Monday, July 26, 2010

DVD Review: "Building the Serve from the Ground Up", by Jim McLennan

Building the Serve from the Ground Up, by Jim McLennan, (DVD, One Disc, 70 minutes, 15 Chapters)(Essential Tennis Instruction, 2010)

Jim McLennan is the Tennis Director of Fremont Hills Country Club in Los Altos Hills, CA USA, and Editor of, with almost 40 years of tennis experience.

In this very interesting DVD, he presents his multi-year project on the tennis serve. It shows, step-by-step, how a player can build a winning serve from "the ground up".

McLennan's multi-year project focused on breaking down the serve into its essential components. The project did this by studying photos and videos of the legendary serves of all-time greats, including Pancho Gonzales, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, and Lew Hoad. McLennan himself was once coached by Tom Stowe, who was the coach of the legendary Don Budge.

McLennan describes what he calls the five (5) master keys to the serve: balance, rhythm, effortless effort, spin (to bring the ball into the court), and snapping or whipping the racket (not wrist) through the serve.

In 15 DVD Chapters, he outlines exercises to help the player build these 5 components into their serve. McLennan explains that the last serve component, the snapping or whipping of the racket, is the most difficult part for the causal observer to see. He describes the motion of this crucial component as: "throwing a dart into the sky, and then unscrewing the light bulb".

In the final DVD Chapter, Jon Wong, a former nationally-ranked Stanford University player, demonstrates the execution of the McLennan serve.

Along the way, McLennan touches on other fascinating topics such as the "third serve" (a reliable serve in-between the first and second serves) and the "serving window" (the zone above the net within which a server must serve for the ball to drop into the service box).

In summary, Building the Serve from the Ground Up (DVD) offers a fascinating and practical guide to help master the most important and probably most difficult stroke in the game - the serve - based on a careful study of the top servers in tennis.

Best, Gary

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An evening with the Philadelphia Freedoms

I attended a fun evening with the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis (WTT) on Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at the Villanova Pavilion in the Philly suburbs.

The St. Louis Aces, and star Anna Kournikova, were in town to take on the Freedoms, led by Prakash Armitraj, the son of the 1970's Indian tennis legend Vijay Armitraj.

World Team Tennis (WTT) is the brainchild of tennis great Billie Jean King, who played for the Freedoms herself in the 1970s. (Many people probably recall Elton John's famous hit song "Philadelphia Freedoms", which he wrote for Billie Jean.)

WTT has been around for 35 years. It's a fan-friendly atmosphere, with music on loudspeakers between points, t-shirt and tennis ball give-aways, autographs for kids, and lots of fan-cheering for players and teams. It's a co-ed team format with 10 teams representing various U.S. cities, playing a match season over the month of July.

The matches are fast-paced - "no-ad" scoring, games to 4 points, 5 games to a set, with cumulative team scoring. WTT uses a 13-point super-tiebreaker, if teams are tied at end of 5 sets.

Many top current and retired stars (and stars returning from injury or lay-offs) have used the WTT platform to showcase their game. Among them are: Andy Roddick, Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and John McEnroe.

It was great to see some 7.0 level tennis, and some awesome hitting with power and topspin. These players showcase how top players make massive efforts to prepare for the ball before unleashing their strokes. And their use of "rotational power" and full finish "follow-throughs" on their strokes was impressive, to say the least.

Final score: Freedoms won over Aces, 22-17.

Best, Gary

For more information, click here: The Philadelphia Freedoms

A few tennis quotes to make you smile...

If you can’t learn to play tennis well, learn to enjoy doing it badly.

If you are going to lose, at least look good doing it.

It may be that your sole purpose in playing tennis is simply to serve as a warning to others.

If you’re not having fun playing tennis, then you’re not doing it right.

Best, Gary

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Newton's First Law of Motion (Tennis Edition)

Painting: S. Uchii, 2003

Lex I: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.

Law I: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

Often called the Law of Inertia, Sir Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion was presented in 1686 in his thesis: "Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis".

The First Law of Motion simply means this:

1. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.
2. An object in motion tends to stay in motion.

How does this apply to tennis players?

A few ways:
*Your feet must always be in motion. Tennis is a game played with your feet much more than a game played with a racket. It's really about getting your feet into proper position to execute your stroke.

*If your feet are still and you are standing on your heels, you are an "object at rest", tending to stay at rest.

*Dr. Jack Groppel, a leader in biomechanics and sport science, once wrote that when a tennis player's heels are flat on the court, "The force between your shoes and the court is equal to your body weight."

*Example: Let's say that you weigh 175 pounds. Then, it is as if there is a weight of 175 pounds on top of your head that must be moved off before you can approach the ball to hit it.

*The solution in tennis to this problem is what teaching pros call: the split-step. Or more correctly, the "split-step and react." Some people call it "hop-and-go."

*The split-step is a simple hop up off the court, with bent knees, just before the ball makes contact with the opponent's racket. Thus, at the precise moment when the opponent makes ball contact, your body is in the air - an "object in motion", tending to stay in motion. And, as it comes down, your body is already reacting and moving to the ball.

*The timing of the split-step is vital - split-stepping too soon or too late renders the player's game ineffective.

*Ideally, the split-step is done before every type of shot hit by the opponent: groundstroke, volley, serve, return, anything.

*The most important part of the split-step is not the split-step itself, but the "react" part just after the split-step. This reaction is a explosive first step towards the ball, with the shoulder turned or snapped in the appropriate direction to respond with forehand or backhand.

*The continuous "split-step" for every oncoming shot is a hallmark of the advanced player.

*Tennis is a game of "movement" much more than a game of "hitting".

Best, Gary

Tennis: Split-Step Importance

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Magazine Article Review: Sports Illustrated - Superwoman Serena

"Serena Williams: Love Her, Hate Her, She's the Best Ever", by L. Jon Wertheim, Photographs by Bob Martin,Sports Illustrated (July 12, 2010) Cover Article, 5 Pages, 5 Color Photographs

Based on Serena Williams' 4 Wimbledon singles championships and 13 major singles titles and an overpowering game, Wertheim makes a brief but simple case that Serena is not only the best female player of her generation, but also the best of all-time.

Athleticism, mental toughness, an overwhelming power baseline game and that supreme serve make Serena, argues Wertheim, the favorite to convincingly beat all her top rivals in Grand Slam singles championship history in a hypothetical match: Margaret Court, Helen Wills-Moody, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratiolva and Chris Evert...

An interesting article worth reviewing...

Best, Gary

PS My take on the skills sets of Serena v. her top three modern rivals - Graf, Navratilova and Evert:

Comparing skill sets and who wins:
Serve - Serena
Volley - Martina
Return - Evert
Forehand overall - Steffi
Forehand (Power) - Serena
Backhand - Evert
Backhand (Power) - Serena
Strength/Athleticism - Serena
Mental toughness/Intangibles - Serena
Footspeed on court - Steffi
Consistency of shot-making - Evert
Best overall defense - Evert
Best swinging volley - Serena
Power baseline game - Serena
Best on-court histrionics - Serena
Best intimidation of linesman, umpires - Serena

Final Winner? You decide. I think the odds favor Serena.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Review: "Hardcourt Confidential", by Patrick McEnroe with Peter Bodo

Hardcourt Confidential: Tales from Twenty Years in the Pro Tennis Trenches, by Patrick McEnroe with Peter Bodo (Hyperion, NY, 2010), 305 Pages, 12 Chapters with Introduction & Acknowledgments, and 16 Black & White Photographs (Signed by Patrick McEnroe, June 16, 2010, Bookend's, Ridgewood, NJ USA)(Available on

With this newly-released book, the U.S. Davis Cup Captain and ESPN Commentator Patrick McEnroe, brother of the great John McEnroe, offers up a fascinating read into the world of pro tennis and some of its top stars. For me, PMac has always been a thoughtful and articulate commentator on the game.

And his book did not disappoint. Indeed, I found the tales told by PMac in the book to be quite fascinating. Even more useful for me were his insightful comments about the growth and development of modern tennis - all from PMac's unique perspective as commentator, coach, player and insider for 20+ years.

The book is organized by mirroring the tennis year calendar, with tales spanning from: January's Australian Open to the Fall's U.S. Open and the year-end Master's tournaments.

PMac's stories of the big stars are set against the backdrop of the world of pro tennis. It's a small and insular world. And it's not surprising that it includes many driven egos, fragile personalities, and some real-world Prima Donas. And PMac does not pull his punches...

Among those covered in the book: Brother John McEnroe (who is a recurring subject), Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, James Blake, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Coach Robert Lansdorp, even TV commentators such as Cliff Drysdale and the list goes on.

What I found most illuminating however was PMac's comments about the game of tennis:

Some excerpts:

*"Tennis is a game steeped in aesthetics and etiquette. Nothing, including frantic attempts to expand the basic audience or the sometimes shocking behavior of the players, has done a lot to change that...gorgeous tennis, sportsmanship and personal appeal has never gone out of style...One reason tennis attracts so many female fans is because you can watch the game and focus on individual performance, rather than the combat or score. Tennis can be balletic or bullish..." (pp. 142-143)

*"Tennis has largely been a middle-class aspirational sport...the game is full of niceties that no one really wants to give up - raising your hand in apology when you inadvertently hit a let-cord winner...[or when you] hold up new balls before serving..." (p. 143)

*"Tennis strives to be a popular sport while retaining many elements that make it elitist in the same way that the Marine Corps or a good elitist. The game is focused on being inclusive, but it's exclusive in that it asks you to embrace tennis traditions." (p. 143)

*"Tennis is really about who is willing to pay, and how much, to watch anyone hit a ball." (p. 52)

*"Power has always been the Holy Grail in tennis, and maybe it always will be, even though power alone no longer suffices to get the work of greatness done." (p. 146)

*"[A] combination of court speed and the advent of polyester strings (sometimes in combination with traditional gut) now allows men to take savage cuts at the ball and still have it fall in. And it has led to an absolute mastery of spin." (p. 53)

*"Racket speed (how quickly you accelerate through the stroke) today [is] the grail...The search for increased racket-head speed has led many pros to play with ever lighter frames. The advent of polyester strings also had a huge impact in recent years. The old truism dictating that the harder you swing, the less control you have, has been turned upside down. With the new less elastic strings, swinging from the heels gives you more control." (pp. 98-99)

*"A player's first job under duress is to avoid the silly and stupid error. His second task is to make something happen, preferably forcing an error." (p. 55)

*"[T]he one shared attribute of all great players is exceptional timing." (p. 99)

*"[G]etting good [in tennis now] is less about stroking technique...than how well you hit on the move, how fit you are, how well you play defense, or transition to - and from -'d better be ready to rip the ball, open up the court, and seize your chances. And do all of that on the fly." (p. 98)

All in all, with Peter Bodo's wonderful assistance, the book is well-written and engaging. And it makes for some interesting summer reading into the game of pro tennis today.

Best, Gary

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Congratulations to the Singles Winners at 2010 Wimbledon!

Photo: AP
Strength, athleticism, competitiveness and big-match mental toughness...These supreme qualities were evident in the singles winners at Wimbledon 2010 - Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

No. 1 ranked Serena Williams (USA) defeated No. 23 seed Vera Zvonareva (Russia) in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2 in the women's singles finals on Saturday. It was Serena's 4th Wimbledon singles title, and 13th overall Grand Slam singles title.

Her big serve was dominant. Serena won 31 of 33 points on her first serves. She hit her fastest serve - 122 mph - for an ace in the final game. She finished the tournament with a record 89 aces.

Serena is clearly the defining woman player of this 21st century...

At 13 Grand Slam singles titles, Serena is 5th on the all-time GS singles title list, and only behind Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert & Martina Navratilova (18), all from an earlier era.

Together with her sister, Serena and Venus have defined the power baseline and big-serve game on the women's side...

Here's what Patrick McEnroe said about Serena in his recent book Hardcourt Confidential:

"[S]he must have the best woman's serve, ever. She has the same service motion as a man, and she can hit the kicker as her second serve ... The game will belong to the woman who figures out how to serve big - and backs it up with a combination of power and spin from the baseline. Serena has shown us what the future might be like, while dominating the present." (Pages 55-56)

No. 1 ranked Rafael Nadal (Spain) defeated No. 12 seed Tomas Berdych (Czech Republic) in straight sets, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in the men's singles final on Sunday. Rafa won his 2nd Wimbledon title and 8th overall Grand Slam singles title. This was also his second back-to-back French Open (Roland Garros) title and Wimbledon title. Only Roger Federer and Bjorn Borg have managed the feat of these back-to-back titles in the past.

Overcoming tendonitis in both knees hobbling him last year, Rafa finished the match in 2 hours and 13 minutes, breaking serve 4 times and holding all his service games. With this win, Rafa extended his record to 5-0 in his last 5 major finals, and solidified his hold on World No. 1 rank.

At 8 Grand Slam singles titles, Rafa's game - after Roger Federer's - has set the standard for spin and power for players in the 21st century on the men's side...

Has Rafa finally established that he is much more than a clay-court specialist?

“If you really want to play well on one surface and you are a good player, I think in the end you are going to find a way,” Nadal said.

Patrick McEnroe in his recent book, Hardcourt Confidential, agrees: "Nadal used to be lousy on grass...But Nadal is a genius - an exceptional athlete who was able to transcend his developmental history...Great players find a way to win on all surfaces...It's the talent!" (Page 86)

Well done to Serena and Rafa, and to all the players, personnel and officials at the All-England Club at Wimbledon 2010!

Greatest Champions of Wimbledon