Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tennis & Physics

This post may seem a stretch, but stay with me just a moment...

On March 30, 2010, a significant development took place in the world of particle physics and potentially also theoretical physics.

The world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland (Fed.'s home country), accomplished a record science event - a smashing of protons at near-light speed and at near-absolute zero temperatures, thereby re-creating conditions close to the time of the original so-called "Big Bang" (origin of universe).

This atom-smash event produced a ton of scientific data that the experts hope will answer basic questions about the universe and produce information that can offer practical advances also...I will allow the physics experts here to explain all this in more depth, if they care to.

Physics, arguably, is more responsible for many aspects of our modern world than almost anything else - iPods, smart phones, satellite technology, medical advances, you-name-it, etc.

In fact, it is said that the entire world, indeed the entire known and perhaps even unknown universe, may be simplified into a finite and perhaps brief physics (i.e. mathematical) equation...the so-called Grand Unified Theory (or Theory of Everything) which apparently unifies things such as the laws of "quantum mechanics" at the sub-atomic level, and "general" and "special relativity" at the macro-level.

This theory arguably also unites all the "forces" of nature and answers basic questions such as the existence of other dimensions, the so-called "God particle", dark matter, time travel, and faster-than-light travel, etc., not to mention cosmological questions about the end of the universe, i.e. the Big Crunch producing an "oscillating" universe, etc. Current "super-string" theory apparently is the early start of such as theory. It is said that Einstein was working on such a final theory before he died.

When a physicist sees a beautiful sunset or island beach landscape, he or she actually tries to see a mathematical equation which tries to unify and co-relate light, matter, distance, atoms, etc. Interesting?

Well, what does all this have to do with tennis?

Well, perhaps at some fundamental level, tennis is really a physics problem at the core - how to add spin and pace and depth or angle to a ball and keep it in play so as to produce a winning shot or error by the opponent.

A physics and geometry problem...

Is there a grand theory, or any physics or mathematical theory about winning tennis?

I'll take a shot.

WT = (T & F) + (G & A) + MG + F + E + ES + S

Winning Tennis equals Technique and Footwork (includes spin, pace, control), plus Geometry and Angles, plus Mental Game, plus Fitness, plus Equipment (racket, string, ball, court surface), plus External Stimuli (weather, wind, opponent's play style, crowd noise etc.), plus Strategy

Just some musings... Best, Gary

Thursday, March 25, 2010

And the second shall be first...

Some random thoughts on perhaps the most critical, and most difficult, shot in tennis...the second serve.

1. If the serve is considered the most important shot in tennis, the second serve is probably the more important of the 2 serves (i.e. first and second). If you miss the first, you get a second. But if you miss the second, you're done on the point. In short, you "gotta get it in".

2. Even if you don't "miss" your second serve but only manage a weak second serve, the opponent gets to "see" a weak second serve. He can thus attack it and put you on the immediate defensive. (I have played matches where my opponent "teed-off" on my weak second serve - and I lost, of course. I felt that my second serve weakness was the difference between my game and my opponent's because, on other issues, our game was roughly the same.)

3. It is said that a player should learn a solid, secure and reliable second serve first. Then, the player should learn the first serve.

4. In general, many coaches say that in serving, one learns first control and placement, then spin and then power last.

5. Many people think that the quality of the second serve (depth, placement, spin, pace) is what separates the top say 500 pro players from the rest, the top 100 from those below, the top 25 from those below, and the top 10 from those below.

6. If second serve points won is a critical match statistic in many matches, then the quality of second serve becomes fundamental, I think.

7. The motto one hears on the serve priority is: "second is first, and first is second".

8. A server with a strong reliable spin-ny second serve (slice, kick, topspin) can probably "live" on that in a match. Conversely, a returner with a strong service return can probably "live" on someone's weak second serve.

9. You can hit a "second serve" on a first serve, but you probably cannot hit a "first serve" on a second serve (most of time).

10. The old adage that we have all heard is: "You are only as good as your second serve."

Best, Gary

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Make it Miami - The 2010 Sony Ericsson Open!

Photo: Getty Images

The world's top players launch one of the top Masters tournaments in the world at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne - Miami: The 2010 Sony Ericsson Open, March 22 to April 04.

The greater Miami - South Beach area offers thrilling beaches and night life as a backdrop to one of the best tennis tourneys on the tour...

Enjoy! Gary

The 2010 Sony Ericsson Open

Congrats to the Winners at Indian Wells

Photo: Paul Buck, European Pressphoto Agency

Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia defeats Andy Roddick of USA in the Sunday Men's Finals on March 21, 2010 in Indian Wells, CA USA, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5). At age 31, Ljubicic becomes the second-oldest winner of Indian Wells since Jimmy Connors in 1984, and wins his first ATP Masters 1000 title.

On the women's side, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia defeats Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, 6-2, 6-4. Jankovic wins her first title in 7 months and rises to No. 8 in the world rankings.

Congrats to the champions and all the players who competed in this year's Indian Wells tournament. Well done!

Best, Gary

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Excerpts: Arthur Ashe on Tennis

Arthur Ashe on Tennis: Strokes, Strategy, Traditions, Players, Psychology and Wisdom, with Alexander McNab (Knopf, Inc., 1995) (143 Pages, with Foreword, 4 Introductory Articles, 6 Chapters)
"Arthur Ashe motivated. He taught. We listened when he spoke. He used tennis for a greater good. Many players don't. He made a difference." The Player, by Billie Jean King.
In this short yet pointed book, sports writer Alexander McNab compiles many articles and thoughts of the great Arthur Ashe. Ashe was the first man of color and African-American to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1993. His insights on the the topics of tennis, strokes, strategy and psychology, and much more, remain relevant today.

One of his insights was about "who" you really "play" in tennis. In a famous quote, Ashe remarked: "You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards. And when you reach your limits, that is real joy."

The book is easy-to-read and nicely organized on a wide range of tennis topics, and packed with gems from a gifted and accomplished player. And it is well worth reading in full...

Here are a few brief excerpts...

Five Shots-a-Point Rule
For club players, I have a comfortable rule of thumb. If, on every point you play, you hit the ball in five times, you are not going to lose any matches...steadiness is a habit; it is not something you turn on or off like a light bulb...start with steadiness; and then add aggression and power.

Make Up Your Mind
Indecision is a common problem for many players...You can take too long to make up your mind and end up trying a foolish play...In most situations, there is a bread-and-butter play that works ninety percent of the time...

When You Get in Trouble
Aim for the center strap of the net. If the ball passes over it at a reasonable speed, it should stay in, regardless of where you are on the court.

The Important Points and The Important Games
The first point of the game is key. After that, the points on the Ad side of the court are more important than the points on the Deuce side because you are either building a two-point lead...pulling even...or winning or fending off a game point...The first four games are important because that is the feeling out period of the match, and no one wants to lose his serve. I think Bill Tilden was right about the seventh game, which he identified as crucial. [That] is the place where you can forge or consolidate a winning lead...or...break your opponent's momentum.

Make Your Opponent Hit the Shot He Hates
Every player has a shot that he or she would rather not hit...If your opponent is shaky on overheads, lob a lot. If he doesn't like to come to net, feed him a lot of short balls. Chip away at your opponent's confidence by making him hit the shot he hates.

Covering the Court
Too many club players play as if they can cover the whole court, which cannot be done. Whoever configured the court back in the 1880s did a pretty good job because even the fastest players...cannot cover the whole court very well. You have to try to get your opponent to hit the ball where you can cover it, and within that area you can be more aggressive.

Anticipation the ability to size up a situation and intuitively guess where the ball is going to be before it gets there...It gives you a huge advantage...There is no question that experience helps you anticipate better. But [also] pay attention. If somebody hits a ball crosscourt to you, more than half the time you are going to hit it back crosscourt. The way a person holds the racquet has a lot to do with where he can hit a ball.

Keys to Better Play
1. Play with a decisive attitude
2. Mix up your shots
3. Have a plan on break point.
4. Lob when you're in trouble.
5. Hit approach shots down the line.
6. Cover the open angles at net
7. Get moving after you hit the ball
8. Practice with a purpose

What It Takes To Win
It is not just the more talented player who wins. Some players may try a little harder. Some players may be a little smarter with strategy and tactics. Some players may be in better shape. Some players may have a better temperament for the game...To be a winner, you must be a fierce competitor as well as a shotmaker.

Relish the Combat
The sheer intensity of your competitive fire may be enough to overcome an opponent with more firepower in his can get a psychological advantage by the body language you display on court...Always try to look like you are a winner, even if you are behind...a sustained look of control and confidence can give you a mental edge...

See Yourself Succeeding
Pancho Gonzales once told me that whenever he thought that a stroke of his was a little off, he would close his eyes and picture himself hitting the shot perfectly...Close your eyes before the point begins, and see yourself executing the shot, and then open your eyes and do it, without worrying too much about the result.

Vic Braden, when asked, "What's the first thing I should do to improve my tennis?" always answered "Lose five pounds." There is some truth to that...Most people play at a level or pace commensurate with their conditioning. If you improved your conditioning, you could play a lot more and a lot better.

Best, Gary

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Indian Wells 2010 Player Party

Indian Wells 2010 is underway and winding to the Championship Matches....some of the top seeds on the men's and women's side have already fallen out, so this year's final results will be fascinating indeed. Stay tuned..

Meanwhile, enjoy this video of the Pre-tournament Player Party...

No wonder this tourney is among the pros' favorites on the tour!

Best, Gary

Sunday, March 14, 2010

DVD Review: Biomechanics of Power

Biomechanics of Power, with David Sammel (ITP, 2001) 54 minutes with 19 Chapters and Bonus Feature.

International Tennis Products (ITP), based in the U.K., has produced this fascinating 54 minute DVD about the Biomechanics of Power in tennis, as part of their Visual Learning System series. Their website is:

In his DVD, David Sammel, U.K. national coach of top Davis Cup stars and currently Head of Coaching at Monte Carlo Tennis Academy (MCTA), introduces and explains the human physiological components or "biomechanics" of tennis power and fluidity.

Sammel breaks downs how biomechanics works in the major groundstrokes - forehand, backhand (both one-handed and two-handed), closed stance, and open stance. He includes many practices tips, drills and techniques to help the club and recreational player improve in this area. He also adds a bonus feature on developing a feel for groundstroke power and on maintaining dynamic balance on the run.

The core of Sammel's concept on biomechanics is: groundstroke power comes from the body's "big parts" rotating - especially shoulders, hips, and "core". He explains the so-called kinetic chain movement with power coming from the ground-up traveling from feet to bent knee to hips to shoulders in the takeback (i.e. "loading" or "coiling"). This is followed by movement traveling from shoulders to hips to arm to hand with racket head "sweet spot" following-through to full finish (i.e. "unloading" or "uncoiling".)

Sammel goes on the describe what he calls the three (3) forms of biomechanical power: 1) Linear Power which is body and racket moving forward horizontally, 2) Groundforce Power which is the body and head rotating and bending down below shoulder level and then rotating back and pushing upward from the ground, and 3) Circular Power which is the full extension and follow-through with arm, hand and racket.

In my view, the biomechanics of efficient and powerful tennis has probably not been a well-understood concept by many club and recreational level players. Indeed, many coaches say that they see too many lower level players hitting the ball with too much "arm" and "hand" only. In contrast, we see the top players, though they may vary in play style and other aspects, efficiently and intelligently use their body mechanics to maximize their game.

This fascinating DVD helps to de-mystify this sometimes little-understood area of biomechanics for everyday players. And it offers illuminating insights into how recreational players can improve their use of biomechanics in their play, and thus elevate their game. Well done.

Additional Research:
You Tube Clip of Sammel's Biomechanics of Power
(Apx. 2 Mins.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Review: Secrets of a True Tennis Master: Welby Van Horn and His Tennis Teaching System

Secrets of a True Tennis Master: Welby Van Horn and His Tennis Teaching System, By Edward Weiss (Wilson Printing, 2007).

About the Book and the Author
Secrets of a True Tennis Master sets forth a masterful paradigm of tennis teaching from legendary coach Welby Van Horn that still carries value to this day. The book is written by one of his former students, Edward Weiss, a former Division III All-American, and now a corporate lawyer in Connecticut. Weiss has done a beautiful and thorough job in explaining the Van Horn system over 13 Chapters and 296 Pages, profuse with illustrations and photographs. Van Horn's theory is based on certain tennis instruction fundamentals, and a system of checkpoints to help students master the game.

About Coach Welby Van Horn
Welby Van Horn is the legendary tennis coach called one of the most successful coaches in all of sports.See:The Right Way to Begin, Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated, April 28, 1969

In tennis, Van Horn has been called "that rarest of breeds" - one of the few great tennis players who then became a great coach. As a professional player, he was ranked in the world's top ten as both professional and amateur in the 1940s. He was the youngest male player at age 19 to reach the U.S. Open Finals at Forrest Hills in 1939. He played Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Don Budge and Bobby Riggs. His biggest win was over the great Bill Tilden, then Age 52, in July 1945. 

As a coach, Van Horn amassed an amazing record of teaching 100 nationally-ranked American junior players, including top-ranked Charlie Pasarell (ranked No. 1 USA player) and Victor Amaya (ranked No. 14 in the World.) 

In his book, Off the Court, Arthur Ashe wrote: “If I had to send my kids to somebody to learn the game, I would send him or her to Welby Van Horn. He has the best track record. You don't get that by accident..."

Van Horn opened a renowned Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, FL and was inducted into the USPTA Hall of Fame in September 2008.

The Welby Van Horn Tennis System
The Welby Van Horn tennis system is evident in all his players - a fluid classical style and all-court game.

Van Horn believed that that there are four (4) fundamentals to the game and that they should be taught in a particular order. The four (4) elements are in order of priority: 1) balance, 2) grips, 3) strokes and 4) strategy. Let's review these very briefly in reverse order to better understand Van Horn's thinking.

*WINNING STRATEGY through ball control which is through STROKES; which are then from correct GRIPS, which are then based on good BALANCE. In other words, you can only control the ball and racket, if you control first your body and it's balance mechanism. Thus, good balance is the first fundamental, and can be learned and practiced even without a racket.

In Welby Van Horn's words: "Balance is the key fundamental. It is what makes the expert game look so easy. Proper balance means an economy of motion: achieving maximum results from minimum effort." Van Horn's system emphasizes use of checkpoints in helping players achieve their maximum balance as a platform for strokes and volleys.

For much more on the Van Horn tennis teaching system, see the book: Secrets of a True Tennis Master. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Coach Saviano on Tennis Styles & Secrets

Maximum Tennis: 10 Keys to Unleashing Your On-Court Potential, Nick Saviano (Human Kinetics, 2003) 195 Pages, with 10 Chapters, Index, Bibliography and Black & White Photos

Nick Saviano is a former top coach and director with USTA and now head of Saviano High Performance Academy in Sunrise, FL USA. He was a top 50 player and was once coached by Pancho Segura, and himself once coached Andre Agassi. Saviano has offered this insightful and instructive book on his keys to "maximum tennis". It includes contributions on his ideas from top former stars and coaches such as Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Stan Smith, Jim Courier, Nick Bollettieri and others.

Tennis Styles
Saviano says 90%+ players fit very broadly, though not perfectly of course, into one of four (4) player game styles.

These are: 1. Counter-Puncher, 2. Aggressive Baseliner, 3. Net Rusher, and 4. All-Courter

He argues that each style presupposes a player personality and that you should "embrace" your player personality in developing your game style. Doing this will enable you to play tennis better and just as important, enjoy playing it. Playing a game style in conflict with your on-court personality will trouble your enjoyment and inhibit your game, he says.

Saviano also says that your physical characteristics (fitness level, height, speed, endurance, etc.), and your weapons and weaknesses affect your choice of game style. Also, certain patterns of play you might like could affect your choice of game style.

He also writes that people should make a distinction between "game style", and "strategy" and "tactics".

Game Style - the style or overall mold of the your game. Examples are a net rusher style or counter-puncher style.
Strategy - overall game plan in a match. One example of an overall match plan is that of Venus Williams serving big, hitting aggressive baseline shots and take control of point early. Another is Davydenko taking ball on rise and hitting angled shots.
Tactics - specific shots, combination of shots or maneuvers to win a point. An example is a serve out wide, then coming to net, and hitting to opponents weaker side such as backhand to get a weak reply.

More on the Game Styles
1. Counter-Puncher - These are defensive baseline players who react to shots, wait to counter, make good passing shots, play far behind baseline, and hit with high net clearance and heavy topspin usually. Depth, consistency, control are their keys. They tend to be mentally tough and patient. They are not risk takers, but they have high fitness and like to run. They usually play high percentage cross court tennis. They use directionals well. Example: Leyton Hewitt.

2. Aggressive Baseliner - They try to dictate play with aggressive groundstrokes, and usually have a baseline weapon such as big forehand. They are very quick and agile. They are good service returners. Their personality is aggressive, and they go for winners and want to make it happen rather than wait. They are good at changing direction, using the inside-out forehand, and opening up the court with angles. Examples: Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters, and Lindsey Davenport.

3. Net Rusher - They possess aggressive court personality, and much prefer short points. They are big risk-takers. They like high risk or high reward. Don't like long points; they not patient players. They like putting pressure on opponents. The serve is usually a good weapon for them. Outstanding volleys and net coverage. They are good athletes, with good anaerobic powers, powerful sprint-and-stop skills, and fine court movement skills. They know how to approach, come behind their shot, and make high percentage volleys. Examples: Pete Sampras, Taylor Dent, and Martina Navratilova.

4. All-Courter - They are capable of mostly all styles. They use all strokes, and are usually very fit. They move between a defensive and neutralizing game. They like to adjust and adapt, or they get bored. They may or may not have one clear weapon. All-Courters are problem solvers and thinkers. Yet most tend to prefer mostly one style or the other, such as net or baseline most of time. They usually like ball control. They like to use play patterns - serve/volley, approach down the line, cross court directionals but with smart change of direction, and inside-out shots. Examples: Martina Hingis and Justine Henin.

Tennis Secrets
Saviano identifies what he believes are 13 psychological secrets of the champions - methods which help them achieve top performance - sometimes called the "ideal performance state". These are reviewed by him in order of priority and he suggests that doing the first one will help in doing the next one and so on...We'll just briefly review the top six here...

1. Focus only on the things that you can control, and forget the rest
Doing this will enable you to play your best and increases the chances of good results. Monica Seles was once quoted saying: "I truly try to worry about things I can control, and not worry about stuff outside of my control." Legendary basketball Coach John Wooden was also quoted as saying: "The more concerned we become about things we can't control, the less we will do with the things that we can control."

2. Winning is NOT the number goal, it's executing your game to your best ability
Doing this will not guarantee a win, but will indeed ensure success. Billie Jean King said: "When you stay in the process is when you win. Not when you get into the end results." Winning is just a by-product of executing to your best ability.

3. Emphasize performance goals, not outcomes
Outcomes are things you cannot control such as winning a point, game or set. Performance goals are things you have control over: staying in the moment, engaging in positive self-talk, attacking a second serve, doing a slip-step (hop-and-go) before each opponent's stroke, etc.

4. Cultivate intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic motivation
Intrinsic motivations refer to passion and rewards inside of yourself, such as improving your game or gaining fitness, rather than external motivations such as wins, rankings or trophies.

5. Stay in the present or the moment
Andre Agassi summing it up once said: "I have learned the hard way that to lose the focus on one point interferes with the job. If you let up on one point, what's going to stop you from doing it on two? You can't run out the clock. You have to finish."

6. Project a powerful, positive presence
The projection of confidence is exactly what people see. Never let the opponent feel that they have broken you mentally or emotionally. "Never let them see you bleed" is what his superiors instructed James Bond in one of the movies...Win, lose or draw, always act as if you are winning and just won.

Best, Gary