I always knew this journey through Tennis Canada was going to be an uphill battle. The main strike against my success was that I only started playing tennis five years ago, at age 28, a time when most talented players are on court solely for fun.
(Yes, I realize that’s a significant strike).
So, how do I expect to compete with teenagers and guys in their early 20s who have been playing tennis their entire life? As I mentioned in my first post, I hope that my athletic background and experience playing high-level sports would give me an advantage over players born after Y2K.
Basically, I’m old, I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs in my sports career, and I’m doing this series for fun. That hopefully gives me a leg up over kids with less maturity and experience, and higher stress levels trying to make tennis their actual career.
READ MORE: Second Serve: Time for a montage
But here’s a newsflash: Tennis is a really difficult sport (Thanks, Captain Obvious).
Of course, I’ve always known tennis is a hard game, especially at this stage in life, but that thought really coalesced for me on my visit to the Waterloo Tennis Club last month.
(Quick aside: The support for this blog from the tennis community has been amazing. I appreciate all of the kind words and interest in my posts.)
One of those supporters is Gary Winter, the head pro at Waterloo Tennis Club. He sent me a note after my second tournament and invited me to the club on a snowy April afternoon to help shore up my weaknesses (or areas of improvement as he called them). Overall, I spent three hours on court with Gary.
It was an eye-opening experience.
Strategy-wise, my focus on the court has always been to try to hit hard, flat groundstrokes for winners. Sometimes that would result in actual winners, but more often than not, my unforced error count would just increase exponentially.
During our initial hit, Gary emphasized the efficiency of a rally ball (a shot with lots of topspin and clearance over the net that falls near the baseline) and to aim these rally balls at my opponent’s weak side. The goal is to either force an error or wait for my opponent to give me a short ball around the service line where I can then be more aggressive with more court to work with.
I also have a tendency to hit a lot of balls into the net because I don’t leave myself room for error with my shots. Flat shots often fly too close to the net tape, whereas providing more shape and topspin to my forehand and backhand will enable me to clear the net with ease, while still hitting balls deep into the court. I will also stay in more rallies and make fewer mistakes.
I always wanted to hit the ball as hard as I can because, in my mind, that’s ‘sexy’ tennis. But it’s not winning tennis. Gary also gave me some notes on rally length and tactics, all strategies to win quick and easy points and stay in long and difficult points.
READ MORE: Second Serve: Progress in tournament #2
There’s much more to learn about how to play winning tennis and I’m just scratching the surface. But I’m thankful for Gary catalyzing that learning process.
Next, we moved on to my serve. I was being facetious at the end of last month’s video when I said I would finally start listening to the advice of fixing my serve. In fact, that’s ALL I’ve been doing thus far in 2018.
But there are just so many moving parts to a proper tennis serve and I’m trying to build one from scratch. And every person I encounter has different tips on how to improve my serve.
Not different in terms of contrasting information, as all of the advice has been correct, but one person will tell me I need to fix my grip. Another person will tell me my contact point is too low. The next person says my toss is poor.
It’s just a never-ending deluge of information and I’m trying to absorb all of it, make changes in real time, all while being on court only once a week to practice. It’s been an extremely frustrating experience at times. If I had a swear jar with me while I practiced my serve, the sheer volume of curse words spewing from my mouth would give me the net worth of Roger Federer.
I feel like every time I take a step forward, I take two steps back (I’m the tennis version of Paula Abdul).
I served amazingly well (for me) in my match before I met with Gary. And I served horrendously on court with Gary. I couldn’t understand why until Gary pointed at my feet. My footwork was all over the place. I was falling off to the side, backwards, tripping over myself. I couldn’t stay balanced.
READ MORE: Second Serve: A visit to Tennis Canada
How can I ever create a consistent serve if I can’t replicate consistent mechanics?
This is what Gary had to say:
“Footwork supports what your upper body is doing. Everything starts from the ground. As well, by keeping your balance better, you are forced to have a more consistent, controlled toss. I know it can be challenging when you are so used to moving around so much, but ground forces work best when your feet are on the ground. Being more dynamic/explosive will come after you get some more consistency.”
We did a number of footwork drills and things started to click. Then we moved to my contact point. I had to get rid of more bad habits here. Like my groundstrokes, I like to hit hard, fast serves. When they go in, they are great. But I have way too many double faults under my belt. Gary worked to drill that mindset out of me with some more pearls of wisdom related to my pitching background:
“You don’t have a problem with power. Your challenge is control. It doesn’t matter how hard you can throw if you can’t throw strikes. Your main focus should be not on hitting your serve so hard and flat, but on shaping your serve. Think of your serve as throwing strikes with a slight curve ball. Get the serve to the backhand side of a right handed player (to the T in the deuce box and out wide in the Ad box) and that should set up the next shot in the rally (i.e. serve + one). Not many righties are used to returning a lefty serve. Use this to your advantage. If you simply serve hard and flat, it’s not really taking advantage of being a lefty. Think that you get two chances to make the same serve, not so much that you have a first and second serve.”
I am cautiously optimistic when I say this, but I am seeing some real progress as I venture to ‘put it all together’ (I am even doing shadow serves at work right now as I write this).
I am eschewing a big ‘fastball’ first serve to focus on consistent mechanics and using top/side spin on my serve. In fact, during my last match, I had less double faults than my opponent for the first time in my tennis career.
Here’s the report card from the video above that Gary gave me. I will be working with him again over the summer to see if I can improve on these Cs and Bs.
I was pretty disappointed that my May open tournament was cancelled, but I figured creating my own tournament at my home club against our top player was the next best thing.
Enter 17-year-old Elizabeth Rozin. She will be attending Northern Kentucky University in September on a full ride Division I tennis scholarship. This was my chance to face D1 talent firsthand.
The match is covered in-depth in the video above but here were my main takeaways, which echo what Gary was trying to teach me.
READ MORE: Second Serve: Starting from the bottom
Elizabeth’s shots were consistent; maddeningly so. Everything came back with just enough pace and were just deep enough on the court that I couldn’t go on the offensive and attack her offerings. I’m happy to report that I used Gary’s advice and hit rally balls to both sides of the court to get Elizabeth moving around as much as possible.
Of course, she was doing the same to me and, more often than not, Elizabeth was more successful in forcing errors. But I played much smarter than I have in the past, making her work for points rather than committing errors early in rallies.
Winners-wise, I actually hit more than Elizabeth did from the baseline! I waited for opportunities to really let fly with a hard, cross-court backhand rather than hit hard and flat at inopportune times.
However, Elizabeth won the majority of the long rallies by waiting me out with her consistency or by coming to the net and putting winners away with volleys. Although I lost 6-1, 6-3 in straight sets, I am happy to report that it took Elizabeth an hour and a half to put me away.
And I played much better in the second set than I did in the first. The work I’ve put into my fitness over the past couple of months has really paid off as I was able to play in long rallies and play at a high level for 90 minutes (a stark contrast to me falling apart after an hour in my second tournament). I just lost to a better player.
But my overall game, including my serve, is clicking at a much higher level than it was just a couple of months ago. And the summer hasn’t even started yet! Hopefully, I can continue to build on this progress before my official third tournament in June.
Click here to watch and read previous episodes