Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tennis for Now or Later?*

Tennis for Now or Later?* (or Should You Play to Win Today or Play for the "Long Run"?)

*Thanks to Ron Miller of for suggesting this great topic and these questions!

Tailoring your game for the NOW, or maybe for LATER
This topic is probably closely related to the topic of tennis and aging. The two (2) primary competing views or camps seem to be: Play to "win now" and get results today (or real soon) vs. play for the "long run" or the "long view", meaning play with measured intensity and pick your shots to go all-out for.

Many young people, juniors, high schoolers, college level, and lower-level pros on the challenger circuit, etc. might be playing to win now. Understandable. They are going for their goals now, be it college scholarship, ranking points, money, sponsors, shot at pros, etc. Temptations for performance-enhancing substances are also probably great.

As for the mechanics of how they might play tennis: well, it's probably "go-for-broke". Hit with power and spin, maybe that Far Western Grip or even that crazy Hawaiian Grip and blast away, shoulders, elbows, knees, joints etc. are a concern only for another day far into the future...Winning (and now) becomes the only issue...Thus, the biggest weakness of this camp might be the failure to properly recognize and heed the human body's limitations over time...

Older players, say those in their 40s, 50s, and older, might not have that option or luxury. If they want to continue to enjoy the game and enjoy it for more years, they know they will need to pace themselves, go for shorter rallies, perhaps play on softer surfaces to help protect joints and ligaments, and even ease off their intensity at times. etc. Aging forces maturity in many players in how they play...However, the biggest limitation of this camp might be that some less-intense older players may short-change themselves about the value of competition - it's challenges and lessons...

Can you nurse a minor injury but still develop your game?
Possibly. It may depend on the type of injury, and what body parts the injury might implicate. For example, in my case, I had a finger injury to my pinkie on racket hand last year. I am still taking hand therapy, and it's better. But in the interim, I still worked on other things such as footwork drills and shadow tennis.

Is there a time to stop on the court, listen to your body, and make healing your primary concern?
Probably so. In my mind, good health and longevity over-ride winning a point, game or set. If your body is telling you something is wrong and especially if a doctor, nurse or medical professional is advising you, your game-playing must be secondary to healing and recovery. That does not mean you still cannot learn, improve and advance your game while mending- today, we have videos, blogs, books, discussion forums, podcasts and even Internet liveshows to help learn from while healing...

What changes can you, or should you, consider making to add longevity on the court?
Tennis Magazine (October 2009) issue was dedicated to the topic of tennis and aging. Many people here probably saw it. Johnny Mac was on the cover smiling with the caption "Still Going Strong at 50". Can one's tennis get better with age? Can one make changes to add court longevity to their tennis game (no matter their age)?

The answer is probably a strong "yes". Age usually means more experience, more time to gather knowledge about good technique, proper strategy, etc. Some observers say that many repetitive tennis injuries are simply the result of repeated poor technique in strokes. Correcting technique problems can, by itself, prolong tennis play over the years.

Warm ups, stretches and balance exercises probably become more important for older players, especially since joints, knees, shoulders and elbows are often a source of trouble. Injury prevention exercises, including building-up core strength with for example medicine ball exercises, likely become more important. Core strengthening enables better use of the larger body parts, and lesser use of the smaller body parts, thus also prolonging one's tennis-playing years.

Possible on-court changes to one's tennis game to add longevity suggested in the article (regardless of age but especially if age is a concern): "shrink the court" by learning to play more in no-man's land (though this is contrary to conventional teaching), lobs, slices, change-ups in speed and spin, etc.

Should your physical age affect your shot selection or strategy? Quite possibly. The older a player gets, we know people lose endurance, reaction time, muscle elasticity and recovery. He or she should be mindful of their limits, and thus try to close a point more quickly, perhaps look to volley more rather than get into long baseline rallies, and lob more.

How much of a role does the mind play in your tennis age? There is probably a direct relation between one's mind and one's "tennis age". A mind-set of "go-for-broke" and blast away at the ball, without much regard for shot selection is many times a younger player's mind-set. Older players tend perhaps to use shot selection strategy more, use slice and dice more, vary pace and spin more, value constructing a point to conclusion.

There are exceptions of course. And no "value judgment" is being made here. Power is the way of tennis now, and older players probably need to handle and generate some power at least some of the time to even hit with more powerful young hitters.

Is the mind and tennis related? Some believe that tennis can sometimes be similar to a game of chess and the art of thinking 2 or 3 moves ahead, and that learning chess pays off to improve one's tennis game...

Should the pro game come with the disclaimer, "don't try this at home." Probably. Naturally, if we could all just "copy" the pros, the pros wouldn't be pros. However, we can probably observe and learn from the "big things" that pros might do, namely the fundamentals of good tennis - sound footwork, racket preparation, watching the ball, etc. - and benefit from watching that.

Best, Gary

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Commit - and You Will Outhit!

Take a close-up look at Andy Murray playing indoors at Paris-Bercy 2009 for an quick example of top level play....What do we see?

If you commit, you will outhit!

Before walking onto the court:

*Commit to a deliberate and complete "split-step", what some coaches better call a "hop-and-go". Murray makes a committed and deliberate hop-and-go before every single opposing shot coming at him.

*Commit to a full follow through on every swing of the racket. Watch how Murray never fails to follow through. In other words, finish what you start - for maximum swing power and spin on your shot.

*Commit to moving forward and cutting off angles. Murray moves his body weight into each and every shot, whenever possible. For example, in his case he likes to stand well back behind the baseline on service returns to allow him to do this.

*Commit to staring at (not simply watching) the ball and the point of impact, so that your head keeps still through the shot. Murray looks like he is hypnotized by the ball.

Best, Gary

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Five Quick Tennis Tips & Concepts

1. Tennis is about being relaxed and confidently going for your shots. Relaxed confidence is your best weapon.

2. Tennis is about "controlled aggression" - controlled with your strokes, and aggressive with your feet - or put another way, controlled with your goals, aggressive about getting there.

3. Tennis is about execution - hitting through the line of the shot, and leverage - letting the racket head do the work.

4. In tennis, the most important point is the next one.

5. Tennis is a game of percentages. (There are no guarantees, only probabilities.) Thus, follow the directionals almost all the time, and manage your errors.

Post Script: It's a bit amazing, but if you substitute the word "life" for the word "tennis" in the above 5 points, it all still seems to ring true! Yes, tennis can be a metaphor for life.

Best, Gary

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Health Benefits of Tennis...A Sport for Life

A comprehensive review of the many health, wellness and cognitive performance benefits of tennis has been published by a team of researchers led by E. Paul Roetert, Ph.D.

See: Health, Wellness and Cognitive Performance Benefits of Tennis, Journal of Medicine and Science in Tennis (Pages 14-19)(Updated December 2016).

A very good argument can be made for the "long view of tennis" as a sport for life which offers a lifetime of health and fitness benefits...including, among many others, maintaining aerobic capacity, managing body weight and stress levels, and prolonging muscular endurance.

Happy tennis!

A Brief History of Tennis*

(*or the Ten Minute Tennis Time Capsule)

*Tennis in Ancient History: Some historians trace the origins of tennis before the year 1000 to the Egyptian town of Tinnis on the river Nile, and the origin of the word "racquet" to the Arabic word for palm - rahat. Stronger historical evidence tracks tennis to the crude handball game of 11th and 12th century French monks which later became known as jeu de paume or "game of the hand".

*Tennis is Patented in 1874: Major Walter Wingfield is issued a British patent for the game of tennis. The game spread in a matter of weeks through Britain, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. Wimbledon is launched in 1877. Dr. James White is credited with bringing tennis to the USA, and became known as the "Father of American Lawn Tennis".

*The 1880s Through Early 1900s: The Renshaw Brothers (William and Ernest) from Britain dominate Wimbledon singles and doubles in 1880s. Richard Sears wins the first U.S. Open Championship in 1881. The Doughtery Brothers (Reggie and Laurie) also from Britain dominate tennis in the early 1900s.

*The Roaring 1920s - The Golden Age of Sport and The Tilden Era: "Big Bill" Tilden of Philadelphia dominates the sport, and is the first American to win Wimbledon, then goes on to play essentially undefeated from 1920 to 1926. Tilden helps popularize lawn tennis in America with books such as the classic The Art of Lawn Tennis, and later dominates the thinking of the sport with the book many consider his masterpiece Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. Tilden's influence on the sport is unmatched, and he is voted by ATP Sportwriters as greatest player of half-century later in 1950. Other top stars of the day - Suzanne Lenglen and French Four Musketeers (Lacoste, Borotra, Cochet & Brugnon).

*The 1930s and 40s - The War Years: The Tilden Era makes way for the Budge Era - Don Budge invents the "Grand Slam" - winning all 4 majors - with one of the best backhands in history. Other top stars of the day were Ellsworth Vines (California USA), Bobby Riggs (also California) and Fred Perry (Britain). The game of tennis evolves into largely a baseline game, emphasizing ball control. WWII interrupts tennis growth.

*The 1950s - The Jack Kramer-Pancho Gonzales Era: The game sees the start of a professional player circuit. Pancho Gonzales rises to No. 1 in the world for a record-setting 8 years in the 1950s, and is generally considered the game's greatest player. Maureen Connelly wins the Grand Slam on women's side. The game evolves into the serve-and-volley enterprise. The top players develop a serve-and-volley as a quick and effective means to win points, games and matches on the grass courts which tennis was played on. Dr. James Van Alen opens the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1954 in Newport, R.I. USA as a "shrine to the ideals of the game."

*The 1960s - The Aussies Rule: "Rocket" Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, and Roy Emerson dominate on the men's side, essentially carrying forward the serve-and-volley tradition. And for women, Margaret Smith Court dominates. Laver wins all four majors in 2 years, 1962 & 1969, thus becoming first man (and only man) to win 2 Calendar Grand Slams. Laver is widely regarded as the game's greatest player, inheriting that mythic mantle from earlier champions Bill Tilden and then Pancho Gonzales.

*The Open Era - 1968 and Early 1970s: Tennis allows both professionals and amatuers to compete together in the Grand Slams, and thus the "Open" Era is born. Laver, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King dominate. Margaret Smith Court wins the Grand Slam. John Newcomb and Stan Smith for the Aussies continue the Land-Down-Under's winning tradition. In 1973, Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes".

*The 1970s - The Connors-Evert Era: Tennis undergoes revolutionary changes: The tiebreak is introduced at the U.S. Open in 1970, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is born and computer rankings are started. In perhaps the biggest single change in tennis in decades, wood rackets make way for metal rackets (example the Wilson T-2000), then graphite and composite rackets (example Arthur Ashe Head). Two new superstars emerge, defining the sport for the decade: the fiery Jimmy Connors and the stoic Chris Evert, employing a two-fisted backhand and flat-ball baseline game. The other great champion of the era is: Bjorn Borg who established a record, in a relatively short career, as one of the all-time greats. More than that, Borg became the first "rock-star" and mega-bucks tennis player.

On the women's side, Czech Martina Navratilova, the all-time serve and volleyer emerged. Near the end of the 70s, New Yorker John McEnroe, also one of the all-time top volleyers begins to rise. Other highlights: Arthur Ashe wins Wimbledon in 1975. Tracy Austin wins the U.S. Open twice, first in 1979 and later in 1981. Tennis takes on a soap opera feel, with on-court (and off-court) characters such as "Nasty" Illie Nastase, "He-Man" Guillermo Vilas, "Party Animal" Vitas Gerulaitis. Some 30 million people, an all-time record, are reportedly playing tennis in the USA, then a nation of some 250 million.

*The 1980s: Tennis Evolves - The Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe battles became part of tennis lore, together with the great battles between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. For the women, Navratilova went on to win 18 Grand Slam singles titles through the 80s. On the men's side, the Wimbledon Final in 1980 in which Borg defeated McEnroe in a 5 set thriller is considered one of the best ever. After Borg left tennis in 1983, new faces began to be seen: Swedes Stefan Edberg (serve and volleyer) and Mats Wilander (baseline wizard), and later German Boris Becker (another serve and volley artist).

Czech Ivan Lendl developed a power baseline game, and became the Number One in the world in the mid to late 80s. Lendl is widely considered to be the forerunner of modern "power tennis". Meanwhile, on a parallel track, McEnroe, Edberg and Becker moved tennis into the serve-and-volley style. McEnroe's serve-and-volley skills, in particular, helped establish him, by most critics, as the top doubles player of all-time. Meanwhile, in a trend that started in the 70s, more court surfaces transitioned over to hard courts, as 3 of the 4 Grand Slams began being played on one form or other of hard courts.

*The 1990s: The Sampras Decade - The 1990s produced the greatest player of his generation "Pistol" Pete Sampras and the ultimate serve-and-volley game. He dominated the decade amassing 14 Grand Slam singles titles and No. 1 rank for 6 straight years, with a fiercely determined but unassuming temperament. Sampras was widely thought to be the greatest player of all-time. His rivalry with Two-Handed Backhand Baseliner Andre Agassi, career Grand Slam winner, made for some of the great matches of the decade. Steffi Graf on the women's side establishes herself as one of the all-time greats, with 22 Grand Slam singles titles, and both a Calendar and Golden Slam. Other notables: Jim Courier and Monica Seles.

*The 21st Century - The 2000s: The Federer/Nadal/Williams Era. The new century saw the emergence of yet more dominant players and the development simultaneously of the All-Court Game and the Power & Spin Baseline Game. Many fans, critics and commentators say that Swiss great Roger Federer, the human whip in perpetual "kinetic-chain" motion with his all-time 16 Grand Slam singles title record, may be the finest player that the sport has ever produced. His elegant all-court game with all strengths and no weaknesses may have taken the sport to a new level.

In contrast, the Spanish swashbuckler Rafael Nadal and his power topspin baseline game with 6 Grand Slam titles, Olympic Gold and Davis Cup for Spain, firmly places this play style on the front burner also. His game on clay is unsurpasssed, earning him the title "King of Clay". The Nadal vs. Federer rivalry produced what many consider the greatest match of all-time in the 2008 Wimbledon Finals, a 5 set masterpiece won by Nadal in the evening hour darkness.

On the women's side, the sister pair of Serena and Venus Williams has established a new standard for the power baseline game in women's tennis. Serena has amassed 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and Venus 7 Grand Slam singles titles. Other notables: Justin Henin, with 7 Grand Slam singles titles and a magnificent all-court game and one-handed backhand, Andy Roddick, 2003 U.S. Open Champ with the fastest recorded serve, and rising stars Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The 2000s also saw technology advance further in tennis, with developments such as Hawkeye and Shot-Spot computer systems for player challenges, more retractable roofs such as that at Wimbledon and new powerful string technology.

*The 2010s - 2020s and Beyond - The Global Sport: By the 21st century, tennis had grown into a global sport, second only to soccer in popularity, with top players coming from around the world. The game's top stars win millions in tournament prize money, enjoy multi-million dollar endorsement contracts and bask in world-wide celebrity status.

Why is study of the past relevant? Does the past teach us anything? An argument can be made that the past defines where we came from and how we got here. And even more important, the past can sometimes be a prelude to the future . . .

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future but by the past. Patrick Henry, March 1775