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Coaches Corner - tip of the month

JANUARY 2010:

DEBUNKING THE MODERN GAME

Make that the so-called "modern game." There’s a serious faux pas resulting from such an inappropriate label, one which tennis has now been saddled with for a few years by both those whose job it is to create marketing hype for the financial welfare of the game, and especially those who hype some imaginary new unique instructional genre to, mostly, create a grandiose perception of themselves. I know, shocking in today’s world of rising disingenuousness.

The result? The now fully embraced connotation, or fallout, is that all that preceded this new "era" is outdated and irrelevant. To discredit all that has preceded what’s current is a sharp stick in the collective eye of the uber talents who, over many years, built the foundation upon which today’s game is played at its highest level.

Rod Laver, still the only player to capture a calendar-year Grand Slam – twice (first in '62 during tennis' shamateurism days, and in '69 at the dawn of the "open era"), understood the game better than anyone, to this day, when he said, "It's a simple game, but it’s just not easy." Nothing has changed despite all the tinkering and the accompanying critical tom foolery.

Rod Laver's style vs. Roger Federer

It is important to note that Laver, the left-handed Aussie wizard, was not playing "modern tennis" in those '60s, as it is being defined today. Pete Sampras was not playing it in the late '80s and throughout the '90s when he dominated, and still is not while tearing it up in junior veteran tour events around the globe. And Martina Navratolova has never exemplified it, beginning in the '70s to right now. So what are these people talking about?

Yes, of course, the athletes of today have become bigger, stronger, faster, quicker in all sports, best exemplified in sports such as track and field and swimming where stop watches plot the steady advances inhuman physiology. Think Usane Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Dara Torres, who like Navratolova, continues to excel into her forties.

Does that mean that Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Mark Spitz, and Wilma Rudolph are written off as antiquated? I think not!

Exactly what is this "modern game" that we’re supposed to be embracing? Consider the primary example of how the game is being taught by the new breed of USPTA led brainwashed coaches of today. A Western grip, or even an extreme Western grip, on the forehand is now favored in order to avoid striking the ball in front of one’s body, while purposely allowing it to travel well into the backside of the hitting zone. Why? In order to make contact off of one's back hip to facilitate the necessity of brushing violently up the backside of the ball in a fully-opened stance from well behind the baseline!

Does the rash of tour hip injuries now come to mind, the kind that ended the careers of two fairly recent world #1 modern day warriors, Guga Kuerten and Magnus Larsen, along with a host of other finely tuned tennis athletes using their bodies inefficiently? And what’s up with the myriad injuries that the 22 year old Rafael Nadal suffered in the 2009 season while strutting this "modern" approach?

Is that how Roger Federer, relatively injury free at 28 and today’s premier model player, plays his forehand in this "new" day and age? No! He strikes it well ahead of his body with an Eastern forehand grip, even when slightly open-stanced, in order to hit mostly through the ball, albeit with some topspin to bend it into the court at the higher shot speed of today’s game, just as Rod Laver had to back in his day but with a far less lethal wooden racket (Dunlop Maxply Fort) and slower balls, but with a tree trunk of a forearm.

While practicing recently with a player whose game came of age in the '80s, compared to my, by comparison, ancient development in the '60s, an interested sports savvy spectator remarked to me after our session: "It was interesting to see the difference between your games." Upon asking him whose game more closely resembled Federer’s game – key word being resembled – his response was that my game was a much closer match.

  • The flattened out forehand, with some topspin, versus the loopy topspin of my practice partner struck late.
  • My more versatile one-handed backhand, both with topspin and a skidding slice, compared to his one-dimensional, two-handed topspin stroke.

Now we have these lightweight frames – the biggest difference between the rackets of today and those first generation "graphites" introduced in the late '70s, make no mistake about it – that these bigger, stronger players, male and female, can accelerate through the ball with blazing speed. Interestingly, those that choose to flatten out their groundies, best exemplified recently by Juan Martin del Potro’s surprise win over the always ethereal Federer at the ’09 US Open doing just that, are praised for their ball striking approach by the TV announcing crews in these "modern" times. And when you consider Maria Sharapova among others, and Lindsey Davenport before her, the "modern" tennis being advocated by today’s teachers as the Holy Grail is not so evident. Curious indeed.

Okay, so why did Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe continue to play fairly flat even in their later years when their equipment had been ultimately turboized? Because they could! Because they were taught how to hit through the ball when the opportunity presented itself while still incorporating the nuances of spin, including underspin when appropriate, versus those who seldom ever deviate from leaving fuzzless bald spots on the backs of balls while feverishly hitting up on them to the nth degree, in full bludgeoning mode, at times even following through backwards!

Just because the dirt-ballers of the world tour, who’ve been playing this now "modern tennis" for decades on clay, and who, as a group, have stepped up to the plate in recent years and embraced the challenge of playing on hard courts with ball-striking techniques best suited for clay, is not even close to being reason enough to attempt to proselytize an entire generation of up and coming players to play "modern."

So in the end what should we be thinking on this subject? That there is no new game altering, revolutionary, strictly "modern" component. It does not exist. It is what it is in the lexicon of the day – a constantly evolving work in progress built upon a regimen of core axioms that are the essence of the game, then and now.

As in life, everything in balance, and everything in moderation is still best.

Questions and comments are welcome at anytime for all tips present and past via email.

This Tip of the Month is copyright© by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved. Copies may be made only with the permission of and by Jak Beardsworth. Contact him here.

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