Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Trouble with Slice

I told a kid the other day, "If you master that slice forehand you can be a very good bad player. But if you keep working on that topspin forehand maybe you can become a good player."

It's not that good players can't hit slice forehands, of course. Good players can hit all the shots. Turn on your TV, though, or head to a local Division I college match and you'll see mostly topspin shots.

We tennis players cannot escape from physical reality and physical reality dictates that for a ball to be hit hard, over the net, and within the boundaries of the court, topspin is necessary. Unfortunately it's much more difficult to master topspin. Why? Because almost every ball that bounces comes off the court toward you with the top of the ball spinning in the direction of travel. That means if you want to hit a shot the other direction with topspin you must reverse the ball's spin direction. It's much easier to simply redirect the ball back the other direction without changing the ball's spin.

Also, for little kids, underspin, or slice, gives the ball lift which maximizes the carry of the ball. That's great if you're small and weak and have trouble getting the ball over the net and deep into your opponent's court. Slice is also great for kids because it bounces funny. Funny is fun and funny is difficult for beginning players to handle. They don't have much experience with extreme spin and they are surprised by the bounce of the ball.

All those advantages of slice disappear fairly quickly as players grow in size, strength and experience. But habits once learned can be hard to break. Kids who spend a few years hitting a lot of slice struggle mightily to master topspin.

This allure of slice makes life tough for coaches. Coaches have to intervene and get kids to forego the immediate reward of slice in favor of the short-term pain of learning to hit topspin. Smaller courts, lower nets, smaller racquets, and bigger, lighter balls can help get kids to hit with topspin. But even in the scaled down environment of Quick Start tennis, slice has many advantages. It's up to coaches to do the difficult job of selling kids on topspin. Kids who like to watch professional tennis on TV are much easier to sell on topspin since that's what they see on TV. The kids who come out for tennis but who are not fans of the professional or college games prove much tougher. If I come up with a way to solve this problem of slice, I'll post it here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Practice Tired

While watching the Kansas at Colorado basketball game last night I remembered how important it is to practice tired. Execution and decision-making both suffer when players become fatigued. In tennis this generally happens late in long points and late in long matches. Therefore it's important to engage in drills that extend beyond the length of most points to train fatigued shot-making and decision-making.

Since most points are not very long (six hits total or less) most of a player's practice will be, and should be, focused on the early stages of points. After all, even long points start at the beginning! But it's important not to totally neglect the longer points. I think one general strategy to point play may be to play more conservatively the longer the point goes. Since at most levels the vast majority of points are lost and not won, playing conservatively all the time is probably a winning strategy. But supposing you don't play that way all the time, at least consider refraining from going big late in points for two reasons. You don't have as much control and as precise timing late in points so you're more likely to miss. Your opponent is more likely to miss as s/he tires. I guess if you both adopt my strategy here the point will never end as you both turtle and just get the ball back. Maybe pull the trigger on your 50th shot!


As bad as my driver impact is my iron impact is more pathetic. No wonder I tear up short courses and get torn up by long courses.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cheating and Tennis

I have a project idea for an enterprising psychology graduate student. Here's the hypothesis: competitive tennis players are more likely than average to cheat in school. This can be tested at the high school or college level. Players can be identified by their membership on their high school or college teams. Cheating can be measured by students subject to academic discipline. Unfortunately privacy rules probably prevent such a study.

My theory, unfortunately, is that tennis encourages cheating. Players make their own line calls in tournaments. We see cheating all the time and we see immense gains from cheating. It is very difficult to catch or stop a player from cheating. Opponents can request line judges, but the judges seldom stay on court for long. Even where umpires are on court, in college matches for instance, cheating still takes place.

So we have a situation where cheating is easy, rewarding, and has few negative consequences. My thesis is that this creates a habit of cheating that carries over into other aspects of tennis players lives.

I hope my theory is wrong.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My Sorry Swing

Based upon what we see below, it's amazing I can hit the ball at all.

The Importance of Impact

This is cruel, but it shows how important the impact position is in golf. This could just as easily be a video of me, but in this case it's not. Maybe soon I'll put my own sorry impact up here for comparison. But for now, watch and weep.