The Year Ahead

First Published 1/31/06

What a wonderful tournament the 2006 Australian Open turned out to be!  Roger Federer is on track to equal Pete Sampras’ record 14 Grand Slam titles.  Sampras had also won 7 Grand Slam titles at the same age, and similarly only the French title eludes them both. An unseeded player, Marcos Baghdatis, came out of the blue to defeat Andy Roddick (#2), David Nalbandian (#4) and Ivan Ljubicic (#7) only to eventually run out gas against Federer who turned on the after burners and sped into orbit for a 5-7 7-5 6-0 6-2 win.

On the women’s side Martina Hingis returning to the sport after a 3 year lay off, delighted fans with a sparkling run to the quarterfinals, only to lose to an injured but determined Kim Clijsters.  Hingis combined with Mahesh Bhuphati, a gifted doubles player in his own right, to win the Mixed Doubles title. She now has nine Grand Slam Doubles titles (as does Bhupathi) along with her five Grand Slam Singles titles.

Amelie Mauresmo followed up her year ending WTA Championship win with the capture of her first Grand Slam Singles title.  Mauresmo will now move to #2 (from #3) in the rankings.  Her previous Grand Slam final had been in 1999 in Australia against  Martina Hingis.  Strangely, Mauresmo played three matches this tournament in which her opponent, including Henin-Hardenne in the final, retired during the match to give her the victory.  However this could be seen as a testament to Mauresmo’s newly found attention to her fitness and mental toughness.

At a recent USPTA conference and I’m sure among the bureaucracy of the USTA, there is much discussion about U.S. players performances.  One aspect to the equation is clear and that is that many of the national programs that are enjoying success are often sacrificing the education of their players to get it.  Is that a worthy trade-off?

Another aspect is that current U.S. juniors are reluctant to play each other to the degree that past juniors did for fear that it will affect their mental edge and also their ranking.  That is not a healthy situation and suggests mental weakness rather than strength.  Many of the successful countries have an attitude of “being in it together” – they train together, play together, compete together, and therefore have each other’s support while striving to elevate their games.  Juniors of all levels benefit from healthy, broad ranging competition.  The attitude should be that if you can’t beat someone you are going to put in every effort to learn how to beat them. Too often I see defeated players eager to give every excuse in the book to explain their defeat instead of walking away from an unsatisfactory match with the attitude that they will work on the problems presented in their match.  This gives them something to look forward to as long as there is no deadline.  Too often parents and players expect instant results.  It took Roger Federer several years longer than most pundits predicted to find success.  Who could argue that the wait wasn’t well worth it?

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What Are Your Stat’s

First published 9/27/05

Every sport makes use of statistics in order to analyze the result of a match or game.  In baseball we have ERA’s (Earned Run Averages), RBI’s (Runs Batted In), No Hitter’s (zero runs batted off the pitchers game).  In Football a statistic sheet notes First Downs, Rushes-yards, Passing, Sacked Yards Lost, Fumbles Lost, Penalties-yards and so on. Individual leaders are noted for Rushing, Passing, Receiving and, alas, Field Goal Missed.

Tennis has its own set of statistics.  In the broader sense, while we know that Roger Federer is a uniquely talented player his record of wins in Finals – 23-0 – instills dread into any player who might meet him in a final. However when we look at the Box score of one of Federer’s matches we can see just how it is he dominates his opponents.

Let’s look at the statistics of the Federer-Agassi final at the U.S. Open just passed.

Federer, seeded 1 beat Agassi, seeded 7, in four sets, 6-3,2-6,7-6(1),6-1. One fact the statistics don’t tell us that Federer is hitting his stride while Agassi is in the twilight of his career. As such Agassi pulled off a supreme effort for 3 of those four sets.  However the statistics show us some key areas that Agassi lost too much ground to Federer.

The first statistic listed in the box score is 1st Serve Percentage.  Federer scored 76% compared to 60% for Agassi.  This indicates three things. Federer was able to put more pressure on Agassi than Agassi on Federer,  Federer probably won his service games more easily than Agassi and Federer’s serve was more effective than Agassi’s. Along with that high percentage Federer served 19 aces, Agassi 6, and while Federer didn’t double fault at all  Agassi double faulted 4 times. Neither of these players are known for their “big” serves, so Federer must have utilized a variety of spins and pin point placement to dominate the #1 returner in the game.  In junior tennis, along with unforced errors, this is the least understood area of strategy.  It is the foundation of strategy. Bear in mind that the best of players have a very reliable and effective second serve.

The next set of statistics that is interesting to us are the winners and unforced errors numbers.  Including service, Federer had 69 winners, 37 unforced errors.  Agassi’s numbers were 34-28. Although Federer’s unforced errors number was high his winners number was almost double.  Agassi’s margin was much lower.  So, although Federer made many mistakes, he made far more winning shots.  Can you say the same?  For any one other than Federer the unforced error stat needs to be lowered and the winner stat increased.  Do you have any idea what your stat for a given match is?

The final statistic we want to look at is Total Points Won – 132 to 106, indicating this was not as close a match as it looked. It also gives me food for thought. 238 points over the entire match averages out to  59 points per set, only 30 or so points needed to win a set.  How many of the 59 points can you afford to be unforced errors, double faults or break points lost.  Looking at statistics this way adds much more immediacy to the game.  Unless your win-loss stat is very, very good, each and every point needs to be constructed with more foresight,  more deliberateness and accuracy.

Keeping statistics, even if only in practice, will help you be more aware of where and why you are losing matches, or in which areas you can improve.  Keeping tabs on unforced errors or first serve faults is as easy as placing a ball in the mesh of the tennis court fence to represent each error, separated by a space per game.  Refine your knowledge base by noting whether the error was off a forehand or backhand.  Maybe you want to note if your “points at net” are winning more often than losing.  Roger Federer is the sport’s ultimate tennis player not only because of his playing talent but because he is the consummate master of the strategic and mental components of the game.

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10 & Under Tennis Team Goes Undefeated!

LOCAL (5/19/2011)

The 10 & Under Laguna Beach Junior Team Tennis has finished the season with a 10-0 record.

They will go into playoffs this weekend seeded #1. To keep their #1 spot in the regular season the team had to win a double header last Saturday. In their first match against University Park Irvine and playing without their #1 player Mason Lebby they won 7-2.  William Michelson won 6-2, Scott Yoder 6-2, Lola Fisher 6-1, Francis Pillsbury 6-5, Sebastian Fisher 6-0, Yoder/S. Fisher 6-1 and Pillsbury/Petey Szacaks 6-0.  Later in the day, playing away against a very hot team from Heritage Park Irvine, Laguna won 6-3. Four of those sets went to tiebreaks.  Lebby won 6-3, Michelson 6-5, Szacaks 5-6, Yoder 6-3, L Fisher 6-4, Lebby/Michelson 6-2, L Fisher/Szacaks 5-6 and Yoder/s Fisher 6-5. Coach Julie Heussenstamm said “This is team is chock full of talented, enthusiastic players and supported by low key but totally committed parents – a great combination for learning to play the game, competing well and enjoying the game. If they stay together over the years who knows what they can achieve.”


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Focus on What’s Important

It’s a common scenario. You are playing a player who, before you step on the court, you think you have a good chance of beating – but you aren’t making a dent, let alone racking up games. In fact you won the warm up but don’t look or feel anything like that same player. What is going on?

Let’s visualize what you look like out there. First of all you probably look miserable. As the match progresses you may start talking to yourself, berating your every error. Eventually you look totally lost, having no idea how to counter the other players attack, and in fact you lose.

Most often, I see the player who loses when he should have won as having been distracted by irrelevant thoughts from the very beginning of the match. Your opponent, most likely, focused all his energy on taking care of business – the business of outsmarting you.

He has a major asset that you need to develop – the competitive mind. All else being equal, the player who is more competitive will win. Clear your head. Go in having a plan and adjust it if you need to after you’ve seen your opponent in the warm up, adjust it later in the game if your plan isn’t having any results. Think about the plan with a clear mind, your goal is to draw his weaknesses and set up your best weapons. Be confident by training your mind to ignore negative thoughts. Have positive comments on hand to substitute for all your usual negative self talk.

Winning will take care of itself when you focus on achieving your game plan via your own performance goals. For example a performance goal could be to increase your first serve percentage by 5-10%. Another could be to use the drop shot, lob and volley as offensive tools to create opportunities. In this way, even should you lose, if you have made progress with your performance goals you can still build confidence.

While it’s crucial to get the ball back in play a competitive player will get the ball back in play offensively. This is not a game of “patty cake” this is all out physical and mental effort to outwit the opponent. Muster some passion or what we call heart. Dig deep and be a worthy opponent.

If you want to win more of those matches you think you think you should give yourself a job. Work your way into point winning opportunities by applying yourself to the task at hand – be more deliberate and intentional with your choice of shot and placement of the ball. And enjoy doing it!
Originally published in the Laguna News Post 12/05/06

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Good Footwork Creates Accuracy

There has rarely been a successful tennis player who doesn’t have good footwork. Good footwork will help you cover more court, more effectively, recover well after shots and of paramount importance, it will enable you to be perfectly set up for your next shot.

The alignment of your body with the path of the ball is vastly underrated. Misalignment is probably the root cause of 75% of stroking errors. Lining up well with the ball is relatively easy if the ball is hit right to your stroke path or “comfort zone”. Any ball out of your stroke path creates a challenge.

Where is your stroke path? Shadow your ideal stroke noting the distance from your body, your stance and the contact point within the stroke. Your job is to replicate that ideal no matter where the ball is in relation to you on the court and in relation to where you want to hit the ball. That’s where footwork comes in. Few players have natural footwork so a player should pay as much attention to footwork as they do to stroking the ball.

When the ball is hit to you the first movement should be a reaction. In modern tennis the split step prepares you for movement toward the incoming shot. To perform a split step lightly spring one or two inches off the ground as the opponent strikes the ball. Your feet should be shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent as you land on the balls of your feet. Two things have now prepared you, you are already moving and your weight is balanced at your center of gravity. Habitually using the split step will tangibly quicken your movement to the ball.

During the process of a point you will need to employ lots of running, stopping, changing direction, sidestepping back into the center of the court, little steps, medium steps, sometimes a desperate lunge for the ball. If your feet are in constant motion you will have a split second advantage on take-off. Practice the sidestep shuffle, pushing off to change direction and running to a new target. Observe whether you stay on the baseline or, more effectively, move to a space in relation to where the ball bounces. That will usually require diagonally moving into the court.

Practice running forward and backward as you would need to move if an opponent was constantly lobbing you. Practice short sprints, the length or width of one side of the court. To increase your endurance and leg stamina run the stairs or uphill.

Note whether you sound like an elephant moving around the court or are virtually silent. Are you flat footed or lightly floating over the court? Are you arriving at the ball in your optimum stroke space? Never presume you can’t reach a ball – go for it, your new speed and agility combined with focus makes all things possible! As the great Harry Hopman used to say, “Just stick that racquet out – 9 times out of 10 you will save the point.” Watch professional tennis players – some move better than others, can you pick who? Most of all, enjoy your new skills.

Originally published in the Laguna News Post

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Playing Tempo Tempers The Match

Lisa Raymond – previously Number 1 ranked women’s doubles player, holder of 4 singles and an amazing 60 doubles titles, recently spoke about how the tempo of the match can affect the outcome.

How often have we heard a commentator exclaim that a struggling player is playing too fast? They are not talking about the pace of the ball but the speed with which the player proceeds to the next point.

The general philosophy is that if you are winning, proceed briskly. If you are losing, slow down between points. The player or team that is winning is setting the tempo. They are controlling the rhythm of the match. As the player who is down you would want to break up that rhythm by changing the tempo between points, sets and perhaps also changing the tempo of the play itself.

If the opponent is thriving on a brisk tempo you may lose the match before you even realize it. Slow down the tempo and you will give yourself more time to take stock of the situation and implement a remedy. You will also upset the opponent’s rhythm and hopefully draw more errors from the other side of the net. The momentum of the match can then change. As they say, the ball is in your court – you set the tempo and see the opponent’s steps falter.
Originally published in the Laguna News Post 1.16.07

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When two players engage on a tennis court there are so many possibilities as to the outcome. A major factor determining outcome is the mental state of the players.

When a player is lacking confidence it is obvious in his demeanor and in “backing off” his shots. He hits with less deliberation and mistakes pushing and prodding the ball over the net with keeping the ball in play while creating an opportunity. Even more agonizing is when a player is leading and in position to win a game, set or match because he has played with confidence and determination,but promptly becomes defensive and ineffectual.

Whereas previously he had been dominating with his first serve or his forehand, suddenly he is pulling his serve into the net, or pushing his forehand into the middle third of the court where it sits up nicely for the opponent who dispatches it with ease, or holding ground at the service line in the hope that he won’t be lobbed but somehow or other will be able to still volley effectively. All totally irrational scenarios.

If it happens only occasionally it’s not too big a problem but if it occurs frequently it becomes a major problem and will impede the progress of your game and the success of your quest. It will become a habit.

To increase the possibility of success in a match the mental state must be, that when ahead, a player must close out the situation. He must take the point to the opposition, be pro-active rather than re-active. If he has gained a dominating position in the play he must continue to play in the manner which brought him to that point.

Nerves and lack of confidence or belief happen. But they can be overcome, or even avoided, if a player becomes aware of the problem and toughens up his mental state. You can’t change what you don’t know exists. Spend less time agonizing over your inadequacies or bad calls, and instead be more aware of the tempo of the match, the big points, the plays that are hurting you, your plays that are working for you. Really see the reality of the match. Don’t dwell on anything – most matches are too fleeting.

Don’t surrender – become aware of the adjustments you need to make, then execute them. The more you attempt to discipline your mental game the more successful you will be. Negative mental habits are hard to break but the repercussions are great and well worth the effort.
Originally published in the Laguna News Post

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Are You Ready to Win?

You play tennis. Maybe you take some lessons, hit a couple of times a week and play the odd tournament, or perhaps many tournaments. Are you satisfied with your progress?
As with any undertaking, preparation and purpose influence results.

Natural talent or athletic ability will only take you so far. Characteristics of a winning tennis player include being a hard worker, clear thinker, tenacious, determined, deliberate, open minded and eager to meet challenges.

Your very first challenge is to look at your game honestly. If you find yourself making excuses for losing matches you are already losing ground. Analyse your matches. Look at your losing matches to find areas you can improve. Listen with an open mind to people who watched your match, sometimes their opinions will have merit. Often you will not like what you hear but if it’s true you need to deal with it. Common comments might be – “you played a lot of out balls….he really worked your backhand… you came in to the net on anything instead of waiting….you lost track of the score…you gave up too easily…you made too many unforced errors.” All of these comments are valid and if you don’t take care of the problems they are illuminating you won’t improve your results. To maintain confidence also look at your strengths you used during the match.

Be honest about your work ethic. It’s not just the number of hours you spend on the court, it’s also how you are spending your time on the court. If your practice hours look more like social sessions you aren’t being fair to yourself or the other players on the court. Every time you hit a tennis ball you should have some purpose. Purpose will influence what shot you play and how you play it. If you don’t have purpose on every shot your play becomes random and possibly reckless. Sounds like hard work doesn’t it? Well, it is but the satisfaction you experience when you begin to see that you are constructing points, executing your plan and dictating play transcends “fun”.

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