Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rally Lengths, 2012 Roland Garros Round One

I often chart matches. Among the things I chart are rally length. I've never seen that stat among the ATP or WTA tour stats. Until today. The French Open site has rally length leaders (they don't seem to be aggregating unforced errors any more--boo!).

Here are the longest rallies through the first round for the men:

Here are the longest women's rallies from the first round:
The men's rallies were longer than the women's. That surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn't have. People have been telling me for years now that the women hit the ball lower and flatter than the men. Those shot characteristics should lead to shorter rallies. So perhaps those people are right.

In my charting I almost never see rallies of thirty shots. Twenty shot rallies are even pretty rare. I'm charting hard court matches while the above stats are from clay, but these are in the ballpark of what I see.

So, does it make sense to practice hitting fifty balls in a row, or a thousand? I think not. It makes sense to over train a bit, it's unlikely that any player will have to hit more than fifteen shots in a tennis point. Training beyond this is a waste of time, in my opinion.

Better to train players to see openings or to create them with their shots. Better to train players to be patient, but to recognize balls that they can hurt their opponents with.

Warming up with extended rally drills probably makes sense. But after the warm up, get after training players to play points.

P.S. If you don't want to play long points, you'd better hope you don't draw Lleyton Hewitt or Gilles Simon.

Monday, May 28, 2012


No way we could have public, cheap, ubiquitous clay tennis courts in the western US. They just cost too much to maintain. Of course, they may be everywhere, hidden beneath the feat of baseball and softball players in nearly every park.

I saw this photo while watching the French Open on Tennis Channel. I kept looking back and forth from the TV to this picture. I couldn't tell the difference between the two surfaces.


"But the ball doesn't bounce perfectly every time."

"The footing isn't perfect."

Right. Sounds like clay court tennis, popular the world over. Just not here. Because it's not perfect.

The wavy, cracked hard courts I play on aren't perfect, either. They are hard, though. Which sucks.

UPDATE: A colleague and I recently went out to a baseball diamond very similar to the one pictured above. We stretched a bungee cord between to ball-hoppers supporting singles sicks to make a net. We scratched out lines for a tennis court in the dirt with our feet.  Then we began playing. It was awesome. Since the clay/dirt was groomed but dry, the surface was a bit more slippery than a typical clay tennis court, but it was F.U.N. Our shoes, socks, and tennis balls got that telltale orange color of clay. We rallied, played some points, and a tie-breaker. No doubt this surface is good for tennis.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dictating with the Forehand

Most modern players like to dictate play with their forehands. They're willing to give up court position to do it. That is they move well to their backhand side (to their left for right handers) to play forehands, rather than playing backhands.

One justification I've given for this is that the ball never crosses the body of the player. This makes both the pull shot down the line and the inside out forehand easier shots. I've always thought that the change of direction is tougher when the incoming ball crosses the player's body.

Because of this, I've been hesitant to hit forehands down the line in rallies from my forehand corner, thinking this is a more difficult shot than the forehand crosscourt. Yet, I have no such hesitation on hitting a pull forehand up the line or a forehand away from me when I'm backed into my backhand corner hitting forehands.

I think I've been mistaken. I don't think there's any significant difference between the shots. If the ball doesn't "cross my body" when I'm in the backhand corner, then it doesn't "cross my body" when I'm in the forehand corner either. Why do I say that? Take a look at the diagrams below.

The first one is of a player in the backhand corner, hitting a forehand either pulled down the line or inside out crosscourt.

Now have a look at this diagram of a player in the forehand corner hitting a crosscourt forehand or a down the line forehand.

The lines for the ball, incoming or outgoing, have not changed in relation to the player. They are exactly the same. All I did was rotate the court relative to the player and the ball.

Physically the shots are nearly identical. The only real difference is the distance to the net. In the top diagram, the pull forehand travels a shorter distance to the net than the inside out forehand. In the second diagram the inside out forehand (down the line you'd call it in this orientation) travels a shorter distance to the net.

If you, like me, see no trouble in hitting to either target area when you're camped in the backhand corner, then you shouldn't have any trouble hitting to either target area from the forehand corner, either. It's the same shot.

The opening you leave your opponent is different, for sure. But the shots, both in terms of an incoming ball and your own shot, are nearly identical.

Who knew?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Team Colorado 10 and Under 2011-12

Below is a letter I sent to the Colorado Tennis Association regarding my participation in the 2011-12 season of Team Colorado for 10 and under players. Other coaches participating in or forming such a group may find my experience instructive.

Now that we've wrapped up the season with Team Colorado I thought I'd give you an after action report.

The feedback from the kids and the parents was universally positive. Human nature being what it is, if there were any gripes, the people either kept them to themselves or shot one of you two an email. What I heard most was "this is the best tennis experience we've had." Of course many of these kids and parents are new to the scene, but it's nice to hear nevertheless.

I really enjoyed playing with the kids, too. They were all nice, happy, enthusiastic, energetic players. I wasn't the point man for parental input throughout the season, but the parents were all well-behaved during the sessions. They minded their own business. They let the kids play and have a blast. They are to be commended.

I think the reason we all had so much fun is that we minimized (eliminated would have been my preference) coaching. Since we only saw the kids for two hours per month, any technical instruction would have been silly. Since these were young kids, for the most part Miikka and I ditched any notion that they would listen to, hear and learn from things we said. Instead we (especially I) tried to play in with them in the games we played. My feeling was that we could help the kids more by showing them that adults can play and enjoy tennis just like they can. I also thought it would be good for them to see the game played well. We don't know if we're good coaches, but we know we're good players. So we played as much as possible.

When I say played, I mean we played lots of singles and doubles points, real tennis, preceded by some games that emphasized particular skills. We played the same few games every week. Rather than trying to play a variety of games, which would have entailed wasted minutes of explanation, we just did the same, fun games each week. I've described the three games we played every week below. We did play a few other games on occasion, and each week we played full-on singles and doubles points for thirty to forty-five minutes minimum. Nothing teaches tennis like tennis.

This format is basically what we do in our "elite" program at The Ranch, too. We have fun, play lots of points, and minimize the time spent corralling and organizing and picking up balls. No b.s. instruction that has little, no, or negative value in most cases. Not saying technical and other instruction doesn't have it's time and place, but that time and place is not in groups of similarly skilled players brought together to compete with and against each other.

I think a program like this would be fantastic if implemented in inner cities or any other areas with a high density of poor people. This program was fun, but of low marginal value to the already wealthy participants.

Oh, I should add that we used the orange ball and orange court (60 ft) exclusively. I have no idea if this helps develop champions, but it did produce far better points than yellow balls and 78 ft courts produce with kids this small. I heard no complaints from kids or parents that we were using these balls and courts. I enjoyed playing with those balls on those courts, too. Racquet, ball, court, net, opponent. What more do you need to have fun? I know: to be left free from meddling, kill-joy adults.

The Big Three
1. The Finnish Game
    This is a team singles game, two player team (A,B) vs two player team (C,D). The game starts with one member of each team playing a singles, groundstroke point started with a courtesy feed (A vs C). The winning player (A) stays in to play the second point against the partner of the losing player. The partner of the losing player (D) starts this point with as difficult a feed as possible, provided that they feed the ball from behind the baseline. If the feeder misses the feed, his partner feeds another ball to start third point. If player A wins three consecutive points, he wins a Master Point for his team. We play until one team wins three Master Points, then rotate teams.
    Because only the first feed is a courtesy feed, this game teaches players to see and exploit openings with tough feeds, and teaches players to defend against tough shots to get back to neutral in rallies. The need to be ready to feed a ball quickly if your partner loses a point keeps all four players engaged.

2. Attack/Defend

    This is a singles game where each player is on her own. The champion side is the defending side and has one player (though you can use two defenders in a 1 vs 2 format -- BUT if you do this use the SINGLES COURT ONLY, it's a singles exercise). The attacking side has two or three players who rotate playing one point at a time. The point starts with the defender feeding a short ball (the coach can do this, but it's better if the player does it). The attacking player decides if the fed ball is attackable. If not, the attacker can reject the feed by saying "Reject". Then the feeder tries again. If the fed ball is attackable, the attacker hits the transition shot and moves to the net. The player must follow the ball to the net to finish the point up there. The defender's job is to thwart the attack any way possible. The attackers are racing each other to three points. The first attacker to win three points replaces the defender. If the defender wins five points before any attacker wins three, she can bump up a court, or if on the top court, reset all the attackers to zero.
    This game teaches decision making, transition and finishing shots for the attackers, and defending (and short hitting if feeding) skills for the defender. Irregular feeds are a feature, not a bug, of this game. A variety of different attackable balls and not-attackable balls teaches judgment and decision making. Uniform feeds deprive the players of vital perceptual training.

3. Steamboat Skyball - dramatic improvement over standard skyball

    This is a doubles game that starts with two champions behind the baseline and a coach feeder behind them. One challenging team is at the net, with the rest of the challenging teams waiting behind the baseline. Depending upon numbers, this is played best 2 out of 3 or 3 out of 5 points. The net team is encouraged to finish the point with the first hit of the ball (DO NOT mandate a first volley past the service line or other nonsense). It is up to the coach to vary the difficulty of the feeds. If the baseline team wins the contest (2 out of 3 points), the challenging team exits and the next team comes up from the baseline for a feed from the coach. If the challenging team wins, the net team comes around to replace the champions at the baseline. While the new champions are rounding the net posts, the coach feeds a lob (short is fun) to the new attackers who are coming in from the baseline. The attacking team is encouraged to take that ball out of the air and hit a winning smash. If this smash, but only this smash, is a clean winner, the challenging team automatically comes over to replace the champions. If the smash is not a clean winner, the point stands as played, win or lose.
    This game teaches doubles volleying and defending skills. It also teaches smashing under pressure. The coach can determine how much running takes place through choice of feeds and lobs.

We ended every session with about 15 minutes of Steamboat Skyball because it was extremely fun and exhausting for the kids. They always looked forward to the game and left happy and tired when it was over.

Don't Try to Convince People -- Just Do It

Such good advice I had to post it. I have nothing to add.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bye Bye Blue. Bye Bye Ball. Bye Bye Viewers?

I just turned on the tennis from Rome. Llodra was playing Del Potro. Third set. Good match. Couldn't see the ball. Turned it off. I lasted three points.

I hope all the players enjoy the better footing. Let those of us not able to be there in person know how the tournament turns out. I won't be watching. I hope the ticket sales support your affluent lifestyles. I can't see bothering to watch red clay tennis on television anymore knowing that a far superior viewing option exists.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Federer Shot Locations

I guess Roger Federer won't mind playing on blue clay next year in Madrid. He beat Tomas Berdych today for the 2012 Madrid ATP 1000 title. Nice to see a non-whiner win this one.

Here is a shot location chart for Federer in set 2 vs Berdych:

The speed of 72 mph is normal for Federer from what I've heard. Note again the absence of balls in the center of the court. The depth is not consistently what I would have considered deep. He has more balls close to the lines than some other players, but the vast majority of these shots are safely away from the lines. I count roughly a dozen out of the seventy shots as close to the lines, about the same number as shots comfortably inside the service boxes and away from the sidelines. So the high quality shots equaled the low quality shots.

If I were to plot the average shot locations, I'd say they were slightly less than half way from the service line to the baseline in the front-back dimension, and about halfway between the center and singles sidelines in the side-to-side dimensions. Obviously I don't know where he aimed these shots, only where they landed. Given that it's Federer, the shots probably landed pretty close to where he aimed them!

Since you, dear reader, and I are not Federer (unless Roger stumbles across this blog and bothers to read it), where should our standard aim point be for groundstrokes? I'd suggest no deeper than halfway between the service line and the baseline (where we're now seeing 60 ft 10-and-under lines conveniently appearing on courts), and no closer than seven or eight feet from the singles sidelines.

If you want to be a bit safer, and that's what I need to do to avoid wide errors, give yourself the same nine foot margin of safety sideways that you're giving yourself between your target and the baseline. Simply divide the singles court into three nine-foot wide vertical hitting lanes and aim for the each of the two center lines.

I bet you've been aiming closer to the lines than that, haven't you? I know I have been. And I miss enough to lose plenty of points. Way more than I win by targeting slightly more aggressively.

It's fun to hit winning shots. If you want to have fun, crank it up and aim close to the lines. But don't come crying to me when some "pusher" beats you because he or she targeted more conservatively and didn't give you many free points.