Novak Djokovic captured his third consecutive Australian Open title. Crushing David Ferrer 62 62 61 in the semifinals, and wearing down and then beating back the challenge of Andy Murray 67 76 63 62. The end the fourth set of the men’s final showcased a dominant and domineering Novak Djokovic and a dispirited but soon to be number 2 in the world Andy Murray.
So what does this have to do with Pancho Segura and Jimmy Connors?
Pancho tinkered with Jimmy’s game, and the end result – just like Novak today – was a balanced player that understood court positioning (holding ground along the baseline) – opportunities on the short ball (moving forward to apply pressure) – the ability and willingness to make something happen on the return of the second serve – and the importance of the defensive lob.
Certainly most of us can remember the incredible sequence from the 1991 US Open against Paul Haarhuis, where Jimmy 4 towering defensive lobs – none of which were put away – followed by an amazing running backhand passing shot with Jimbo exulting from the sidelines.
Same thing in Australia but only slightly different. On a number of occasions Murray bounced Novak’s defensive lobs, and on one particular telling occasion hit a safe sidespin overhead to stay in the rally, ultimately losing the point, and more importantly revealing strangely passive tactics to a more confident opponent.
The keys to the Pancho Segura tactical playbook (so to speak) are as follows (and as you read them reflect whether you see this in Novak’s game and more importantly whether you see these within your own game -
- Before you learn tactics you need ball control
- Hitting hard, deep, short and high at will with ball control you can exploit weaknesses
- Knowing all the shots enables you to force the opponent to play a game he is not used to
- On key points the low short return is a great play
- Get your first serve in on big points
- The nature of the game is to draw a short ball from your opponent
- Lob early and often
- Pressure the opponent’s second serve
I believe the tactics above match entirely the game played by Novak Djokovic, who won an astounding 27 of 31 points when he came forward to play at the net.
As regards Pancho Segura ….
“He became so much better as a pro,” Jack Kramer said. “His mind and understanding of the game was tremendous.”
No one captured the nature of court positioning, geometry and how it affected shot selection, and most importantly how to play the points based on the flow of the match geography of the court and the flow of the match. “You are trying to draw a short ball so you can attack,” Segura said. “You need to understand things like your opponent’s grips, his movement, which shots he can hit and which shots he can’t.”
And more: 30-love is when you can afford to take the chance; 15-30 is when you can’t. At 30-30 get your first serve in play. On big points against an opponent at the net, play the ball up the middle, to force an error or to pass with the next shot.
Punish second-serve returns so opponent feels pressure when serving, leading to double faults (note I believe Connors received more double faults that anyone who played in his era). And finally, lob early and often to keep your opponent guessing.
Segura was one of the best players in the world, playing against Jack Kramer, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, and Pancho Gonzalez. Said Trabert, “Every town we’d go to, there’d be the headliners, but so many times, ‘Segu’ would be the one who’d win the crowd over.”
So enjoy the game – work on your tennis – and take a few moments at the International Tennis Hall of Fame
And be sure to check out ETI Network – where this month we focus on an actionable lesson plans on Segura’s tactics.
In 1962, Segura became tennis director at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. A few years later, he would commence a relationship with his most famous pupil, a driven youngster from Illinois named Jimmy Connors. Having been taught exemplary fundamentals by his mother, Gloria, Connors was, in his words, “ready to take my game to the next level.” As Caroline Seebohm writes in “Little Pancho,” her elegant new biography, “All Pancho’s love for the game would now be passed on to his eager pupil, who could hardly wait to follow in the steps of the master.”
The court was Segura’s classroom, a cocktail napkin his chalkboard, the wise old man showing the youngster every trick possible with drills and practice matches against the likes of himself and Gonzalez on the court, and drawings and discourse off it. By 1974, under the tutelage of his mother and Segura, Connors had become the world’s best player. “I could get him in a hypnotic stage,” Segura said.