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JAK'S ESSAY SERIES: Local & Beyond

The Cinemascope Syndrome: Undermining Your Ball Watching

By Jak Beardsworth

If you're not already on a certain well-established, playing the game well page with your current mechanics, you need to be. Here's a Q and A just in case, or, at the very least, to serve as a reminder for those already in the know:

Q. What's the game's most important skill?
A. Watching the ball.
Q. What's the game's most difficult skill?
A. Watching the ball.
Q. What's the game's most cumulative skill?
A. Watching the ball.

Yes, watching the ball, or "tracking" the ball, is indeed a skill, and is most definitely a practiced, continually monitored, and acquired one. And, excuse the unintended pun, there's more to it than meets the eye.

Let's begin with a Roy Emerson workshop (holder of the most Grand Slam men's singles titles until Pete Sampras surpassed him in 2002 at the U.S. Open with 14) in Tucson that I attended some years ago, when the long since retired Emmo could still handle a racket with world class talent, and get around the court like a much younger man. He recruited a couple of young lions to be his sparring partners while he demonstrated a number of routine game replication drills that, as he explained, he "and the boys" (Rod Laver, Tony Roche, et al) would utilize in two-a-days prior to Davis Cup ties back when the Aussies ruled the world under Harry Hopman's Captaincy (Note: Punta Gorda pro, Bonnie Gadusek, former world #8 in singles and #12 in doubles, trained with Hopman in her formative years).

All well and good, especially watching Emerson make it look easy. But after :40 or so I began wondering, albeit respectfully, along with a couple of peers nearby, when, and if, we were going to get some pearls of tennis wisdom from the great Hall of Famer.

Finally, it came as the drills ended and he approached our grandstand with, not to disappoint, this delivered matter of fact gem: "So, after a few weeks of that we could see the ball pretty well. Any questions?" His exceedingly brief summary was followed by a longer moment of consideration among the attendees. Some got it, some did not.

So, okay, everyone knows that you do your best to watch an incoming ball right into your racket. But then what, after your shot is struck? What do you watch-"track" then? That's the million dollar question that I'm compelled to ask new lesson clients, and periodically remind my regulars with on a daily basis. The newcomer's answers, as well as those of some seasoned players after a poorly struck shot, are typically proceeded by a thoughtful, searching pause, similar to the Emerson finale one. Mostly non-definitive unrelated guesses from the first timers, and "nothing in particular" responses from the regulars.

But it's still the ball and only the ball!

Unless you've been in a Tibetan monastery for the past few years you're aware that Federer keeps his eyes at the impact point longer than anyone on tour. But very few know that Djokovic can be literally seen – in slow motion only – literally moving his eyes with the ball, while his head remains still, from the ball striking moment as it is initially departing the string bed in those first few feet. That would be reminiscent of Ted Williams' (baseball's acknowledged greatest ever hitter) claim that he could see the seams of the baseball spinning as it left the pitcher's hand. Djokovic can't really see it, but he remains with it nonetheless.

In any event, it turns out that the human eye is not particularly adept at staying 100% absolutely connected to speeding balls flying through the air in any sport. However, with its binocular magic working effectively in concert with the brain, based upon previous experience, a connection to the ball can be maintained for a positive result (See accompanying new video for the science details!). Hence, although Williams' claim might seem somewhat suspect, and Djokovic's ability to maintain a visual connection to the ball right off impact as a whole object is as well, both individuals, mostly unwittingly, enjoyed tracking success to the nth degree.

Nonetheless, with superb focus and good vision, a very fleeting yellow strobe is actually possible to discern, especially at the nominal ball speeds coming off the racket in average Clubland - much like the green flash at sunset. But at the speeds at which professional players, and top club players, launch their shots, not so much.

In any event, reconnecting with the ball, early on "downrange" if you will, a moment after impact when the ball has already traveled 30, 40 feet into the court, is what's really necessary to be an effective ball watcher-tracker.

Let's say it's a forehand that you have struck. This visual task becomes very realizable at a trajectory point that's in close proximity to the net, in some instances even on your side, but at the very least as it is passing over it, and at times just into the opponent's side. That's finite visual dexterity and supreme focus. This is how ball watching-tracking is maximized – incoming of course, but then outgoing as well, as the ball is moving downrange, all the way to an opponent's point of impact.

This all-important tracking technique is lost on many players, completely unaware, players who often come out of their shots prematurely, looking up across the net at the big picture – the court and the player in a wide field of vision - seeing everything while focusing on nothing in particular.

The Cinemascope Syndrome.

That being the case, as the opponent returns your shot you are then disconnected from the ball momentarily, resulting in having to reconnect while losing precious time, in fashioning your own response,, while the incoming ball is hurtling to you, analogous to closing your eyes for a moment and then reacting, startled, to what you suddenly see, very late to the party.

Besides the obvious benefits in defending the court and coordinating your own shot making parries, there is also a welcome perception of time slowing down by remaining in constant contact with the ball as much as the human eye is capable of. It's not uncommon for athletes in all sports to report a sense of things happening in slow motion after a particularly special performance.

All other reading, or anticipating your opponent's shot issues, are "seen" - absorbed and registered - on a sub-conscious basis specifically through peripheral sighting. This brain led information gathering, accentuated through experience, is called "chunking," being aware of their body positions, stroking paths, points of impact for cross court or down the line, etc, while only focusing singularly on the ball.

Although there are some exceptions to this practice in doubles where visual acuity – the necessity of shifting focus from player to ball and back from the net position (that's another topic) - is far more demanding than in singles where there are no net men lurking to ruin your day, it's still the ball and only the ball, and the necessity of recapturing it after your own impact when returning serve or trading groundies in the back court, handling volleys at the net, or when serving.

Want to tap into your present A-Game on a consistent basis, this is how you can achieve it.

Copyright 2018 by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved.

COMMENTS WELCOME: JB1tennis@comcast.net

Past Essays

  • October 2018- Older Dogs and New Tricks: Still Improving at Any Age [read more]
  • September 2018- The All-Important Dynamic of Gripping [read more]
  • August 2018- The Cinemascope Syndrome: Undermining Your Ball Watching [read more]
  • June 2018 - Serving and Returning Better with a Quiet Eye [read more]
  • May 2018 - The Man Who Breathed for Two [read more]
  • January 2018 - Rituals Anyone? [read more]
  • December 2017 - Why Serving is so Difficult in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2017 - Managing your body and mind in tennis space [read more]
  • August 2017 - Why Bother Breathing to Improve Your Game [read more]
  • May 2017 - The "Maintaining" One's Game as One Ages Fallacy [read more]
  • February 2017 - Punta Gorda Tennis Clubs: Setting the Bar [read more]
  • January 2017 - State of the Club Game: The Growing Death of Sportsmanship [read more]

Check back often for more essays.