I like Andy Roddick. I admire his work ethic, his committment to Davis Cup, and his willingness to put it all out there and on the line (though who could forget the misguided “Lost the Mojo” ad stream that ran during the US Open some years ago that presaged his own early demise). He is a warrior – perhaps it shows.
In the second round match where Janko Tipsarevic upset Andy 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (4), John McEnroe was particularly critical, with repeated comments about Andy’s court positioning, shot selection and defensive mentality. Geoff MacDonald of the New York Times aptly described Tipsarevic as “blending high-percentage shot selection and a high shot tolerance, with an uncanny sense of when to go on the offensive. He defended and neutralized beautifully when Roddick went on the offensive, then took advantage of any ball that he could attack.”
On the other hand, Mac described Andy’s style as something like play in the 14 and unders. And this is pretty stern stuff from a commentator on national television, at the biggest stage of our game, and how I wonder must Andy feel about these comments. Further in post match comments, Roddick said Janko tried some percentage shots, and joked that sooner or later Janko’s fine play “would have an expiration date.” Janko countered that his shots were not were not low precentage but rather purely aggressive, and that after the serve Roddick plays purely defense. And then Patrick McEnroe said he disagreed with Andy’s post match analysis, and that it is now time for Andy to decide how to finish out the last three to five years of his career – meaning enough with the defense.
Backtracking, 14 and under tennis is about simply grinding the ball back and forth, little variety, court position well behind the baseline, neither player taking chances, and as often as not matches lasting forever, the winner simply being the last one standing. And though Andy does have a great serve, he has rarely ventured to play the ball from on or inside the baseline (ala Agassi) or to chip and charge to volley with finality (ala Connors, McEnroe or Henman). Certainly Andy’s game has brought him one US Open title, a Davis Cup championship, over $18 million in prize money, and I would suspect a number considerably larger from his endorsement income.
But could he do more? Is it too late to reorganize his tactics and court position? Is it his stubborness, or the inability of the string of coaches he has used over the years? I don’t know the answer, but my guess is that it all goes back to his first years on court, and which habits became ingrained at an early stage that are now nearly impossible to change.
This 14 and under thing is just such an early stage – and these players in our neck of the woods drill constantly, but play infrequently. Said again, the junior model is about constant and continuous banging of the ball, drilling big groundstrokes, but without reference to tactics. Bill Tilden advised that to improve, simply PLAY 5 SETS a day. And the playing of sets can train the competitive moxie that Tipsarevic displayed.
Where does Vic Braden come into this mix. I believe his writing, his insight, and the veracity of his material is unmatched within our tennis coaching community. And his point of view is about the entire game, about the nuance of court position and tactics, and about building a game that is varied rather than one that is built on one note (the big forehand – think Florida tennis). So what are the three most important shots in the game according to Vic?
- The serve
- The return
- The approach shot
What makes John McEnroe the best all time 50 year old tennis player in the history of our game? His serve, his return and his approach shot.
Takeaways – Want to work this into your game – then try the following…
- Take the net on your opponents second serve – all the time (this is your approach shot)
- Use a ball machine to practice taking the ball on the rise from inside the baseline
- Hit 50 serves each and every day
- Practice 50 return of serves each and every day
Drilled Out by Trey Waltke published in the ATP Newsletter 1980 (Waltke played # 1 at UC Berkeley, and was ranked within the top 50 on the ATP tour in the 1980’s)
“Having recently retuned from the Easter Bowl Junior Tennis tournament, I couldn’t help comparing this group of juniors to my group of 15 years ago. True, these comparisons are what all older players do, but nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself.
As a group, the kids coming up today have harder forehands and harder backhands. Their ability to hit outright winners from the baseline is amazing. Everyone seems to have a great two-handed backhand or a huge topspin forehand. These kids can go corner to corner forever.
Which brings me to my inevitable gripe: Until someone stages the National Drilling Championships, when are these kids going to learn how to play spontaneous all court tennis?
I hate to sound like Don Budge on Bjorn Borg, but if I see one more kid let the opportunity of a short ball go by without coming in or cutting it off in the air, I’m going to scream. I know all of you coaches out there are saying, “my kids work on their volleys all day.” That’s precisely my point.
Unless he or she practices the art of how to get to the net, they’ll never be able to effectively incorporate all those long hours of mindless drilling.
There is an area on the court, which kids today seem to view as the forbidden zone, but I like to think of as the forgotten zone. I’m referring to the middle of the court, or the midcourt, the area about three feet behind and in front of the service line.
What I’m merely suggesting is that kids stop all this drilling and start playing more meaningless sets where they can risk “foolin’ around” in the midcourt. They must learn to feel at home in this area. The advantages of using the midcourt are incredible. To name a few:
It shortens points and saves energy. The moment you sense your opponent off guard or is not able to make an offensive shot, slyly creep in to the midcourt.
Your opponent will always be trying to second-guess your whereabouts on the court. Cutting off opponent’s floaters in the midcourt, gives the added dimension of constant pressure on whomever you are playing.
This is the BIG ONE. Relieves boredom and burnout later in your tennis career by encouraging creativity during play. Bjorn Borg is a classic example of a player who mentally outgrew his own metronomic style of tennis. I will never forget seeing Bjorn in his last couple tournaments trying to play more inventive tennis. His mind had become more complex as an adult, but his training as a tennis player was still basically a one-dimensional style.
OK, so he made a million dollars, but how many kids have his mind? The average robotic junior could get bored, beaten or burnout before he makes his first hundred!
I doubt the same will happen to McEnroe. John is playing at the highest level of spontaneous tennis. He never restricts himself to any one area on the court and has never looked “drilled out.” He has learned that great tennis is not to hit the ball 1,000 times in a row down the line, but to recognize certain point patterns and then use all parts of the court in his response to every situation.
I firmly believe we can all learn to be “tennis geniuses” like McEnroe through more all-court experimentation. The next generation of wonder kids will hopefully be taught to play in this manner.
Keep the groundies, kids, but for your sake and sanity and my watching pleasure, use the whole court and stop all this senseless drilling!
(Footnote and editorial comment: As of 2001, Waltke’s observations continue to ring true on the junior scene. However, watch McEnroe and Borg on the Senior Success tour, and contrast the unlimited skill set of John’s all court game as compared to Borg’s near “incompetence” anywhere but behind the baseline.)”