The Tradition Continues – Segura – Connors – Djokovic


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.



  • Bogdan Botar

    Reply Reply February 20, 2013

    Thanks, Jim. Well, Federer is the notable exception (some experts say his forehand grip is semi-western) and Sampras belongs to a different era. But I guess the reason why so many pros play with a full western grip is because this is how tennis is (mostly) taught these days. I don’t think this uniformity is particularly good for the sport. Coming back to the Connors-Segura-Djokovic article, I actually think that back in the 70s’ players had a bigger bag of tricks that the current crop. Admittedly, the current players are superior athletes.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 20, 2013

      Bogdan – your comment about “uniformity” is telling – many of the former world class players describe something similar in their estimation of the modern game – that they can only watch so much of it because of the sameness – and it may be the teachers that are doing this

  • Mike Street

    Reply Reply February 18, 2013

    Wonderful to hear such an astute critique of Pancho Segura’s teaching for Jimmy Connors. I saw Segura play on the Kramer pro tour in Switzerland and he was definitely the most engaging, fun loving guy on the court (playing doubles) and an awesome athlete.
    Thanks for the history and the analysis,

  • Bogdan Botar

    Reply Reply February 17, 2013

    Well, yes, the tradition continues as far as court positioning and tactics go. However, Connors and Djokovic use very different techniques on their groundstrokes. Maybe you can elaborate a bit on this, or even better try to break down/dissect their playing styles (grip types, stance, etc.). A related point. Do you think that in order to be successful in today’s tennis having an extreme western forehand grip (which personally I don’t find it particularly esthetic) is a must? Djokovic is a perfect example in this sense.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 18, 2013

      Bogdan – until someone passes Sampras and Federer who both had one handed backhands and eastern forehands – I am not convinced about the semi western grip – note even Del Potro is not extreme with his grip nor is Serena

  • Bud Light

    Reply Reply February 14, 2013

    I never thought of Pancho Segura in that way, tho I know he was a master tacticial and it is certainly true that Jimmy Conners won many points by outstrategizing an opponent. He won a lot of matches by using guile. An excellent email, Jim. Bud Light

  • Fred Sadler

    Reply Reply February 14, 2013

    This is a superb description of the genius of Segura.
    We can all apply these lessons to our game at whatever level.
    Fred Sadler

  • Dom

    Reply Reply February 14, 2013

    Thanks Jim for this amazing article. I’d not realised what a genius Jimmy Connors was, but that brief clip of his 4 lobs, leading to the down the line winner, was awesome.

    I’ll definitely soak up all there is to know about Pancho Segura, and add some Jimmy Connors matches to my tennis DVD collection.


  • T

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    I love when you put up those classic lessons from past masters.
    Very interesting and valuable advice, do you know anything about his biography ?
    Is there lots of his own thoughts about tennis tactics in it ?

    thanks a lot!


    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 13, 2013

      Tovarich – first start with a google search, there is material all over the place

  • Somsak

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Great. You gave me a vision of Connor’s and Segura’s games.

  • leonard

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    75 years of play have produced this partial list for players, that I have directed to try to follow. Try to work opposites: high-low, hard-soft, left-right , deep-short, flat-slice, cross court-down the line. It keeps a pattern from developing and does not allow the opponent to program what your pattern of play may be. There are other elemnts but these are quite basic.

  • Steve Martens

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Great observation on tennis game styles and results from it !

  • Brian Giesbrecht

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Here is a question about the serve: Do you always pronate on every serve, i.e. does your palm start facing left and end facing right (for right-handers) on all serves? Or, are there some types of serves that do not have you pronate?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 13, 2013

      Brian – if the grip is continental, and much like throwing a ball – there is an element when the elbow is leading and pulling the hand – then this action always happens – but to varying degrees – sometimes more sometimes less, sometimes quicker and sometimes slower

  • Jack

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Terrifically insightful and helpful. Thanks for tracing the lineage.

  • Martin Hassner

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    The concept of being able to hit short rings a new bell of awareness here. Hardcourt devotee driven to Har-Tru because of aging knees but still too often playing the hardcourt game. By chance, just decided to hit short angles every chance I got instead of driving that ball into the deepest corners and voila beat my buddy handily for the first time in months…literally ran him into the ground and frazzled his nerves. Now that the surprise (shock) is gone that might not work as well – but it surely will work.

    You never fail to hit that bell…thank you, Coach.


  • Kevin

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Pancho’s book was the first tennis book I ever read – even before Vic Braden’s. Must have been 1979. I learned to hit a “sidespin” forehand because of it, but must have done it wrong, as I developed tennis elbow – which went away when I quit hitting the sidespin shot. (I suspect that I was hitting it with my elbow straight). ‘Twas a pretty handy shot, though. 🙂

    Having command of all the shots sounds like a *great* idea. Been working at if for decades. Should only require a very few more decades to get it down. 🙂 The Djoker is just *bizarrly* good.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 13, 2013

      Kevin – thanks for the note – I am needing a few more decades on all of this as well

  • Murali

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Nuggets of gold..
    Thank you, Jim.

  • skip1515

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Strategy? Really? You mean you’re supposed to do something besides bludgeon your opponent to death? And if that doesn’t work, bludgeon them some more?


    Great post. I credit (blame) Becker for convincing far too many players and coaches that it’s okay for your first serve % to be below the 65% that was the baseline before his day; his attitude was that as long as he hit enough service winners it was alright to be at 55%. Maybe if you serve like him, or Serena, but for the rest of the world, “get your first serve in.”


  • Howard Jones

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    A fascinating insight into Pancho the coach, it is wonderful to look back and compare how those days relate to the masters of today, so much has changed but many principles hold true today. Thank you Jim

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