Andy Roddick – John McEnroe – Vic Braden – and Trey Waltke

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.)”

37 Comments

  • ray schuler

    Reply Reply July 1, 2013

    30 YRS AGO VIC BRADEN ADVISED
    DONT GET CAUGHT IN.. NO MAS LAND

    AND I NEVER FORGOT IT!

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply July 1, 2013

      Ray – maybe, I know Vic, and believe this is apt for a certain level of recreational play – but if you are going to the net you must pass thru that area and sometimes the opponent can and will trap you with a ball at your feet – then the half volley skills become very important
      Jim

  • Larry Schaffer

    Reply Reply September 7, 2010

    Poor Andy,

    After he won in 2003 he did not improve his game which you must do at that level to win. Fed, Nadal kept improving after they won, all you hear from Mac is how they each improved their volleying since they first won or developed a slice, better serve, chip, drop shot etc. Andy was satisfied with his serve and hitting hard which was enough to keep him in the top 5 for a while, then the top 10, now the top 15, soon only the top 20.These top players are also practicing when they play the early rounds against less dangerous players while Andy did not practice and just rolled with his serve and power against lesser players.

    Pete changed his game twice, his coach took away his two handed backhand, he became the best serve and volleyer but when the harder hitters started gaining on him he made his ground strokes stronger but was always looking to come in but developed an ability to hit with them and stay in the rally. Borg did to. Even Agassi(who says he hated tennis) changed and improved his game to make it to the elite.

    As for Andy and his attitude why not just allow a challenge be used for foot fault calls, would have put Andy in his place just putting his foot fault on the jumbotron.

  • Omark

    Reply Reply September 7, 2010

    Interesting comments and I appreciate that Jim got it started this way.

    One thing I’ll mention about Andy. I happened to catch one of those “great matches in US Open history” (or whatever they call it) on Tennis Channel and/or ESPN2 in the runup to this year’s Open. It featured a much younger Andy Roddick vs. Leyton Hewitt (I think it was the year Hewitt won it all). It reminded me that when Andy came up, he was said to have a big serve and a big forehand. His forehand really was big. But it hasn’t been in the last few years, I think. It seems to me he’s gone away from hitting the flat forehand for a winner in favor of the looping topspin, playable forehand that just extends the point. Not sure why.

  • Fred Boyles

    Reply Reply September 7, 2010

    It is great to hear McEnroe punch a hole in Roddicks ego to get his attention. All great men have a powerful ego that wants to be right about all the hard work and scarifies that he has made to be in this very elite group of all time tennis players. But to go beyond what has gotten him this far and add that new dimension he has to be able to embrace and respond to criticism. Every mans father demanded he be better man. Roddick is not just doing this for himself and his place in history, he is doing it for me and all the American tennis players that feel connected to him winning or losing. In these uncertain times I look for an American hero more then ever. The commentators repeatedly have picked up on how many Americans are in the top 10. Some how if Andy could challenge Nadal and Federer I would feel better about being an American. McEnroe is demanding Roddick add that last piece for us all. Thank You

  • DAVID.BAKER

    Reply Reply September 7, 2010

    VERY GOOD COMMENTS WHY DONT MORE PEOPLE THINK THIS WAY

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 7, 2010

      David
      not sure – might be about a contrarian approach – out of the box
      best
      Jim

  • Víctor Liendo

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    I think Andy’s game lacks of weapons or skills.

    – He doesn’t have a backhand, only a rally shot (how many winners he does with it ?)
    – He doesn’t use his forehand as a deciding shot (how many winners he does with it ?)
    – He’s not a good volleyer. Many times he approaches the net at the wrong moments
    – He doesn’t have a drop shot

    His game lacks of variety, surprises.

    He depends basically on his serve. But when it is returned, he plays almost as a counter-puncher. He prefers to play defensively, waiting for the opponent errors.

    This is a boring way of playing … Obviously it has reported him a lot of money of trophies. But i don’t see him winning another GS in the future

  • Bhagi

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    Great article and analysis. As far as Andy goes, his forehand is great when he decides to hit it hard. For some reason, he chooses to hit loopy shots even from mid-court. It’s like he has a gun that has an infinite supply of bullets but is afraid of firing it because in his mind he thinks he will run out of ammo.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Bhagi – and then again maybe this will be a wake up call for Andy – many hope to see him make another run
      best
      Jim

  • Jerry Altman

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    It has been years since, I had Mono. It took me 3 weeks to get my strength back and it really takes the available energy in the fuel tank down several notches. So, any criticism and praise needs to be caveated with Andy’s not being 100%.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Jerry
      understood, in fact his coach Larry Stefanki said Andy was the best hard court player in the spring (before his mono)
      best
      Jim

  • Martin Hassner

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    Your guest comments and your own indicate an element of “have to” rather than “want to”. The great ones played the way they had to to win. I used to watch Lendl who hired high school lefties to serve hours and hours to him so that he could return Mac’s serve. With his rep,is Stefanki no better than any of the others in getting Andy to understand that he cannot win big playing the defense game? Roddick has had moments when he has overcome his lack of true volleying skill and tendency to stay back (deeply ingrained)…but is he lost because he can’t do what he must do or lost because “must do” has never fully entered his psyche?

    Conners used to say that he didn’t have to improve his suspect approach shot because he was a champion. Roddick has had stunning success with all the weaknesses mentioned by so many others.He has the American dream of fame and fortune…maybe that’s all he really wants because he’ll never be considered in the same breath with Mac, Pete, Roger and now Rafa…and he knows that too…He also knows the Agassi story…a man who waited until the end of his career to prove to the world that he belonged on that special list…The way people play tennis today is the way Agassi showed them it could be played…Not Bjorn…Andre. And yet he waited too long and he’s never mentioned in the same breath with the others and never will be.

  • doug wilson

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    Roddick brought all the negative energy on himself. Do you think he will every personally go to the women he so brutally attacked yes attacked with visciousness and mal intent and apoligize for his behavior? Now knowing he was wrong. Not in front of the cameras for his own personal salvation,but quietly seek her out and apologize for his outlandish actions. She is told not to confront or provoke the situation. She was defenseless.Everybody stood around and let that idiotic brat treat that poor women as his personal whipping tool.For what calling a foot fault,which he clearly did!!! No fine, no defense, no apoligy. She had to sit there and take it .All people have a choice in life to accept or not accept being around that kind of abuse when your not under parental control. She did not.She loves tennis and probably volunteered and went to training forums and gave freely of her time for the Open. Andy Roddick has serious mental issues. He is the typical “Ugly American” with loutish boorish behaviour.He should have been fined and warned and eventually disqualified. He relished his broadcasting moment and basked in the glory of his ridecule.

    He is a kid who never had to develop the allcourt game.He is both a victim and champion of modern racquet technology.He will never win with that kind of attitude. Mentally he was fried after that aweful display.It will haunt him forever. Until he addresses his mental issues(anger management) and personally seeks out that lady and says I am so sorry for putting you through that ordeal ,I had no right to treat you like that, it is pointless to try and speculate on improving his game.The mental issues far outweigh the physical ones. Thanks for all your good work Jim. Doug.

  • Patrick Leroux.

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    Thanks Jim, this is by far one of the best article I have read in a long time. In the 80’s,when I was a junior playing mostly on clay, my coach always taught us how to use the mid court area in a smart way.Today, I try to coach juniors the same way, even if it is not easy with today’s heavy top spin game.
    And a final note: when Pete Sampras retired, I remember that Pete said he was probably one of the last serve-volley geniuses along with Pat Rafter. Pete added that he thought tennis would become boring to watch after that.
    He was sooooo right !! Hopefully we have Roger’s all-around game to keep us in awe for a while longer….
    Cheers.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Patrick – thanks for the note and the comments about the mid court – where do you teach?
      best
      Jim

      • LEROUX patrick

        Reply Reply September 16, 2010

        Hello Jim,

        I have been teaching in Saigon Vietnam for the last 14 years, including the men and women national teams here in 2000, which was tons of fun.
        Cheers,
        Patrick.

  • Kris

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    Good article. I see a parallel message in this which is something that older players have to face as their mobility and fitness declines.

    Playing a match from the baseline isn’t going to work against a good and much younger player. And your speed means that you may not be able to get to the net as fast as you need to in order to hit a clean volley.

    So success depends on your willingness to get in as far as possible and learn to make a decent volley from mid court or a few steps inside the baseline; hitting on the rise or “short hopping” the ball if it’s too low to hit in the air.

    I’ve had to shift gears like this more and more often when it’s clear that my best baseline shots were just coming back to me over and over. Being flexible and willing to step up and play from mid court if need be gives you another chance to win a match that isn’t going to go your way banging it out from the baseline when you are not fast enough to always get into the net.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Kris – thanks, and I would add (thought this isnt necessary) that sometimes the toughest shot for back court players, or the most important shot for mid court players is a confident and firm half volley – Tom Stow worked on that shot all the time
      best
      Jim

  • Bertrand Simard

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    I play where I have to play. I do not follow rules like not staying in the no-man’s land. As a matter of fact, I always thought that the nearer you are to the net, the less angles you have to cover, the less you have to run, the faster your response is, and that includes playing in the no-man’s land…and playing and moving around that area until you decide either to go forward or backward. As a matter of fact, when I practise with the ball machine, I hit the ball and I go one step forward after each ball, up to the net and I start going backward, one step at the time until I reach the baseline. If I encounter a problem anywhere in my “walking tour” forward or backward, I practice in that place until I can return successfully. (My level is 4.0)
    I never met an instructor who agreed with me for playing from the no-man’s land and they never gave me any convincing argument for not doing it except to say that it is not done, even by the champions. What do you think?

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Bertrand – I like the idea of a “walking tour” as to coaches and their opinion of your style – there are many ways to play the game and many ways that the game is coached – but probably you can find some old guys in California (like me and many others) who understood that type of game (and liked it!)
      best
      Jim

  • Jerome Inen

    Reply Reply September 6, 2010

    Interesting comments about junior grinding tactics… although in the above Bjorn Borg is totally misrepresented… watch the Wimbledon final of 1980… and you’ll see that Borg played serve & volley on almost every first serve. Watch how many slice backhands Borg hit… see how often he chipped and charged on a second serve… then, imagine: after Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon for the first time, he changed his serve considerably… he changed his volleygrip after he first won the French…

    Borg was a much more creative player than most people think. Just watch Wimbledon 1980, the whole final… you’ll be amazed how diverse he played…

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Jerome – yes I have seen his style at Wimbledon and agree, but think that he did that out of necessity not choice – similarly Federer came in all the time in his first and only match against Wimbledon for if he stayed back Pete would come in. That said in his 40’s on the senior tour his moving forward skills were at that point totally absent.
      best
      Jim

  • Hans Maier

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    There are two sides to this story. McEnroe found out towards the end of his career when the big hitters like Lendl came up that his style of play was not good enough too win big. Playing in midcourt against Nadal would be futile. Seond, Roddick´s athletic ability is limited, he is a good tennis player but not a great athlete. Besides his serve the rest of his strokes are mediocre and so is his movement. He s smart and willing to learn but his body does not or is not able to respond. To turn him into a serve and volleyer at this stage is not realistic.His furure does not look too greaat, unfortuntately

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Hans – yes and no, Mac was outplayed by Lendl towards the end, and the game did become “bigger” but as regards simple geometry and time and angle, the closer to the baseline or inside the court the bigger the hitting angle and the less time for the opponent. As to Roddicks ability to learn, my hunch is 3 months with an Alexander technique practitioner might open his eyes to less effort and more awareness – but that is only a hunch
      best
      Jim

  • Eric

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    Jim– I completely agree with your observations, and would quickly add, “and for the sake of the spectators too!” Andy Roddick’s style of play–the fastest serve ever, but betrays his skill by retreating to the baseline–does nothing to hold my attention. Repetitive baseline exchanges have made tennis suffer as a spectator sport. McEnroe is still the exemplar of all-court tennis, and even at his age his play is captivating. Your comment about mindless drilling is on the money. Even McEnroe commented the other night–you should spend 50% of your time practicing your strokes, and the other 50% playing points!

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 6, 2010

      Eric – when will we have another “Mac” to appreciate – might be a long time but somewhere out there is a creative kid trying to play that type of game –
      best
      Jim

  • Michael

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    I’ve watched Roddick (great interest) over the years of his career. I think he has a good serve and little else except a bad temper and NO plan B. (Now a bunch of players have HUGE serves.) As long as Roddick’s match is going his way, Andy is OK. However, just because he goes up a set or even two you can’t expect him to win “tight” matches. To me, Andy has one comfort level and if he’s stirred from that he has no where to go but down. All the critics above are spot on… If you have no short game (transition), it is hard to go there if/when you need it. Unfortunate for Roddick, he disguises this missing puzzle piece with anger and disdain for all involved with his discomfort. When he is going down he complains and belittles those around him instead of shifting gears. Andy, grow up! Ask yourself, “What’s really going on here? Is this guy really beating me or am I beating myself?” This is how we grow in this great game we play. Not berating our opponent or officials.

  • John Newton

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    Thank you, Jim, for your insightful blog regarding Andy Roddick. Your analysis is spot on. But Andy deserves much credit for rebuilding his backhand (compare it now with 5 years ago) and for his reshaping his body by losing weight and adding muscle. The fun of tennis for me,in addition to those rare wonderful victories, is in the process of attempting to learn new skills. Playing tennis is like speaking a foreign language; you never quite master it. Even as we learn, we forget stuff we thought we had mastered.

  • Ron Sorvino

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    How can we forget Andy’s match with Federer last year? Yes he had and has game. Have you watched baseliners try to hit a volley with a Western grip? Not a pretty sight! Roddick needs a coach who will insist on a serve and volley game. Now that would be interesting–a modern s/v player.

  • Copernicus

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    I think you are right and the proof is in the great players. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are the two greatest players who ever lived and they could do it all. They have no weaknesses. If you compare their game to Roddick’s it is obvious if Andy wants to win more grand slams he has to serve and volley more–with his rocket serve that should be obvious. Instead he hits a 150 mph serve and then just sits on the baseline as his opponent returns a floater from 20 feet behind the baseline. He should obviously charge the net and put it away. If he would charge the net after his powerful forehand he could put more away instead of again sitting on the baseline waiting for a floater return. But I don’t think Andy can ever be great at the net like a Sampras, McEnroe or Federer because his reflexes are too slow. Also his backhand will never be a weapon so his opponents will always attack it. But if he could just improve on his tactics I think he would win another grand slam.

  • Rebecca

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    I believe Andy has much more than his serve, which is fabulous by the way. He is taking more chances and changing it up. What I think takes Andy down, is his mentality. (not to mention that he recently was diagnosed with Mono…) Andy is a great player; there are many people here that truly believe in him. He will win another slam. He still has 5 years plus before he thinks about retirement. His attitude in general, is that of a champion. See the Washington Post article this week re-his loss to Tipserovic.

  • kottresh

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    Andy has great work ethics and a great role model for American kids – no doubt about it. unfortunately, the only weapon Andy has got is his serve which is world class. The other departments of his game look routine. His movements although has improved but still not enough to put pressure on his opponents. Andy is intelligent and hope he will learn to play more aggressive and put pressure on his opponents. I wish him all success for the rest of his years

  • billyrayjackson

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    I,agree with the above observations. Our junior tennis program must stop the senseless drilling and have more
    match play in doubles as well as mixed doubles. I think this would round out their games. this would help them with the use of the grip change that is needed in the all court game. Enjoying the game of tennis because of competence and skills that will be the tools they need to play the game.
    BILLY RAY JACKSON PTA,PTR ,MTM PRO!

  • Gary Bala

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    Many thanks for the your comments in this blog, especially about the value of the mid-court.

    You mentioned Bill Tilden in your blog.

    I remember Tilden wrote this in his classic 1925 book, “Match Play and the Spin of the Ball”, about the mid-court:

    “What is the future of the tennis game? … As one of the champions of today, I see vistas of progress ahead, of which I glimpse only a bit, but which the champions of tomorrow will have explored and developed. Where are these lanes of progress? Not from the backcourt. Not from the net. It is rather in the use of the forecourt for sharp angled shots, in the use of the mid-court volley, the half volley and rising bounce shots, that future progress lies. Every player who desires to succeed in the future must equip himself with every shot in tennis and then strive to explore the mysteries of the forecourt.”

    Gary

    • Jim

      Reply Reply September 5, 2010

      Gary – thanks for the excellent quote from Bill Tilden, I want to share it with the juniors (and adults) at our club
      best
      Jim

  • david

    Reply Reply September 5, 2010

    All sports figures are subject to public discussion. Who knows, it may make him a better player.

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