my opinion. Ashe is a monster-size stadium for only one court.)

We then hit the outer courts. We saw some of a doubles match with Nadia Petrova/Bethanie Mattek-Sands v. Virginie Razzano/Agnes Szavay. Then, another court to see some of Victor Troicki. We saw pretty Maria Kirilenko practicing on one of the empty outer courts before the start of a match. We then saw some of the Tomas Berdych match with Horacio Zeballos. We also some of Rajeev Ram teamed with up Melanie Oudin in their first round mixed doubles match. We saw some of Fernando Gonzales v. Josselin Ouanna.

The highlight of the day for me was hitting the practice courts to see these guys practice. Man, we were treated to star after star on various courts, some hitting on their off day, others warming up before their match.

*Kim Clijsters, Gael Monfils, The Bryan Broths., James Blake, Maria Sharapova, Taylor Dent (who went out later to Grandstand for his 5 set thriller win over Ivan Navarro).

The big moment came when the buzz at the practice court was that Federer was coming. There was a burst of applause when he entered from the back with his hat and tennis bag, people shouting "we love you Rog.". His father was following behind him. They walked over to Practice Court #1. His hitting partners (he had 2) were late. Fed. and father were sitting in chairs waiting for about 5 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity to me. Fed. began jogging around the court, and came within 5 feet of me and my buddy. His hitting partners showed up for a vigorous hit session. It was the thrill of the day for me, in a day of thrills.

He moves like no other player I have ever seen, gliding on the court like floating on air, moving his core-body into each shot.

As if all this wasn't enough, we then see Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe come out on another practice court, just to hit for old-times sake, it seems. Wow.

Anyway, I could go on, but I'll stop. It was the tennis highlight of the year for me.

My take-aways for tennis playing nuts:
I spent a day with my eyes as big as half-dollars watching these guys play. What I noticed at this level of play, compared with players are lower levels -
*The incredible preparation (intentionality) each of them makes before each shot is uncorked (this seems like most of their effort)
*The fluidity of their movement and footwork on the court
*How cleanly and consistently they keep hitting the ball
*The length of their swings, especially their follow-throughs, on their strokes

Hope this information was helpful.
Best, Gary

Roger Federer and the Ghost of Bill Tilden




Here are interesting articles on Roger Federer's chase of Bill Tilden's record of 6 straight U.S. Open titles...

Roger Federer and the Ghost of Bill Tilden

Federer closes in on Tilden's U.S. Open record

Best, Gary

Big Bill Tilden

(Photo Credit to Sportsmans Daily)

Big Bill Tilden
Most young players today know little about him. He was however the first great tennis superstar, and responsible for bringing tennis out from the days when the sport was just a genteel country club pastime into today's modern age of tennis as a big-time competitive sport.

From 1920 to 1926, a pre-"Jet Age" era, Tilden did not lose a tennis match on the major circuit of any real significance, sweeping through Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

He was a master showman and a brilliant student of the game, whose instructional book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball stands as a timeless tennis classic.

In my opinion, his all-court attacking game was also far ahead of his time - except of course for those long pants!

His open stance, as well as other shots such his deep forehand slice shot and masterful "American Twist" kick serve and his famous "cannonball" flat serve, reputedly clocked at over 150MPH with the old wood rackets, made him stand out in his era.

In 1950, the Sportswriters of America voted Tilden the best player of the half-century, without any real dissent. A exceptional tribute albeit against the backdrop of a tragic personal life.

For anyone who wants to read more about Tilden and his era, I suggest SI Sports Writer Frank Deford's brilliant biography titled Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and Tragedy, (Simon and Schuster, 1976, reprinted in paperback, Hall of Fame Edition, 2004) available on Amazon and elsewhere. It's a captivating "read".



I also suggest reading the New York Times Article on Bill Tilden in August 2009.

Bill Tilden: A Tennis Star Defeated Only by Himself

Best, Gary

PS#1: Some quotes from Tilden you might find interesting:

"There is no sensation in the sporting world so thoroughly enjoyable to me as that when I meet a tennis ball just right in the very middle of my racquet and smack it, just right, where my opponent should be but is not."

"Tennis is more than just a sport. It's an art, like the ballet. Or like a performance in the theater."

"In these days of modern tennis a player is as strong as his weakest stroke."

"Never change a winning game; always change a losing one."

"Never let your opponent see the same shot twice."

"What is the future of the tennis game? ... As one of the champions of today, I see vistas of progress ahead, of which I glimpse only a bit, but which the champions of tomorrow will have explored and developed. Where are these lanes of progress? Not from the backcourt. Not from the net. It is rather in the use of the forecourt for sharp angled shots, in the use of the mid-court volley, the half volley and rising bounce shots, that future progress lies. Every player who desires to succeed in the future must equip himself with every shot in tennis and then strive to explore the mysteries of the forecourt."

PS#2: A new book is to be published on Tilden in Sept. 2010 by Roger Kahn

(Kahn, author of baseball classic The Boys of Summer, is considered one the preeminent sports writers in America.)

Before His Time: Bill Tilden (Houghton Mifflin Publishers)

See: Borders

PS#3: What others said about Tilden in his time:



"[T]he greatest tennis player the world has seen...William Tatem Tilden 2nd was his name. He was the autocrat of the courts as no other player has been since, an absolute monarch in a period when American tennis was at it most resplendent and great players were developed in many lands. He was not only the supreme, the most complete player of all time; he was also one of the most colorful and controversial figures the world of sports has known...He was the master of his time and for all time." Allison Danzig, New York Times Sportswriter, quoted from Fireside Book of Tennis, Simon & Schuster, 1972, Pages 172 & 180.

"When Tilden was Tilden, nobody could touch him. In fact, nobody could compare with him. And King William knew it and reveled in it...He bestrode the tennis world like a Colossus between whose legs the lesser figures of the game ran about and found themselves dishonorable graves." John Kieran, The Ruler of the Courts, Macmillan Company, 1941.

"William T. Tilden 2nd, is a master of all styles of play and a bewildering variety of strokes. He habitually varies his topspin drive with heavy undercut slice, uses one of a dozen different services, and varies the length and pace of his strokes so that his opponent is never quite sure what to expect. Tilden possesses an uncommon fleetness of foot and an extraordinary reach and suppleness. Combined with this unparalleled equipment is a tennis brain of the first order, which makes him quick to discern, and profit by, the mistakes of an opponent." Samuel Hardy, Captain, U.S. Davis Cup Team 1920, quoted in Tennis for the Expert, William T. Tilden 2nd, American Sports Publishing Co., 1930.

"The Thin Man: An Homage to Bill Tilden" (Courtesy You Tube)



"Big Bill Tilden: 1931" (Courtesy British Pathe)

BIG BILL TILDEN



"Tilden in Trim!" - Doubles Play (Courtesy British Pathe)

TILDEN IN TRIM!