I played two years of execrable doubles in high school, and then put my sticks in storage for the next 15 years.
When I picked up the game again in my early 30s, I started with lessons. The weekly sessions weren’t enough to satisfy my hunger for instruction. I repaired to the library. I read through the instructional features in back issues of Tennis magazine, stunned that this kind of information was so readily available. I checked out a series of Nick Bollettieri videos–Sonic Serve, Ballistic Backhand, Killer Forehand. Would I ever be able to hit the ball like that?
I ventured back into the stacks, and checked out just about every tennis book in the Chester County Library System. For sheer entertainment, my favorite was Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly, though its emphasis on strategy was probably a couple of years ahead of my abilities when I first picked it up. The two books I return to time and again are Timothy Gallwey’s classic, The Inner Game of Tennis, and, more recently, Greg Moran’s Tennis beyond Big Shots.
Gallwey explores the conflict between the unconscious self–the instinctive physical genius that teaches us to walk, run, reach, and balance without a word of instruction–and the conscious self that tries to control its unconscious doppelganger.
If you’ve played even a little tennis, this duality is familiar. Every once in a while, you hit a stroke perfectly. The sweetness of the feeling shocks your conscious self to attention. “How did I do that?” And then you’re done. Your consciousness starts issuing instructions in a vain effort to recapture that moment of unconscious perfection.
Gallwey offers some suggestions for trying to disengage the mind and let the body take over. I’ve tried them with mixed results. But when my game falls into a deep funk, I return to The Inner Game more than any other resource.
Moran’s Tennis Beyond Big Shots is more tactical. Like Winning Ugly, it preaches consistent, low-risk play. Oddly enough, it doesn’t evoke in me the same anxiety about errors that Gilbert’s book does. Maybe I just discovered it at the right time.
I’d come off a USTA season when I was trying to hit through my opponents. I didn’t think I had the stamina for a consistent game. I also believed that I had enough weapons to win without it.
I didn’t win a match all season.
When the USTA computer recalculated the ratings, I was bumped back to the minor leagues. Then, I happened across a tennis column by Moran somewhere on the Web. He wrote that when they win the toss, most rec players should opt to receive, not serve (again, much like Gilbert!). Moran’s piece included statistics showing that most players below the 4.5 level lose serve, more than hold. Absolutely true in my case. The article led me to Moran’s book at a time when I was ready to heed its lessons:
“If you can hit the ball in the court five times each point, you’ll probably beat 90 percent of the players who are beating you now.”
“In its simplest form, the strategy for high percentage singles is as follows:
1. Never hit a second serve.
2. Get every return of serve back in play.
3. Hit your groundstrokes crosscourt.
4. Approach straight ahead.
5. Take control of the net.
6. When in doubt, throw it up.”
So simple, and yet so effective. As I’ve tried to incorporate these simple strategies into my game, my results have improved, and with them, my confidence.
What are the great books in your tennis library?