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.


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.

Coaching the Green Jays

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.”

Coaching Team Tennis

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

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.

Our State

Our State Magazine June 2008

Play is Where Life is covered briefly in the June issue of “Our State” magazine. Here’s the quick blurb – “A collection of memories from Parham’s 67 years, Play is Where Life Is includes antics from his childhood as a preacher’s son and his career as a National Hall of Fame tennis coach, which included nearly 20 years at Elon University.”

3rd Edition Books are now available (1)

Play Is Where Life Is

“Play is Where Life Is” collects the memories of a North Carolina native over the past 67 years – stories range from the shenanigans of a preacher’s child, to the adventures of a freewheeling 1950s teenager; from a small college athlete to a National Hall of Fame tennis coach. Topics include crossroads, inventions called the automobile and television, tragedies, accidents, and plenty of drama from a cadre of small town characters.

The author covers topics from his 40 year career in college athletics including integration, Title IX, television’s impact, and internationalization. He also gives his thoughts on children and parenting in sports and, for high school athletes, he covers how to select and get in the right college athletic program. Other chapters include : how to successfully coach team tennis, highly skilled athletes, girls and women; levels of play; giving advice to players, parents, coaches, and organizations that govern tennis; and the behavior of players.

A special chapter investigates music’s affect during a personal crisis that included two failed back surgeries, a hip replacement, quintuple bypass surgery, and a “respectable” addiction to alcohol. All of these ups and downs in a career of coaching that matured into an appreciation for “play” and those willing to join the arena at any level.

If you are interested in purchasing a book (soft cover, 400 pages, 3rd edition), please send a check for $27.95 with your return address to :

Play is Where Life Is
c/o Tom Parham
202 Blue Crab Court
Emerald Isle, NC 28594

or email the author at :