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play better tennis in 2 hours
Simplify the game and PLAY like THE PROS
By OSCAR WEGNER, Steven Ferry
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Oscar Wegner
All rights reserved.
WHY IS TENNIS considered a difficult sport to learn and to improve upon? Mostly because of widely taught misconceptions that cripple a player's natural ability and make coordination as difficult as walking with several crutches at the same time.
Even many tennis professionals believe these misconceptions. But the test is, do they actually follow them when they play?
Observe and decide for yourself.
I have seen top players go into rapid decline in the later years of their career when adjusting to the conventional way. During their greatest years, of course, they were untouchable. Nobody could tell them to use any other technique but their own obviously successful style.
But soon after they felt some cracks in their armor they sought advice. "Flatten your strokes. You are getting older, you need more power," is one common culprit.
For most modern players, topspin strokes and ball rotation are great rungs on the ladder to success. At the top of their game, they can hit as hard as they want, sometimes flattening their strokes. But when their confidence wanes, the successful course of action is to rely on the safety of the topspin shots, without compromising the power or the margin for error.
Following are classic misconceptions that could impair your game. The top pros shown in this book are vivid examples of players who did not fall for these faulty ideas.
Myths versus Facts
MYTH: Learn every move—tennis is a game of positions, specific steps, and preparations that you must learn in detail.
FACT: Go to the ball in a natural, instinctive way, focusing only on what you do with the racquet and the ball.
In the mind of a tennis pro, a ground stroke is a channeled effort rather than thought. His eyes are focused on the ball. His "feel" is focused on what he does with the racquet, as its movement and angle determine his whole shot. He wants to feel the ball rather than think of the mechanics.
The player reaches in the proximity of the ball, finding it as if wanting to catch it. He thinks of nothing else but where he wants to send the ball, channeling all his effort into achieving this goal. His only mental image of position is the arm at the end of the swing, something he has related to his shot placement over the years.
His mental effort may be nothing more than to bring the arm and racquet to this "finish." At this point, this particular effort is over. He might keep the arm in this position for a short time, feeling the end of his swing and looking to see where the ball is going. However, his legs don't stay still. He may already be recovering from the shot or covering the court. But he has certainly related the end of his swing to where he wants his shot to land.
Most conventional teaching techniques have you relate the impact of the ball to the placement of your shot. This technique is excellent for your volleys. But on ground strokes, top pros focus on the finish of the swing, which is the main reason why they don't "choke," stopping their swing midway. The only part of the swing they know for sure is the finish. The rest of the stroke adjusts instinctively while finding the ball.
MYTH: Prepare as fast as you can.
FACT: Restrain yourself from reacting too quickly.
Although sometimes you have little time to swing at the ball, you must manage the time you have. With the ball at a medium or slow pace, a pro looks as if he isn't even trying.
So little is the effort required at this slower pace that many amateurs play great placement and control games seemingly without exerting themselves. They take their time to run and to stroke. They look terrifically coordinated. They don't look like pros, of course, because the speed of the ball is much slower, but they play like pros, managing time and effort efficiently.
Look at pros warming up or practicing, and you'll see how easily they move and how much time they have.
At high ball speeds, pros may look rushed, but there really isn't much upper body effort on their strokes prior to the hit. A pro finds the ball first, then explodes.
Of course, your legs have to move fast to enable you to intercept the ball. A good opponent will make you run, slide, bend, and jump. But while the legs move fast, the arms are waiting for the right moment to swing.
What is amazing about top pros is the separation between the body effort to reach the ball and the arm effort to strike it. They run for the ball first, trying to find it as if catching it, then they swing at it.
MYTH: Take your racquet back as soon as the ball leaves your opponent's racquet.
FACT: Keep your racquet to the front until the ball is close.
Conventional tennis teaching emphasizes taking the racquet back as soon as you see the ball coming your way. The student is taught to make this preparation before starting to run, losing valuable time that should be used to reach the ball. Even at high ball speeds, this preparation should be made toward the end of the run.
Holding your racquet to the front keeps the racquet closer to the ball and helps you find it well. Although pros turn their shoulders, this is different from taking the arm back. Many top pros keep the nonplaying hand on the racquet during the first part of the flight of the ball to avoid taking the racquet back too soon. The ball bounces first, comes close to the player, then he swings at it.
Taking the racquet back early is probably the most common barrier to advancement taught in tennis today. The racquet is already in the forehand-ready position when holding it centered at your waist. The same holds true for the two-handed backhand, where grip changes are unnecessary.
Modern forehands and two-handed backhands are totally different from the old racquet-back technique. Instead of taking the racquet back right away, you "stalk" the ball with the racquet face, as if you were going to touch it. Then you hit. This stalking technique helps you find the ball. It also adjusts the backswing automatically to the speed and height of the ball and to the difficulty of the shot.
Don't commit your swing until after the ball bounces. You may approach the path of the ball from the moment it leaves your opponent's racquet. You may start to adjust your arms, but beware of committing your swing.
Taking your backswing early commits you to a swing path before you know exactly where the ball will be. Predicting exactly how the ball will bounce is not possible. Court surfaces are uneven in texture, and the ball will grab the ground differently depending on its speed and spin. If you start your ground stroke prior to the bounce, you may envision a perfect stroke, but you will have to adjust it to the bounce of the ball halfway through the forward swing.
This early backswing is the way most people were coached to play tennis throughout much of the sport's history. They started their swing, and then they adjusted as they were going through the ball. Only a few players excelled in adjusting to the ball before starting their swing, and they became the best players of their time.
At the high speeds of professional play there may not seem to be enough time to wait, but there is! Bear in mind that on hard courts the ball slows down to 40 percent of its initial speed from baseline to baseline. A ball hit toward you from the other baseline at close to 50 mph will reach you at 20 mph.
Most pro players don't consciously know that they wait, but they do. It is an inner mechanism they developed in the early stages of their game.
If you were to ask a world-class player, "Do you take more time to return a second serve than a first serve?" the answer would be, "Of course I do." This shows that deep inside, the player waits for the right moment to stroke.
Here is a simple experiment that may convince some staunch supporters of the "racquet-back-early" technique that they should change their approach. Have another player serve to your forehand. Take your racquet back before he starts his service motion, and keep it there while he prepares to serve. When he serves, return from this backswing arm position. See how awkward it feels? I have done this experiment with some very good players, and it stiffened their returns. "Feels awful," I was told.
If you have ever wondered why so many beginners have trouble learning with the conventional racquet-back system, this is your answer. Good coordination means doing things at the proper time. In your ground strokes, learn to play the second curve of the ball; that is, the curve after the bounce.
Try this in practice. Start with slow, high-looping ground strokes. Choose your contact point before you take your racquet back for momentum. The contact point becomes apparent only after the bounce. On slow, high-looping balls, it occurs well after the bounce.
Can you picture waiting as long as possible before taking your racquet back? I know that this will be mentally difficult for those who have trained for years with the opposite method. You'll feel so late!
Starting your swing too early is a hard habit to break. But the player who waits for the right moment to swing will thrive. He'll find the ball so well—he'll feel it so much—when hitting either softly or at tremendous speeds.
MYTH: Hit the ball early.
FACT: Wait for the ball.
Hitting the ball early is a concept that needs to be debunked, even at the highest level of the game. I have seen too many players experience off days and not know exactly why.
It is one thing to advance on the court to cut your opponent's time or to hit on the rise, putting pressure on your opponent, but it is another thing to start the stroke earlier than needed.
Of course top players like to attack the ball, hitting it firmly, but at high ball speeds, even being two-hundredths of a second too early loses the magic. Errors keep creeping in, and the player doesn't understand what is happening. The "feel" is off.
For players who lift the ball with topspin, being slightly early makes it harder to lift. When facing a player with heavy topspin, being too early creates mis- hits. It may not be recognized as a mis-hit, but the response is weaker, less lively, and sometimes shorter.
A tennis ball is very lively. If you hit it straight on, it will bounce off your strings in less than a hundredth of a second. If, on the other hand, you approach the ball slowly with the racquet and then accelerate near the contact, you'll feel that the ball stays on your strings longer, then takes off.
Your may not be able to see it, but you will feel the difference if you hit a few balls this way.
The ball speed, even when applying the same amount of force, depends on how close to the contact point you start to apply your force. A bit too early, and you achieve plenty of power, but your control is gone.
If a pro persists in hitting earlier than usual—perhaps unaware that he is just a few hundredths of a second off that day, or that this particular court plays a shade slower than the one he practiced on—he starts losing his confidence. He starts tightening up. His feel is lessened and his touch is gone, and deep inside he is puzzled—"why?"
This problem is more likely to happen to players who relish earlier timing to achieve more ball speed. They are playing with fire, very close to the boundary of being too early. But on better days, the magic and the brilliance are there. They just seem to touch the ball and it shoots like lightning, streaking to the opponent's court.
The heavy topspin players, on the other hand, wait for the ball so much that it hurts. They have to muscle the ball much more than the earlier hitters to achieve the same ball speed; but regarding timing, they are in a safer zone. The chances of hitting too early are minimal. They would have to be off close to a tenth of a second, a fact more easily noticeable than the hundredths of a second that would throw off the early hitter.
If you find these concepts hard to grasp, go to a court. Toss the ball a little in front and to your side. Wait until after the bounce and use almost no backswing. Feel that you touch the ball before you hit it, then emphasize your follow-through. In the first few shots the ball may be going nowhere at all, but as you hit harder, you'll gradually realize how close to the ball you have to start accelerating to achieve both ball speed and maximum control.
You can observe that most of the top pros play this way. Most errors in pro tennis come from taking the arm back too soon or stroking too soon. You lose feel, you lose control.
This doesn't mean that you can't hit some balls early, or well in front, thus flattening your stroke. You just have to consider the risk factor involved. You may hit some great winners, but it may also cost you some points. The real risk is loss of topspin on the ball. This topspin, even if minimal, helps drop the ball into the court.
At higher speeds, the difference of one or two ball rotations between your hit and the landing of your shot may mean the difference of a foot or two in the length of your shot. The ball that used to drop just inside the line may go out. Repeated errors like this will erode a player's confidence, precipitating his decline.
It is better to strike farther back in relation to your body—achieving more topspin and control with plenty of power—than to seek the seemingly perfect winner that may cost you more points than it will win.
MYTH: Move forward on your serve.
FACT: Hit up on the serve, then fall forward.
Pushing forward with the body on the serve causes a tendency to hit down with the arm. Visually, it seems that you have to hit down to get speed on a serve. But the more you hit down, the more you have to open the racquet to hit the ball over the net, and the ball develops back-spin instead of topspin, losing its downward curve.
At the high speeds played in professional tennis, the ball has to have some topspin, even in the hardest serves, both for accuracy and consistency. Top pros have been found to rotate their first serve above 3,000 rpm and second serves above 5,000 rpm. To produce this amount of rotation, your body needs to move up, and your arm must fully extend upward past the impact with the ball.
Most professionals hit upward on their serve, but sometimes it is not enough. I recall working with a young player at the beginning of his professional career. I had him stand on the service line, facing the back fence with a bucket of balls. I gave him one instruction—"Hit the balls over the fence with some spin."
In the beginning he hit several balls into the fence and was slightly puzzled. He thought he was hitting up, but obviously it was not up enough. He continued until he hit every ball over the fence. Then we picked up the balls and he served normally. It took him a few minutes to adjust, but soon I saw a miracle. He had raised his serving to an incredible level of speed, depth, accuracy, and kick. He had all the talent. Once he understood the correct concept and feel, he could do no wrong.
This upward effort combined with hitting across the ball is even more pronounced on second serves. Hitting upward on the second serve instead of hitting forward helps place the ball into the service court with both speed and spin. As a result, you'll produce an "American Twist" serve, a pronounced topspin shot that will clear the net by a couple of feet or more and land in front of the service line. The ball may look slow at first, but it will kick fast and high.
Players who don't have this action either slow down their second serve or they risk a lot. A good American Twist server doesn't slow down the motion at all and feels plenty of power and confidence on the second serve.
MYTH: Put your left foot across to hit your forehand (closed stance).
FACT: Use an open stance for your forehand. It results in a more powerful and natural stroke.
An open stance is, quite simply, standing with both feet facing the net. Most formal lessons put students sideways to the net and have them step forward with the left foot.
However, the greatest forehands of modern times are definitely open-stance forehands. An open stance not only helps players stroke, but it also allows them to return more rapidly to the middle to cover the court. Also, while it is almost impossible to hit a good topspin forehand from a very closed stance, the opposite is true with a very open stance.
Hand-eye coordination, as it relates to tennis, is totally dependent on an athlete coordinating his hand movement with his visual perception of the motion of the ball. The rest of the body responds naturally and instinctively to the action of the hand without any mental effort on the part of the athlete.
As a simple analogy, visualize yourself reaching out to shake hands with an attractive Hollywood movie star while at the same time thinking about the position of your feet, whether your weight is on the front foot or the back one, and several other details. Would you even be able to find the star's hand?
Hand-eye coordination means precisely that: hand-eye, not hand-eye-foot-weight coordination. The Wegner Method is based on the simple revelation that to improve your hand-eye coordination, whether you are a beginner, an advanced player, or a pro, you only need to focus on the contact between the racquet and the ball.
This doesn't mean that players don't have favorite body positions in which they feel most comfortable, or balanced, or powerful. But they have identified those positions by feel, instinctively, not by words or mental commands.
Excerpted from play better tennis in 2 hours by OSCAR WEGNER. Copyright © 2005 by Oscar Wegner. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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