I watched two 'young' tennis players have a hit last weekend, well they were a lot younger than me anyhow. One of them was a local, the other a European gentleman who is in town for a while and who is a rather gifted tennis player, in most aspects anyhow. I set up the hit between the two as I was fascinated to see how they would go against each other plus I was interested in doing some watching from a distance for a change. Sometimes being up close when teaching or playing does not give the mind enough room to think.
During the 20 minute hit up I noticed several things about both players that I perhaps would not have otherwise and then during a set which lasted 10 games I noticed even more, it was an educational 90 minutes of tennis to say the least. The European guy says to me afterwards "We have a lesson and we fix my forehand", ( don't you just love it how the Europeans have a way with words " ? ) I say 'no worries, trust me, we fix it'.
The next day we have a 70 minute session, we talk plenty, we experiment plenty. The Italian starts by hitting balls open stance on his weaker forehand side. I say to him straight away " There's your problem right there ". He asks what the problem is. I say "Why are you waiting for the ball when you can go to it " ? He looks a little confused, I explain myself in detail.
" You wait for every single ball on your forehand, you are a 'reactive tennis player', there is nothing 'proactive' about your forehand side. What foot do you hit off on your backhand side ? Yes it's your front foot, so why is this ? You take the initiative on your backhand side and that's why it is your best shot, you move toward the ball yet on your forehand side even when the ball is short you wait for it then hit it with an open stance. You don't get enough on your shot like you do on the backhand side which you rip regularly so why is your forehand so different " ?
We chat for a while and I suggest to him that it may just be the most common issue in tennis now days amongst budding juniors, 'perception'. Most kids believe that tennis is an open stance sport but that only happens in certain situations on a tennis court such as a deep high bouncing wide ball yet look at Federer on a low ball down the middle. Does he wait for it or does he go to it ? Easy to answer that one.
So I start feeding down the middle to give the Italian, 'Isi' ( shortened version of his real name ) a chance to work on his footwork and a chance to start coming forward on his forehand to give the shot some substance rather than just spin. He likes the idea straight away. This is what happened. Isi got himself into the 'zone' and he totally forgot about his swing which wasn't perfect as it lacked a full backswing yet it was far from average either and he simply concentrated on his feet.
I asked him to not 'fluff' the ball back, I told him I don't care if the ball goes long, I simply asked him to hit it with a force that he felt comfortable with but assured him the power would increase with his left foot forward. After around 30 balls I started feeding shorter and wider yet still asked Isi to get up to the ball and hit it on the front foot.
I explained that even if the ball was short and wide it could still be hit on the front foot. We then worked on approach shots, the natural front foot progression. This is what happened.
Now usually if a player does not miss it is from them not hitting the ball with any conviction so then I usually say something like " 10 balls to go, you haven't missed yet, how about you hit the ball and not just push it back ey " ? That's usually when a student misses but this lesson was rather unique in the way that the first basket ( around 110 balls ) was hit. Isi HIT all of 'em, I mean he really hit 'em hard with no fear of missing, just a focus on a different approach to the shot.
Now Isi hit about 10 long and 5 wide yet he did something I have never seen before, he did not hit one ball into the net. That's 110 balls over the net out of 110 balls with different spins off the feed. I am not someone who continually feeds a flat perfect ball so a student can look a million bucks, I have always fed a ball with variety, makes a student think more.
I say to Isi " So how did that feel buddy " ? He says 'Unbelievable but no one has ever told me to get on my front foot back home, we all play off the other foot'. Now putting that into perspective the Europeans train on clay and take less steps to a ball and slide more but how did Robin Soderling beat Rafa in Paris ? He stepped in and hit it, he didn't wait for it like most do. Soderling is the perfect example of front foot tennis, such a shame that he did not compete more over the last few years due to illness before his retirement. The Swede proved that you could win on clay playing on the front foot.
Of course it is an impossibility to play EVERY ball on the front foot particularly on a clay court but 'Isi' was living proof that you need to adapt when switching surfaces. Playing on a hard court enables a player to step into the ball whereas a clay court does not offer that same type of positioning. Perhaps it is why the clay court dynamos with the exception of Rafa have trouble on the hard courts yet dominate on the dirt.
Many perceptions in tennis but one thing is for certain and that is you need to be able to reprogram certain things in your mind and that leads to 'tweaking' certain styles according to the surface and conditions. Open stance tennis has it's place of course but it is not THE ONLY way to play tennis. Waiting for a ball leaves you open to be dictated to by an opponent who senses opportunities to attack yet stepping in can let your opponent know that you are someone who is going to force the issue.
Get on the front foot and dictate play when the opportunity arises, open stance is not something that oozes confidence and many balls are mishit when leaning back off a shot. If you step in on your backhand there is no reason why you can't do it on your forehand.
Tennis owns many perceptions, it's up to a player to work out what is correct. Experimenting is something that doesn't happen often enough in a practice session. Isi has a new forehand to go home with, he's happy about that and he has changed his initial perception of how a ball should be hit.
Technical sport tennis yet it's one that can be made simpler if we look at different ways to do things and don't treat a current way of playing as the ONLY way of playing.
Never too old to try something else......