The most significant lesson a tennis teacher can impact is to have his pupils “watch the ball” properly. Reams have been written on how to do this and what benefits will accrue. What then, are the other most important fundamental ideas in tennis groundstroke instruction, and when to these ideas incorporate themselves?
Tennis teachers adopt “nutshell” ways to express their major concerns and ideas. Some ideas suit some teachers and pupils more effectively than others. Gallway’s “Inner Tennis” is essentially a method book on “watching the ball,” and watching yourself . Welby Van Horn’s major ideas for beginners are (1) Balance (2) Grips (3) Strokes and (4) Strategy. Dennis Van Der Meer has used understanding the bounce of the ball as a core thought. Mr. Jim Leighton, author of Inside Tennis, emphasized the “gunbarrell approach” and understanding the hitting zone as central ideas. All are bona fide time savers in tennis instruction, as are many other valid thoughts.
Below are what seems to be a brief listing, and comment, on the major ideas a tennis instructor should convey to his pupils. Certainly there are other important ideas, and the level of the player must be a consideration, but for the moment let’s outline the major objectives.
1. Watch the ball: Many great players have developed themselves with little or no instruction by following this simple, yet not so simple; trite, yet not so trite suggestion. Trust your own mechanism.
2. Establish a target: Someone defined tennis as the ability to “hit a moving target while under stress.” You must “watch the ball” but you must also have a mental target of where your shot is to go. This is concentration in tennis. “Look at the ball; where does it go” is an appropriate oversimplification for advising players. Also, which of these ideas (ball or target) comes first is a chicken-versus the egg argument of some relevance.
3. Tracking the ball to the “hit-spot”: This is basically movement in the game. Proper strokes are dictated by proper position. Once the ball is out of the hit-zone even great players have trouble. (Lousy hit spots dictate lousy strokes!) Once the player establishes where his shot will be forehand or backhand his task becomes to track that ball to the appropriate “hit-spot.” The human mechanisms he uses are his (1) eyes to track the ball, (2) his brain to relay the message to (3) his feet and legs. This makes movement, i.e. speed, quickness, and conditioning essential.
4. Adjusting to the Descending Ball: Certainly the ability to hit in the rise is important, as is learning to handle shoulder high balls, but fundamental hit-spots for beginners should be thigh to waist high, and the ball should be descending. Not only in this area the power zone, but it encourages low-to-high strokes. The player must use
movement to place himself so the opponent’s shot descends into his appropriate “hit-spot.” Keeping the descending ball in the perfect “hit-spot” makes his strokes much more simple, and is underestimated in its ability to eliminate frustration from the beginners game.
5. Proper Grips: Grips possibly should have been mentioned earlier as proper grip is essential from the outset. There is large variety as to proper grip usage but certainly traditional information (eastern forehand, proper backhand, etc.) should be part of the teacher’s basic craft that is important early.
6. Get your racquet back properly: This must be one of the tennis teacher’s most often repeated phrases. Early preparation of the racquet is one of the real clues in tennis. Jack Barnaby in “Racquet Work,” “nutshells” the ground shots into these fundamentals: (1) prepare your racquet, (2) prepare yourself (3) watch the ball. Certainly there
is an interrelationship between early racquet preparation and the speed and effectiveness of the player.
7. Firm Wrists in the Hit Zones: The ability to keep the wrists firm through the groundstroke hit zones can be likened to the need for a golfer keeping his lead arm straight. Without firm wrists all kinds of wrinkles can mess up fundamental shots. Very often, poor position on the ball is the reason for faulty wrists movements. Perhaps Mr.
Leighton’s Inside Tennis has the best statement on “pressed wrists” and the “gunbarrell approach” to the hitting zone.
8. Proper Finish, or Follow through: After the wrists have gone through the hit zone the hips and shoulders should turn further and the racquet should be lifted to a firm, high ending. The teacher can emphasize this fundamental by requiring pupils to “freeze” at the end of their shots to self-diagnose their shots.
9. Return to Ready: Beginning players should understand that every ground stroke varies and in order to cope with the upcoming variation they must finish the current shot, regroup their concentration and head for the best defensive position they can ascertain, generally near the middle of the base line. Here again, the player is dependant
on his legs for movement, and he must understand that this is the point at which he must work hardest in tennis.
10. Recycle the process: The player now must be ready to repeat the above out lined fundamental on either side, for as many times as needed to win the point. Each shot is similar to, but independent of the other. He must be aware that consistency in shot production is the major strategy in tennis. He must also be committed to repeating the process without error for as many times as necessary to win the point.