Building A Game: The Tennis Imagination

Building A Game: The Tennis Imagination

by Joel Drucker

The boy, call him Antonio, was 15 years old and rapidly improving. Lately he’d even practiced with a man who’d competed extensively on the ATP World Tour. The ex-pro told the mother how good the boy’s groundstrokes were. He also made a comment that left her confused: Antonio will get even better once he learns how to build a volley game.

A volley game? What was that?

Hailey Baptiste, who trains at the JTCC, has a creative game that uses the entire court

© Zoo Tennis

Were his volleys not good? She’d watched many of Antonio’s lessons and when he struck volleys they seemed pretty sharp. Boom, boom, boom. Crack, crack, crack. And she remembered that one match in the 14s when he’d turned the tide by coming to net frequently.

Then there was Felicia, who worshipped Roger Federer. But her parents were concerned. Federer, after all, was an off-the-charts genius, the kind of tennis player who comes along perhaps once a century. The parents spoke to the coach, wondering if it was plausible for their 13-year-old to try and mimic Federer’s creative brilliance.

And what about David? He was an ambitious 12-year-old who’d just started to play doubles with the better men at his club. When one of the men suggested David serve and volley in these doubles matches rather than whack his big forehand from the baseline, David’s father countered by pointing out that was how kids today played and that to serve and volley would be rather dangerous.

Volley game. Creative brilliance. Serve and volley. Junior tennis is filled with parents, players and instructors who fail to grasp these concepts – and, alas, for all their good intentions, pay the price. Do their junior rankings suffer? Questionable. Do they lose college tennis opportunities? Not necessarily.

Missing the Riches

Here’s where they miss out: Junior tennis abounds with players adept at contemporary tennis: a certain kind of attrition-based, narrowly-focused baseline game, a playing style that begins with consistency and in time adds some weaponry from the ground. This default mode certainly generates outcomes in the form of match wins, rankings and scholarships.

But what about a long-term, sustainable process for staying engaged with the tennis? Talk of strokes – that is, groundstrokes – is plentiful. Call that the composition aspect. But talk of a playing style – the rich literature – is minimal.

Vasil Kirkov, who works with USTA Player Development in Florida, seizes opportunities to come in from the baseline

© Paul Ballard

Consider: You have likely seen many a junior practice session where the players are encouraged to crack powerful crosscourt drives. Now let us ponder the three earlier concepts. Volley game: Where is the drill that had players hit two crosscourt drives, approach with a short slice backhand and then hit a soft angled volley? Creative brilliance: It does not take a genius on the level of a Federer to hit a slice backhand and a topspin backhand in the same rally. Nor is it dangerous to hone serve-volley techniques versus NTRP 4.5 adults who mostly hit one-handed backhands.

A New Language

The development of a playing style does not simply revolve around being issued groundstrokes. A playing style is not merely technique. It is an attitude, a vision, a belief in many possibilities and a player’s willingness to embrace various approaches to strategy, tactics, pace, spin and court positioning. Does this grow out of a player’s personality? To the baseliner, for example, coming to net is a risk. But to the net-rusher, occupying the baseline is the risk.

Perhaps it might be best to discard terms like “risk,” “safe,” “successful” even “personality.” Results come and results go. But what is the long-term connection and affinity with the tennis? How might player and instructor (preferred to the much-tossed term “coach”) collaborate to build a playing style – an approach to learning and competing? Personality? Need it be carved in stone? Experiment and let it flourish.

“The great teachers look at the game as an evolution,” said Steve Stefanki, a Napa, California-based instructor who from 1980-’84 was captain-coach of the US Junior Davis Cup team. “The best system is you don’t limit the person. Too many players are ball chasers by nature, however, the goal is to be so much in control of your time that you never seem to be doing things in response to your opponent but you should be learning how to make him do all the work or chasing.”

So how does this happen? Is it a matter of the player seeking to emulate a cherished icon such as Federer? Perhaps, but not entirely. Perhaps it’s also a matter of an instructor paying attention to other cues. How does the player walk across a room and interact with others? Does he or she like to initiate conversations? Can he or she enjoy throwing a football? Juggle? Dance? Is the player talkative after wins or losses? All of these answers yield data that can be far more illuminating than what’s learned from merely having a player repeatedly strike groundstrokes. “Teaching is an art,” said Stefanki.

What’s tricky is balancing the slow and uncertain process of learning alongside the intensive and vivid outcome focus that pervades junior tennis. “The big question you must ask yourself each day is if you’re really doing things that make you a better player,” said Luke Jensen, the former pro who was also the Syracuse women’s coach for eight years. “Are you truly building skills? Sometimes that’s building winning. But other times it’s a matter of making your game as broad as possible.” As a teenager, Jensen learned to serve in excess of 120 mph with each hand, a skill that in time helped him enjoy a lengthy pro career, including winning the 1993 French Open doubles champion (won with his brother, Murphy).

Beyond Results – Or Better Yet, What Is A Result?

“You have to learn every shot,” said Kevin O’Neill, a coach of many WTA and ATP players. “You have to allow the student to be free to use their imagination the way they want. But it takes work. And it also takes teaching the parents as well as the kids. The kid sometimes is easier. The parent thinks they know what works because their kid is ranked.”

Let’s borrow from another discipline to understand the plight of David, the boy with the father who refused to see value in him learning to serve and volley in doubles. Once upon a time there was John. John was superb at spelling, so good that at age eleven he won the local spelling bee. A year later, John’s new teacher started teaching him more about grammar. This was tricky for John. But as he sought to grasp these new concepts, his father did not call the teacher and say, “Why are you making him do this? Can’t you just let him stay with spelling?”

Certainly that wasn’t what happened with Rafael Nadal, who of course first surfaced as primarily a defensive, steady player. “When you look more closely,” said O’Neill, “you see how Nadal won Wimbledon because he learned how to volley.” This was a man who in time built a volley game. But it’s even better to build these skills and attitudes early in the development process.

O’Neill likes to tell the story of the time he saw a player attempt a drop shot on a big point. The player’s parent winced. But to O’Neill, “that’s a good miss. That’s a shot the player has worked on and become proficient at. You’ve got to try those shots. And then you learn and keep working.”

Beyond volleys, drop shots, spins and paces, this story is a case for the imagination, for vision, to go beyond what’s immediately victorious and aim towards what truly defines success as a tennis player – a game you can enjoy and learn from your entire life. Said Stefanki, “The key is to build a game that’s sustainable.”

Joel Drucker has been writing about tennis since 1982, his work appearing in a variety of print and broadcast outlets, including Tennis Channel, Tennis Magazine, HBO, CBS, USTA Magazine and The Huffington Post. Author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker is also an historian-at-large for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.