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.

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