I'm such a fangirl of Steve...
Playing Ball: Watching and Learning 09/23/2011 - 4:10 PM
Tennis-ball-rebound-1a How much can we learn from observing other tennis players? Part of me suspects that it’s the only way we learn the sport, and that all of the tennis lessons in the world, all of the “racquet back”s and “ move your feet”s put together, won’t help you as much as a few glances at a pro’s service toss or forehand stance. When I began to go to clinics when I was 10 or 11, it wasn’t our club’s teaching pro who taught me my Western grip and low-to-high swing. It was two players whom I watched from a distance: one was Bjorn Borg, the other was an older kid from my local courts, the best young player in town. If today’s No. 1 men’s player, Novak Djokovic, is any indication, athletic talent begins with the ability, and the desire, to mimic what you see.
In my case, that desire, because it's automatic and unconscious, didn’t end when I was 12. It has stayed with me and is still with me today. So much so that sometimes I don’t notice it myself. Six or seven years ago, during that brief window in time when Andy Roddick was at the top of the game, and his forehand seemed to be the state of the art, I heard someone on the next court who was watching me say something like, “He tries to smack his forehand like Roddick.” I hadn’t realized it, but he was right; the idea of Roddick’s inside-out forehand, which was once a weapon for him, and which I’d watched countless times during that period, had seeped into my motion, my footwork, my mindset.
As Roddick descended and Roger Federer ascended, I tried to follow in the Swiss’s footsteps as well. This time it was more of a conscious effort, which may explain why it was mostly a failure. None of my shots remotely resemble Federer’s, but when he was at his best, there was no way not to be influenced by him. Mid-match, I would try to get myself to move like him, with an easy flow around the court and an easy, loose swing into the ball. The trick was to stay relaxed, but at the same time to be more aggressive with your feet. It typically worked, until it didn’t. I found that it was much easier to get myself into this mode when I was winning than it was when things started to go south. After a few misses, I would tense back up. I guess it’s not surprising that Federer, until very recently, has been one of the game’s great front-runners. He’s at his best when he’s at his easiest.
As a lefty, though, the player who has influenced me the most in recent years has been my fellow sinister-sider, Rafael Nadal. The many hours of watching him construct rallies have been well spent. Without thinking about it, I now play to a lefty’s natural strengths more than I ever have. I swing my forehand more sharply into my opponent’s backhand corner. As Nadal has shown against Federer and many others, it’s not a shot that needs to be a winner to be very effective; by adding sidespin to it, you can get the ball to tail away from the other guy’s backhand in a hurry. It’s also a play that leads to the type of easy volleys that we see Nadal hit so often. I’ve started to imitate Rafa on those shots as well. He hits them the way a good clay-courter should hit them, by angling them off and not relying on pace to get them past his opponent. When I do the same thing, by carving around my crosscourt backhand volley, the ball will bounce a little wider and shorter than normal, and often just out of reach of a surprised opponent. It helps, I suppose, that I play almost exclusively on clay.
How about the latest No. 1? I’ve switched to Novak Djokovic’s racquet this summer, but the game has yet to follow. As with Federer, I don’t hit the ball like Djokovic, and defense will never be my specialty the way it is his. We’ll see what happens; judging from the past, one of these days, I’ll find myself doing, or attempting, something Nole-esque without even realizing it. Hopefully I won’t try to copy his sliding open-stance backhand dig on asphalt. That might be the last thing I do on any type of court.
From this evidence—and I can't be the only one who keeps internalizing this stuff—we're always learning from other, better tennis players. What I wondered during this year’s U.S. Open was whether all of that exposure would give my game any kind of temporary bump upward in quality. This used to happen when I was a junior, though for some reason it was never as noticeable on a tennis court as it was on a pool table. I owned a copy of The Color of Money in high school, and it never failed to help when I got on the tables at the bowling alley in town. (Of course, it could also have been the ear-splitting Bon Jovi and the deep stench of cigarette smoke embedded in the green felt that put me in the mood.) A few minutes of watching the sharks in that movie were enough to raise my own level for an hour or two. I think, as much as anything, it was the simple sight of seeing their shots drop in the pockets over and over that gave me an unconscious feeling of confidence.
(Aside: I should also note that The Color of Money has lived on in my mind when I play tennis as well. If nothing is going right, a phrase from one of those sharks, Grady Seasons, comes back to me: “It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it? It just keeps getting worse and worse.” Tom Cruise says those words back to him in this scene (Seasons comes back with one of the all-time great retorts: “Ya got lucky, ya lucky [so-and-so]”). The scene also contains another immortal line, when Paul Newman, after putting the 1 and 9 balls in the corner, gives a bearded John Turturro this friendly piece of advice: “Wipe your nose, will ya, junior?” Tennis could use some more of that, don’t you think? Maybe from Federer to Djokovic on a changeover?)
This year, after nearly three weeks of watching, I finally got out to play on the Wednesday after the Open. Visions of Rafa and Nole still danced in my head. But as I waited for my partner to show up, I started to watch a decent-looking local junior on the next court. The kid, who might have been 16, was warming up. Or, I guess that’s what you would call it. He stood flat-footed as he slapped at his ground strokes. He practiced a tweener as often as he did his forehand. He loafed through the early drills that his coach did with him. He didn’t appear to get to full speed until half an hour into it. At first I shook my head, until I remembered that on a lot of days when I was 16, I hadn’t looked a whole lot different when I was practicing.
By the time my partner got there and we started to hit, all the visions of tennis greatness I had witnessed at Flushing Meadows had been replaced by the image of this loafing teen. It worked like a charm. I went out with one simple plan: Not to be like him, or like my own teenage self. If I was going to take the time to play, I might as well give myself the best chance to do it well. I had one goal, not to be lazy, and I achieved it. I played with a clear mind from start to finish, and may have had my best day of the season so far.
Knowing who to imitate is part of being a good tennis player. But it seems that knowing how not to act on a court can come in handy, too. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier not to look like a lazy junior than it is to look like Novak Djokovic. Maybe I’ve been watching the wrong people all this time.
Have a good weekend.