Saturday, December 31, 2011

Revisiting the Wisdom of Mr. Jack Kramer

We wanted to close out the year 2011 by bringing your attention to the tennis performance wisdom of arguably, one of the greatest minds of tennis history, the late Mr. Jack Kramer (1921-2009).

For those of you who aren’t especially familiar with the history of tennis, Mr. Kramer was not only one of tennis’ great Immortals as a player (twice Singles Champion at both Wimbledon and the US Championships held at Forest Hills - the forerunner of today’s US Open), but played a seminal role in developing professional tennis into the global sports institution it is today.

In 1977, Mr. Kramer published an instructional book (co-written by Larry Sheehan) titled “How to Play Your Best Tennis All the Time”. In this book, Mr. Kramer spelled out in very simple, clear and concrete terms the fundamental truths of how to become a successful tennis player – regardless of your “talent level”.

While it may be true that certain stroke mechanical ideas that Mr. Kramer presented back in 1977 have evolved considerably since then, the general strategic and tactical concepts he presented in his book have and will stand the test of time.

Here are Mr. Kramer’s own words on how to perform like a top player (pages 15-18):
"Why do you suppose Ken Rosewall could reach the final at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in his fortieth year? Why are Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, and Roy Emerson so tough to beat even they’re also well past their playing prime? Why is Pancho Segura in his middle fifties such a threat on the burgeoning pro senior circuit against players ten years his junior?
The answer is that, though the stamina and power of youth may be gone from their careers, these players possess a defensive game that is as sound as it was back when they were winning most of the matches they played.
The defensive game is based primarily on control of the ball on serves and on groundstrokes. It requires knowledge of how to produce spin on shots through the action of your racket in the stroke, and a sensible “percentage” application of the shots available to you. It is the key to developing the steadiness and consistency on the court that causes an opponent to make errors and give you points. It is indisputably the only logical style of play for the majority of weekend players, and it has the added advantage of being a style that does not really wear with age, or rust too much from neglect. It is effective at every level of play, from novice to pro.
Coming from Jack Kramer, this emphasis on defensive baseline play, with a high priority given to forehands and backhands, may sound surprising. You may have heard of my reputation as “the man who institutionalized the Big Game in tennis,” or as “the serve-and-volley player par excellence.”
Actually, I learned a steady defensive style of play first, and I’ve never regretted it.
I was eleven when I took up tennis. In those days—in the 1930s—the big names in the game were Bill Tilden, the Englishman Fred Perry, Don Budge, and Bobby Riggs. Budge and Riggs, only a few years my senior, were the young lions of the tennis world as I started competing.
With the possible exception of Vines, who generated such phenomenal power on his serve that it ws only natural for him to lean on that stroke through many a match, all the leading players of the age overcame their opponents by controlling the ball with shots played from the backcourt. They concentrated on returning serve adeptly, so the opponent could not safely come in following serve. They seldom attacked immediately behind their own serve. The hit solid, well-placed forehands and backhands until they forced a short, weak ball, and then they did attack, moving to the net to complete the kill with winning volleys.
These were the players on whom I modeled my own game. As a result, I grooved a solid forehand and a dependable if not spectacular underspin backhand, long before I paid much attention to volleying at all.
There was another good reason to specialize in groundstrokes before all else in those days. Most major junior competition of the day was held on slow surfaces where duels from the backcourt were inevitable.
Only later, when I began to compete on the fast grass surfaces on which the big men’s titles were contested in those days—Wimbledon, Forest Hills, Longwood and the various Davis Cup sites—did the extra-strong serve that had evolved in my game begin to give me a decided advantage. To exploit the weak returns that were made off my fast, skidding wide serves on grass, I hustled in to intercept the opponent’s return in the air and volley it away. I wasn’t afraid to be lobbed, if my first volley had not scored an outright winner, because along with my serve, I also possessed a naturally strong and dependable overhead smash. I could cover all but the most skillfully played lobs and put them away for the point.
This combination of serve, volley, overhead was the winning combination in my game that gained the most publicity.
Without the groundstroke capability, however, I would not have been able to keep the proper amount of pressure on my opponents when I was returning their serves, and on slow surfaces my power game would have be nullified by their passing shots. When circumstances dictated, I was able to give up the net game and come in only on short balls—just as Tilden and the others had done.
Though this trend seems to have been reversed, for a time many youngsters in this country wanted nothing else but to become whiz-bang serve-and-volley players. Many of them thought they were copying my power game, or that of Pancho Gonzalez, the big server who came along just after me and made a tremendous impact. Interesting, Pancho did gain his big amateur victories largely on the strength of this serve, but his game really didn’t become truly complete until he was forced to improve his groundstrokes after losing to me on tour, 27 matches to 96. I had been forced to give up my big serve in order to beat Bobby Riggs in a previous head-to-head tour—you learn a lot when you turn pro!
In any event, an awful lot of boys growing up in the 1950s and 1960s—encouraged by a fair number of  coaches who perhaps should have known better—learned to attack before they knew how to defend. Many never did learn solid baseline tactics and ended with incomplete, highly vulnerable tennis games.
As my experience with Riggs on our tour made me realize, there’s nothing aggressive about hitting big serve if your opponent can block it past you every time.
Too many young players have equated “defensive” with “weak” or “tentative”. There was certainly nothing tentative about the way Don Budge returned serve. He may have remained at the baseline, but he hit bullets back at you. And as we shall see, I recommend that beginners start hitting with topspin—the faster and potentially more aggressive ball spin on both forehands and backhands.
Anyway, the trend toward over-emphasizing serve-and-volley has been stopped at last. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg are among numerous rising young stars in the game today who have demonstrated magnificent control from the baseline. For youngsters beginning in tennis now, these stars helped restore prestige to the groundstrokes. That is how it should be, and where we will begin."
Mr. Kramer’s last paragraph is especially prescient and telling, in light of how tennis at the pro level is played today by the current generation of (aggressive) baseline stars like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Earlier on pages 8 to 11 in a section titled “About Ball Spin,” Mr. Kramer offered this sage commentary about how crucial it is to master applying/generating spin on your strokes to becoming a successful competitive tennis player:
" Baseball rewards fair balls hit out of the playing area, so sluggers like Ted Williams or Hank Aaron never really had to worry about control over the balls they hit. But tennis penalizes shots that don’t land inside the baseline and sidelines. The secret to keeping shots within bounds in tennis is controlling the spin on the ball. So before we get into the actual mechanics of stroke execution, let’s look at spin briefly.
The flight of a tennis ball is controlled through a combination of gravity and spin. Gravity along won’t keep a ball in play. A serve hit firmly but without spin would not only miss the service box—it would go beyond the baseline. A groundstroke hit with any firmness would also go beyond the dimensions of the27-by-78-foot single court, before gravity brought it down to earth. A shot hit softly at an angle would still go outside the sidelines. A shot hit softly all the way from one baseline to the other baseline might stay in—but it wouldn’t pose much a problem for the other player.
In other words, spin must be imparted to the ball in some degree. A brushing or biting action of the racket strings during the interval of impact accomplishes this. I use the word “interval” to promote the idea of a prolonged period of contact between racket strings and ball, and not an instantaneous hit or slap.
Actually, Vic Braden—one of the game’s most innovative teachers and one of our most tenacious researchers in the technique of tennis—has taken high-speed photographs that reveal the racket strings hit the ball twice on every stroke. At the instant of contact the ball rebounds off the strings. Then the strings catch up with the ball and hit it again. While this may indicate a need to rework the “double-hit” rule in tennis (you’re not supposed to hit the ball twice), it is too finite as a physical phenomenon for our human senses to grasp fully. I think it’s important simply to imagine that the racket strings act upon the ball as a stiff bristle brush might. It is by “brushing” the ball for as long as possible that you are able to impart the degree of spin you need, for absolute control. Brush up on the ball with the racket strings—as you do when the path of the racket on the forward swing goes from a low to a high position—and you will produce topspin, or overspin. When a ball has topspin, it rapidly rotates end over end in the direction that the ball is moving. The shot flies in a half-moon trajectory over the net and drops sharply on the other side.
Brush down on the ball, and you will produce a shot with backspin, or underspin. When a ball rotates end over end in the opposite direction it is traveling, the shot clears the net more slowly and by a greater margin, and it drops more rapidly once it has reached its peak.
In these two examples, I have made the assumption that the racket itself is just about square during impact. By that I mean, the frame of the racket is perpendicular to the ground. So it is the path of the racket that creates the exact brushing action. But topspin or underspin can also be imparted by “closing” or “opening” the racket face during the interval of impact. That means tilting the frame of the racket toward the net or toward the back fence, as you stroke. On short strokes such as the volley or the lob, where underspin is desirable for control, or height is needed for defense, that’s what happens.
The important thing to note for now is that the brushing action, created by the path the racket face takes during the forward swing, or the alignment of the racket face at impact, or a combination of both, brings the two-ounce tennis ball under control. With spin, you can hit balls much harder and still keep them in the court. That’s what we’re after in groundstrokes and on the serve."
There are a few” take-homes” from these two particular passages from the mind of Jack Kramer that we would like you to take into the New Year:
Mastering baseline play –“defensive play”—remains the foundation of any successful competitive tennis player.
This reality is especially true in the current era of pro tennis where play is dominated by powerful groundstrokes from the baseline – a tactic that is supported and encouraged by slower court surfaces, heavier balls (rather, balls with thicker felt), and the development of racquet and string technologies that make it far simpler to generate the massive topspin necessary to maintain “absolute control” over those high-speed shots.
The mastery of ball spin remains as, arguably, THE critical skill in the repertoire of a successful competitive player, especially for players seeking “ultimate performance”.
While our understanding of how spin is generated becomes more sophisticated as high-speed photography/video becomes cheaper and therefore more accessible to those who are interested in those details, even Kramer recognized the fundamental ways – controlling the swing path and/or tilting the racket facing during the “interval of impact”—that spins are generated.
The difference between 1977 and now is that players are trying to strike their shots with far more pure power –ball speed –on their shots, and so they also have to generate far more topspin to maintain “absolute control” and keep their shots in play. It’s also fascinating to now observe that the today’s most successful—and most powerful – players appear to use/prefer/emphasize one particular (top-)spin generating method (on the forehand side) over others.
The reason(s) that would explain why this stroke mechanical “preference” among tennis’ top performers even exists  (beyond the oversimplified “because they work, silly” response) might be critical if we want to provide the best possible information to help future competitive players maximize their power –and control—potential.
Bottom line here is this:
I hope that you will now realize that any stroke mechanical concept that attempts to increase power without increasing (top)spin generation simultaneously is essentially a worthless concept.
In today’s tennis, if you're seeking maximum performance, these two performance/technical elements - power and spin - are for all intents and purposes, inseparable.
Let me end this post with these words from a former top player who used to spar frequently with the late, great Mr. Bill Tilden way back in the day.
Mr. Tilden’s advice to him:
If you don’t learn topspin, you have no future in tennis…”
True that.
Happy New Year and TTFN!

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At 4:14 PM, Blogger P185 said...

Yes, the great masters from the past, (and it's a shame so few today are still aware of names as Tilden and Kramer) did know the game inside out, played it much better than most people tend to imagine, and had an incomparable way of sharing their rich knowledge, in the most disarmingly cristal-clear manner. What's that called... Wisdom?..



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