Monday, May 31, 2010

Tennis and the Martial Arts: "Fear Not the Racket, But the Player Who Wields It."

"Fear not the racket, but the player who wields it." -A martial arts weapons philosophy showcased in the movie Ninja Assassin, and modified for the game of tennis

"Most of what I teach comes right out of the martial arts - the physics, the fundamentals, the self-discipline - and your mind is your greatest weapon." -Coach John Nelson, Univ. of Hawaii Men's Tennis Program, College Coach 26 years, Master's Degree in Education, 3rd degree Black Belt in Ju Jitsu
I. Introduction: The Brother Disciplines
Since the Bruce Lee movies of the 1970s, the self-discipline of the Martial Arts has captured the public's imagination. Watching empty hands and feet used as lethal weapons at lightening speed, powered only by the mind's will, hypnotized modern fans and observers.

The term "martial arts" actually means the "art of war." And the term can be traced back to the Roman God of War, Mars. Chinese martial arts date back 4000 years ago to the Xia Dynasty. Martial arts is widely considered however both an art and a science. Many forms of martial arts are linked to religious beliefs such as Confucianism or Daoism or follow a code of honor. The purpose of martial arts is self-defense or defense of others. More broadly however, the goal of martial arts is to offer its students self-knowledge and a better understanding of man and nature.

The forms of the martial arts are varied and far-reaching. They are primarily found in the Far East (Japan, Korea, China). But they also touch the Middle East, South Asia and even the Americas and Europe: Ju Jitsu, Karate, Aikido, Judo, Kung Fu & Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Ninjutsu (Ninja fighting), Jeet Kune Do (hybrid form), Pentjak Silat (Thai martial arts), Kalari (Indian martial arts), Hikuta (Egyptian martial arts), Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts dance), Open-handed wrestling (Native American martial arts), Savate (French Kickboxing), and others.

All the martial arts share some common characteristics, among them: balance, posture, control, flexibility, timing, hand-eye-foot coordination, aggression, grace, power, agility, speed, strategy, tactics, and more. Indeed, many of these elements are shared with many other sports and activities such as soccer, basketball, football, even archery.

This article will focus however on aspects of the martial arts which make it unique, and relate them to the game of tennis. These key elements help remind tennis players of the vital parts of our own developing game. And they show how accomplished martial artists and high-level tennis players are learning and refining their craft on a shared platform with common goals - they are truly "brothers-in-arms."

II. The "Chi" is Universal and The Core is "King":
In martial arts, it is believed that there is a universal energy or "chi" in all things. "Chi" is thought to be the source of all power and fluidity in martial arts strikes. In the human anatomy, the universal energy is believed to be centered in the navel. In tennis, the human core or trunk is the ultimate source of power and energy into the ball from strokes.

In tennis, power emanates from the ground up. It is created through well-timed use of the kinetic chain from feet, legs, hips, trunk, arms, hands, racket, all applied into the ball. Many call this "core rotation" in high-performance tennis. Compare this with the roundhouse kick in for example Tae Kwon Do. The roundhouse kick rises from the ground in a springing action, the legs and hips pushing through in an acrobatic move, resulting in a well-timed application of force towards the opponent.

The kinetic chain in tennis and the Chi energy release of martial arts are really two forms of the same process - gathering or coiling energy, and then releasing or uncoiling it, either at the tennis ball or at the martial arts opponent. The human anatomy's coil-and-uncoil mechanism seems to have three axes points: at the shoulders, the hips and the knees. These same human axes points are used in many martial arts strikes.

To maximize the flow of energy and thus power, the marital arts also emphasizes "punching through the strike". This means visualizing your arm or leg literally pushing through the opponent. In comparison, tennis emphasizes "hitting into and through the line of the shot", and extending your stroke follow through or finish towards your target.

III. The Universe is Balanced, Rhythmic and Harmonious
For the martial arts, there is a balance, rhythm and harmony to all things in nature. And nature is a source of inspiration. Indeed, many martial arts strikes are in fact taken from the moves of the animals. Kung Fu for example is divided into animal styles (real and mythic): the snake, panther, tiger, crane, and dragon. Fighting styles in Kung Fu include, among others: the praying mantis and the drunken monkey.

One of the keys to the martial arts is the concept of balance and centering of the human body. The Ninja fighters of the discipline of Ninjitsu for example are legendary for their balance skills. They are known to practice their strikes on a balance beam. Similarly, the art of Aikido focuses on the body's center, and teaches that all power and control protrudes from that center in a relaxed state.

Martial arts is essentially a rhythmic dance of timed strikes from perfect postures. For example in Karate, the kata is a precise, highly-defined and pre-determined sequence of strikes. In Tai Chi, the student learns a continuous pattern of postures that actually form a dance. Countless repetitions of the martial artist's moves develops timing, rhythm and cadence. Bruce Lee once remarked: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."

Consider that, in tennis, some of the keys to high-level performance are the same: balance in stroke production, consistency in shot-making, and the rhythm that is offered by for example learning the Wardlaw directionals. Other concepts such as precise timing and good posture in stroke technique, and the value of sound repetitions of strokes, can be taken directly from the martial arts. And if martial arts exercises collectively teach a cadence or dance, then tennis teaches the cadence of the split-step in moving to the ball, which is essentially the "dance of tennis."

For martial arts, the world is full of harmonious cycles - the changing of the seasons, the cycles of the sun and stars, and the release of human energy and exercise followed by rest and recovery. Both martial arts and tennis instruct students not only about stroke power and energy, but also about the importance of body recovery and healing. Rest, rejuvenation, ice, heat, nutrition, hydration, stretching, and massage are critical to consistent top performance in both disciplines.

IV. The Ready Position
The "get-ready-to-fight" position in martial arts and the "ready" position in tennis are amazingly the same. The feet are spread comfortably shoulder-width apart. The knees are bent. The body's weight is on the balls of the feet. The arms and elbows are also bent and relaxed. The hands are loosely out in front. Waist, back, neck and head are straight. The student is comfortable, relaxed and ready to move.

V. Watch, Listen and Breathe
In martial arts combat, the student must utilize every form of sensory perception - sight, sound, touch. He must observe, listen and breathe. He must gauge his opponent, anticipating his next move. He must exercise self-control. He focuses on his breathing to help still his mind's thoughts. He keeps his back straight, his body balanced, and his head stabilized. He moves like the panther and strikes like the cobra.

Compare this with the high-level tennis player in a contested match. He must continuously track the ball, keeping the head stabilized. He must continuously split-step just before the opponent's racket contacts the ball, so as to move to it with maximum speed and efficiency, appearing to glide on the court. He should seek to hear the sound or "pop" of the ball off of his racket. He may focus on breathing to quiet his anxiety and fears. His body is balanced, back straight and head completely still. His moves are cat-like, and he seeks at first opportunity to go on the offense with his shot.

Both martial arts and tennis encompass the two polar opposite styles of execution or "schools of thought": in martial arts, the aggressive power style vs. the steady methodical style, and in tennis, the hard court attacking game vs. clay court point construction style. In martial arts, the power style is represented, for example, by aggressive chops of Karate or the flying kicks of Tae Kwon Do. Whereas the steady methodical style is represented, for example, by the graceful flips of Judo or the circular strikes in Aikido. In tennis, professional players divide, among other ways, into groups which excel at the hard court attacking game (Andy Roddick or Taylor Dent) vs. the clay court point construction style (Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer).

VI. The Power of Smooth
The "power of smooth" refers to a relaxed confidence and an unbroken fluidity, resulting in top performance results. It's about maximum efficiency with minimal effort. It's about operating with a deliberate unhurried purpose, without appearing pressed or pressured by time, the opponent or conditions.

In martial arts, one noteworthy example of smooth is the discipline of Aikido - known as the "throwing art". In Aikido, the student learns a fluid, circular and harmonious defense to an attack. The Aikido student blends in with the attacker's moves, and returns the attack with relaxed, loose circular throws and flips. Even multiple attackers can be repelled by a confident graceful practitioner who can re-direct one opponent's attack on a fellow attacker.

In tennis, the top professionals exhibit relaxed, loose, graceful strokes with confident purpose. They never look hurried, pressured or off-balance. Indeed, they "play the ball" and do not allow the ball or the opponent to "play them". They play with soft hands and loose face muscles, especially at the time of split-step and just when the opponent makes contact with the ball. When faced with attacking power, they return the opponent's power at him. When faced with opportunity such as a short ball, they are deliberate and decisive. They move forward fluidly and cut off angles gracefully.

VII. You are Always the Student Forever
In martial arts as in tennis, you are always the student forever. Coach John Nelson, 26 years college coaching, Master's Degree in Education, and martial arts black belt, put it this way: "The more you get into the martial arts or tennis, [the more] you realize that you don't know it all. Anyone who thinks that they know it all is finished. They're not going to continue to develop. So you always become a student."

VIII. Victory is Vital, But in the End, More Vital is Your Growth and Passion

Winning is naturally vital in a martial arts contest or a tennis match. But victory will depend in no small part on winning the psychological test of wills against the opponent -who will impose their will on the other? Bill Tilden, in How to Play Better Tennis, wrote pointedly that in a tennis match: "One player...will ultimately impose his tennis personality on the other." The very same is true in the martial arts.

Both martial arts and tennis are asking the student to test their own outer limits and fulfill their own highest standards. What are the limits of the student's fatigue, fitness, endurance, flexibility, and strength? What are the student's highest expectations of his play, his shots, his execution, his strategy, his self-discipline, and his confidence and relaxation?

The final goal, of course, is advancing to a higher level in skill and ability in either the martial arts or tennis. On that score, your worthy opponent makes you better and stronger, as does each of your valuable matches and practice sessions. And your growth and passion for the discipline of the martial arts or tennis is all that can ultimately drive you to a higher level.

IX. The Mental Contest
Andre Agassi, in his autobiography Open, wrote poignantly about the mental battle of tennis. And amazingly the very same applies to the martial arts: "Tennis is the loneliest of sports...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 the match. 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 better than one person and that person is on the other side of the net."

X. Conclusion
Martial arts and tennis share the loneliness of battle, the fight to the finish, and the solitude of victory or defeat.

Both disciplines are about hard work, self-discipline, and problem-solving.

And both are ultimately about self-knowledge, and your own highest standards for yourself.

...and they are about the lessons of life and the nature of man.

Best, Gary
(Student, Chinese Tai Chi - Zang style)

Sources:
1. Tennis Kung Fu, by Master Bruce Wang, Ph.D. (Lulu.com, 2008)
2. The Complete Martial Arts, by Paul Crompton (McGraw-Hill, 1989)
3. Coach John Nelson, Univ. of Hawaii Men's Tennis Program, College Coach 26 years, Master's Degree in Education, and 3rd degree Black Belt in Ju Jitsu
Courtesy: Tennis Pod Pro http://iws.punahou.edu/user/lcouillard/JohnUHSimple.mov
4. Ron Miller, GottaPlayTennis.net, Tennis Instructor 20+ years, and former Martial Arts student of Goju Karate & Aikido

*Note: This Article was re-published at The Martial Arts Reporter, June 15, 2011 Posting.

Theme Music: Art of War II

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Short Early History of the French Open (now Roland Garros)

Photo: The legendary Suzanne Lenglen

The first French Open Championship took place in 1891. It was officially called in French Les Internationaux de France de Roland Garros or Tournoi de Roland-Garros.

At that time, it was a one-day national championship and limited to French citizens and residents only. Oddly, the first men's singles winner was a British player named H. Briggs, living in France.

After the First World War, French tennis began to surge in popularity, and propelled the French Open into an international event. Today, it enjoys status as one of the four "Grand Slams" of professional tennis, and a major sporting event in France and around the world...

Suzanne Lenglen, the wildly popular and incomparable French player, won six championships from 1920 to 1926, and dominated the decade of the Roaring 20s. At that time, she was to women's tennis in France what Big Bill Tilden was to American tennis in the USA - the first great tennis superstar and international celebrity. Lenglen was famous for her graceful strokes and ballet-like footwork.

But even more, she was a trendsetting and flamboyant athlete who was dubbed by the French press, "La Divine" (the Divine One). Lenglen's tennis fashion — which included plunging necklines and dress hems that extended just below the knee - was considered risque for her time. Yet her style arguably blazed the trail for today's tennis fashion for women.

France produced a team of four of the greatest players in the 20th century known as the "Four Musketeers": Rene Lacoste, named the "Crocodile", the self-made star who built his game on hard work and grit; Jean Borotra, known as "Bounding Basque" for his speed and acrobatic volleys, and who always wore a signature blue beret; Henri Cochet, "the Ball Boy from Lyon", recognized as one of the most gifted players of his era; and Jacques "Toto" Brugnon, known for his unique style of shot variety and touch.

Borotra was like the Boris Becker of his era, and Brugnon was like a player of John McEnroe's style. Lacoste is, of course, best known today for his tennis fashion and trademark "Crocodile" logo, and development of the ball machine and metal rackets. The "Four Musketeers" won the Davis Cup in 1927 defeating the U.S. and the great Bill Tilden and teammates in Tilden's hometown Philadelphia.

That win precipitated France's need to build a new tennis stadium at Porte D'Auteuil. That new stadium was named Roland Garros, and can accommodate up to 30,000 fans, and has officially hosted the championships since 1928, except for an interruption during World World II.

Center Court can hold more than 15,000 spectators, and is named Court Philippe Chatrier after a past president of the French Tennis Federation. Other courts are named after Lenglen and the "Four Musketeers": Court Suzanne Lenglen and Place des Mousqu├ętaires.

Roland Garros (French Open) draws almost 500,000 visitors each year, and includes a tennis museum, theatre and library. The world-famous "red clay", called terre battue, usually encourages extended tennis rallies and exciting well-constructed points. And the dazzling competition and atmosphere of Paris centers the tennis world's attention on France for two weeks every May!

Who will win the Roland Garros Championships in 2010? Can a native French player, such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Marion Bartoli, take the men's or women's singles championship? Or will Rafael Nadal win again, or will Roger Federer repeat? Stay tuned for one of professional tennis's big shows. And good luck to all the players!

Best, Gary

ROLAND GARROS CHAMPIONS
Winner of the most Men's single's titles:
Before 1967 - Henri Cochet - 4
After 1967 - Bjorn Borg - 6

Winner of the most Women's single's titles:
Before 1968 - Suzanne Lenglen - 6
After 1968 - Chris Evert - 7

Early History of the French Open:
Classic Video Footage of Rene Lacoste, Jean Borotra and others...


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: "Tennis Strokes That Win", by Frank Early, Photographs by Ron Bernstein

Tennis Strokes That Win: Breakthrough Techniques for Mastering the Game, by Frank Early, Photographs by Ron Bernstein (Contemporary Books, Inc., 1995), 123 Pages, 5 Chapters, with Acknowledgments, Introduction, Afterward and Index, profusely illustrated with Black & White photographs.
"Tennis Strokes That Win offers clear, solid instruction." -Roy Emerson, Winner 28 Grand Slam Tournaments
This book is a quick read, concisely written and visually illustrative. The book's basic premise is simple - strokes are the foundation block of your tennis game. And improving the quality and reliability of your strokes will serve to elevate the success of all parts of your game, including areas such as strategy, mental toughness, and court fitness.

Early is a teaching pro with 13 years experience, and formerly tennis director at The Island Club in Miami. Early's explanations in the book are pointed and clear. Bernstein is a free lance photographer who specializes in sports photography. Bernstein richly illustrates the book with action photographs of many top pros executing their strokes.

The photographs, and discussion, are meant to show the "big things" that top pros do in common and exceedingly well in their stroke production.

What about their top strokes makes for maximum efficiency, and world-class power, control and reliability?

*Hip and shoulder rotation in the upper body (core), especially in ground strokes
*Separation of movement between upper and lower parts of the human anatomy
*Weight transfer, especially in punched or net strokes
*Effective use of eyes to track the ball, emphasizing head stability
*Maintaining balance, moving the feet, bending the knees, and developing a consistent contact point

In the words of Cliff Drysdale, ESPN analyst and former top pro, "Early's book is innovative and informative...[and] will have an immediate, positive impact on your game."

Well worth a careful reading.
Best, Gary

Saturday, May 15, 2010

DVD Review: Kings of the Court - The Ten Greatest Tennis Players of All Time

Documentary by Tennis Classics Production Company (1997), published in cooperation with the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport R.I. Produced by Ed Atkinson. Narrated by John Forsythe. Running time: 88 Minutes

Available at WebTennis

Players Showcased:
  • Bill Tilden
  • Ellsworth Vines
  • Fred Perry
  • Don Budge
  • Bobby Riggs
  • Jack Kramer
  • Pancho Gonzales
  • Frank Sedgman
  • Lew Hoad
  • and Rod Laver
This is an amazing historical DVD which profiles ten of the greatest tennis players in history - the Kings of the Court - from the Roaring 1920s to the Dynamic 1960s, against the backdrop of John Forsythe's magnificent narration and an evocative musical score. It showcases rare and previously unpublished video footage of Big Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver. The DVD also includes extensive and exclusive interviews with Budge, Kramer, Riggs, Laver and others.

The DVD presents an incredible close-up look at some of the greatest strokes in history by the ten of the all-time top players - the Budge backhand, the Gonzales serve, the Vines overhead, the Kramer volley and many others. And it offers some compelling insights into the games and accomplishments of these history-making players. It should probably be part of any tennis history student's private library to enjoy for many years...

Short clip from Kings of the Court DVD showing Bill Tilden hitting his famous "Cannonball Serve"


Best, Gary

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

ESPN Magazine Article Review: Roger Federer & "The Power of Smooth"

This month's ESPN Magazine showcases Roger Federer as one who "looks the part" of world's greatest athlete, in a seven page cover piece, laced with six color photographs, by Sportswriter Tim Keown, with assistance by Shaun Assael, and Photographer Martin Schoeller.

In an intriguing article, Keown carves an analytic portrait of Federer as much more than a world-class tennis player or athlete. Federer is far closer to a master's painting or artwork. "But why?", asks Keown. This is his stab at an answer.

In Federer, there is composure, reserve, humility, grace, refinement, at one level. On another level, far more technical, there is "The Power of Smooth". Tennis historian Bud Collins put it this way: "Every time I see Roger play, I'm reminded of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The way he glides is breathtaking. We've never seen anything like it."

What is Federer's "Power of Smooth"? It's uncanny dynamic balance, metaphysical anticipation, and literally, in the view of Andre Agassi, a game of no technical weaknesses. Above all, it's an epic level of effortless maximum efficiency on the court - never a wasted move or motion. Everyone knows about a world-class pro's kinetic energy chain. But what about Federer's remarkable powers of recovery between points, which is 75% of a match? Everyone knows about a world-class pro's explosive "first step" to the ball. But what about Federer's exceptional "fast stop" or power of deceleration?

Keown's piece offers some compelling insights into the tennis superstar some consider the finest player that this sport has ever produced - and is well worth a read.

Best, Gary

Roger Federer, ESPN Magazine Cover Shoot, May 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

Philippoussis wins Staples Finals in Boston

Photo: World Tennis Magazine

Mark Philippoussis, age 33, defeated John McEnroe, age 51, Sunday night for the Staples Champions Cup, part of the Champions Series, the global tennis tour for past champions over age 30. The final score in 3 sets: 6-3, 4-6, 10-5 (Champions Tie-Breaker).

Philippoussis lost the Wimbledon finals to Roger Federer in 2003, and was only 2 years old when John McEnroe won his first Grand Slam in 1979 at the U.S. Open. In recent years, Philippoussis had been struggling with knee injuries and six surgeries.

In the third place match, Jim Courrier, age 39, defeated Bjorn Borg, age 53, in 2 sets: 6-4, 7-6 (4). Borg was playing competitively in the U.S. for the first time in 10 years, and was warmly greeted by Boston tennis fans. Borg had played and lost to McEnroe in the semi-finals.

Well done to all the champions!
Best, Gary