Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hoax, Tennis Perfection: Getting Away With Mediocrity!

just returned from sunny BNP Paribas 2012 in Indian Wells, California and watched some of the most talented players in the world putting on some masterful, beautiful displays of the game of tennis. Congratulations to Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka for winning the titles.

As fans of the sport, it is easy to watch it with a bias, paying attention to the dazzling ESPN Top 10-worthy highlights alone. But, tennis perfection is an Illusion; my trip just refreshed some of the misconceptions we unintentionally pick up as juniors being groomed for tennis careers. These misconceptions are just as common in recreation tennis. Coaches use pros as examples; these players then become our idols. The phrase “textbook tennis” is thrown around by both our coaches and television commentators so much at that impressionable age, that by the time we take to the court, we cannot imagine any other way to compete but the “textbook” way. Tennis academies and high performance programs are packed with young gifted athletes with aesthetically pleasing—effective, even--tennis strokes, except they do not necessarily win. On court, they possess the flair, the charisma, the presence of future champs, but they forget one rule: we do not have to be perfect to win.

I thought it would be cool to know that some of our tennis heroes who featured at Indian Wells and on the tour in general, are just as flawed as Jane Doe at the local park, except they have perfected the artistry of accentuating their strengths rather than dwelling on their shortcomings. When our coaches hold them up as examples, they usually zero in on what they do well. But of course they are well intended; the aim is to build us up rather than cripple us.

* Note the language used is relative compared to the competition pool or league, if you may.

6. Radek Stepanek

He did not give Jo-Wilfred Tsonga an easy passage. To be fair, Stepanek has no obvious weakness, but he has no distinct strength, either. He has a great net game that is very handy in doubles, but the modern singles game discourages serving and volleying as a sole strategy. The most superior being his volleys, Stepanek has a complete all court game and is extremely capable at placement as well as taking away rhythm from his opponents. He is crafty. While everyone is playing checkers out there, he is playing chess. He reminds me of Guiellmo Coria with lesser results but convincing longevity, but fortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, power trounces craftiness. He is not as powerful as his counterparts.

5. Dominika Cibulkova

She is pugnacious; at 5’3” (1.61m) on her tallest day, she needs to be! She lost a weird contest to Roberta Vinci. But what she lacks in height and fire power she makes up for with speed.

4. Geal Simon

He Lost to John Isner—great win for Isner—but worse than the loss is the other negative connotation “pusher” that follows Simon amongst players and commentators alike. In all honesty, there are no pushers on the pro tour but Simon’s aces and winners are far in between. He does not give any free points, however, and is comfortable patiently grinding and either waiting for your mistake or an opportunity to hit a sure winner.

3. Nikolay Daveydenko

He withdrew due to the “Indian Wells Flu”, unfortunately. His net game is almost nonexistent, especially for the arena he plays in. He is an aggressive baseliner, however, whose penetrating groundstrokes leave you little opportunity to draw him into the net, and he would rather hit a winner before he volleys. He is so good at his game that when Federer and Nadal had the #1 and 2 positions on lockdown respectively, he was one of only 2 players to have beaten both players in their reign of 2009. .

2. David Nalbandian

He was knocked out after giving Rafael Nadal a legitimate scare, falling 2 points from winning the match. In a sport that rewards big servers, some of Nalbandian’s serves are mid to high 129km/h (80mph), and to put it into perspective, most top women are serving faster speeds consistently. Yet Nalbandian dictates the court with deep penetrating groundstrokes with significant spin that buck and kick like deer. He is such a master at it that he is the only other player besides Davydenko convincingly beat Federer and Nadal repeatedly in 2009, and has beaten Federer 8 times in his career.

1. Caroline Wozniacki

The reason I put Wozniacki at the top is because she actually made #1 and had a convincing reign. Contrary to what the naysayers whisper, a player is not only legitimized by winning a Grand Slam. Though Wozniacki still has an entire career of attempts, currently she exemplifies an accomplished player without a Grand Slam title. She was knocked out by a resurging Ana Ivanovic. When Wozniacki is overwhelmed, she moon balls. “Moon balling” on a tennis court carries negative connotations but as fast as she is and considering that she does not have a distinct weapon, even she needs to buy some time to recover. Impeccable defensive skills and high consistency adequately make up for her deficiencies.

Obviously the sport is ever so dynamic, the above examples are just but caricatures of those players. But, although pros obviously set a high standard of the game comparing ourselves to them is accurate, relatively of course.

Having all-around confident tennis strokes definitely helps your game, but having a certain weakness should not necessarily dismiss or limit you as a tennis player, either. The next time you are on the court with your coach, device strategies around your weakness and make it hard for your opponents to find your weakness.

Friday, March 16, 2012

“Hey D, How Many Tennis Lessons do I need Till I am Good”?

It is hard to discuss money in most contexts without sounding vulgar. But as soon as a coach hears the question titling this blog the translation is usually, “what is the least amount of money I can spend and get to enjoy the rallies” so the pressure is on. In all honesty, who isn’t concerned about getting quality for their “dough-re-miii”? Assuming you already have a good coach, I am going to break down some factors directly affecting your rate of improvement and also advice on the most effective approach to your lessons with your coach.

  • The general and rather boring response to any and everyone is “it varies”. I continue to give the client a guestimation based on a few points.
  • Good athleticism and coordination tend to be rewarded in most sports. If this is amongst your stronger suites, chances are you will catch on quicker
  • Consistency in lesson taking is key. The more you practice the higher your rate of improvement particularly in the first few weeks where all players enjoy exponential growth in improvement rate.
  • Your innate level of talent or ability to replicate what the coach is delivering. The more talent you have the less time it takes to catch on, fortunately for those of us who are not naturals, hard work does make up for a talent shortage.
  • Tennis is somewhat similar to your math class and depending on who you ask, more engaging. Regularity is as important as consistency. One of my coaches in junior tennis used to say for every 1 hour private lesson you take, put in 2 hours of practice; “if you do not use it you lose it”.
  • Lastly but not least genuine, invested interest makes any task easier learnt. I have heard all sorts of entertaining reasons that tell me that the client’s interest will be short lived; “their tennis outfits look so cute on tv”, “the women have nice legs”, and “I got a group-on”. Some of my long serving members gave me the following reasons, “I need a good work out and running is not engaging enough”, “I played when I was younger and I miss the game”, “I enjoy the competition” among others.

It is important to be strategic about scheduling your lessons. Instead of arbitrarily showing up for a lesson when you can swing the lesson fees for that particular hour, save for 5-10 lessons (most bulk buying comes with discounts anyways), and space them over the corresponding number of weeks. In between lessons, ask your coach for connections of similar level of ability so you can re-enforce once or twice a week. For those who live in parts of the world where the weather is not always conducive, learning the game during the outdoor season is a little more accommodating on your pocket.

A good coach is as important as the time and money invested, take time research your coach.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

10 Ways to Play Recreational Tennis like a Grand Slam Champ. Part 2

5. Develop a backup plan:

Champions have a way of turning a losing match situation around, and one of the ways of doing that is by switching strategy. No use sticking to your most “comfortable” game plan when you are getting outplayed. While pros can switch from counter punching, to serve and volleying, to defender, to aggressor, very few recreational players take time to have another decent alternative style or strategy at the least.

4. Skimp on your equipment wisely:

Pros take 2-3 of everything onto the court and then 5+ racquets! Tennis comes with budgetary limitations to some, understandably, but having a backup racquet with the same string job outweighs having 2 of the latest Tsonga T-shirts. At the least, 2 racquets, a good pair of shoes, and a water bottle should accompany you to the court every time. A free breast cancer awareness shirt on the court is not only noble, also has never resulted in a loss for anybody.

3. Do not get absorbed trying to fix your least favourite shot:

This is synonymous to #8 because it encourages you to sharpen your best artillery, yet different. Although it is OK for Roger to tweak his backhand, it will be hard to match the same thundering deliveries he commands with his forehand. He has had an entire career to do so and it hasn’t happened, so aiming for reliability is sufficient. In the meantime, a strong serve or forehand for example can make it harder for your opponents to find your weaker backhand. After all, even weaker grooved shots “get in the zone” sometimes.

2. Every match played is a lesson taken:

Take something about your opponent’s game as a point of note for the next time you play them. Like us, week in, week out, pros play the same players. Even for routine winners, if you are not adapting and growing, everyone else is catching up. I make some of my more competitive clients go as far as taking notes after each match.

1. 1. Winning or losing, enjoy the sport:

Every match is characterized by engaging, expressive gestures and emotions from both the champion and the runner-up. The excitement, satisfaction, and fulfillment, even for the few minutes before or after your day at the office, of tennis, is undeniable.

My greatest high was to hit a ball well, to try to do it perfectly, to try different things with my shots, whether they came off or not. I can think back to matches I lost where I played one or two points perfectly, and that gave me a thrill. The most exciting match I ever played was the 1974 US Open against Billie Jean, and I lost.” Evonne Goolagong

Thursday, March 1, 2012

10 Ways to Play Recreational Tennis like a Grand Slam Champ. Part 1

First and foremost, I would like to apologize for the absence. A few things are happening simultaneously so much that sometimes I wish there were three more of me so I could give the world what I really want to! Between, a few disappointing tournament results, keeping a job and making preparations for graduate school one blinks and realize it is 2012 already! But I still have more jewels to share!

10. Take your lessons effectively:

Taking lessons to strengthen your game is always a plus, but the sentiment alone is not enough. Pros dedicate half an hour to two hours to forehands alone, and the same amount of time to serves and so on. Unless you are a beginner, trying to squeeze everything, top to bottom, into 60 minutes with your coach is possible but can be counterproductive.

9. Do not change a winning game plan!

8. Do yourself a favour—develop a weapon:

You are probably reading this because tennis IS your lifestyle. You will not be quitting anytime soon, but a few “W”s while you are at it will remind you why you love the game in the first place. Name a pro, and they are probably known for a particular shot. Speed and endurance are a plus and may even win longer matches occasionally, but having bankable shot-making skill pay higher dividends. As you get better, so does your competition—more balls tend to come back and convincing responses become necessary.

7. Put the last error behind you:

After berating yourself, abusing your racquet, and verbally assaulting your family lineage—none of which is helpful, by the way—brush it off your shoulder and forget about it. One point is not worth tanking the match over.

6. Simply put, “Practice Makes Perfect”

Grand Slam champs did not just happen onto Rod Laver Arena’s main draw by accident. Simply put, from one of your favourites talking about an activity, he is but a mere mortal as we are at tennis:

You need a base of talent, obviously, and lots of practice, but what’s decisive in golf is not letting one bad shot affect the rest of your game…Rafael Nadal

....Look out for Part II soon!