Tom Stow – “Learn to turn properly” by Jim McLennan published in

Tom was all about perfect execution of the fundamentals and nothing more:

  • Getting ready instantly – turning properly
  • The quickest most efficient footwork
  • The most precise backswing
  • The best obtainable hit
  • The smoothest most relaxed movement on court

The result was a player who hit the ball hard, consistently, with grace and consummate efficiency.

The Tom Stow System

Tennis is a game, an art form, a discipline, perhaps even a science.  In this vein there have been countless books written on mechanics, strategy, mental preparation, equipment and more.  Good books, boring books, detailed books, and flimsy ones as well.  But to my mind, none more to the point than The Tom Stow Teaching System.

It was my personal good fortune to meet Tom in 1972.  I had been traveling on the satellite circuits in Florida with Tom’s assistant pro, Jim Irwin.  Jim convinced me that Tom could “remake” my game and dramatically improve my performance (something that in fact Tom easily did).  Interestingly, he focused only on the fundamentals, but in an unusual manner, for Tom worked at the fundamentals with a microscope.  Balance had to be perfect, the body weight had to be precisely placed against the ball, shots were taken early and with forceful intent.  No chips, few counterpunches, always moving forward, always pressing the “All Court Forcing Game”.

What intrigued me then, and continues to influence me now as a teaching professional, was his insistence that there was really a special way to hit the ball.  Tom had a picture of a perfectly hit forehand (or backhand, or volley, or even overhead) and all of us tried to learn the nuances of that swing.  This special hit was evident with Connors, Rosewall, Laver, Ashe, Sampras, Agassi and now Federer.

Power without effort.  A classically simple style.  Absolutely nothing superfluous to the stroke itself.

The distinctive feature of Tom’s “All Court Forcing Game” was his belief that the best style of play was one of constant pressure on the opponent.  Pressure exerted by taking the ball early, pressure by coming to the net on all short balls, pressure by sharp volleying and deadly overheads, and pressure by the commitment to play this style throughout the match.  Remember, he said, “Your opponent is human and ultimately this pressure will break the opponent down.”

Conking the Ball 

In discussions of Tom’s teaching method, one always comes back to the quality of the hit.  Tom called it a “conk” (for concussion) and demanded that we “conk the ball.”

To conk was to hit the ball absolutely square, making a special sound, and whenever conked the player would always know with the special feel.  I personally met Tom after an intercollegiate tennis career.  He felt I hit the ball poorly, for I seldom got the conk.  And when I tried to swing faster to improve the sound, he admonished me to swing slower yet hit harder.  To do so, I had to meet the ball perfectly.

As an aside, in the 1960’s during a Davis Cup tie in Mexico City, Pancho Gonzalez (serving as a broadcaster) remarked that Rafael Osuna was sure to be a difficult opponent for the American squad because Pancho had been impressed by the sound of Osuna’s hits during practice.

Taking the Ball Early – your key to the “All court Forcing Game”

The key shot in this repertoire, whether for Connors, McEnroe, Edberg, Federer or you at the club level, is the ability to punish short balls from your opponent.  This does not mean waiting for the absolutely shortest groundstroke and then coming to the net.  It means attacking each and every ball that your opponent does not hit well, and each and every ball that presents an attacking opportunity.

Now a few general notes on the approach shot, and then on to the basics of playing the ball with a flat stroke (more or less) at the top of the bounce (imperative).  The approach shot implies movement to the net, and means that player is preparing to finish the point with a volley or overhead.  In this case, you must be able to move into good volleying position, inside the service line, in the middle of the opponent’s angle of play.  Meaning, generally play the approach up the line, meet the ball well inside the baseline, in order to move easily into this volleying position.

In order to practice, set up the ball machine on the baseline, programmed so the ball bounces at or just beyond the opposite service line.  Now take a moment to watch the ball bounce, and specifically the top of the bounce, the point at which the ball has come up from its bounce, the arc flattens and it is just about to descend.  This is the ideal moment of contact.  Study where this “top” occurs, and then position yourself at that spot on the court and begin practicing.

If you feel rushed when taking the ball “early,” you must prepare sooner, so the racquet “waits” at the level of contact.  This subtle pause is imperative as it enables an unhurried swing.  You may notice that many of your “top of the bounce hits” go well long.  Now your flat stroke will come into play.  Most ground strokes are played from behind the baseline, letting the ball drop into the contact zone, and this descending ball requires a definite “up swing” both to carry the ball deep into the opponents court, and to counter the effect that a descending balls collision has on the hit.  But when playing well within the baseline, this type of “lift” often sends the ball well out of court.

Practice measuring the backswing, preplanning the level of contact, and setting the racquet at just that height on the backswing.  When the ball rises into this contact zone, pull the trigger with a flat stroke.

As you explore the nuances of the penetrating approach, the opponent’s second serve will present the ideal practice opportunity.  And when conked into the corner, you will be in total control of the point.



  • Jairo Mendes Carvalho

    Reply Reply June 10, 2014

    I am 5 feet 7.7 inches tall. Is your statements about net aproach valid for me?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply June 10, 2014

      Jairo – depends on your opponents, but also on your sense of how to play the net

  • Ron

    Reply Reply March 27, 2014

    So many questions:
    When I have a sitter inside the baseline, or more often, at the service line, I hit the net if I hit flat. But are you suggesting that I hit flat to cut down the angle (from going long)? Wouldn’t top spin inside the service line be safer and more penetrating?

    Next question: Isn’t waiting for the ball’s arc to descend going counter to the idea of hitting early?
    “the arc flattens and it is just about to descend.” At what moment is Agassi, the master of hitting on the rise, actually contacting the ball?

    Or is all this a description totally about hitting the approach shot? Versus a ground stroke in the middle of a rally?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 28, 2014

      Ron – there are many ways to hit the ball and play the game – on sitters a recommendation is to play the ball when contact is above the net rather than below the net – but certainly topspin can or could help – and descending balls occur from all over the court but if you are trying to play the ball early, think Agassi style, you must be closer to if not inside the baseline and play with very simple but equally quick preparations – consider a stroke review where you send me something of this stroke in your game

  • Lorenzo

    Reply Reply May 21, 2013

    I found an old transcript of Stow’s ACFG many years ago. I carried it with me in my bag to the court. During the time I followed his doctrine, I must say that regardless the imperfection of my technical game, I played the best I ever have.

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