Tennis is ever evolving. Professional players are getting faster, stronger and bigger at a greater rate. Rackets, strings, training methods and strokes are changing just as fast. A broad spectrum of online teaching and information is at our fingertips. Watching videos of the top players and emulating them is thought to be the “best” way to do things. The result is an epidemic of misinformation given to the masses of players. Confusion abounds and it is very disturbing.
Many club players, USTA league players, tournament players and tennis professionals are highly influenced by what they see and hear. This can be a good thing, given that the information or task an individual is attempting to perform is realistic and timely for their game. This can also be disastrous and end up halting good technique development and causing injury. The problem is that players are not able to tell whether they are ready for, or even need, the change that they think is so important.
We’ll use the serve as an example. There is no question that the serve is a pretty complex stroke. It’s hard enough to produce the basics without adding layers of difficulty.
Here is a list of basics that you need before you can think about moving on to bigger and better things:
►Racket edge traveling up to the ball
►A feeling of pronation (a throw like action using elbow/forearm/wrist/hand)
►Trunk and hip rotation for the racket take back and toss arm
►A continuous and full drop of the racket in the back of the motion
►Stance set so that feet don’t have to move (except lifting and turning the back foot)
►A straight-armed toss placed in front of the hitting shoulder
►Knowledge that as the front leg pushes up, the back leg pushes forward (and up)
►A slice serve
Here is a list of things to leave at the court door until you have your basics in place:
►Pinpoint stance (moving the back foot up to the front foot)
►Bringing toss arm parallel to the baseline
►Leaving the ground
►A toss located over your head
►A kick or topspin serve
►Attempts to hit hard, flat serves
The basics list above is pretty hefty. Make it your priority to check each item off of your list. If you do you should have some pretty solid form. Then and only then, should you attempt to branch out. Remember, advanced technique is simply the basics done extremely well. With good basics, broadening your game and developing shot selection comes naturally.
Let’s create a fun scenario that compares a diver and a server at degree of low difficulty. The beginner diver is really just looking to stop belly flopping and the server just wants the ball to go over the net and into the box. The diver stands at the edge of the pool, nose plug on, bent over at the waist forming an upside down U, head down and hands pointed like and arrow overhead. They say a quick prayer and hope that they will land without pain or hit the pool bottom. Success! They know how to go head first into the pool safely.
The tennis player hitting a serve with a degree of difficulty of one has many similar baseline characteristics. The server stands at the baseline, holds a ball, holds a racket, throws the ball up and hits it. They say a quick, “I hope this goes in,” and let it fly. Success! They can get the ball into the box safely.
Should the diver now attempt to do a jackknife off the diving board and the server attempt to hit a slice out wide because they saw it on a video? Well, of course not. Both need to keep developing the right techniques, habits and skills necessary to perform the more difficult movements. Most players lack a realistic picture of what they are doing and it is common for players to think they are doing a certain thing when, in fact, they are not. It is an easy mistake to unknowingly skip ahead and attempt a movement that does not fit into your game.
This is where the modern game can backfire. Players see a serve that looks cool and are told by “experts” that this is the way to do it. Don’t we realize that the people who are making this look so easy are dedicated students of the game and high level, highly motivated athletes? They have already checked off the list of basics above (plus some) years earlier. Those basics are the foundation of the game from which they have made individual modifications and changes.
These days the most over used and misunderstood technique currently taught is the pinpoint stance. It is unnecessary for a majority of players and adds many degrees of difficulty to the timing of the serve. There is a time and place for everything. There are far more important elements to address and conquer on the serve. On the other hand, some players feel more natural with the pinpoint. If this is the case be sure to find a pro to help you that really knows how to make the most of it.
If you are a beginner player, it’s best to get some individual instruction initially from a real, live pro, who knows how to teach solid basics and holds you accountable. Anyone who lets you slide is not doing the right thing by you. Remember, as a beginner, you don’t know what you don’t know. Likewise, if you are an intermediate or advanced player, consult a professional who knows their stuff and can figure out what is needed for you at your stage in the game. Don’t get sucked into all of the conflicting and confusing information available on our smartphones and tablets. If you have questions, consult someone you trust with your tennis game. It’s a whole lot more fun that way.
Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.