STILL LEARNING (57)

In The Little Green Book of Tennis, I have tried, as Mr. Penick stated he
tried, to give the best of the best information: what worked and was
time honored, helpful coaching. Mr. Leighton got me started. Practical
experience gathered through 40 years of coaching and observing college
tennis, and in particular small college tennis, was a strong influence. Jim Verdieck was a heck of a role model for me and many others.
I hope to keep learning and advise others to do the same.
From Play Is Where Life Is: Coach Verdieck told me that three times
he had lights approved for the university courts. Somehow the school
procrastinated every time they said yes. Later he found out that when he’d
tell his wife the lights were to be installed, she nixed the deal. She simply
went to the administrators said, “If you put lights up, he’ll stay there all
night, and I’ll leave him.”
His roster included 24 players—a very large team. Not only that, each week every player in the top eight had an hour private lesson with Verdi-
eck. Sixteen remaining players got a half hour per week with him. This, in addition to team responsibilities. Upon learning he’d retired at age 65, I
called to congratulate him. He was within 60 or so wins of 1,000 wins. No
one else is close. “Did you consider staying until you break that barrier,” was
one of my questions. “No, I promised my wife if I got to 65 I’d stop. A deal’s
a deal.” Though he quit coaching he couldn’t give up teaching. I asked
Coach Verdieck early on if he knew Dennis Van Der Meer? Not only is
Van Der Meer the world’s most prolific tennis teacher, he was close to my
mentor, Jim Leighton. Verdieck said, “Know Dennis”? I taught him ninety
percent of what he knows!”
When I asked Coach Leighton if he knew Coach Verdieck, he said no. I
told him of the Verdieck comment about Dennis Van Der Meer. Leighton
was appalled, and said he intended to ask Dennis about that! A couple of
years went by and I asked Leighton if he’d asked about Verdieck. Leighton
admitted that Dennis had responded, “Yes, that’s probably about right.”
In retirement Verdieck worked with Dennis at Sweet Briar College, in the
mountains of Virginia. I called Coach Verdieck and asked if I could hire him.
“What for?” he asked. I told him I wanted to know more about coaching,
and that he was one who knew more than I did. Still not convinced, he said
his knees had gotten so bad he couldn’t move enough to hit many balls.
I replied, “Coach, I just want to talk with you.” He contended he didn’t talk
much but to come on and we’d probably be done in 30 minutes. My wife
went with me and waited patiently for three-and-a-half hours. “Tom, we
have to set the babysitter free at 8:00 PM.
You’re never too old to learn, and I learned a lot that day.
When I became director of athletics the first thing I did was book an hour
with five different athletic directors I admired.This book draws on materials gathered over the past 40 years. The early writings came from pre-1984. The following are comments onchanges in the game, some written in 2007, some in 2015.
2007 Observations from Play Is Where Life Is:
Time moves on. What has changed from the 1980s up until now in the tennis world? Certainly some “physical” improvements have affected rac-
quets. So much power generated with such ease. There’s more night play. Lights are better, courts are better, and surfaces are improved. Television
continues to “spread the game.” Instruction is better. College coaches are
now better paid and better informed. Prize money, and more scholarships
for Americans and internationals, has recruited athletes who now “pick
tennis first.” These people are not people who “ couldn’t play anything
else.” And they are bigger, stronger, faster. They train, their diets are better,
weights commonly are used …There has been a positive change in the
governance of matches. The point penalty system cleaned up behavior
problems. College refereeing is better, and they use more refs. Still two
people can’t officiate six (or more contests). Pro players are less likely to
drink to excess now. “Rounders” or “tennis bums” have been “weeded out.” Indoor facilities have leveled the playing field. Now many people, particularly young people, can play year round, not just in the “weather-blessed”areas. When you don’t stop all year long, your “tennis education” grows exponentially (no “re-learning” time needed, or wasted.) One contrast with football and basketball is related to size. Soon there will be a 400-pound, 6’9” football left tackle who is also quick (read The Blind Side) or a basket-
ball player who can dunk himself. Tennis and golf professionals still haven’t produced a dominating 6’7” superstar. Perhaps height produces more
possibility for error in “lengthy shots.” Who knows, but “average-sized”
people still have a chance in championship tennis. (You do need a “big
heart.”) Another factor in American tennis can’t be overlooked: the role of
parents. Connors (mother), McEnroe (father), Evert (father), Agassi (fatherand brother), and the Williams’ sisters, are ample proof that the tremendous role of parents in the development of championship-level American players. Mr. Williams certainly gets the award for “out of the box” results. To train one child to be number one in the world is amazing but number one and number two at the same time is unprecedented. And done without normal routes of American junior play and USTA super support says a lot.
I was disappointed by the way the Williams sisters were often treated by
many in American tennis. They were extremely good sports, as evidenced
repeatedly. America was well served by Venus and Serena. Tennis too. The
effectiveness of western grip forehands, like two-handed backhands, has
been truly “certified” by numerous players. I would still encourage young players to add (“I didn’t change anything, I gave you a new one”—Jim Verdieck) a backhand underspin ball. It is a “tool” worthy of learning the grip change from western to continental, needed to hit this valuable shot. If there were one other obvious suggestion it would be to observe how many forehands are now hit with “open” stances. Many “purists” of
my day would straighten up that front lead foot. I think the racquets aid
young players here, but the “western gripped—open stance—sling-shot
forehand” stands on its own feet (one quite “open”). All players now have
access to what the great players of the later 20th century taught tennis.
Here are some examples (in addition to two-handed backhands and open
stance forehands): Bjorn Borg. I think long taught the world to “hit it as
hard as you can.” And he hit it in! It could be done. Topspin helped! (“I may
hit long, I may hit wide, but I won’t hit into the net.”) Pete Sampras: Serve
and volley with the same philosophy as Borg’s ground-stroke attitude. If
you hit it as hard as you can you eliminate a lot of judgment errors based
on “how hard to hit when?” (“Grip it and rip it”—John Daly.) Martina
Navratilova and Billie Jean King: Women can play the all-court game. All
things being equal ground stroke wise, those who can attack also will win.
There were at least two other contributions that are “must mentions.”
Andre Agassi: Took ground strokes and the value of conditioning to a
whole new level late in his career. Becoming extremely fit, Agassi had a
period of time he ruled tennis by running opponents into oblivion with
the simplest of strategies: Hit it hard as hell into alternate corners (with few
errors) until the other guy was “spent” physically. That truly was impressive.
No one had done this as well as Andre. All made contributions, but none
more so than the overall ability of Roger Federer and the ease with which
he executes all of it. Perhaps no other player has had more “total” ability
than Federer. His talent is staggering. Would he be the same were it not
for the lessons of Borg, Sampras, Laver, Agassi, Martina, and Evert? Is he
the best ever? I can’t say. What I suspect is there are youngsters watching,
learning, and practicing to take it all to a new, and perhaps unknown,
“new level.”
Watching tennis is going to continue to be exciting. Bet on it!

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