What Tennis Is
by Ed Collins
TENNIS IS FUN. HITTING A WINNING shot after surviving a suspenseful rally is exhilarating. Experienced players make it look so easy that the beginner gets bewildered when he can’t.
Soon he develops respect for the game. He learns that tennis challenges every facet of his physical being, plus it tests his patience, his emotional stability and, when he makes a call on a shot that landed on the outer half of the line, his integrity.
The newcomer discovers that tennis has the speed and power of baseball, the precision and nerves of golf, and the athleticism of basketball. It’s both slow and fast, constraining yet creative.
Tennis is unique in that it is interactive: players hit the same ball back and forth, rely on each other to make calls, keep score and retrieve balls. It’s both cooperative and competitive.
Anyone can learn to play. The skills are well within the grasp of even the most doubtful, uncoordinated person.
Tennis As Teacher
In the age of Nintendo, instant fun is an obsession. Tennis seems a worthy pastime, however the overly impatient person soon tires of picking up balls, deciding instead to pursue a form of recreation that’s not so demanding.
It’s true, unless one played tennis in a former lifetime, a period of feeling awkward and looking silly must be endured. Other than good instruction and perseverance, no shortcuts exist.
The remarkable thing about tennis is that it is one of life’s finest teachers. Besides acquiring a lifetime source of social and competitive fun, one gains greater insight into oneself.
Consider the scoring system, which for the novice player is bewildering and humbling. Whether it’s within the game, set or match, in tennis no lead is safe. The player discovers that the points are not weighted the same––that one can win more yet still lose. The point that decides the game can be elusive––achieving it can feel like a monumental task. And among the many inequities is the fact that a service ace and a miss-hit let-cord winner are worth the same––one point. Tennis teaches one to finish what he starts. Within the point, a well-placed shot can be nullified by a determined opponent. The continual challenge is to concentrate throughout the point; and pressure builds as it lengthens. Within a game, a 40-love lead can dissipate with the loss of two points, and momentum. And a three-set match can feel like a marathon of wrong turns and dead-end streets.
In tennis most points are lost, not won. In no other sport is the fickleness of one’s mind more apparent. The opponent is clearly on the other side of the net, but grappling with him is possible only after solving ones own internal problems. The tennis player is guided by these mottos: Learn from mistakes. Intensify when ahead. Don’t quit before you lose.
The honor-code system of officiating in tennis is truly unique––in no other sport is one called on to rule against oneself as often as in tennis. The (endlessly controversial) unwritten rule of tennis line-calling is to give the benefit of doubt to the opponent.
Although it sometimes appears otherwise, the sportsman improves his chances of winning when he resolves not to cheat. Besides earning respect, he gives himself a guilt-free conscience that serves to release tension.
Tennis rewards modestly talented players who try hard. The tenacious person always ends up with something––if not better technique, then a belief that he deserves to win. Frequently the winner isn’t the player with pretty strokes, but the one who possesses the better work ethic––he knows exactly where he is and what it took to get there. His advantage is that when he walks onto the court he takes with him the knowledge that his skills are real––he owns them. He may believe that his opponent is more talented, but he knows that skill alone will not keep one from double-faulting at the worst of times.
Tennis teaches a person to be self-reliant, resourceful and accountable for his performance. It encourages him to be fit and health conscious. Tennis teaches the player to pause, think and formulate a plan before taking action. It teaches him to deal with imperfection. It helps him develop a sense of reality. It teaches him not to waste time regretting the inevitable. Tennis teaches him that what happens is not always fair, but over a period of time the breaks have a way of balancing out. It teaches him that luck has no bearing when the ball is hit hundreds of times per match. Tennis teaches one how to win and how to lose. Tennis etiquette frowns on temperamental displays and it encourages a gracious acceptance of defeat (alibis are irrelevant; the words woulda, coulda, shoulda are not found in the player’s vocabulary). Tennis has a way of either publicly magnifying one’s hang-ups or remedying them.
Life itself becomes a source of tennis instruction (and vice versa).
A Technical Game
Tennis is an inexact combination of hard science and performance art. One needs to play with feeling, creativity and expression, but to do so a player needs technique.
The obstacle for many would-be champions is that at first everything about tennis is unnatural; from the grips to the strokes, to the patience needed to win points, correct tennis feels wrong. Introductory lessons are invaluable. They establish a broad foundation from which the student can later learn advanced skills. The lessons are cumulative––one is built on another, which allows a third to be learned, etc.
Tennis exists in the element of time. In matches, time has a way of racing so it feels you don’t even have a second to pull up your socks, let alone take your racquet back. Pace is the great equalizer; when the ball comes at 5 miles-per-hour, technique hardly matters, but at 100 miles-per-hour, solid fundamentals are the only defense.
“Basics are for beginners,” the misguided intermediate student says. In response, the coach insists he follows a progression. He teaches that before strategy the student must learn ball control.
Hitting a tennis ball well––techni-cally correct, and in the court––is an acquired skill. When a player applies the technique perfectly, the ball leaves with greater force than it came. The shots evolve as the strokes are simplified. (It’s uncomplicated technique that makes good tennis looks easy.)
The initial lessons concern grips and grip-changing. How the racquet is held determines how it can be used. If the racquet is buried in a clinched fist, it becomes a club; when held loosely, with the fingers spread, and the non-dominant hand cradling the throat, it becomes a magic wand.
Like golf, where the angle of the club face determines the flight of the ball, in tennis the grip has much influence over the position of the racquet head. The idea is to produce shots that are difficult to return, and spin––topspin for high bounces and underspin for low bounces––makes that possible.
The perfectionist endlessly searches for the racquet’s sweet spot. Motivation is spontaneous: a miss-hit jars the arm, a solid hit makes the whole body happy. Through instruction and trial-and-error, he lets the ball come to him. The science of timing requires him to stay relaxed, to squeeze at impact, to exhale in coordination with the swing.
A consolation in losing is to make a few perfectly-struck, perfectly-placed shots. Beyond all else, it’s that sweet feeling that draws a player back to the court.
Successful tennis is based on rhythm. The player, not the racquet, is the instrument. The strokes are incidental to the basics of posture, breathing, relaxation, movement and timing. One develops a clearer picture of what’s happening on the court––he has a special awareness, he’s more responsive, even more creative––when he develelops a sense of rhythm.
Like a boxer, the tennis player plies his craft on the balls of his feet, in perpetual motion. In search for the optimal spot to make contact, where the ball can be hit forcefully or softly, crosscourt or down-the-line, high or low, he is always adjusting his feet. When used correctly, the racquet produces special effects. What renders the racquet powerless is the player’s body––it needs to stay out of the way.
A Game of Style
Some beginners perceive tennis as an artform; their motivation is to develop graceful strokes. Others see it as a competitive game; to them fancy strokes are a nuisance.
Certain players seek fun in high-risk shotmaking; for them, the high-percentage safe shot is unfulfilling. At the other end of the spectrum are the players who play with one simple goal: Don’t miss.
Players fall into a limited number of categories: Counterpunchers rarely take initiative, prefering to let the opponent make the bold play, so they can counter it. Serve-and-volleyers are relentless net-chargers; from the forecourt they create nasty little angles. Baseliners set up shop in the backcourt, preferring to let the ball bounce. Generally they have one dominant side, forehand or backhand, with which they hit one dangerous shot––crosscourt or down-the-line. All-courters do it all. They typically use Eastern grips, which allow them to apply topspin from the backcourt and underspin from the forecourt. They use a combination of placement, pace, spin and guile to upset and upend opponents.
It’s a game where perfect form
is of no value if you send
the ball into the net…
Everyone who sticks with the game ends up with a unique style of play. From the straightforward flat-hitting attacker, to the drop-shot-and-lob touch artist, to the topspinning baseliner who runs around every backhand––a person’s game eventually takes on the personality of its owner.
Physical stature and natural skills normally steer a player in a direction that fits: the impatient person with quick reflexes doesn’t wait for the ball to bounce, whereas the slight, fleet-of-foot athlete with the endurance of a cross-country runner, camps out at the baseline and preys on opponents’ impulsiveness. The teacher encourages both players, knowing full well there is no correct way to play the game.
A Game of Deception
Tennis is certainly more intellectual than physical. It’s a game where perfect form is of no value if one sends the ball into the net or into the waiting racquet of the opponent
The challenge is to avoid getting locked into structured ways of thinking and predictable patterns of play; otherwise, a player’s tennis act is always the same––from the speed and placement of his first serve, to his choice of shots, to his critical response to mistakes.
Over years of play a specialized intelligence––call it tennis smarts––is developed that enables the player to be more effective. That, along with the skill of wielding the racquet, allows the cagey player to hit shots that land at the feet of the opponent, over his head, or just out of reach.
The intent is often to deceive––to do something that is unnerving or unexpected. As the opponent attempts to master the elements of rhythm and timing, so the devious player tries to rush him, to throw him off––to create his own type of arrhythmia.
Common misconceptions abound in tennis. The game is played on a court that was designed to make every shot appear easy, or difficult, depending on how desperate the player’s situation. The height of the net and dimensions of the court create the optical illusion that the ball can be hit down. A well-struck, hard-hit ball that lands just behind the service line can have the same result as when a baseball pitcher throws a fast ball right down the center of the plate.
It’s Mental & Emotional
A player may say that he’s at his best when he’s not thinking, but that’s only because his skills and thought processes are so ingrained that he can play instinctively. Even so, the server contemplates the score, conceives of a plan, visualizes the toss, spin and placement, then rocks into his motion. He thinks, then he does.
A 2-set match may take two hours, and much of what happens during that time has bearing on the outcome. Decisions are nonstop: the player must pay attention to the opponent’s stroke, to anticipate shots; he must be aware of his and his opponent’s court position; and he must respond to a ball that has a different look every time it crosses the net.
Relatively few points are determined by unreturnable shots; most are decided by lapses in concentration. For example, if the receiver doesn’t pay attention to the server’s toss, there’s generally not enough time to respond to the serve. And unforced errors can result in more than the loss of one point––they give the opponent hope.
Based only on strokes and physical skills, it’s unlikely to predict a match winner. It becomes easier when seeing how one deals with an opponent’s miss-hit lob winner, and easier still when seeing who scrambles back for an unreturnable lob and who concedes it.
In choosing the best tactic, human nature is often at odds with good sense. With two chances to begin the point, the player recklessly slams the first serve, misses, then relinquishes the advantage by blooping the second just over the net.
A singles match is as much a test of one’s stamina as coordination. Running, changing direction, starting and stopping are made more exhausting because mental and nervous strain tax the system. Chasing down balls wins as many points as placements, plus it makes the court seem smaller to the opponent.
Basic to tennis is watching the ball with unwavering concentration. The object is to execute each stroke to its completion. To lift one’s head before the ball leaves the strings may adversely affect the position of the racquet face at impact, thus resulting in the ball going 10-feet off target. Concentration is put to the test when the opponent approaches the net, and when the ball lands close to the line It’s tough to think about calling it out while preparing to hit it.
Dealing with mistakes is a full-time job on the court. The right temperament is more helpful than a strong forehand. A player needs a keen awareness of the score, but to regret points lost, and to worry about eventualities, keeps the mind everywhere but where it must be––on the point at hand.
Learning to Play
One of the beginner’s first confidence-builders is when he masters the scoring system. It’s no small thing when he knows which court to serve into when the score is 15-30. It’s about this time that he gets an inkling into the quirky nature of the sport.
Fear of missing shots can literally tie the player’s muscles in knots. Like driving a car with one foot on the brake, he goes forward, but not fast. The teacher may recommend that he practice from the forecourt. Sustaining a rally from within the service lines is more likely; it assists in keeping the body loose and responsive. Hitting against the backboard is also helpful.
The wall provides many lessons that go right to the essence of the game: sustaining concentration, preparing early, changing grips, moving continuously and making solid contact with the ball. (And it’s hard, which is just the point.)
Although it seems more about picking up balls than playing, a weekly tussle with a reliable friend is of great value. Additional instruction would seem more needful, but many tennis lessons are learned only through trial and error. With neither player knowing where the ball is going, or coming, mistakes are free-flowing (and laughable, especially when one executes the beginner’s most common blunder: volleying, and missing, from behind the baseline.)
The coach generally encourages the beginning-intermediate student to develop a base of defensive skills: a service return, a second serve, steady groundstrokes and a trusty lob. To learn topspin, and consistency, the coach suggests that he play the ball on the descent. As he gains experience and plays more aggressively, often from inside the baseline, he plays the ball on the rise.
Tennis can make a person feel pretty silly. After missing a shot he shouldn’t have tried in the first place, he questions his intelligence. But, in his defense, he isn’t dumb as much as untrained. A coach assists the player in narrowing his focus, and reducing options. He encourages him to play deliberately and methodically. He trains the player to apply common sense to tennis.
Strategy can be simplified by taking a close look at the geometry of the court: the net is higher than it seems and the court is longer and not as wide as it appears. At beginning levels the player is rewarded for making shallow shots that land in the middle of the court. At higher levels the short ball invites disaster. The aggressor adds a measure of consistency when he grasps the concept of margin-for-error. By clearing the net and aiming away from the sideline, he hits harder with assurance.
Doubles can be played until
and beyond the time one
can’t run anymore.
After the student learns how to hit the ball, he learns where to hit it. Good strokes allow him to acquire shots. And in competitive tennis, shots are the player’s weapons. For example, a wide slice serve on the deuce court, followed by a forehand down-the-line, are two shots that are typically combined to produce a play. As the player’s game evolves, he gains confidence in structuring points. (In competition it’s easy to get lost. Developing patterns serves as a roadmap for the player; it gives him something to hang onto, which is especially helpful when he gets emotionally frazzled.)
The difficulty of certain tennis skills can keep a player from venturing to the net. For example, some players serve well and volley well, but struggle to serve and volley. Running forward to hit the ball is more complex than running sideways. Volleying from below the level of the net takes special technical consideration, (and practice). For this reason, and many others, doubles is a great game.
Although one couldn’t tell it from the tennis on TV, more people play doubles than singles. And for many reasons. Doubles puts the player through all the playing situations, thus helping him develop all the shots. Lobs, volleys, smashes, angles, drop volleys––all come into play on the doubles court. Doubles can be played until and beyond the time one can’t run anymore. Doubles is as much about thinking and planning as shotmaking. And in doubles, when one loses, the blame is shared.
Many of the mystifying finer points of tennis can’t be forced on the student; they seem to come in due time, when he’s ready for them. These moments of clarity often take place after a period of sustained effort. Sometimes they come after the student has spent time watching better tennis. Sitting courtside can reveal how a top player moves, anticipates, mixes up his shots, puts just the right arc on his lobs, disguises drop shots, and reacts when he shanks an overhead.
The tournament player continually seeks to gain or maintain confidence–– that feeling of belief that one either can win or will win. (For the most part, confidence is due to the realization that he has won.)
Besides winning, and being in top physical condition, the veteran player knows he can tap into his strokes for a dose of confidence. Hitting the ball well––solidly, so it feels good––goes a long way toward fending off fear and bolstering courage.
Any person can become proficient in tennis. Determination shortens the process, but it takes most a couple years to develop the strokes and a couple more to learn how to use them. The levels in tennis can be equated to the average number of balls made (not just hit). At the outset the student is satisfied just to make contact. Maintaining a simple rally defines the next level. Slicing a serve and using the lob are offensive and defensive plays of the intermediate player. When one can maintain depth from the baseline, and take quick advantage of a short ball, he’s indisputably an advanced player (although most anyone who plays tournaments calls himself advanced).
As in all sports, execution is what distinguishes the winner from the loser in tennis’ many levels of performance. (The player is reminded of this daily, when his best shots are made on “long” second serves.) Making first serves on crucial points, and regularly putting away easy shots (such a misnomer) puts a player in the category of money winner.
It’s About Competing
Tennis takes many forms––from hitting endlessly against a wall, to rallying in search of the perfect stroke, to a social game of doubles, to a psychologically violent face-to-face competition with an opponent who the player is convinced doesn’t like him.
There’s nothing like a couple of sets to engage the body and mind. A slice of real life––complete with moments of high drama, maddening blunders, near-specta-cular shotmaking, sweat and strain––is played out in a short hour or two.
A match provides the test of a player’s true knowledge, not just what he understands. It generates a full range of emotions that may or may not help a player accomplish his goal of winning––a goal that, in the heat of the battle, can suddenly be forgotten.
A tournament player learns what it feels like to be totally self-reliant. By himself, he must make never-ending decisions about how to apply his skills, where to hit the ball, when to approach the net and how to counter a style of play he can’t figure out. All this while keeping score and calling lines.
What makes tennis fun is many things,
but none more important than
the learning of it.
The tennis court is like a stage. A player must come to terms with sideline observers. A feeling of self-consciousness can all but preclude competing. Like dancing while staring at one’s feet, the distracted player is unaware there is someone on the far side of the net (who, as often as not, is just as nervous).
Tennis champions are cut from many molds, but clearly some people are made for competition; they thrive in the adver-sarial environment that tennis creates. For other kind-hearted players, the experience is nerve-wracking; a match creates such inner turmoil that the points themselves are not enjoyed as much as tolerated.
But things have a way of changing for these reluctant competitors. Experience and maturity eventually solve inner problems and bring confidence in oneself. Some of the best players started tennis with the worst results.
As discouraging as losing can feel, the tournament player deserves credit for trying. And when a person learns that to try is to succeed, he’s on his way to better performance. (Losing is bearable when one knows he tried his best.)
Lessons and repetitive drilling are of great value, but many of the game’s nuances are learned only in matches. For example, when presented with a soft shot at mid-court, the player must instantly decide whether it’s best to volley, half-volley, drop shot or hit a groundstroke. It’s by competing that one comes to grips with tennis’ inherent difficulties; otherwise a player may get mad––every time he plays. Through competition a player learns to control his emotions, regulate his intensity, monitor his energy level––so he can simultaneously fight and think, run and relax.
Like a game of chess, each tennis match starts similarly but soon takes on characteristics of its own. Conditions of play are ever-changing––speed of the court, wind, sun, humidity, the play of the ball––all have a bearing on how the game is played. The player applies his skills and knowledge differently, depending on his physical and mental nature that particular day.
Apprehensive young players may be reluctant to challenge themselves. Losing to what they perceive as a lesser player can be enough to avoid future confrontations. But unless one makes a career out of rallying, losing is an integral part of the game. It’s important to compete with players that are both beyond and below one’s skill level. Better players make one pay for his mistakes, thus helping him learn; weaker players feed his confidence. It’s by beating better players, however, that a player advances his rank.
By instinct, most people tend to do what’s easiest, so learning how to play with pressure is an essential first step to enjoying competition. The player who comes closest to realizing his potential is the one who regularly confronts his nerves, the one who is willing to be embarrased.
Championship level players understand that the tougher the situation, the more likely something good, and lasting, will happen.
Learning how to lose thus becomes a prerequisite to learning how to win. A rudimentary lesson is to accept that when you lose, you got beat. A loss can elicit a long list of excuses, which serve only to cloud the issue itself. A player needs to acknowledge that on that day, in that match, he lost to a better player. This admission will make it clear as to what parts of his game were deficient, which is important because it helps him to do something about a loss: Practice.
It’s About Having Fun
Tennis is certainly more enjoyable as you improve. What makes tennis fun is many things, but none more important that the learning of it. To do what you couldn’t do before gives you a feeling of accomplishment. Winning and losing may seem the primary reason to play, but improvement is of much greater consequence.
Another reason to play is for your health. Chasing and hitting a ball is childlike behavior that may be what’s needed to keep you thinking and feeling young. Exercise is the solution to physical (and mental) problems, and tennis is a great source of it.
Tennis is so complex that even if you start winning tournaments your feeling of mastery will only be temporary. And what a wonderful thing that is––to pursue a hobby that never can be mastered. Imagine: You’ll never get bored.
For the longest time we muddle along, pretending to own a few strokes and a couple of shots. On good days, buoyed with confidence, against a player whose erratic game is predictable, we feel like Master of the Court; other days, a superior player has us questioning whether we know anything.
With measures of persistence, practice and good humor, over time we develop a style we call our own. Now is when we begin to have some real fun with tennis––when we can play the game with feeling, when we can improvise, actually think when competing, applying our skills in a personal way. Our strokes, shots and strategy take on a personality of our own. u