Your Serve: Why Tennis is Strangling Itself
A longtime player and observer of the game says instruction for recreational players needs to include more ‘real life’ situations on court.
By Joel Drucker
Tennis is strangling itself. Consider a 30-something tennis player I’16 ll call Jane. By age 12, she’d been issued the stock-order contemporary game: Western forehand grip, two-handed backhand. No one had taught her how to volley, where to stand when practicing volleys, how to take pace off the ball (other than the moonball she taught herself), the difference between a groundstroke and an approach shot, how to feed a lob, how to deploy the drop shot, how to alter her receiving position, how to serve and volley, come in on a return, or play to the score.
Steady enough to play at a Division III school, Jane’s matches became epic baseline duels, won mostly by attrition. A curious student, engaged by everything from Shakespeare to Freud, by the time she’d graduated, Jane saw tennis as boring and these days hardly plays.
Jane was sold down the river by her instructors.
Her male counterpart, Robert, was similarly sold out, but he continues to play. Perhaps the difference is that as a hormonal young man, Robert enjoyed live ball drills and Cardio Tennis, high-volume activities that are ostensibly aerobics classes with racquets. He often competes in USTA leagues. Of course, league play’s emphasis on doubles leaves Robert ill-equipped at such transitional skills as serve-volley, chip-charge or hitting an offensive lob and following it up to the net.
Doubles is all about playing for your partner by hitting smart, controlled shots that help your team appropriately apply pressure. This is best done by both partners being at the net. But did anyone ever teach these nuances to Jane and Robert — not just for doubles, but also for singles?
Then again, the same holds true for Jane and Robert’s peers. The result: league matches flavored by forehand-to-forehand baseline rallies. There is little team play, mental exertion, skill-building or even exercise. Is that the kind of sport people will stay in for a lifetime?
League play is a major culprit. The team format heavily focuses outcome: Winning the current match over sharpening skills and experimentation. It’s a horrible paradox. While those who generate outcomes for a living like Roger Federer relish the process of enhancing their tools, recreational players with zero genuine stake in results have created a rather repressed culture. Jane and Robert are deprived, depraved and soon enough, departed.
What’s a tennis community to do? Instructors say they must satisfy the demands of results-oriented parents and children rather than invest time in building a wide range of techniques and match tactics. So rather than even broach broader ideas and risk losing students, they focus strictly on the groundstrokes that dominate today’s junior tennis world. But might it be possible to even spend merely 10 minutes on sound volley technique, variety and court positioning? And please: Teach your students to practice volleys from just inside the service line rather than 2 feet from the net.
When it comes to adults, a USPTA executive once told me that 80 percent of players rated 4.0 and better do not take lessons. Is this the result of an unmotivated player populace? Or do teachers have an opportunity to revolutionize the lesson model?
Instead of the longstanding approach that initially and heavily focuses on technique, why not address real-life playing situations? Why not watch Robert play a league match and then afterward explain the court position patterns and tactics that would help him and his partner compete more effectively? Once Robert grasps these patterns and tactics, he’ll then hopefully see which techniques he needs to master. I’m not sure what can bring Jane back to our sport.
Considering our sport has such a vast literature, it’s a shame our students and teachers mostly focus on composition.
Oakland-based Joel Drucker, author of the book “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life,” has been involved in tennis for more than 40 years as a recreational player and writer. He writes frequently for such outlets as Tennis Channel, Huffington Post and many others.
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See all articles by Joel Drucker
About the Author
Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Based in Oakland, CA, his work has appeared in a variety of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, and Tennis Channel. A technical editor for Patrick McEnroe's book Tennis for Dummies, Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life was published in 2004.
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