A teacher of sports skills soon realizes tasks include:
• Having a concept of what the skill looks like when correctly executed
• Seeing where others are going wrong
• Correcting execution
• Leading through a proper program to eventual proper execution on
a reflex, or match, basis
Tennis is no exception. A good teacher will set up enough practice balls
so errors are corrected. This is a main task, and good teachers, pros, and
coaches work doggedly at it. There are some common misconceptions on
the part of pupils however. Perhaps it is worthwhile to examine a few of
these. First, no teacher can tell a player how to play. He can only teach the
player how to practice. It’s like a person taking piano lessons and never
touching the keys–the student simply cannot learn without actual practice
on the piano.
Some people conceive of tennis as lessons. Tennis is play. As a city tennis
director I observed people repeatedly taking beginners’ lessons from one
year to the next. When I ask them how they have done since last year they
often reply “oh, I haven’t played since the lessons,” or “I could never find
anyone to play with.”
These people haven’t understood a basic fact regarding improving one’s
tennis game: you are dependent on other people. There are some ways
to overcome this fact, namely lessons, ball machines, backboard practice,
racks of shag or practice balls – yet no one avoids the inevitable. You must
have someone you can count on to play or practice with. Often you hear “I
like to play with better people,” and perhaps to play with an equal is best.
But to play with anyone is better than not playing at all.
Often the most natural practice possibilities, i.e., family member, friends,
neighbors, or rivals, are somehow eliminated because of various reasons.
“Oh, I can’t play with my father, he shouts at me all the time,” is one excuse.
“I can’t stand to lose to her” is another. “I can’t count on them to be there
on time,” or “to play hard when they come” is frequent. At this point I think
the player should have a “heart-to-heart” with their potential practice partner. The gist of which would conclude: “Look, I need you to get better,
and I know you want the same. Let’s set a regular time, keep our mouths
shut, and promise each other we’ll work as hard as we can while we’re on
the court. Also we’ll swap practice hits on an equal basis.”
“Swap practice hits?” What does this mean? It means that if you are,
and have, a dependable friend, you can set up the practice balls rather
than pay a pro a fee for such service (or fail to practice because of an
absent coach). This agreement has enormous potential for specific shot
improvement, yet will go awry quickly unless each person is conscientious
about hitting his share of the set ups. It also helps players to make note
of their weak shots and their friend’s weak shots during play. A sincere
effort must be made by the players to set up the practice balls realistically.
(Communication helps here!) Again, it helps to “blend” shots that go
together naturally. For example, player one practices serving at the
backhand while player two practices his backhand return. Next the
players reverse roles. Drills can be fit together in a limitless number of
patterns and shots, yet some are time honored and should be emphasized.
Even coaching college men who were quite talented, one had to sell
the players on the value of drilling and their dependency on each other
to practice properly. Of course, more than two can practice together. A
coach would never allow absenteeism, tardiness, or the “I just don’t feel
like practicing hard today” excuse. For player A to improve, player B must
extend himself. The entire team’s improvement is dependent on each
member’s maximum effort to extend their teammate into improvement.
A sack or rack or bag of practice balls is a common sight around
tennis courts today. Surely you should hit “tons” of practice services. You
can bounce hit, backboard practice, and work on the ball machine. You can
take lessons from the best, but to really improve, friend, you need a friend!


These are the suggestions most often repeated by parents to junior
tennis players. Perhaps some players understand. However, sometimes it
looks as if the juniors conceive of themselves being in a hypnotic state of
deep concentration, wiggling all of themselves at once. “Is this what my
parents want? Is this what they mean by move? What do they mean
A sympathetic mentor sees that while the parent’s sometimes caustic
and impatient requests are well-founded, the junior player quite possibly
might not fully understand these terms as applied to tennis. Let’s examine
them more closely.
Movement in tennis is perhaps the real secret to the game. Ultimately,
the game boils down to quickness and defense against poor “hit spots” or
contact points. Tennis starts in your head (specifically your eyes and your
brain) and moves to your feet and legs quickly. This is ample justification
for conditioning and practice.
A trained player’s eyes and brain track the flight of the ball to the perfect
“hit spot.” Anything less yields a lousy stroke. Move means to get your
racquet back quickly and properly and to get to the ball properly. For all
but advanced players, getting to the ball properly means to be set up so
that when you “step hit” a descending ball will be in the absolutely perfect
“hit spot,” whether forehand or backhand.
A baseliner’s task is to move to defend against poor “hit spots” much as a
basketball player moves defensively with the core thought being, “don’t let
the ball get out of the proper contact point.”
A player will probably deliver a good shot if the player:
• Winds up with his feet positioned properly at the completion
of the shot
• Points his racquet at the target properly during contact
• Keeps his wrists firm in the hit zones
• Concentrates properly
What then, does concentrate properly mean? The most often repeated
phrase in tennis is “watch the ball.” Yet it is quite possible to watch the
ball intensely without either moving or concentrating in tennis terms. To
concentrate properly one must not only “watch the ball” but also focus on
a target. While watching the ball and tracking that ball to the perfect hit
spot, the concentrating player is formulating a mind’s eye target of where
the ball is to go. This is concentration in tennis: “Watch the ball; where does
it go? Where does it go; watch the ball!” There is constant target selection, thus constant concentration. It is like a golfer putting; he must watch the
ball but intensely concentrate on the cup. Only tennis players move too!
While this seems obvious to parents, juniors may neither understand it,
nor understand how it breaks down under pressure or adversity. Perhaps
beginners would do well to concentrate on only one target. If nine of ten
players are right-handers and the majority of these are weaker on the
backhand side, then concentrating on this target alone makes a junior
strategically sound up to a surprisingly high level.
If tennis is the “ability to hit a changing target while moving and under
stress,” then moving and concentrating are the core of the game.
Parents—you are right, but you need to explain yourselves!


Welby Van Horn would use this technique to teach ballistic swing
footwork. Once you have made the ground stroke or serve or volley, hold
your follow through (or ending) to a count of “3,000”). Look at your feet.
Are your balance foot and adjustment foot correct as described in “The
Ballistic Swing” section?
“Balance is the clue to good tennis, and footwork is the clue to good
balance” –Welby Van Horn.


Welby Van Horn would use this technique to teach ballistic swing
footwork. Once you have made the ground stroke or serve or volley, hold
your follow through (or ending) to a count of “3,000”). Look at your feet.
Are your balance foot and adjustment foot correct as described in “The
Ballistic Swing” section?
“Balance is the clue to good tennis, and footwork is the clue to good
balance” –Welby Van Horn.


“Levels of play” dictate strategy. Strategy is your “game plan”; tactics are
the tools you use to implement your strategy or plan. I have enclosed two
articles I wrote. Singles strategy draws heavily on “Wayne Sabin’s ABCs of
Tennis Strategy.”
Basic Strategy Outline
(by Jim Leighton) SINGLES (From Wayne Sabin in Inside Tennis)

  1. Consistency. Keep it in. Crack your opponent with concentration,
    hustle, and steadiness. This is by far the most important strategy
    in tennis.
  2. Keep it deep. If it’s deep, he can’t get to the net successfully. There is
    great tennis “virtue” in depth.
  3. Keep it at a weakness. Most often his backhand; backhand passing
    shots are the most common tennis weakness.
  4. Position. Move them from side to side. Some can’t hit when running.
    Also, this tires your opponent, and tired players lose concentration
    and make errors.
    If you can’t do number four, back up to number three. Can’t do
    number three, back up to number two. No good even then? Back up to
    number one!
    The object is to use these four tools to force errors. Four of five points are
    determined by errors not by great shots.
    The next best thing to an error is a short ball. Dennis Van Der Meer
    defines the strategy of tennis as “to attack the short ball.”
    The short ball is the green light to attack. This varies from player to player
    (and from opponent to opponent).
    You transfer yourself from a baseline defensive player to a net offensive
    player on the short ball. An approach shot is a specific and different shot,
    best described as compact or shortened. It is often an underspin shot and
    should be directed deep and down the line.
  5. Overplay to the same side you approach on. Bisect the angle of your opponent’s best two passing shots and then (as Jim Verdieck of Redlands defines strategy) volley away from the source, or passer.

A firm approach shot often results in an easy volley. A lousy approach is
usually “pass city.” Work on your approach shot.
Here are some quotes on singles strategy from people I respect. These
rang true for my many players in many matches.
figure 2• “Find out what your opponent can’t do, or doesn’t like to do, and
make them do that” –Jack Kramer. (Think Nadal over Federer in the
2007 French Open. Target? Federer’s backhand.)
• Don’t change the “line of the ball” unless you are sure you can make
the shot. Otherwise cross courts “ad nausea.” Two-handed backhands
down the line shots will “slide wide” too often, believe me
• When asked what he would do differently, Ken Rosewall replied, “I
would hit a lot more balls cross court.”
• Cross courts get you out of trouble. (Jim Verdieck demanded the
cross court ball from his team.)
• Get yourself in a position to “volley away from the source”
–Jim Verdieck.
• Any ball hit extremely deep in either corner allows a good attacking
possibility –Jim Verdieck. (“2 and in”)
• The simple strategy of tennis singles: “Attack the short ball”
–Dennis Van Der Meer.
• Good approach shots make easy volleys –Jim Leighton.
• No shots in “no man’s land” is a myth –T. Parham.
• Rule 1: Find a good doubles partner. Rule 2: Get along with your
doubles partner.


I based my doubles strategy on the assumption that all four players
have the basic tools of doubles. You may want to start with “two back” at a
beginning level. Club women often play “one up, one back.” My best girls’
team (even at a good college level) contended: “We just get them up at the
net and then lob it. We win!”
In doubles my main emphasis was on the service return. I encouraged
our players at every practice to hone their return by being aggressive. To sharpen or hone that return by repeatedly attacking and moving in where
ever possible. We gambled, took chances, often over hit, and did reckless things on practice returns. In matches, when a big break point would win
the doubles point for our team the pressure wasn’t nearly as damaging.
Doubles is a “one-two” game.
Being a member of a high school team is a valuable experience. Team
tennis has broadened many people. Larger squads, more fall play, schools  with more than one team, and more matches than the traditional “six
singles and three doubles” (or nine point matches) are ways to allow more
people to play that may not be too far away.
For now a youngster must set high goals to make his or her team. The
first goal is to “get a suit,” or make the team. Goal two is to get to play in the
match. Goal three is to win a match. Goal four is to win more than you lose.
Goal five (the ultimate) is to win a team championship.
Back to the starting blocks. How do you make the team? While singles
make up two-thirds of the points in the traditional team match, I have
coached too many contests that were won by the doubles point. Every
team member has realized that it is tougher to watch than to play on those
cold March afternoons when this high drama develops. As a coach, I have
also noted that good kids (or team-oriented players) have an advantage
in these pressure-packed matches. My inclination then, is to select these
people for my team. Advice well taken for the marginal player could then
be to develop your doubles ability to make the team. Some organizations
are even beginning to dictate that doubles team personnel be different
from the singles starters.
My answer to this first step question, “How can I best insure
doubles success?” is always, “Get yourself a good partner!” More often than
not a coach will make this decision for you (though most will want team
opinions). Once partners are determined, Doubles rule number two is
paramount: “Get along with your partner until the match is over.” This
doesn’t mean you have to kiss each other or that you can’t make
suggestions, but to pit yourselves against each other makes it a
three-against-one contest. My experience has been that the cardinal sin
in doubles is to blow up at your partner for the same error you have just
made or are moments away from making. (“Double faults are double
trouble in doubles!”) Doubles is a different game than singles.
Ask tennis people what makes good doubles players and they will
probably suggest that you get your first serve in, or develop a great
chip-backhand service return or to never miss that first volley or to hit a
lot of lobs and low-angled shots. While any number of skills are involved,
I have found a quick summary of each of the four players’ duties is a good
way to teach strategy. These suggestions assume each of the four players
can execute the skills of doubles (If not, you must practice fundamentals
until they are mastered). Each player will function in each role many times
during the match. Each player should memorize the basic duties of each
position, master the skills involved, and improvise as they improve. The
concept that both coach and player should bear in mind is that doubles is a “one-two” game. The core strategy is to set your partner up so he can hit
the ball down.


Player A (The Server). The server’s main jobs are to hit the first serve in
and at the opponent’s backhand. Then to one-two-three, check with your
feet, and punch the first volley away from player D. Most any ball that is a put away should be handled by player B, becoming the “two” of your one-
two play. The server should follow the first, or transitional, volley to the net in tandem with player B. The next shot could be the put away.
Player B (The Server’s Partner). The theory of doubles holds that the
serve is stronger than the rest of the game and will cause an error or a
floater to the middle of the court. It is B’s job to think middle and to cash in
on the 6–1 ratio: Points won in the middle, compared to those lost down
the alley, set up by the serve. Many times this player will become a
figure 3

“shrinking violet” after a few misses and simply freeze in his spot. This is a
cardinal error and B must learn to keep coming in spite of even bad
errors. I encourage my B players to watch A until mid-serve then turn and
go to the middle as soon as they hear the ball hit by their serving partner.
A more conservative thing to do would be, when they turn and see the
serve actually hit in the backhand corner, where it is most apt to create
the desired “floater.” An even safer time to move is when they see the
receiver tilt the racquet to the backhand side, thus committing himself to
his weaker shot. B may make the play much more aggressive by the use of
signals that commit him to the 100 percent poach. Doubles teams must
pre-ordain whether they will operate on signals or instinct, with equal
arguments for both schools of thought. It is wise policy for doubles teams
to understand that an instinct mover may back off an extremely good or
low return and allow the server to handle this ball from a deeper, more
solid position. Most often, however, the serving team is geared toward
the “boom-boom” or one-two set up by the serve.
Player C (The Receiver). The serving team has the odds in their favor in
terms of the one-two play. Yet many receiving teams fail to understand
that a good return can turn defense into offense, or a “boom-boom” for the
receivers. If 90 percent of serves in doubles are directed at the backhand,
it is incumbent on doubles aspirants to develop great backhand returns.
Perhaps this is the skill that most determines doubles success. While
topspin is the order of the day in singles, the underspin backhand return in
doubles is the fundamental shot. It should be aimed at the “short corner”
(or where the side service lines interact), and its function is to cause the
server to hit his first volley up. Well hit, this shot will create a one-two play
in which D of the receiving team moves in to volley in between A and B
(just as he does for the serving team). One of the secondary possibilities
C has is to lob great services. A deftly placed lob, aimed over B’s head, can
take the one-two away from the server. This shot is a fundamental shot in
doubles and can take the sting out of big serves and fickle momentum in
favor of the receivers. Of course, if there is a service weakness (particularly
on second serves) the receiver may effectively knock the blazes out of
this weak shot for a one-shot winner. These three options: Underspin
backhand, lob over B, or hammer the weak serve give player C his
assignment. Also, C must freeze B with some shots down the alley. While
the odds are against this risky shot, it must be employed to keep B honest.
A good rule for C is the more the net player (B) bothers you, the more you
hit at that player.
Player D (The Receiver’s Partner). Just as B is looking for a one-two
approach to end the point, D’s intentions are to use his partner’s return to set up his own “two” performance. He must, however, respect the power
of the service and establish himself at mid-court in contrast to B, who is
already at the net. From here, he must execute several unique techniques.
First, he becomes an on-court linesman who aids a receiver faced with a
tough return. Second, he assays the quality of his partner’s return. If the
underspin return is on target, he quickly moves in to create the desired
one-two off the server’s “up volley.” If, however, the serve causes the
predictable weak return from his partner, he must make another quick
decision. Perhaps he can avoid eating a yellow ball. Quite often he may
elect to stand his ground and anticipate B’s in-the-slot slam by placing his
racquet in front of that predictable shot. In any event he makes a quick up,
back, or stand-your-ground decision based on the quality of the service
return. The ability of the receiving team to combine the low cross-court
return with D’s movement possesses the combination needed to provide
the all-important service break in doubles.
The competent coach will continuously devise drills for players B and
D in an attempt to perfect the “closing in” action essential to one-two
success. Players must constantly be encouraged to move their feet to set
up the “boom-boom” effect when a tennis ball hangs momentarily just
a bit too high. That’s what you are trying to create; that’s what you are
waiting for—don’t have your finger in your ear and your mind in neutral
and miss the one-two of doubles.


A few comments on ground strokes and women. I was a “pre-two
hander” in 1961. Pancho Segura showed the world how to hit one but
conventional wisdom said, “two-handed backhands are only for those who
can’t hit a one hander.” No Evert, Connors, Borg, Austin, etc. I’m glad many
young ones didn’t listen. Soon the tennis world realized not only can a lot
of people hit it two handed, it’s often a better shot offensively. The two
hander gave many average players something they’d never had: offense or
topspin on the backhand side. Until the two hander, college men followed
this regimen: they’d practice like heck hitting a one-handed topspin
backhand. Then, when the match was on the line they’d revert to their
more trusted underspin backhand ball. There were certainly exceptions,
but by and large this statement is true: “Most average male college players
can’t hit a reliable one-handed topspin ball.”
Once the two hander got “certified” you began to see average high
school players who could “tattoo” a topspin two hander, and the game
changed forever, for the better.
However, a valuable tool was neglected for many. Coach Jim Verdieck
gave me one of his business cards. It had an interesting sentence on it: “I
didn’t change anything, I gave you a new one.” I asked him what he meant.
Essentially he said the two handers were so protective of their newfound
weapon, the underspin one hander was abandoned. The underspin one
hander is a tool every truly complete player would possess. Too many awkward and/or short shots (approaches, service returns, defensive cross
courts) are best hit by one-hand underspinners.
Often these balls are too difficult to handle with two-handed topspin,
“full,” or lengthy shots.
Like golfers, you have to have a lot of “tools” in your bag of tricks. The
“chip,” or “slice,” is truly a great tool to master. Think “wedges,” golfers.
Slices are tough for little people, young girls, especially. And it’s tough to
add it once you’ve neglected it in “formative years.”
One reason it’s difficult is that people don’t understand the value of the
“hit spot” regarding two different backhands. The two-handed backhand is
“much like a one-handed forehand,” and therefore works best when hit off
the front foot. One handers must be hit about the width of one’s shoulders
in front of the front “balance” foot.
When teaching adult women a “hush” would come over the group.
These “strugglers with the backhand” would grip the racquet just as I, yet
neglect movement to the “hit spot.” Good backhands come from good
grips and good hit spots. I’d bark: “Good hit spots make good shots. Lousy
hit spots make lousy shots. Lousy hit spots make wristy shots, and wristy
shots are lousy shots.”
The term “hit spot” is a direct steal from Coach Verdieck. My guess is
Dennis Van Deer’s early unique contribution to tennis instruction was
teaching pupils to understand the pupil’s adjustment to the bouncing ball.
Van Der Meer and Verdieck were friends.
Once I became better at conveying “movement to the hit spot” my
players at all levels got better quickly.
And the one-handed slice may be the one most helped by proper “
hit spot.”


There are three main “parts” you have to coach: physical, mental, and
emotional. The emotional part is the toughest to deal with. However, there
are really only two villainous emotions: Fear and anger. And they are both
Macky Carden, Elon football coach, told me, “When they get that old
sinking feeling, you’ve got to change their minds.”
That “old sinking feeling” exists in a lot of places; one is on the tennis
court. “Frozen elbows” cause practice to be worthless. Few people can play
when angry at themselves. Maybe McEnroe was “actually nervous” whenhe created those incidences. Angry, maybe, was better than scared for
Mac. Only he knows.
One freshman player’s father accompanied him to my office on reporting
to Elon. He brought a bag that contained thirteen broken racquets. The
father wanted to know if I would appeal to Wilson Sporting Goods to
replace the “faulty” $100 racquets. The fault wasn’t the racquet, it was the
anger with which they were being thrown or banged. I attempted to fix
the real flaw, the self-directed anger that ruled the boy’s game.
No one would practice harder, but to no avail. Within moments this
young man would go into a tantrum, chastising himself in a hopelessly
damaging tirade. He didn’t get angry much with others. It was self-directed
and killer. It took a long time to change this attitude, but without
changing, I wouldn’t allow him to represent us. It took a lot of patience
for him to learn to quit “beating yourself up.”
Here are several comments about the emotional part of coaching:
• Some players don’t have the “nervous system” of a tennis player.
• The only players who do well as team players are those who can
handle pressure. It’s in college tennis. Either you can handle it or lose.
You can learn to handle it.
• Blood flow, more specifically “venous return,” causes “butterflies.”
Proper warm-up can help get rid of the “jitters.” For many they go
away once you exercise.
• There is a psychological “proper level of arousal” for athletes. Not too
“torqued up” but you do need your game face. Different strokes for
different folks.
• Psychologically tough people make the best college tennis players.
• What pressure does to the “one-piston” player is amazing. I saw a
lot of number one seeds lose in the national tournament due to early
round “nerves.”
• If you “hang in there,” it is truly amazing what can happen. Some call
it “momentum” but “pressure” is a more influencing variable. Tennis is
truly unique in that “one point can turn the match around.” This is a
“core” belief.


Perhaps one of my premier coaching attempts centered on pressure and
playing “ahead.” You are either tied, ahead, or behind. Behind and tied are
motivators enough. Playing while ahead is a critical emotional moment.
I don’t know how many matches I saw unfold like this:
Player A is ahead 5–3 in the third set. His opponent is serving. In the back
of Player A’s head drifts this dangerous thought: “Even if I lose this game, I
can serve out the match.”All this results in a lackluster effort at another, and match-winning, service break. The opponent breaks for 5–5 and the “momentum” has reversed itself. Now the pressure, and its power, has shifted dramatically.
Teaching “killer instinct” is key. Ahead a service break? Get a second.
I think that the most vulnerable points are “ahead points,” 40–15 and
30–0. These are the points that 20 year olds lose concentration on, thus
allowing that “old sinking feeling” to reenter.
When ahead, keep the pressure off yourself by staying ahead.