Bjorn Borg's serve was once described by a tennis follower as 'like a rigger's knife, sharp and practical'. Borg never relied on his serve to win him tennis matches, he simply used it as a way to start the point though in saying that he was a smart server.
In 1979 against Roscoe Tanner in the Wimbledon Final he rolled his serve in at a pace just slightly faster than a second serve. He was not interested in giving a nut rusher a look at a second serve. The tactic worked as he held on for victory from a break of serve he earned at the start of the fifth set.
In 1988 in the final of the French Open Mats Wilander hit 71 of 73 first serves in or 97 per cent in technical terms. The straight sets victory against Leconte was one of the smartest tactical matches played by the Swede. Did he take notice of Borg's 1979 Wimbledon winning tactics ?
What these statistics say about both of these Swedish Champions is that their strengths were not in the way they commenced a point but in the way they finished it. Both played a style that appealed to me because I felt it was a safe way of playing tennis, not a risky one. Their results spoke volumes.
'Coming to the net is like being at the frontier, you are fighting the unknown' was once a famous comment made by Borg's Coach Lennart Bergelin. He knew his player was almost unbeatable from the back of the court so he did not try to turn Borg into a more 'complete' player with a stronger volley.
A win once by Wilander over French Open Champion Yannick Noah at the Lipton Championships was once described as 'the longest session of prolonged stretching I have ever seen'. This was in reference to just how dominant the Swede's game was over the net attacking style of Noah.
All of the above examples and facts gave me an idea for a style of play that was both safe and comfortable to implement.
It was a style that waited for the opposition to either make a mistake or come to the net to challenge for the point. My way of thinking was that if an opponent could come up with enough volleys or baseline winners to beat me then they deserved the match.
All of this of course was from a 13 year old kid with an average but reasonably consistent game and with a serve that resembled a frog in a blender. I would hit the delivery in and then retreat three feet behind the baseline. "Ok buddy that's my way of starting the point, show me what you got from the baseline", that was my way of thinking anyhow.
I was playing with a wooden Borg Donnay racket strung at a ridiculously high tension, as Bjorn did and most opponents back then owned a similar 'weapon'. Due to the Borg / Connors domination of World Tennis it was usually a Wilson steel racket or a wooden Donnay as preference for the new junior players.
No one really had a style that was overwhelming and come to think of it no one really had a game plan either so a weak serve often was simply just returned 'politely'.
Watching Borg play Wimbledon against Connors when I was a kid was almost complicated from memory. Their rallies were so long I could not see how the match was to finish before darkness fell. I also saw no game plan either as I felt that these two just kept hitting it back to each other so that's what I did, not just against the wall but against opponents.
I didn't have a Coach to teach me so I just assumed that 'finding' your opponent during a rally was the way to play tennis. So that's what I did, I 'found' him, on every single ball but I started winning.
I finished a match one day at Junior Club and Dad asked me why I kept hitting it back to my opponent so I replied with "Isn't that how you play tennis ?!" Dad suggested that I actually try hitting it away from the guy down the other end and I may just start winning a little more comfortably.
Hitting against a wall when you are learning tennis followed by Junior Club with no Coach teaching you any tactics all adds up to one style of play, rallying and more rallying.
I actually found it enjoyable all the same even though my 'game plan' was non existent, I just loved a long rally as that's just what Borg and Connors were doing at Wimbledon.
I used to teach my advanced students the 'rally ball' more than the winner as my theories on tennis have always been the same.
Make your opponent hit as many balls as possible, clear the net with a height that will be uncomfortable to return and make your opponent earn the point. I remember once playing a kid in the 16's final of the now non existent Albany Junior Open and on more than one occasion his racket hit the back fence as he tried to return one of my high balls.
This style is now called 'hacking' as it's not a 'cool' way to play but I still have never met a player who can consistently return a high topspin ball .
The rally ball now has many perceptions but the one that I learned from both Borg and Wilander still has the most merit for me as it takes the opponent out of their comfort zone.
I couldn't serve as a kid, I still can't ! I could rally though and still can. If you keep it in play long enough you can find a way to win.........
Part 4 to follow......