Your Serve: America’s Tennis ‘Trade’ Deficit
A former top pro says U.S. coaching must teach young players how to ‘trade,’ ‘neutralize’ and ‘defend.’
By Tim Mayotte
Over the last 10 years, two things have stood out when it comes to many great men’s matches: dazzling groundstroke exchanges, and the fact that very few of the matches have included Americans.
The world’s best players, along with a handful of other top pros, showcase an ability to build points that often unfolds using three important skills: “trading” powerful strokes, followed by one player’s attack then being either “neutralized” or “defended” by his opponent. In these great matches, the top players are able to patiently work their opponents with their groundstrokes, then make them pay by forcing errors or turning defense to offense.
The capacity to engage in this highly disciplined, patient and technically demanding defensive play is basically a requirement to enter the game’s elite. It makes sense, then, when Roger Federer says he plays his best tennis when he plays his best defense.
But I can’t imagine our best American men saying the same thing. Chances are, not one top American male of the 21st century would identify “defense” or “neutralizing” as central to their games like Federer does. Make no mistake: Offense matters, but it must be accompanied by solid trading, neutralizing and defending skills, which in many ways is more technically demanding than playing offense.
The U.S.’s two highest ranked men, Sam Querrey and John Isner, would likely say their first serves and attacking forehands are key to their games, as would James Blake, Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick and just about every other American male player of the last dozen years.
As a whole, U.S. male players have a major deficit because they never learned to master the sophisticated skills needed to “trade,” “neutralize,” and “defend.” It’s most noticeable on the backhand sides, but for many, problems exist off both wings.
This has been the source of a disturbing and predictable pattern through many painful losses on the American tennis landscape. U.S. players, being forced to hit forehands from deep in the backhand corner, get worn down by their more balanced opponents, especially in best-of-five-set matches. What’s particularly troubling is that two of our most promising upstarts, Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock, are hampered by this exact same issue.
While players of my era could dominate by being mainly aggressive, the best players today have to master great defense as well.
Attacking play has been the signature style of U.S. players for decades. For years, it worked beautifully (except on clay, of course).
Many now suggest having players train and compete on clay will help, and it may in the long run. But there are faster ways to affect change: by understanding and teaching the technique of trading, neutralizing and defending. Telling our players to be more patient and disciplined is not enough. We have to show them how to do it.
If we expect our players to be the best in the world, as coaches we need to be the best in the world as well. If we want our players to work harder and be smarter, we have to work harder and smarter as well.
A close look at the best American players of the 21st century shows that many have been held back by sub-par technique at some level. By technique, I mean the shape of swings, movement patterns, and implementing advanced biomechanics. U.S. players need to master all these elements to be able to compete at the highest levels. And the earlier players learn these, the better — “fixing” a problem is much tougher than teaching it correctly in the first place.
So what can we do differently? Our best juniors must learn these complicated skills as they work through their development. Sadly that is not happening on a large scale. It is also not happening on a large scale in our colleges. Clearly we need our players to become better at neutralizing, so that means our coaches need to become better at teaching them this technique. As a former pro, I know these skills are very difficult to master as a player. As a teacher, I have come to understand how complicated they are to teach.
There are many very good and even great coaches in this country, but we need more. To create more great players we need more great coaches. Each teacher who betters one player pushes the level higher for all. I believe there are many juniors playing now who could be great if we show them the best way to the top.
I was pretty good, but I was desperate to become great. I would have relished the chance to understand more fully how to improve. As coaches, trying to develop great players, we have to feel and act on that same desire.
Tim Mayotte is the director of the Mayotte-Hurst Tennis Academy at the Cunningham Sports Center in Fresh Meadows, N.Y. After capturing the NCAA men’s singles title at Stanford in 1981, Mayotte won 12 ATP Tour titles, an Olympic Silver Medal and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Since ending his pro playing career, he has been one of the most respected tennis-teaching professionals. From 2009-11 he served as a USTA National Coach and opened and ran the USTA’s High-Performance Center in New York. He can be reached at 917-596-0746 or firstname.lastname@example.org.