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Last call for the gotta play tennis podcast

Friday, April 17, 2009

REFLECTIONS…Solid foundations withstand test of TIME and Practice is the TIME to go for crazy shots!

It never ceases to amaze me when fundamental rules that I break on the tennis court end up being my greatest strength. Case in point: my hitting partner Freddie and I took the court for the first time this year last evening. We had not hit against one another for at least 4-5 months, and one would not expect much quality since timing is usually the first thing to go (along with your wind unless you do cardio work on a regular basis).

From many years of beginning tennis seasons in the spring after a long cold winter, I certainly know better than to try too hard as the pipes work to push out the rust. But that knowledge never seems to stop me from going for broke. We hit tennis balls like there was no tomorrow, and I know that I attempted, and in some cases made, shots that I had no right to expect to be in working order this early in the season.

Besides the fact that we both got a great workout and had a good time enjoying the shot-making from both sides, there were two very powerful points to be taken away. First, it is obvious that we both have a solid foundation of tennis fundamentals to work from. Of course we can hit forehands, backhands, volleys, etc. But what I am referring to goes beyond the basics. In order to position oneself on the court against a variety of depths, spins, and angles, one needs to have an existent knowledge and structured response system with the tennis ball, racket, legs and shoulders. Tennis is a series of unknown emergencies taking place from stroke-to-stroke. Every ball is different, and our structured response needs to kick-in relative to what is presented at that moment. It seems to be a little like jazz (another passion of mine) whereas there are basic notes and fingerings at the starting point, but what takes place in the moment–the improvisation–changes and varies instantaneously. That is what the tennis player is really doing out there.

The second point to be made refers to the shots we chase down and other more difficult and high risk shots we attempt. Let’s face it, sometimes the spirit is willing but the legs just don’t want to cooperate. This is the time to push harder with your mind and focus on being light on your feet. It is the old “mind over matter” principle, and it’s definitely something we need to practice and develop. As a former martial artist, I know all too well the importance of focusing mental energies for strength and blocking the onset of physical weakness.

As a part of my tennis practice philosophy, I go for balls, especially in the backcourt, that will obviously miss and go out. Learning exactly where the boundries of the court are, and sensing the height of the net, from any part of the court, is key in tennis. For every ball that you go after, your brain works hard on depth and angle perception. Thanks to this ingredient added to my practice sessions, the ability to hit crazy shots from ridiculous depths or angles provides lasting satisfaction. Keeping in mind that this is hitting practice and not tennis sets, I can attempt low-percentage shots and yet gain knowledge from each experience. This insight is invaluable regardless of whether or not I make the shot. After each attempt, I make a mental record of what worked, what didn’t, and how an adjustment in the future would actually make this a viable shot under pressure.

BOTTOM LINE: run after everything because it will make you stronger and smarter (but don't let this cloud your decision making about what balls to let sail out during point play); attempt crazy shots during practice because they are fun and you might even make a few (but keep in mind that a high-percentage lob is a much safer shot for staying in the point); a solid foundation of tennis groundstrokes and volleys will withstand long layoffs from the court (and if you play all year round, fundamentals are still the key to success).

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