Monday, December 31, 2007

The Power Revolution in Tennis - Part 1

As I promised at the end of the “Radar Guns 101” post, I’m going to start getting into some of the “$64,000 questions” that come to mind when we hear the term “tennis speed”…

And, from my own observations of the American tennis scene over the past 2, rather, 15 years, the vast majority of these “key” questions regarding speed in tennis focus mainly on the question of how to produce high-speed strokes.

Of course, what seems to escape the notice of the vast majority of players, parents and coaches in the American tennis scene—even at the high-performance level—is the fact that high-speed strokes alone without high-speed court movement leads to limited success at the pro level.

When a player possesses both racket speed and foot speed, then the only real limit to a player’s success is whether or not they are willing to behave in a professional manner as possible. (Yes, if you’re wondering, I consider the attribute commonly known as “mental toughness” as being fundamental and integral to behaving as a true “professional”, whatever your actual profession may be).

So, without further ado, let’s open our discussion of him about the “power revolution” in tennis from a technical perspective…

If you ask me what the single greatest technical misconception that keeps American tennis behind the rest of the elite tennis world today, it’s our fundamental misconception about the proper use of topspin in today’s modern power tennis.

Essentially, the prevailing concept of “topspin” in US tennis still conjures memories of the slow, moonballing topspin of pro tennis that prevailed during the Tennis Boom of the mid-1970s, especially in the minds of today’s top American college and junior coaches. Of course, the game, as always, evolves as the years pass, and the looping, heavy topspin of the Borg era transformed itself into the heavy, penetrating topspin drives first mastered by former ATP #1, Ivan Lendl, and taken to its current pinnacle by current ATP #1, Roger Federer.

Somehow, the prevailing wisdom in American tennis today when it comes to topspin is that playing topspin needs to be minimized in the development of a high-performance player over the course of a player’s career, to be replaced by a faster, flatter and more aggressive stroking and tactical style—the so-called “Big Strike” or “First Strike” gamestyle that’s embraced by most top American pro, college and junior coaches.

The vast majority of American coaches—with their unshakable association of topspin with the slow, looping, moonballer topspin of the 70s—truly believe that while heavy topspin groundstrokes may be acceptable for the 12-and-under competitive player, it has no place in the repertoire of their vision of today’s high-performance player, male or especially, female.

In essence, if you were to ask an American coach what the purpose of topspin is, they will typically answer this way:

“The purpose of topspin is to slow the ball down to help players keep the ball in play.”

And that, folks, is the American bottom line when it comes to understanding the role of topspin in tennis:

“Topspin” = “Slowing the ball down”

With this equation in the mind of our coaches, it is not surprising that their students end up thinking that topspin has no place in the modern game. Kids aren’t dumb, if that is the message that’s being sent by their coaches (and reinforced by their parents), that’s how they're going to play.

Put yourself in the player's shoes... Why would anyone in a sport that’s trying to maximize speed want to learn a skill that’s understood by the “experts” as a means of “slowing” the ball down, not speeding it up?

No wonder a heavy topspin game that’s understood by the top pro coaches to be “standard operating procedure” (SOP) for pro success today, is such a hard idea to swallow in American tennis.

When you misunderstand a fundamental concept and then build entire philosophies (technical, tactical, developmental, etc.) based on a wholly flawed idea, well, it is no surprise that we aren’t very successful at developing viable pro tennis prospects.

If you’re into metaphors…

Because our coaches have a fundamentally flawed view of the role of topspin in the shaping the performance capability of today’s players, what ends up happening when we send our American college and junior prospects into battle at the pro level is the same as if...

An army would send soldiers to battle armed only with clubs and rocks when they know that their enemy has remote-controlled machine guns, missiles and bombs. You know what the outcome is going to be… The outcome is a given.

So, you might be wondering what the correct understanding of the role of topspin is for today’s competitive player? What do the other successful tennis nations of the world understand (i.e. Spain, France, Argentina, etc.) that we don’t’?

This is the “equation” that the successful tennis coaches and nations have in their mind:

“Topspin” = “Control”

In fact, taking the equation to the next logical level, those who want to maximize their ability to succeed in pro tennis have this equation in mind:

“Maximize Topspin” = “Maximize Control” (at high racket/ball speeds)

And for those of you (probably American by birth or tennis upbringing) who still don’t understand this tennis axiom, this is what you need to understand…

The only practical way to play high-speed shots (i.e. groundstrokes that travel over 90 MPH in flight) that land inside the lines with maximum consistency is to apply a ton of topspin to force the ball down toward the court faster. Without sufficient topspin to force the ball down to the court sooner (such that it falls inside the lines), increasing the ball speed alone causes the ball to fly further and most likely beyond the lines and out of play.

For all practical intents and purposes (because the ITF has no plans of changing the dimensions of the tennis court anytime soon, if ever), the only possible way to increase ball speed while maintaining (maximum) control over the ball flight is to maximize the amount of topspin to force that ball down to the court inside those lines.

Is the fog of false American game knowledge beginning to lift about now?

So, let's review...

Q: Want to generate more ball speed without sacrificing control?

A: Learn how to MAXIMIZE TOPSPIN PRODUCTION when swinging at high racket speeds.

Given this truth about topspin, do you now understand the fundamental reason why the Top 2 tennis players—as well every current Top 10 player—on Planet Earth have their games built upon a foundation of heavy topspin groundstrokes?

If you have a problem with this concept, you need to accept the fact that you won’t be able to consistently control your high-speed shots and you won’t put very many balls into play, inside the lines of the court. Competitive tennis success is still fundamentally rooted in consistency (of proper execution), so if you choose to play in a manner where—by definition—you will have trouble keeping the ball inside the lines in the court, your days as a tennis player, much less a competitive player will be short-lived.

Do you dream about a future in professional tennis? Then you need to have the correct understanding about topspin, or else your dream will forever remain just a dream.

So how do you maximize topspin on your groundstrokes?

We’ll start discussing those details in my next post…

Maybe it might be the basis of a new tennis future for some of you out there…

And, wouldn’t that be a great way to ring in 2008!

TTFN and Happy New Year!

P.S. If you’re interested in the “how to transition to pro tennis from college tennis” primer from Todd Martin mentioned in my last post, please email me (speedmaster [at] tennisspeed [dot] com) and I’ll send you a copy of my summary of his featured clinic at the 2007 ITA College Coaches Convention.

Finally, given the ever-growing number of so-called “tennis prodigies” that have emerged courtesy of YouTube (and some overly-ambitious parents), let me say that I’m as curious as the next coach and I already have a pretty good idea about the future prospects of each of those prodigies (see next month’s issue of US Tennis Magazine for a rundown on them) based solely on the concepts I’ve discussed in this post.

Can you guess who among those YouTube prodigies I think has a real shot at a pro future? I’ll reveal my predictions in a future post…

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At 7:31 PM, Anonymous WildCoach said...

My guess is that Jan Silva might have a chance training in Europe and Greer Glodjo is certainly impressive, but isn't hitting much topspin at the moment. Lansdorp certainly isn't known as an advocate of heavy topspin and he's said to be coaching Boyer.

Overall, a lot of these parents seem to be jumping the gun. If you are correct that the best tennis players of the future are going to be world class athletes, you can't perfectly identify them until after puberty. Even with the exceptional coordination shown, they won't necessarily have the height and footspeed to compete in the future.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger SpeedMaster said...


You've hit it on the head!

Given the evolution of tennis on the men's side, it's way too soon to make an accurate assessment.

Although, I will say that there is something to be said for the level of hitting skills demonstrated by this group of "prodigies".

I saw a current pro tennis pro hopeful playing with his dad/coach at ages 6 and 7, and he has the same technique at 19 as a Top 250 player as he did at 6, so that level of tennis-specific skill so early can't be entirely discounted in my mind.

And I will say that it is possible to estimate certain physical traits with reasonable accuracy, such as a person's height(by studying the growth plates of the subject's body using x-rays, or by identify muscle fiber composition by biopsy (ouch!).

When Boris Becker was "identified" as a "player with potential" by his regional tennis association in Germany back in the day, they put him through medical tests such as the growth plate estimate of his final height, and based on the result (i.e. his height estimate was 6'2"--Boris is in fact, 6'3"),they steered him toward the gamestyle (aggressive, net-attacker) that they felt was going to suit him best (given the game philosophies that prevailed back then... which was either 1974 or 1975).

But, all in all, it clearly takes more than good motor skills to become a pro tennis player in the future.

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous WildCoach said...

Yeah, I was probably too pessimistic. Having exceptional coordination, as these true prodigies have, is worth a lot. Silva certainly seems to have a good shot. His father was a basketball player and his mother looks tall, so he'll probably have the potential of being over 6', which really helps in hitting angles when serving. I tend to believe from 6'1" - 6'5" is about optimal height for a tennis player.

I thought Sonya Kenin looked tiny for 9 years old, but then I noticed those videos were from when she was 7. Hopefully she's grown. Henin shows how being an exceptional athlete can make up for lack of height.

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that heavy topspin is a key component in playing high-level tennis. However, the technique in generating such topspin is also very important. That is, unless you're willing to grind like Nadal make sure that your strokes look nothing like his. Try and generate the same (or similar) amount of pace/spin with more "conventional" strokes. Otherwise you're relegated to playing a defensive style of tennis and all the spin/speed in the world isn't going to take you to the next level.


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