A great deal of confusion exists regarding the fundamentals of tennis. The secret is to be able to differentiate the critical fundamentals that transcend all levels of play and styles of hitting.
Furthermore, it is imperative for coaches to be knowledgeable as to what is appropriate for young players given their age and stage of development. Coaches need to understand the progressions in player development in order to do their students justice.
My goal when working with young players is to develop world class fundamentals. That's a term you hear all the time--world class fundamentals--but what does it really mean? From my perspective it means fundamentals that are not going to limit that player in any way, technically, tactically, psychologically. World class fundamentals help players become every thing they can be in all areas of the game.
In today's game professional tennis players are powerful athletes. They possess strength and stamina, quickness, agility, explosive movement, rhythm timing and coordination. With athletic prowess becoming almost a prerequisite to success at the professional and even collegiate levels, it is logical to think that cultivating athleticism should be a huge priority in junior development.
The advances in athleticism at the professional level may help to explain the "mystery" why American tennis has been in decline for the past decade. The battle in the USA to develop the next generation of world class players is often lost by 14 years old.
Unfortunately many of our top young "prospects" are not cultivating their basic athletic skills during the critical window of opportunity from about age 7 to about age 12. As I said earlier, I'm taking about movement, agility, balance, coordination, timing, and rhythm. You cannot fully develop these skills by simply playing tennis.
Every young aspiring player should balance his time striking tennis balls with other activities that promote his or her underlying athletic development. This can take the form of playing other sports. Soccer like John McEnroe, or Roger Federer, or Rafael Nadal. Basketball like Andy Roddick. It can include things as simple as learning to throw a football well or learning to juggle.
Athletic development can also include off court movement, agility, and strength training, all of which provide a wide range of physical movements and exercises. To parents, working on these other skills in lieu of hitting a tennis ball may seem counterproductive. They may see their children initially losing to players who have spent more time hitting tennis balls. But in the long run, it's vital in realizing potential.
Often the deficiencies in athletic development don't manifest until the later stages of junior tennis. At a certain point, you will see players with comparable racket skills, but find that one player is a step faster, more agile, more coordinated, and more balanced. When this happens it usually leads to a mismatch in competition.
Too often there is a rush in the United States is to learn the racket and tactical skills to get the immediate results to win the "all important" 10 and 12 and under divisions. In Europe there is an understanding that tennis is not an early specialization sport and more of a premium is placed on developing fundamentals for the long run, including athletic ability.
Although tennis is the United States does not attract large numbers from our enormous pool of athletic talent, I do believe we are getting enough good athletes playing to do a far better than our current results. Part of the solution is improving the basic athletic skills of the players who are actually coming into the game.
In the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, we had much more extensive physical education in the schools, starting in first, second, third grades. Children were required to do a wide range of basic athletic activities as part of the regular school day.
These were activities like running, sprinting, tumbling, climbing ropes, calisthenics. Throwing and hitting balls of all types. In their free time kids would go out and play games for hours: dodge ball, football, basketball, baseball. The kind of basic athletic skills I am talking about were developed naturally as a part of day to day life. It's different now and so much of the free time kids have is spent on the computer or playing video games.
All of this has consequences in junior development. We know tennis in Europe and the rest of the world has a higher level of popularity and attracts more elite athletes to start. When this is combined with early athletic training, it leads to higher numbers of outstanding athletes competing against American players.
There are certain fundamentals shared by most professionals which should be incorporated into young players' games. The challenge is distinguishing what fundamentals transcend levels, and also, what skills are simply too advanced for younger players to learn. It's a matter of what you teach when and how this fits in the long term picture.
Developing fundamentals is a very broad topic. There are so many different factors. But let me hit on what I consider to be some of the most important.
The hitting zone is defined by the distance from the side of your body to the contact. It's how you position your body and arm at the hit. To develop consistent strokes, you need to establish your optimum hitting zone and consistently hit the ball in that zone. The actual contact point (how far out in front of the body you contact the ball) will vary depending on the type of shot being hit. However, your hitting zone should vary as little as possible. Basically, it should be a comfortable distance from your body that allows you to freely and effectively execute the shot.
Players need to work very hard to hit as many in this zone as possible. If players do not understand their own optimum hitting zone and its importance, they will run into real problems as they get to higher levels and are forced to deal with a much faster game. Getting your body in the ideal location to contact the ball is the key objective of footwork.
Footwork is a fundamental for every stroke in tennis. There are five primary objectives for footwork:
1. To get an explosive first move to the oncoming ball.
If you understand these objectives conceptually, it helps tremendously with footwork. I think you need to start with the objectives. Too many people in tennis talk about footwork in terms of putting this foot here or there without emphasizing the objectives of footwork. Athletes are great at figuring things out (foot position, etc.) out if they know the objective, and are then allowed to feel how to position on their own.
Often this will happen without the coach needing to intercede. For example, if players understands their optimum hitting zone and knows that the objective is to get into position to strike the ball in that zone, you will often see them explode to the ball with larger steps, but them change to little adjustment steps around the ball.
An absolutely critical fundamental in movement is the split step, and especially the timing of the split. Performing the split step at the correct time will establish your balance so that you are in position to explode to the ball once you recognize the direction of the shot. In addition, the split step heightens your state of awareness at the critical time when the ball is coming off your opponent's racket. This helps maximize your ability to anticipate what shot is coming.
You need to start your split step when your opponent starts to accelerate their racket forward to hit the shot. Contrary to popular belief, your feet do not always land together. What actually occurs is that you time the split step so that you are in the air when the ball comes off of your opponent' racket.
Therefore you are able to determine the direction the ball is being hit before you land. The result is that your foot farthest from the ball lands first, while your foot closest to the ball actually starts to turn in the direction of the shot before it lands. This enables you to make an explosive move to the ball.
Other important fundamentals are posture and balance. Great strikers of the ball look beautiful and graceful. It's like watching ballet. They have wonderful core strength, so when they move the upper body is very quiet. The lower body is doing most of the work. The legs are almost like shock absorbers. You don't see a lot of bobbing up and down with the head. This facilitates smooth, clean movement to the ball, and good ball tracking. With good upper body posture the player's weight--the center of gravity--is between the feet as much as possible.
All these things are subtleties that can get lost in the obsession over the stroke patterns. But you need to start incorporating these fundamentals at a young age, so the players have them by 12 to 14 years of age. Then the following years are spent mastering the subtleties of stroke mechanics, learning how to manipulate the ball in the court, and improving tactical use of the shots. If a player is still trying to learn basic fundamentals at 15, 16 and 17 he or she won't reach mastery for years, if at all.
Focus on the hit mentally physically technically.
One component in developing a consistent and effective hitting zone is creating a stable head position. Federer is of course the most dramatic example of keeping your head and your chin sideways during and slightly after contact. But if you look at the top players, you will see that this is actually a commonality.
What does this head position and "stillness" on and slightly past contact accomplish? It adds stability to the stroke, eliminates a lot of superfluous movements, and it helps to keep the player's focus on the hit psychologically.
We have all seen the phenomenon of players raising their head and looking up when the racket is going through the contact zone. This is associated with thoughts such as "I hope that this ball goes in." Or "I don't want to choke this shot." Show me someone whose head is relatively still or focused on the hitting zone during and slightly after the hit, and most likely you are looking at a solid stroke which will hold up under pressure. This is why developing a stable head position is such an important fundamental across all levels.
Is the follow-through over the shoulder, or around the shoulder, or across the side? The answer is yes. It can be anyone of those. The follow-through isn't rigid. It's a function of the shot the player is trying to hit.
When the player is deeper in the court or trying to neutralize, the finish is going to be different from when he or she is hitting down the line on a short ball. With the grips in the modern game, players need to understand how to "work" the ball by turning over the hand and wrist in order to control the trajectory and spin on the shot.
I also think it's very important to make the distinction between genders. The men are generating so much racket head speed that there is a trend towards hitting much more spin. When you combine the racket head speed, the racket technology, and the new strings and the string patterns, players are able to "work" the ball much more than in previous generations. This is one of the major factors driving the change in how players approach the game.
You might teach a different style of forehand ball striking with a heavier spin component to a male player who can explode more and generate more racket speed. The male player may create more margin for error while still getting good penetration.
But with a female player who might not generate the same amount of racket head speed, it is often more effective to produce the stroke with less spin in order to get more penetration through the court. If you generate considerable spin without enough forward speed, the ball will sit up to much and the spin will hurt you more than it will help.
This is a primary reason why, at the top of the game, you'll find that the female players use less rotation of the ball. The players opt for more speed and less spin often because they can't have both. So if you are developing an aspiring world-class player you must take all this into consideration to determine the optimum amount of spin/type of forehand.
In general, the women are going to swing a little flatter through the flight of the ball and the men will probably accelerate more up. This is particularly true if you're dealing with a female player who is tall and doesn't move as well as other players at her level. This type of player has to have first strike capability. They have to be able to take the ball early. They have to be able to drive the ball through the court and give their opponent very little time.
All of what we have been discussing applies on the backhand side as well. In my opinion, it takes a pretty special female athlete to be successful hitting with one hand. Justine Henin for example. You can do it, but you've got to be very, very athletic. The same holds true on the man's side, but if you're not a special athlete on the men's side it may not matter, because you're not going to make it anyway.
Another fundamental across the levels is relaxation. The top players are very loose and relaxed with their wrists, far more than in the past. At last year's US Open I had the opportunity to watch both Federer and Nadal at close range when they were hitting with one of my players on successive days.
Federer's arm is like limp spaghetti, it's so loose. The players know the new string is going to grip the ball, and they just explode through the shot. The ball is now dipping like never before. It's a different type of stroke compared to the players of previous generations.
In building a world class serve, what should you teach at what age? There is a real danger in trying to teach young children advanced serves. For example, I don't teach kick serves to very young players. Why? Because it usually leads to fundamental problems with the contact point.
Instead of making contact in front, young players often develop a contact point that is actually behind the plane of the body. This is a very tough problem to correct later on. Additionally it increases the risk of back trouble at a later stage.
What should young players concentrate on? Developing a sound service action and proper contact. To do this, I make sure all my young players can serve keeping both feet still and on the court (actually they can rotate the back foot so long as their toes are still on the ground). I like a very simple stance with the toes in line. I'm looking for a smooth, simple arm action and a contact in front of the body. Some coaches may think it's too simplistic, but I think it's critical. If a player can't execute from this basic stance very likely he'll have serious problems later on.
From this basic motion, I will then add leg drive and a balanced landing on the front foot with the back leg kicking back. I want my young players to have sound serving actions and be able to generate some spin, but nothing more extreme.
Does this hold them back competitively? I don't think so. Remember the goal is to develop players in ways that will not limit them for the future. Many of the young players I've worked with using this approach have been highly ranked in the younger junior divisions and then gone on to add kick serves later on.
I work very hard with my players on the volleys because having a complete foundation is important if a player is to have any chance of being world class. I do this even if players may not use the volley as much in the younger age divisions, or even if it doesn't eventually become a prominent part of their games.
Unless you work this way with players you may never learn what their real capabilities are. You may limit their effectiveness later on if they haven't put in the basic work and made the net a regular part of their development. You can look at the top of the pro game and see many, many players who might improve their results if they were more comfortable at the net or had better technical foundations.
The secret to great technique on the volley is simplicity. Most important is the ability to move to the ball, on balance, with minimal backswing and the ability to control the racket face at impact. To develop the backhand volley, two-handed players have to learn to use the opposite hand in a new way.
This means cradling the racket by the throat in the ready position, and using the left hand to position the racket. Equally important is to oppose the opposite arm, moving it back in the opposite direction from the racket during the forward swing.
Another factor in development that is often misunderstood is tactics. I think it's critical for players to learn what I call "generic tactics" from an early age. These are tactics which are applicable in almost any situation.
For example, let's say you're in the back court and you're forced to move further away from the net. You need to learn to neutralize the ball and get back in the point.
That's a generic tactic. Rallying crosscourt is a higher percentage shot than going down a line. That's also generic. Learning when the ball is in your strike zone and when it's appropriate to try to end the point by going down the line, for example. These are things players need to learn at a young age.
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