Parents often ask me, “What makes Spanish tennis so great?”, or, “What do they do differently in Spain?”
Many folks have never been there and are curious how such a small country became a world superpower in tennis. They also want to know how my academy and summer camp are influenced by the Spanish approach.
Here are the keys to the Spanish Way and—more importantly—the flaws in the classical Spanish approach. Spanish coaches do some great work—but they are also commonly deficient in some areas. In my academy and summer camp, I have distilled the best of the Spanish philosophy and drills while seeking to upgrade and evolve the areas of Spanish training that are flawed. I call this the Modern Spanish Method, and it’s at the heart of all my coaching.
Spanish coaches are obsessed with being solid—making few errors. One of my mentors in Spain, Luis Bruguera, father and coach to two-time Roland Garros champion Sergi Bruguera, and more recently a coach of Garbine Muguruza, is fond of saying: “To be solid brings confidence and reduces anxiety. To be solid does not mean to be a defensive player.” A hallmark of the Spanish style is consistency and control of the ball. Consistent players win a lot of tennis matches, and consistency is the foundation for future high level play.
Racquet acceleration and forehand weapon
While consistency is a major focus in Spain, coaches and academies over there generally stress racquet acceleration and weapon building, particularly with the forehand. Spanish players are famous for their amazing forehands, which often combine power with incredible topspin rates. This is no accident, and at my academy, we use many of the famous exercises from Spain to specifically develop a forehand weapon like Rafael Nadal.
Movement and footwork
Spanish players are well known for their superiority in movement skills. To say that Spanish coaches are obsessed with positioning and footwork would be an understatement. Spanish training constantly stresses proper technique and good energy with the legs and feet, and also helps players develop the reading skills with the eyes necessary to anticipate better—an often overlooked but critical aspect of moving well. The best Spanish players like Nadal often combine superior movement skills with tremendous anticipation and reading.
In Spain, defense is always valued and included in the training curriculum. Some coaches and countries focus purely on attacking styles. Spain has a balanced approach to developing a top player, combining the big forehand weapon with solid defensive capabilities. We have the same philosophy in my camp.
Spanish players are known for having the best fitness and the stamina to outlast their opponents. It’s no mystery then that they are also known for being the most mentally tough. Spanish coaches understand that mental fortitude and physical fitness are intricately intertwined. Ultimately, you can’t have one without the other.
Spanish programs therefore stress more off-court fitness than any other method I have ever studied. I have adopted the same approach for my students. I want my players to be physical beasts that never fatigue and can focus and fight until the very end of the match with high energy and intensity. Spain also places a huge priority on injury prevention and staying healthy. Prehabilitation—preparing the body to prevent injuries—is a core element of the Spanish approach. I love this focus. All smart parents, coaches, and players would benefit from following this prescription for longevity and health.
As I wrote in my best-selling book, The Secrets of Spanish Tennis, Spain has a culture that values suffering on the tennis court. Coaches intentionally teach the ethos of endurance, fighting spirit and suffering to players from a very young age. The result is a cadre of players with tremendous grit. I have duplicated this approach with my students, pushing hem hard and demanding tenacity. Spanish players learn from a very young age that success on the court comes from being willing to suffer. Nadal embodies this spirit of endurance better than any other Spanish player.
While the Spanish system has dominated the world in the past 30 years with the strengths above, over the years I have noticed some flaws in their methodology, and I have sought to redress those mistakes when working with my players here in the US.
Sometimes Spanish practices are too monotonous and grinding—mindless and mind-numbing drilling. For some players, the extra repetition is just what the doctor ordered, but for others it’s overkill and serves to demotivate them. I have tried to strike a fine balance in my training system. I try to be player-centered and drill kids according to what they need and what motivates them. Some kids respond well to high amounts of repetitive drills while others are more engaged when playing creative games. I try to be flexible in my approach. Unfortunately, in many traditional tennis schools in Spain, there is little flexibility and—for better or worse—most kids are forced to drill long repetitions daily.
Lack of serve and return focus
Spanish schools are often criticized for focusing on “the middle of the point” rather than the beginning and ending. In some traditional schools, there can be too much emphasis on rallying and not enough focus on serving and returning well. I have tried to rectify this by incorporating these missing elements into my academy practices. I place a higher priority on developing a major serve weapon, for example, and we spend more time on the return of serve at my camp than the typical Spanish camp would.
Too much grinding
Spanish players are known for grinding, but sometimes the focus on grinding, defense, and consistency is too much. Sometimes players need to spend more time on attacking, finishing points and the first four to five shots of a rally rather than simply grinding. Therefore, I have adapted my philosophy and training method to allow for more attacking work and to deemphasize long rallying when appropriate. For younger and lower level players, we still believe in the need for consistency and learning how to grind, but as players advance in level, in accordance with their game style, we ramp up the attack and first strike focus.
Limited volley and transitional work
While some Spanish academies like Sanchez-Casal and Nadal’s academy have a balanced curriculum which stresses competence in all areas of the court, there are many other academies which unfortunately develop mostly baseline competent players and neglect net and transition mastery. This has been changing over time as systems evolve in Spain, and I have made the same purposeful adjustment in my training philosophy to encourage solid net skills and the willingness to transition to the net. One of my mentors from Spain, the great Jose Higueras, coach to Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Roger Federer and many more, emphasizes the importance of developing the complete player. I couldn’t agree more. Today’s elite players, with rare exception, can do it all.
Limited fast court training
Another common flaw in Spain is that there has been, historically, a deficiency in learning how to master fast court training. Spanish players often play too deep in the court, don’t take the ball on the rise enough, and are simply not very comfortable on fast courts. Modern Spanish academies are redressing these flaws by incorporating more fast court style training and by installing more fast courts and training on hard courts more frequently. Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Equelite in Villena, and Barcelona Total Tennis in Barcelona are good examples of academies that have adopted this approach. Bruguera and Sanchez-Casal have incorporated hard-court training in their curriculum for decades too. The key is not just playing on hard courts, but working on shortening swings, quick preparation, and developing an aggressive strike early mentality. Toni Nadal, whom I have studied with extensively, has been a leader in this trend. He firmly believes that the future of Spanish Tennis is a combination of traditional consistency built on the slow red clay, and an aggressive mentality and attack mindset honed on faster hard courts.
I hope this article has crystallized for the reader what Spanish tennis coaches do well and the areas where I think they need to improve. I have tried to build on the strengths of the traditional Spanish system in my academy here in the United States by improving the philosophy and approach, and redressing the flaws as I see them. In general, when looking for a good Spanish style of training for your kid, be sure to consider whether the system is modern and evolving the Spanish Way, or rigidly adhering to an outdated article classical approach.
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.