The modern pro game is typified by shorter rallies and explosive, aggressive tennis. Huge serves and dominating returns are the norm. Rally length data promoted by analysts like Craig O’Shannessy have supported the concept of aggressive first-strike tennis at the top of the game.
However, while the pro game is evolving its explosive style, juniors in development need to learn fundamentals of movement and a solid base of consistency. They need to learn a complete game—not just attack—but grinding and defense too. Moreover, they need to learn how to accelerate the racquet with control.
The Spanish Method, in the tradition of legendary coaches like William Pato Alvarez and Lluis Bruguera, offers an approach and philosophy that is the ideal training system for building the important concepts mentioned above for young players.
Teaching great movement is an obsession in Spain. Spanish coaches love to work on the positioning of the body, the footwork of a player, and stability and balance on the move.
When players focus too early on attacking and hitting big shots, they neglect their movement development. Footwork can suffer. Reaction and reading the ball are not trained enough. Fast court indoor tennis in the Northeast makes it very difficult to develop solid movers because of the speed of the courts and the quick tempo of the points.
I spent a fortune building European style red clay courts at my club in Manchester, Vermont. Why? Because I wanted slow courts to train my players on. I wanted them to learn how to adjust to the incoming ball, rally, defend and build a tactical game plan. On fast indoor courts, these qualities are often bypassed by players seeking only one objective: power!
In New York, I train players on clay as well. The slippery surface challenges the balance of my students. There are bad bounces that challenge the eyes, hands, and feet, and force the players to make quick adjustments. After a few years on clay, my students become more agile. I teach them how to slide. They become more balanced and adaptable. They learn to run and position their bodies well to receive and send the ball optimally. These aspects can be lost when training mostly on fast courts and with a first-strike only philosophy.
Spain has an obsession with being steady and consistent. They believe that control is a priority in junior development. Too often, I don’t see this as a priority for kids in the US, especially in the Northeast. Control means you can hit targets consistently. Control means you can rally 10 or 20 balls in a row with accuracy. Control means you hit with balance and without exaggerated body movements. Control means you have the stamina, patience and focus to keep the ball in play as long as it takes to win the point.
These basic values are often non-existent with juniors that I see coming out of most clubs in the area. In addition, patient and steady players are often demeaned and derided as “pushers” in the US. They don’t have this word in Spain, but being labeled “steady” there is the highest honor a player could have—not a scarlet letter. Now I’m not suggesting that pushing is good (see the topic below on ‘Acceleration’), but at least pushers understand the basic building blocks of tennis are running and getting the ball in play. Making fewer errors often wins matches at all levels of the game. In Spain, to make few errors is a great attribute and highly lauded.
In the US, I see few players who are proud of their defense and counterpunching skills. Players will jump to play attacking the net games, but they don’t relish passing shot or defending games. Players want to serve all the time but rarely work on their return. Many juniors spend entire careers without learning how to back up in the court, how to neutralize attacking shots, and how to survive in uncomfortable places on the court.
In Spain, all the juniors learn these skills. They love to suffer and run. They love to extend rallies, not shorten them. They take great pride in defending, not just attacking. It’s a very healthy approach to junior development to value and prioritize defense and attack equally. Rarely do I have a junior come to me from the US who likes to play a defending game or “no winners” game. In our country, kids are obsessed with hitting winners.
Analysts like O’Shannessy really do a disservice to junior development by suggesting that juniors should train primarily the first four shots rather than learning to control the ball in long rallies. Young kids need to learn to be solid and consistent. Then as they grow older they can develop their weapons and first-strike capabilities. Too many coaches and juniors want to skip stages and jump to the pro style of aggression without first building the solid base. It’s like building a house on a weak foundation of sand.
Spanish coaches are obsessed with developing acceleration—racquet head speed. Before studying in Spain, I had never seen a system that addressed this area of technical development. The racquet head speed is not just important for power, but also for generating spin. RPM is a big priority in Spain, especially on the forehand weapon, but also on the backhand. Most Spanish coaches have a toolbox of exercises that they use to build acceleration and most of them come from the genius mind of Bruguera. The Bruguera Method has the most famous drills in Spain for developing racquet head speed.
In the US, racquet head speed seems to be something people believe is inherited, not trained. Some hit the ball big but often flat and with a stiff arm. Some kids push without accelerating. I make a great living helping juniors from all over the US develop whip and elasticity on their groundstrokes. I have seen countless juniors with stiff arms and flat strokes who are not utilizing their body mechanics optimally to produce power and spin.
In my academy in Manchester, and with my students in NY, I stress these important foundational Spanish elements:
As players develop and get older, first-strike becomes important, but I will never progress students along without ensuring that their foundation of great movement, consistency, defense, and acceleration are well refined.
From my perspective, this step-by-step approach to junior development is a better way to build a complete player who is solid from the ground and makes few errors, but still has weapons to attack. Too often, especially in the Northeastern US, I see juniors who want to play like the pros do, but haven’t spent the time learning to be solid first. They haven’t developed their movement skills. They can’t defend. And their acceleration is wild. This is a big mistake that parents, coaches and players would be wise to avoid.
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.