Tennis: The Womens Game — Lessons For Us Too
There’s a strong implication recreational players can gain from the 2007. The main focus is on the world’s two best players, and as I see it, it can be grasped not just by recreational adults but also by juniors, parents, and coaches.
This article addresses the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. I could wax endlessly on Justine Henin, but before so doing, let’s have a look at the arcs of such powerful players as Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Maria Sharapova.
In 2007, the Williams sisters each showed at discreet but significant times that they can still win big. Serena’s effort at Australia was impressive, even more so than Venus’ triumph at Wimbledon. There were even signs that each had improved a bit, Venus most notable on the forehand side and her willingness to come to the net. And yet it’s still rather painful to see how these two waver in and out of tennis. Venus is now 27, Serena 26. Can they still win Slams? Probably. But the lack of sustained engagement with the tour is unfortunate. I hope for more from each sister in 2008. As ex-pro David Wheaton recently told me, “Will there be an Agassi-like, late career commitment change? I’m guessing not. Those kind of shifts are hard to make.”
Sharapova had the bloody tar beaten out of her by Serena in Australia and Venus at Wimbledon. Struggling with an injury that impeded her serve all year, she was unable to dictate enough points. Only a fine effort to each the finals of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships in Madrid — where she lost the best women’s match of the year to Henin — gave her a sense of significant accomplishment in 2007. At the same time, while I deeply respect Sharapova’s tenacity and commitment, I fear she could well be a female Andy Roddick: a gritty fighter with limited hardware.
Here’s where we enter the news-you-can-use zone. Both the Williams sisters and Sharapova were exposed to tennis by zealous fathers. Sadly, the outcome of that model — rather than the process — has been taken as gospel by a great many tennis instructors. What I’m talking about here is the unwitting, co-dependent collaboration of a gung-ho father and hot-to-trot instructor mostly teaching young ladies how to rip the ball again and again. Yes, I know that repetition is a vital factor in mastering a technique. But it is only one factor.
The trouble occurs when repetition becomes less a means than an ends. The man who most ardently shaped Sharapova’s strokes, the great coach Robert Lansdorp, once asked me, “Who gives a blankety-blank about strategy? Just hit the ball.” With all due respect to a coach I think has a certain kind of genius, I would heartily disagree. Surely a baseball player is aided when he knows a pitcher can’t throw a good curveball. Ditto for a basketball player who knows the man he’s guarding prefers driving to his left. And so on.
So the takeaway is that tennis is not just a game of strokes, but one of strategy. Every player employs a strategy whether he or she admits it or not. Lindsay Davenport, for example, uses a great strategy: She’s slow, so knows she must instantly dictate a point, and does so with thundering groundstrokes (taught to her, yes, by Robert Lansdorp).
This leads me to one of the reasons why I think Henin won ten tournaments this year, including two Slams. Watch her play, and you clearly see someone who when learning the game as a child did a lot more than have some combination of parent and instructor repeatedly yell at her to rip the ball. This is a woman who grew up not just working tennis, but playing it. For whatever number of reasons — one being that Belgium is such a tiny tennis nation so there just wasn’t that much micro-management of youngsters — Henin was left alone to create her own playing style. Even when she joined forces in her teens with Carlos Rodriguez, there was a concept of how she could build points and evolve a long-term playing style.
I shudder to think of the many American coaches I’ve met who might have encountered a diminutive girl of Justine’s size and ostensibly (unconsciously?) handed her the standard-issue playing style for contemporary juniors — the two-handed backhand, the semi-Western forehand, the near-ignorance of net play and minimal attention to the art of court management.
A playing style must arise organically and with collaboration. One recent coach I’ve spoken to, former pro Chris Lewis, tells me when he starts working with a player he looks for many cues — how the player even walks into a room, how he or she goes about talking, what kind of energy the player has, shots he or she prefers, and so on. The rub is that during this lengthy development period a parent or player must put aside the desire for obvious short-term results — that is, the kind that can be generated by playing the standard-issue game. Granted, that style may work too, but again, the lesson from Justine is this simple: Let a style evolve. Re-shift the assessment of results away from winning matches.
I am not saying that tennis needs to be art. Nor am I saying that every player should be left alone to merely do things the way they want. Just because a young girl is smitten, say, with Henin, does that mean a one-handed backhand is her best choice. Most of all, a player needs to be effective. Beauty is not the issue. The issue is engagement, of building a game that’s sustainable, diversified and able to keep a player in love with the sport over the course of a career. That’s true no matter if you’re on the tour or a 3.5 player. Certainly it held true even for someone initially as limited as Chris Evert. As her career lengthened, she enhanced much of her game, learning to hit harder, coming to net more, even attempting ways to beef up her anemic serve.
In the contemporary women’s game, it’s uncertain to me how that premise applies for the two Serbs who rose this year, Anna Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. Ivanovic strikes me at first as a blissful pounder. I’ll be interested to see how she evolves in the coming years in her quest to win big — and at the same time, fend off challenges. Jankovic has less juice, but somewhat more variety. But she also strikes me as a bit too self-deprecating for her own good. Does she truly believe she’s worthy of big titles, or does she just play the daylights out of the tour and let things take their own course? Again, 2008 will be quite revealing.
This is a lifetime sport, and even in the case of a pro, the example of Henin shows how attention to texture and variety can keep one committed to growing. It’s clear to me, for example, that Henin has even more upside to her broad approach to tennis than, say, Sharapova. Her foundation is not just technical, but attitudinal. To borrow a concept from one of my favorite coaches, Steve Stefanki, Henin is a contender — constantly looking for ways to enhance her craft. That is something players of any level can gain from.
Joel Drucker writes for TennisOne.com.
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