Have you ever wondered about the following (all too common) scenario? Most tennis players prefer to play “up” whether recreationally, in leagues, or in tournaments. Further, most players believe they actually play better with or against a superior opponent.
Certainly no one is expected to win in those situations, so perhaps playing with “nothing to lose” actually improves performance. But I think the reason lies elsewhere, and has more to do with rhythm and timing than with the supposed challenge of playing up. Somehow a lesser player gives us less pace, less rhythm, less predictable shots. If weaker players don’t always know where their shots are going (fairly rude observation), then how could we? Further, their shots bear little resemblance to the even paced, well measured balls we receive from our local tennis pros. We play darn well in the latter scenario, but explore unfathomable depths in the former. What gives?
Consider the professional example. The rallies are generally fast and furious. The ball travels racquet to racquet in one second or less, such that a 10-stroke rally may occur in 10 seconds or less. Yet the pros always, repeat always, appear unhurried. They make this thing look effortless, and always with a surfeit of time. Revisit any of the Inner Game material where players are trained to say the word “bounce” at the bounce and “hit” at the hit. This timing mnemonic trains the rhythm of the turn and the preparation with the bounce. And certainly in the following example one can easily see the bounce hit rhythm.
Waiting is the Secret
We have all been schooled to “get the racquet back” (and quickly please). At our club I see so many well meaning fathers imploring their little ones, “Get the racquet back. Get the racquet back.” But what should they, or anyone for that matter do, if they can prepare in one half of a second, but the soft, slow, poorly aimed floater from a supposed lesser opponent (who is not the lesser because he invariably beats us with his poor shots) takes two seconds to arrive. Rhythm, timing, and even self confidence go out the door with yet another inexplicable error.
To my somewhat trained teaching eye, I estimate most errors occur because players prepare too early rather than too late. And when listening to these players self critique after a sequence of errors, they invariably attribute the problem with not preparing early enough. But I see just the opposite, that they weren’t patient enough to wait to initiate the step and swing.
In music, syncopation is the emphasis on a normally unstressed beat. For example, by moving the position of one note back in time by half a beat (thereby making it longer) a simple tune can be made to include syncopation.
Similarly, stay with me now, the timing required to wait on an extremely slow moving return occurs if and only when you can hold, syncopate, and wait between the turn and the step. The floaters, and the delightful pushers that bedevil us with that style of play, cause us to unravel when we wait, hesitate, or place the syncopated beat between the step and swing. But when on time, and in rhythm for this hideously slow moving floater, we turn and then wait. That is, we turn and then syncopate the remaining step and swing, lengthening the time, staying in rhythm, and handling this truly difficult shot with ease.
So my personal experience on this scenario occurred with Tom Stow, and it remains indelible to this day. I was in my mid ’20s, having played four years of college tennis and at that point competing in open and satellite tournaments in Northern California, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest. I arrived for a lesson at Silverado and Tom had overbooked, and a young intermediate girl was on the court. So Tom said, “No problem Jim, just warm up with her.” After a few moments I explained to him that I couldn’t find any rhythm and he demanded, “Jim, the ball is the ball, you are not playing her, you are playing the ball, now move quickly, get on balance and play gracefully, no matter what.”
And this took an incredible amount of footwork, more so than playing someone of a higher caliber. And the lesson was, and remains the same today, get to the ball early, keep your feet moving, and then wait to step and swing. To quote from the Tom Stow Teaching System, (and this is a priceless book) “To insure the pupil is in position in time, he should step to the ball, stop, then step in and finish. As he improves the stop changes to a pause, but a definite pause for some time…As the player continues to improve there should be less emphasis on taking the racquet back.”
Now let’s take this to court for some purposeful practice. Using a ball machine, as so many do at our club, set the machine not at the customary top speed with low incoming balls, but rather much slower and with much, much higher arcs. Moon balls, floaters, anything to challenge your timing. Rarely do players use this particular setting, but truly this speed, height, and arc perfectly mimic the difficulty we face when receiving these floaters in the real world.
Secondly, call that most difficult opponent at your club or park, the one who moves well and plays without any power or pace, and determine to be patient, be light on your feet, and willing to improve your rhythm against this guy or gal. Everyone appears to play better against their local pro and significantly worse against this type of player. There is an opportunity here.
Jim McLennan is a senior writer at TennisOne, see more of his instruction at www.TennisOne.com.
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