“Necesito el ritmo,”—“I need (the) rhythm”—is a common phrase heard on the tennis court in Spain, both from players and coaches. Rhythm, cadence, timing, and control are essential aspects of the Spanish style of training.
What is rhythm and why is it important in Spain? How do you achieve good rhythm? Let’s explore Spanish rhythm in more detail.
Spanish rhythm can mean many things
Rhythm can mean many things in the Spanish style. For example, there is a rhythm when hitting the ball: You can see it and even hear it. There is rhythm to the footwork and movement on the court. There is a rhythm to playing on the red clay courts. There is rhythm to match play. And there is rhythm to the drills and exercises performed in practice. In Spain, coaches search for rhythm in these myriad areas:
Rhythm of the hands
Rhythm of the hands means the technical swing.
In Spain, there is an obsession with creating a fast racquet head while maintaining control of the body. Maximum acceleration is achieved by slowly starting the racquet during the backswing— after the initial unit turn—leading to a crescendo of racquet speed into the forward swing to the ball. There is a smooth slow to fast buildup. This pathway to maximum acceleration should not be jagged or abrupt, “no bruscos”, as Toni Nadal likes to say.
At the end of the swing, players in Spain—and especially in the Toni Nadal and Lluis Bruguera Methods—are taught to pause or “pausa” at the end of the follow through. For example, Nadal was taught by Toni to tap his upper arm with his racquet for his pause at the end of the forehand swing. Watch Rafa practice or warm-up and you will see his biceps tap. This pause helps to balance the body and organize the technique before the recovery.
Thus, the rhythm of the Spanish swing is typically slow to fast, with a pause at the end of the finish. I see many players with very chaotic swing paths and rough technique who would benefit from the Spanish approach.
Rhythm of the feet
Spanish players are famous for their footwork. They demonstrate grace and balance when moving around the court. These traits are due to their obsession with movement and getting the body in a good balanced position to receive the ball. Watching Spanish players move is a beautiful sight to behold, especially on clay.
Legendary Spanish coach Pato Alvarez likened movement on the court to a dance, and he developed a unique movement and balance training style he dubbed “Doble Ritmo”, or double rhythm. Pato was obsessed with the rhythm of the feet and argued that his movement style should be practiced every day through repetitions. While not every Spanish system agrees with Pato’s double ritmo philosophy, they all empathize moving fluidly on the court.
In general, good players flow around the court quickly with good balance and body control. Bad players are clumsy and often move with inefficiencies. Their movements often look chaotic and slow. The Spanish are experts at improving the movement of players.
Rhythm of red clay
Red clay has its own unique rhythm. The surface is very slow and leads to longer rallies. The ball bounces higher and sits up for the players to strike. There is a slower beat to rallies on red clay and players in Spain are attuned to this rhythm. Spanish players are always seeking rhythm on red clay, and thus they often look to extend rallies and grind rather than always striking first during points.
Rhythm in a match
While not unique to Spain, players there are taught to manage the rhythm of a match, controlling the time and tempo to achieve maximum advantage. Pato Alvarez, the great Spanish coach, famously said that the best players control everything around them in their environment. Spanish players learn to command the rhythm of a match by organizing their mind, their rituals, what they want to do with the ball tactically, and the external elements that they can control.
Rhythm in training
Spanish training has a unique rhythm because, across the country, academies and coaches tend to teach with unique constraints and parameters. For example, Spain is famous for its two player per court ratio, which allows for one player to train while another rests. Long repetitions of 20 or more consecutive balls in drills are also commonplace in Spain, and this type of extreme repetition builds incredible patience, focus, and cardiovascular stamina.
“La pared”, the wall, is a famous Spanish drill where players develop consistency and control with long repetitions of sometimes hundreds of consecutive hits without a rest. Players who fall in love with the Spanish system tend to enjoy the flow of practice that comes from these unique aspects of the Spanish style.
In Spain, you cannot have rhythm if you don’t have control
1. Control of the technique
This means a smooth acceleration and a swing that is not jagged or choppy. Lifting up and creating good net clearance and topspin are important elements of a controlled swing. Control of the body and technique during peak acceleration is also an obsession in Spain.
2. Control of the body
This means balance and postural control. I see players who frequently flail at the ball and play with a chaotic body. In Spanish systems, control of the body and balance are obsessions.
In addition, physical and muscular endurance are developed so the body never fails the athlete. A player who is not fit will eventually lose body control.
3. Control of the mind
In Spain, players are taught to develop a long attention span and deep concentration. Players who are impatient or impulsive do not develop a good rhythm for the game.
4. Control of the emotions
As Toni Nadal speaks to frequently, without control of the emotions all is lost on the tennis court. It is impossible to master the game without good emotional control. When a player’s emotions run too hot or he feels anxiety or embarrassment or other powerful emotions, these feelings can undermine focus and control of the mind, body, and technique. Emotional control underpins all of the elements that lead to good rhythm.
5. Control of the situation and your opponent
As mentioned previously, the legendary Spanish coach Pato Alvarez always says that the greatest champions are able to manipulate and control all the variables in a match to their advantage. If a player does not handle these situations well, the rhythm of the game will be sacrificed.
In the end, one way to appreciate Spanish training is to understand that control of all these factors is paramount. Control is at the heart of the Spanish method. Control brings harmony to the game, reduces anxiety on the court, and leads to a beautiful flow—or rhythm.
I meet many players who come to me for training and on assessment they are very arrhythmic—like a dysfunctional heart muscle. I see my work as finding control and bringing harmony and rhythm to my players’ game.
How is your rhythm?
Next time you are out on the court, analyze your own rhythm—or if you are a coach or parent— observe the rhythm of your player. If you notice a lack of control, and a chaotic approach to the game in any of the areas I have mentioned above (hands, feet, or mind for example) consider making adjustments to your training methods to develop more control, which will lead to better rhythm, and ultimately less anxiety—and more success— on the court.
On my podcast, The Prodigy Maker Show Episode 50, we discussed this same topic. Check it out for further learning on Spanish rhythm.
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.