Written by: Daniel L. Rosenbaum
***Daniel L. Rosenbaum, an ITF Level 2 coach with a Social Sciences degree from the University of Sao Paolo, has been working with juniors and professional players since 1982. As an assistant, producer and speaker, Daniel has participated in several national and international tennis courses, conferences and workshops. He founded and coordinated with Carlos Kirmayr the Coaches Education Department for the Brazilian Tennis Confederation, and is currently the Achievement Program Director for the Israel Tennis Center.***
Predictability – the ability to predict
Of course, it’s all about predictability. I think this makes our sport interesting. At the beginning, we teach by turning an unpredictable game, open skills based, into a predictable one. The players, as they learn the game, get experienced and are able to anticipate (take decisions), try to turn it unpredictable and unexpected to their opponents.
A smart phrase says that “any repeated tactic is not strategic anymore”. Players better hide and keep the winning tactics based on % tennis and/or on information about the opponent for the important points. Coming to the net, for example, gives the net rusher about 70 % of the points. Compensates!
Teaching – providing tools to invent
There are many aspects that decide the players’ style of play. Their personality and physical characteristics play a dominant role for sure. Above all, the tennis culture where they come from (surface, idols, tradition) and their coaches’ philosophy can play even more, sometimes worse. We know that for many years many coaches didn’t allow the kids to slice being afraid they won’t learn to hit top-spin. Add to it the idea that two handed back hand is easier/better for kids. Result: no one handed backhand / no slice / no volley / no net game. By the way, I think that the two-handed backhand happens more as result of improper equipment – heavy balls and long rackets – and should not be imposed by coaches as a definitive solution. Nothing against a two-handed backhand. Just let the players decide for it and assure they use a continental grip on the backhand.
When teaching, based on our past and present experiences of the game, bio-mechanics… it’s important to support the players with a complete arsenal of abilities and so further options. Even more, I believe, is important to help them develop athletic skills and allow them create a whole new game. Imitation takes part on the learning process but creativity is more important and only appears when it is allowed.
Slice – a useful tool
Concerning about teaching the strokes, it is worth to consider that the technique fills a tactical function. Learning the strokes should mean to increase the player’s options while playing the game. For example the slice, forehand and backhand, which reappeared to improve defensive options (many players chip the return of first service, we see more and more the use of a forehand slice to reach wide shots) is also useful to reinforce the attack as well (develops touch for drop shots and shapes safe volleys at the net, Federer reintroduced the backhand slice to open the topspin forehand – a tactic used in the past on clay courts). It’s also necessary to remind how important is to master the use of the continental grip to improve the players’ dexterity, finesse and feel for the ball.
Not all the students we teach play at the higher levels and/or are able to develop a powerful game as the pros. Most of them are not. Believing that tennis is a recreational sport for life, the slice shot should be an obligatory resource for every player.
Success rules – examples to follow
Can we affirm that the adult players’ game is a result of their experiences when they were young? Can we also say that the adult players’ game influences the development of the next generations, the young players and their coaches that observe and copy?
For some generations successful young players didn’t come to the net because it was too risky. They where too short, the court was too big to cover, the balls too fast… So, they developed a solid game style from the base line. Preferring immediate results at young ages, it was rare to see coaches developing a complete game style looking ahead considering the adult players’ size. A player who’s got success under 14-16 playing from the baseline will face difficulties to develop and add the net game to his winning style. Girls will suffer the most. Then, the risk is that this style will not be successful for much longer.
Nevertheless, we can appreciate a great example of dedication among the greatest players as they try to add new elements to their game. Baseliners like Wilander, Kuerten, Nalbandian and also Chang, even Borg, approached to the net. Sampras finished his successful career with a complete different game style, exclusively playing at the net. Who does not claim that Federer should come in more? It looks like Paul Annacone does. Agassi and Nadal, who actually is coming to the net, improved and included the back hand slice. Have you recently watched how much Djokovic and Murray slice?
Despite all, they all try to improve their shots, mainly the service. Djokovic pointed to the improvement he did lately on his service and forehand. Sorry for not reminding all the inspiring examples.
Prediction – changes ahead
In sports, the predominance of game styles is cyclical. The game evolves within the alternation between attack and defense. A winning defense challenges the attack to get better and vice versa. The specialists become predictable and/or limited. Top players feel it and good coaches know it. Those who are not ready for changes won’t stay at the top for long. The game is changing because the top players, ready to make changes and advised by good coaches, readapt their game. Within this process the game evolves and teaches us all.
I have a strong belief and hope that the game, now adapted to the size of the kids, will affect a tremendous impact on the next generations. At least, the adapted dimensions allow more kids to play a game they could not dream to be able to play at bigger scales. Besides the long rallies, observe how they enjoy playing at the net on mini tennis courts with low pressure balls. The net game will not abandon tennis and players will not give up from mastering it. Coaches should allow it, stimulate it and always promote doubles!