Tennis: The Womens Game — Lessons For Us Too

by TennisOne | December 22nd, 2007, 3:08 pm

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

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13 Comments for Tennis: The Womens Game — Lessons For Us Too

Ione Says:

The only reason Sharapova suffered so many bad losses this year was because of the shoulder injury. Williams didn\’t anything special to win the Australian other than keeping the ball in play.

chad Says:

ione’s comment is ridiculous- a shoulder injury doesnt get you to the finals of the australian open. serena played phenomenal tennis seeing as to how the scoreline went a little something like 6-1, 6-2. if all serena did was keep the ball in play then maria must be one shitty player. serena was hitting winner after winner ace after ace. and then to show that the aussie match was no fluke she did it again to sharapova in miami. GIVE SERENA CREDIT WHEN CREDIT IS DUE – SHE WAS THE BETTER PLAYER BY FAR IN THOSE MATCHES. THE.END.

Zweli Says:

I cannot believe that someone actually has the cheek to say serena just had to keep the ball in play.Clearly I was watching a different match to you because Serena played the best tennis of her career.The variety was unbelievable and Maria couldn’t cope with it.I’m sure if Serena wasn’t hit by injury she would be at the top now.Yes Justine was better at the French but at Wimbledon Serena was at the top of her game until the thumb came into play.As for Venus…..well i am truly thankful that I was alive to see her play the greatest tennis all year.I mean did ya’ll see her on grass and in flushing meadows.I am honoured to see such great all round tennis.I’ll give Henin all the credit she deserves because she was in superlative form all year,wow twas amazing.All i can say is thank you all for a great year ladies.Here in South Africa that is closest I’ll get to seeing you guys but one day i’ll make sure i can fly overseas.I am looking forward to the aussie open if serena,venus,justine,maria,jelena,ana and lindsay are at their best we should have one heck of a grand slam.But i pick venus and serena for the final with venus annihilating justine.I think justine is an extraordinary player but she doesn’t compare to an in form Venus.Merry Christmas everybody and a reali happy new year..

Lw Says:

Joel, since I have never been a fan of power players with limited games as the first 3 commenters are, your article resonates with my own thinking. sure, a powerful enough hitter can blow a lot of people off the court, but it’s mindless, physically expensive, and monotonous to watch. Take a player like that out of her game and she doesn’t know what to do. Like I said, limited.
I, too, am eager to see how Anna I. and Jelena develop. What about Agnes Szavay? An already remarkably mature game for a girl. But I must credit Sharapova for trying different things occasionally, even if she’s obviously uncomfortable sometimes. The Williamses? Players who don’t commit to what it takes these days should just do fans the courtesy of saying goodbye. And to the reigning queen – thanks, Justine. You are a credit to the game we love.

Jen Says:

The comment above about Justine not comparing to an in-form Venus is demonstrably ridiculous. Venus was terrific in the U.S. Open semifinal, playing as good hardcourt tennis as we’ve seen from her in years. Result? Henin in straight sets. I’ve watched that match 3 or 4 times. Amazing effort from both, just like the YEC match between Justine and Sharapova. The lesson is that Henin at her best just finds a way to win. And my guess is we see a lot more of that in 2008. Best to all.

Chris Lewis Says:

First, my compliments on another superbly written article. In your inimitable way, you use your observations of and evaluations about “the game” as a means to convey, at a deeper, implied level, your ideas on life in general. The underlying theme of your article raises questions on the relationship between theory & practice, thought and action, mind & body etc.

Now, I have a question for you:

You wrote that “Every player employs a strategy whether he or she admits it or not.”

Do you think that it might be more accurate to state that “Every player employs a strategy whether he or she *knows* it or not.”?

Once again, thanks for a great article.

Zweli Says:

Im back again..but this time just to say that guys yes venus was playing amazin tennis but am i the only person that saw that venus was not well towards the end of the second set..yes henin played great tennis but if venus wasn’t hit by a bit of dizziness then i feel that she could’ve turned out for the comment about the williams’ leaving the game..i am not happy about that..guys these are normal ppl with lives and other interests..being a player myself i also don’t stuff my body with so many tournaments that i don’t have tym for myself..they are multi talented women..venus had a chronic wrist injury and when that was healed she was back on the court for a lot of tournaments..serena played as much as her injuries allowed her to and when she did play..she played pretty well..please delight me and tell me when did any of these two not commit to the game this year because they played a pretty much full season..Why doesn anyone ever criticize maria about not playing enough events???i know everyone’s probably thinking bout da shoulder..Well why is it fine for maria to be injured but when its the sisters everyone is quick to comment..when serena and venus do great things you all say wow they amazing and great for the game but one injury and you all so quick to judge..that makes me so angry..they’re careers were affected when their sister passed away..thats tough cause if i lost mine i would die..face it they are gr8 for the game..they draw crowds in huge masses and they entertain..stop being so judgemental put yourselves in their shoes for a change!!!!!!MARK MY WORDS..THEY ARE GOING TO SLAUGHTER THE GIRLS NEXT YEAR..

LW Says:

Zweli, please. In the world of words, less is often more. Enough of that already.

lol Says:

yes zweli, please stop with the long comments i bet hardly anyone reads them

i understand that venus was feeling a bit dizzy at the end but it amuses me how you fail to mention that justine was having breathing problems too (you can clearly see after some points she is struggling to get some air)

like jen, i’ve seen it about 4 or five times and they were playing at their absolute best

and no, the williams sisters won’t be slaughtering everyone next year

acbc Says:

short term pain for long term gain is lost on us. Take the example of USTA officials who declared that Sampras was bred for failure for following his coach’s advise to play up in the junior ranks. This was quoted just prior to his win at the US open at the ripe age of 19!
Henin lost matches for a long time trying to play always at her best no matter what it cost. Knowing her physical limitations will always make her battles uneven, she always played “big” on every point. She paid dearly early, but it has made her into the champion she is today. Focus on improvement each day and winning become not the goal, but rather a by product. If success is measured by your daily trials, failure to win a match is not a disappointment; it becomes lessons to learn from.

Sarav Says:

IMHO I dont think Venus was at her best through out her match against henin..It was only in patches. coming back from 4-5 and saving set points to break henin in first set and coming back from 0-3 to 3-3 in the 2nd set. Venus s problem was that she was tired from the previous match.. henin had one full day off more than venus who went to the distance against Jankovic(7-6 in the 3rd) which is really not fair. Otherwise her strategy of attcking henin’s backhand and coming to the net was working perfectly and venus cud and shud hav won that match if venus wasnt tired. but credit to henin, Venus wud hav beaten anyother player that day..

anyway 2008 holds the answers.. i am rooting for lucie safarova and Golovin to break out :)

Ravin' Ray Says:

LW, your disdainful comment on the Williams sisters leaving the game is uncalled for, because: no one can claim with absolute certainty that they lack commitment to the sport due to their playing schedule and other interests (are we mind-readers?); and tennis fans run the gamut support for different players (are there then “true” or “pure” tennis fans?).

Disclosure: I am a co-moderator of Serena’s official message board.

Chris Says:

THe key for the WIlliams’ success is being healthy, especially for the first quarter of the season for Serena. The majority of the points she has to defend come from Australia and Miami. She has to do well in these two tournaments. That being said, I do believe that at least one Williams will win a Grand Slam in 2008. It would also be nice to see them play some more doubles. It is good singles practice, good Olympics preparation, and greatr media for the doubles game. Sharapova showed us at the end of the season that she is still to be reckoned with. I expect her to have a much better year. Justine will continue her consistency. It’s up to the rest of the field to play better than her. Both Williams and Sharapova can definitely beat Henin. Anyway, it would be nice to see America win at least 3 Grand Slams. I would love to see Serena, Venus, and Lindsay take at least 3 of the 4 Grand Slams home. Serena’s the best American bet on clay.

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