The Next Level of Men’s Tennis (10)

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic’s win over Rafa Nadal in the 2011 Men’s US Open Championship showed tennis fans a new level of play in the history of the sport.   I’ve discussed Nadal’s “Circle” strategy to defeat Federer and the rest of the men’s tour consistently.   But Djokovic has taken the baseline game to a new level. He has perfected deep, heavy shots that keep Rafa out of his circle.

Djokovic and his team have engineered their rise to the top of the men’s game much like Andre Agassi’s team did. A rigorous fitness regimen and diet have amplified his natural counter-punching style, and he is returning serve and hitting passing shots as effectively as any player ever.    I can’t remember a Grand Slam final (grass, hard, or indoor) where the first service percentage carried almost no statistical advantage.   Neither Nadal nor Djokovic benefited from their normally deadly first serves.   It makes you wonder if Pete Sampras could have held service while serve-and-volleying against Djokovic.

This also makes me wonder about the upward evolution of the game, and who will achieve the next level.   Djokovic has almost perfected “corner to corner” baseline strategy.    One thing that does seem to be growing in effectiveness is the drop shot.    The old adage that “you can’t drop shot on a hard court” is being tested more at the top level.

There are four corners on each side of the court.    Two are up at the net.   The only player I have seen who could hit a un-returnable drop-shot from the base line was Charlie Owens.    Many watched Charlie dismantle quality players with a disguised, feather like drop shot that confounded even great players.   Maybe there is someone coming along with this unique touch, who combined with the other tennis skills needed will produce the next level in the never ending evolution of tennis.

Women players might be well advised to note this possibility.    And to be aware that not only should she be able to hit drop shots, she must be able to defend against them.    My guess is that many players and teachers have realized there are four corners on each side of a tennis court.

Reflections on the 2017 Grand Slam


The US Open tennis tournament in New York concludes the 2017 grand slams.   Might just be me but it seems there was the most ever tennis on television when it comes to great matches to view.

What were the highlights of the year?

  1. Has anyone ever played a better “surface season “ than Nadal did on clay this year?  Or with more laser-like focus than  yesterday’s   USOPEN final with Kevin Anderson?
  2. Could God have given us a better role model than Federer?
  3. Will the critics of American tennis be hushed by the women’s semifinalists in NYC’’s Open?
  4. Has there ever been a slam that featured more great early round matches (Halep vs Sharapova, Federer vs Tiafoe, etc.)?
  5. What is tennis going to do about injuries?   (Causes: Parity? Rackets, strings, balls, equipment,?   Three out of five sets for men? Intense movement?
  6. Thank you, Venus. And don’t let them forget what sister has done.
  7. Rock stars emerge, ie Denis Shapavolov,Coco, Sloane and Madison, etc.
  8. How did Sam Querry get so much better so fast?
  9. Kevin Anderson, the next bright international who honed tennis skills with 3 years of American college tennis experience?
  10. Will we look back in wonder as to how we survived without the roof. Or how many close call arguments technology saves ?
  11. Shouldn’t officials penalize racket crushers?
  12. Has the center of the court shifted to 2/3 on the forehand?
  13. Will the notable efforts of the USTA ( The roof and renovations, the Orlando program, the net/generation program, etc) do the trick?
  14. The Bryans have made better doubles world wide.

PS I continue to believe our best player development program is American college tennis, and we need to reserve scholarships for our kids first.

And that few of our best players get there without playing on their high school tennis team.   Some, but not many.

Tennis is a “travel sport”. Storm clouds are gathering.

If the USTA bought the rights to Pickleball they could have 10 million annual memberships next year, only then to grow annually. Watch what is going on.

Could the USTA develop its own college tennis division that would provide scholarship motivation worthy of the effort and expense required to earn a grant?


A.31 Speaking at Awards Banquets (14)

1. While this is a special time for you, your time is limited.

2. Rehearse your speech and try to finish 2 minutes under your allotted time.   Brevity is the soul of wit.

3.  Respect your audience.

4.  If you speak for too long, you infringe upon the other speakers’ time, and create the potential for audience discomfort.

5.  Many speakers “get in and can’t get out” — it’s okay to just stop telling a story and move on.   Practice it.

6.  Some speakers are surprised by their emotions.    Talking about parents, family, team mates, coaches and schools can trigger deep and powerful and surprising emotions.

7.  The monitor runs the show.   It’s essential that the moderator make the ground rules for speakers clear in the rehearsal.   If you should exceed your time limit, the monitor will rise.   This is the signal to wrap it up quickly.

After many years and events, I believe the moderator has the right to protect his or her audience.   Too many times I have heard “he talked too long,” or “she ruined it for others,” or “I’ll never go back to another one of those.”  (NOTE:  ARTICLE 72 HAS SOME HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS ABOUT SPEAKING AT ATHLETIC BANQUETS)


Football at the Crossroads

In the late 1960’s an orthopedic doctor, concerned about the health of his football playing sons, wrote his observations. Dr. O. Charles Olsen’s book, “The Prevention of Football Injuries,” made note of the adverse and pronounced effects of “spearing” or head gear to chest tackling.   While this technique was effective and caught on quickly, the number of deaths and severe injuries rose as a rapid level never before witnessed before in football.

Dr. Olsen concluded that energy equaled one half of the mass times velocity squared. (e=1/2m x v squared).   The bigger, stronger, faster players were creating a force that couldn’t withstand head gear to head gear, or head gear to knee contact.

The consolidation of schools eliminated many of the smaller players.   African American footballers were added to the talent pool, along with weight programs, better diets, and better coaching, and in many instances steroids.   Tremendous contact ensued.   And, while efforts have been made to control this violent hitting, football is at a crossroads.

The question of the long term effects of head contacts have forced the questions of (1) are we dealing with concussions properly,(2) are we legally liable if we turn our backs on the problem (3) are the linemen more vulnerable than we thought and (4) can you “take the head out of football?” and on and on.   These questions have been around.   Perhaps no one has done more research than UNC Chapel Hill.   Dr. Carl Blyth and Dr. Fred Mueller have done yeoman’s work in an attempt to protect our young players.   This effort was begun a long time ago.   Dr. Mueller still pursues the data at the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

Pro football features a real ballet each game day.   The receivers and defensive backs are making plays that are at a new level of brilliance  . Truly a work of physical, human art. At the same time Olsen’s theory of force is hardly better exemplified than when a receiver crosses the field and is hit by a defensive back.   And, while a defensive back may be penalized for “head hunting”, he knows if he jars the ball loose, and or intimidates the receiver, his game rating goes up. While this risks tragic injury possibilities (his own included) is his job security a factor that urges him on?

The crossroads football faces include some other variables.   The more violent the hitting, the more the injury.   Yet the more violent the hitting the more market appeal the game experiences.   Are we getting to the “gladiator” level of violence?   And while college and professional football are in the crosshairs of violence, perhaps high school footballers are even more vulnerable.   And here is why: The weak and small and slow are eliminated at the college level.   But in many high schools, small players may face tremendous opponents.   These guys hitting the “canon fodder” can create catastrophe.

“You can’t take the head out of football” might become “you must take the head out of football.”   How to do this is the crossroads question.   I fear the 2011 season will make this even more apparent.   “I would let my son play football, but I would not encourage him to play football.”  James Michener, Sports In America 1976.

Beautiful Eastern North Carolina

May 13, 2007
The People’s Forum
PO Box 191
Raleigh, NC 27602

Dear Sirs:

In the Spring of 1968, as the coach of Atlantic Christian (now Barton) College’s Men’s tennis team, I took our team to then Elon College.   After the match, as we exited through the campus, one of our freshmen commented,   “Coach, I wouldn’t want to go to that school.   Look at the campus.”

In 2003, Elon University was selected as the second most beautiful campus among colleges and universities in America! (Santa Cruz, California was #1)

I was employed by Elon in 1985 and changes were already gathering steam.   I watched for twenty plus years.   If you haven’t seen Elon lately, you would be impressed.

How did it happen?

So often, one person deserves the major credit.   Elon’s leader was President Fred Young.   I’m not sure how many doubters there were, but I am sure that Dr. Young could tell you plenty about being told that there wasn’t enough money, or that his was a “pipe” dream, or whatever.   Dr. Young had a “Fred Mobile”, or golf cart, that he and his wife, Phyllis, would survey the campus with.   Often, he would stop and pick up trash.   It all impressed me, as well as many others nationwide.   And it transformed Elon’s entire image and self perception.

I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life, Mountains, Piedmont or “the East”.   And I love Eastern North Carolina, now living on its beautiful coast.   But Elon spoiled me.

We need to clean up Eastern North Carolina!   Dilapidated barns, houses, sheds, trailers, mobile homes, vehicles, yards, etc. make far too many “eyesores” for the well being of our area.   It’s bad for business, our future and our people.   The development of the “Inner Banks” is coming fast. Our whole area has great potential…but “Image is Everything”.

I am an old coach, not a politician or social reformer. I know I could get shot on private land. I’ve heard about the problems with asbestos, etc. How, I don’t know, but maybe we could raise money for this vital cause. Maybe the dreaded “tax” word.   Maybe a trust fund gathered over a period of time.     County by county? Town by town?    Is there a “bell cow” out there?

Some will scoff, resist, maybe be offended. Certainly some people:
1. Can’t afford to do this
2. Can’t physically do this
3. Can’t legally do this
4. Are too old for this

We need a plan.   We need leadership.   We have great potential.   Our offspring, families, neighbors, businesses and environment will be the benefactors.

“…everyone must flush out his house, if he doesn’t expect to be going round housing flushes.”
Bob Dylan, “The Open Door, Homer”

With sincere belief in our State,

Tom Parham
Emerald Isle, North Carolina

“The Outliers”

Letter to the Editor
January 23, 2012
News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina

In his bestselling “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell concludes that the single most important factor in a child’s education is if he/she has parents who read to him/her at an early age.

The Abecedarian Project (see last week’s News & Observer) firmly supports the need for early education (i.e. reading skills) which have “…very long term implications.”

The “Parental Link” to reading is not available to many “at risk” poor kids.

North Carolina would be wise to support the above mentioned project geared at funding early age reading education.

Tom Parham
Emerald Isle, North Carolina

A.29 Coaching the Green Jays (52)

On a recent trip to visit my son, his wife and our only grandchild, Andre, I was fortunate to see the “Green Jays” soccer team play 3 times.   While there is a Texas bird, a beautiful one much like our Painted Bunting, I heard two other reasons for the name selection.  One kid said, “There have never been Green Jays before.”   Another said, “They give us green shirts.”

Six year olds are tough to coach. You can count on two things:

1. If hurt, they will run to their mothers
2. Concentration vacillates.

My friend, Randy Campbell, has advised me, “You can buy grandchildren!” Or stated another way, “Money won’t buy everything, but it will keep the family closer.”  My grandson concentrates currently on quarters. Quarters beget dollars and dollars beget Legos.

He also likes to play goalie   After 40 years of coaching I have learned to put the variables together:
1. Memorize “tip”—Yields 1 quarter
2. Memorize tip 2—Yields 1 quarter plus 2 more if you can repeat tip 1 and tip 2
3. Memorize tip 3—Yields 1 quarter plus 3 more if you can recite tips 1, 2 and 3
4. Memorize tip 4—Yields 1 quarter plus 4 more if you can recite 1, 2, 3 & 4
5. Memorize tip 5—Yields 1 quarter plus 5 more if you can recite 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5

Here were the tips:

1. “The first part of quick is ready.”

2. “Kick it hard, and run fast.”

3. “Never, ever, quit.”

4. “Don’t be scared. Don’t get mad.”

5. “Have fun but learn something every practice and game.”

Andre did very well. Cost me $5.75 in quarters.   I have to admit, I’d sneak other suggestions in on him.    Example for #1: Remember to, as goalie, “Keep your hands up and bend your knees, and keep your feet moving.”   Got to be subtle with  corollary suggestions or he/she will want more quarters.

Not all are given to coaching much at age 6.   I was struck by the reaction of one youngster when a parent shouted, “Kick it!” at her.    Her face clearly stated she had no intention of kicking anything.   Don’t know about Boulder’s people…There wasn’t a Romney sticker in town, but if she lives in North Carolina in 2027, she’ll be a debutante.

PS: Another Boulder highlight was Sophie’s birthday party…One father brought his two goats.   I asked their names. “The female is Tallulah. The male is Vincent Van Goat.”

Golf Putting and Free Throws (13)


Hall of Fame basketball coach Jerry Steele told this story. When tryouts were allowed, he had a young man in the campus gym, demonstrating his shooting ability.  Showing very limited success, the young man stopped and commented to Coach Steele: “I’m sorry I’m doing so poorly coach, but you make me nervous.” Coach Steele replied, “Well, my intentions are to be at every one of our games.”

Pressure is emotional.  Controlling your emotions is part of getting positive results. Just as you have to master the physical part of the game (conditioning, skills), and the mental part of the game (strategy, rules), you must train yourself to control your emotions. In sports your two primary negative emotions are fear and anger, and both are self directed. The only way to learn how to play under pressure is to play the game competitively. The game is the best teacher.

Pressure affects momentum in sports.  One of the hardest things to learn is how to play when ahead.  “Killer instinct” may sound mean, but playing well while you’re ahead prevents having to deal with momentum and pressure shifts. Nevertheless, all elite athletes get into pressure situations. Some love pressure, but my guess is that they have spent years preparing themselves for these moments.  Every backyard basketball player has mentally placed himself on the free throw line, with the score tied, and the clock set to expire. All good tennis players have had to hit a second serve defending match point.

It is astounding how many pro football games end with a field goal attempt. The same is true of basketball: the lowest percentage shooter on the line with the score tied, and 2 seconds left on the clock. While field goal attempts vary in length and field conditions, free throws are the same distance universally.  And, indoors, they are not affected by weather.  They are not immune, however, from pressure.

Finding golf late in life, I had already experienced the carry over of skills and ideas from sport to sport. Dave Pelz is golf’s short game guru.  His book “Short Game Bible” is a must for learning golfers.  Pelz notes that conversations between pro golfers and their caddies don’t center around tens of yards, but yards themselves.  They want the approach shots within 8 feet of the cup, where putting odds drastically improve. He reveals the term “omigods” which refers to golfers hitting putt too hard with their hand muscles.  These hand muscles, plus pressure, can affect putting distances in amazing distances.

Pelz’s solution is to take the omigods out of putting by employing a “dead hands” technique.  The length of the putt, or pitch, is determined by the length of the stroke.  While golfers who are good putters have a good touch, Pelz scientifically shows how “pendulum putting” comes from the shoulders, not the hands.  Others suggest length of putts comes from varying body rotation lengths, rather than the hands.

My suggestion for basketball coaches is to explore the success of “dead hands” golf putting as it applies to basketball free throw shooting. Even in pro basketball I see all kinds of hand actions, affected by nerves and pressure.  These poor shooters with jerks, flips, or omigods in their shots are sought out and fouled at games end.

There are at least three main variables that control free throws: the legs (how far to bend, how far to rise.), the arms (how low to take the ball), and the action of the hand and the wrist. Shooters should use a cupped shooting hand with the ball placed in tips of their fingers and thumb. The real key to success is learning the proper wrist action in the shooting hand. Here the great coaches will be able to convey just the exact “dead hands” release by the shooting wrist. All good free throw shooters have a pre-shot routine, like golfers, or tennis players, or field goal kickers.  Experts say 8 seconds is maximum for a pre-shot routine.  Any longer and you will lose your mental target.

Bjorn Borg’s comments upon winning on of the greatest tennis matches ever, 1980 Wimbeldon final over John McEnroe, were essentially these: “I was very nervous inside. I thought surely I will lose this match. I told myself I must put these thoughts out of my mind.” And, most importantly, “I will not quit under any circumstances.”

Made in the USA (12)

The Bryan Brothers

I was a small college tennis coach most of my career.   In the 1970s, international players took over college tennis and the scholarships awarded for tennis.   It started with the small college men, spread to small college women, and then on to NCAA Division 1 men and women.

There was much discussion about this issue.  Those favoring the argument for limiting foreign scholarships lost, myself included. Forty years hence, observing a progressive downward spiral of American’s professional tennis rankings, I wonder if there is a connection between the two.

Did American families, parents, and players, realizing the drastic change in supply of college tennis scholarships, redirect would be top players? The financial commitment from a family that’s needed to produce a world class player is staggering. Those who commit have only two possible financial paybacks: the rare professional success, or a college scholarship. Eliminate scholarship likelihood, and the bet is questionable at best.   Shouldn’t American tennis organizations support parents in their commitment? College tennis scholarships (or the lack thereof) send a powerful message in America.

If it is in the best interest of American organizations, a reservation of college scholarships for Americans seems to be a start. Note that I am not unaware, or unappreciative, of the many fine internationals who have helped colleges, universities, and their tennis programs. How about a goal of 50% of tennis scholarships reserved for Americans?

Summer Update (7)


Over the past three months, there has been some good news and some bad news. Feedback centers around errors, mostly typos, although I did name the Ritter’s mule Nell, when it was actually Kate. There have been some valid questions about the 1st edition of the book. For example, did I have to use the bad language ? I knew it would be controversial when I did it, so that’s that. Another critique has been that this edition is really a combination of two books — one about my childhood, and one about tennis and coaching. That’s true, and anyone interested specifically in the tennis, especially kids, should start at Chapter 9. These chapters can help young tennis players, their coaches, and parents.

The good news is that I’m glad I took the time to write and publish the book. The emails, letters, and phone conversations that have resulted from this project were worthwhile. Many readers cited the humor as entertaining, and several offered appreciation for both the openness of the memoir, including stories of some of the tougher times in my life.

Having always been a coach, the writing world has surprised me. I’ve reunited with many old friends. My high school reunion was made much more meaningful by my classmate’s acceptance and interest in the project. Most books have been bought by someone I know or was connected to personally. Maybe writing is about connecting. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting.

I am especially thankful for a recent book signing at Barton College. Three and a half hours flew by, and yet I still wanted to continue the conversation with longtime friends in attendance. I appreciate all of the people that have helped build interest in the book with signings, reviews, and hostings – Our State magazine, Elon’s The Pendulum, The Islander (of Emerald Isle), The North Carolina Tennis Foundation. Thanks also to Jack Webster, a friend from my hometown of Madison, NC, for spreading the word.

Excerpt from Chapter 10 : Coaching Team Tennis (6)

If my knowledge about coaching college tennis were judged on what two topics I was most often asked to speak on, it would be (1) How to get on a college team and (2) Doubles.

The United States Tennis Association produces a document for prospective student atheletes. I’d like to emphasize a few points:

1) If you really want to play, go where you can play.

2) Its been said that many athletes gravitate to one level beyond their ability. There’s never been a “happy substitute.”

3) In college tennis if you don’t get to play your first year, you probably won’t get to play. This is not always true but do you want to gamble?

4) When tryouts were allowed, I’d have my #4 player play a set with the prospect. If the prospect played closely with #4, he had a chance at our school. It was amazing to me how many times a prospect, having just lost 6-1, would tell a parent, “I’m better than that guy.”

5) Transferring, if you make a mistake, is not always easy to do.

6) The single most important issue in college tennis is the international issue.

I would like to state firmly that I believe tennis players who want to play college tennis should play high school tennis. Many talented players (and their parents) think this is a waste of time. I disagree. “Prima Donnas” sometimes haven’t learned the team concept, and don’t function well in college tennis. College tennis requires personal sacrifice. You can learn a lot about that on even a limited high school team. Plus you are playing for your school.

Having coached fifty plus international tennis players, I have this strong comparison to make with American junior tennis: the American player can fire the American teaching pro! If the pro makes the player work too hard the junior will tell the parent, “I don’t like him/her.” New Pro! Internationals beat these kids like a “borrowed mule.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in junior girls. The pro hits easy balls left to right and collects the check from a happy client. That girl, confronted with an awkward mis-hit or a good drop shot has no clue. Most act if some tennis etiquette has been broached. The girl’s national 14’s was held in neighboring Greensboro, NC for several years. I can tell you that the winner almost always: (1) had the best drop shot and (2) had done a lot of work defending against the drop shot.

A strong piece of advice I have for freshmen, once they have selected a school, is to be match ready on day one of September. Many players take the summer after graduation off, having fought the junior tennis and high school wars for years. They assume they’ll go to college, get in shape again, and work their way in the lineup. Wrong.

College tennis today is essentially year round — it often features individual tournaments in the fall, team matches in the spring, and personal competition in the summer. Some schools play in tournaments as early as the second week of September. Very often challenge matches for positions on the team happen almost immediately upon arrival.

Challenge matches are perhaps the most important college matches you will play. Early fall and cold February matches can determine your college career. Challenge match policies are also extremely important. My essential guidelines were:
1) Challenge matches earn you a spot in the lineup, match play preserves the spot. These are perhaps the most grim matches in college tennis.

2) The two most important challenge matches were between: #6 and #7, as this determines if a player starts; and #8 and #9, as this determines if a player travels with the team. The coach should always witness these matches.

I always felt eight players was the ideal number for a team. This does vary. Two seasons in my 35 year career, I played the same lineup every match with no subs on the team. One of these years we were undefeated — pure luck. Girls teams need more players. But too many gets “testy.” I never cut any team I had until NCAA rules on squad size and gender equality forced me too. Many kids will come out just to hit with a good player. Those kids don’t get much help with a win-oriented coach who’s working with the top kids. Regardless, many subs go on to teach tennis. They love the game. I tried to keep them around, for the games sake.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 (5)

I guess my first venture in to “fabrication” occurred with the fire chief. I don’t remember talking to “Chiefy” Martin, but the story goes I had a fishing pole or stick, with twine and a safety pin and was fishing in the two foot creek. “Chiefy” asked me if I’d caught anything and I said “…four”. When he asked where they were, I replied, “I’ve already eaten them.”

I distinctly remember my second, more serious, lapse. My dad gave me a white envelope with 50 cents in it for each Sunday’s collection plate. At about age five, I absconded with the fortune, not realizing he counted the money. When he asked where I’d acquired the shiny piece I told him from “Brownie Swan” who played the piano along with my mom in the church. Not a good answer. Although Brownie was beautiful, a fact I realized at five years, and while she seemed amused, my father didn’t.