Tuesday, 26 January 2016

I firmly believe that in tennis when a student is being taught how to hit a tennis ball they should also be taught what to do with it. Sounds pretty simple really however how many times have you witnessed a coach just teaching someone how to hit a ball with no emphasis being put on what to do with it ? My theory is simple.
If a player is old enough to take in the information then it should be taught right from lesson one and not the final lesson of an eight week term of lessons as a novelty. Sure if a child is of age 6 to 10 with technique flaws then it is way too early to be trying to implement a strategy as that sort of talk will go in one ear and out the other. That sort of age is all about having some fun and learning to hit a ball technically correct.
If a student of say 12 and over is showing all the signs of being mature enough to accept some information regarding tactical play then it should be a part of every lesson, no doubt at all. If a kid of age 16 can belt the cover off a tennis ball with technical brilliance yet be beaten by another who lacks the same prowess to hit yet can find ways to outsmart the glamour player then to me that is a win for the mind. The lesser credentialed player I believe is being taught how to play tennis and not just to hit a tennis ball.
I have always marvelled at the way some players can find a way to win against others who look better, play their shots smoother and who look far flashier and as one of my earlier chapters suggests maybe the less glamorous way of looking has merit. No pressure. So how does a player who looks like a hacker and plays like one beat a 'glamour 'opponent ? The answer may just lay with the hacker's ability to put the ball out of the comfort zone of their opponent.
Now I do apologise for putting in an example of an obscure event at an obscure location with an even more obscure player who no one has ever heard of but I believe in relevance when writing examples. I was lucky enough to play a 17 year old kid from the City at my local singles championship the year I turned 41.
I say 'lucky' because in my home town we do not get the chance very often to play guys who regularly hit against the best city players so I took the opportunity as a challenge and nothing less. After all if you teach the game and have done for many years then surely you know how to play, right ?
When our match commenced I found myself down 1-4 within 15 minutes just hitting aimlessly with no plan, no idea on what I should be doing and no confidence. Admittedly I had not played a tough singles match for a while so perhaps I was just a little slow to kick the mind into gear.
I was however questioning whether my play was like that of a student and whether I really could implement what I had been teaching for years, a game plan of substance. I do remember however what someone had told me before the match commenced regarding my opponent. They told me "I have seen this kid play, his shots are big but he doesn't like the ball anywhere but in the slot, the hitting zone. Keep getting 'em back, doesn't matter how, just get 'em back, you will frustrate him'. 
Within thirty minutes I had won seven straight games to take a set lead and be up a break in the second. How did that happen ? Mind over matter.
At 1-4 I wasn't playing my usual game which was to hit it high from my forehand and slice my backhand low, I was probably trying to outhit the kid who hit every ball with a power that I was almost in awe of. What I did from that stage in the first set was tell myself for a start to not play his game and to forget hitting winners, just make the kid play more balls. I also started hitting him short balls from my backhand to his backhand which he hated as it made him come to the net and he hated volleying.
When he came in I either lobbed him as his approaches weren't great or I made a point of hitting a ball at his feet on the first shot with little pace. More often than not he missed that initial volley but if he didn't well he made my second shot rather simple. Whilst his shots were more glamorous he had no plan B and his A game fell apart as soon as he was made to do something different.
I won that particular match 6-4, 6-4 but from that deficit in the first I in fact won 11 games to his 4 so that in itself is a huge swing in a match that was heading initially towards a thumping. Remember when a kid learns technique the ball is more often than not placed in the same spot over and over again so that the shot can be refined to almost perfection. This however has it's pitfalls. It's one thing to say hit against a ball machine or have a coach put the ball in the same spot, it's another to try to get the opponent to do the same in a match.
Did this kid not get taught to play tennis as well as how to hit a ball ? Luckily for me I believe this was the case. I honestly believe though that many years of coaching put me in good shape to play guys who simply went out with one aim in mind and that was to blow the opposition away with winner after winner. My philosophy in tennis however was to keep the ball away from an opponent's strength and that is the hitting zone from the knees to the hips which when you think about it is a rather small area.
Some players however regularly get the ball there more often than not so why is this ? They are playing against a 'ball machine' or a 'coach's feed'. In other words their opponent has no idea on how to take them out of their comfort zone and will continue to hit them shots with a comfortable height.
I look at a player like Rafael Nadal and how he has been almost unbeatable on clay for ten years and that's where my theory comes into play. Look at his forehand and how high the ball is hit over the net and how high the ball is bouncing to his opponent. Imagine trying to constantly hit that ball on the rise before it bounced up around your ears ? It would exhaust you both physically and mentally.
Rafa is a player who I often refer to when teaching a player how to upset an opponent's rhythm as he is the perfect example. Not every player can hit with that much spin however any player can learn to hit a high ball and it can pay handsome dividends. High balls and low balls as well as slow balls are the glamour player's least favourite shot to deal with so why isn't it regularly seen at say a junior State championship ? I believe that it is not being taught.
Tennis is an ego driven sport, a macho one on one sport that I liken to boxing. If a player wins at tennis it is a personal victory that strokes one's ego but hitting slow balls, sliced balls and high balls is perhaps not seen as 'cool' now days.
So to my point. If a slower type of play can win against a quicker macho type of game that has ego written all over it then surely it can be slotted in as an 'option' for a player of any standard at any level. This is as opposed to just going out there with one style, to blast your opponent into oblivion that is seen regularly at many levels.
Have you ever watched the French Open ? Now there is a tournament where the ball is hit with height and spin more than power as the clay does not really reward a big hitting style unless of course your name is Stan. A Spaniard by the name of Rafa has won in nine times through looping the ball back at that rather uncomfortable height that I mentioned before.
Is a plan B or even C being taught by coaches around the World or is just one style being taught that is deemed as 'good enough' ? A player needs more than one speed to hit the ball at and more than one height to clear the net with. A smart player will mix it up and the smart players are the most successful. Tennis rewards a clever mind....

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