I approached the net. The teaching pro ripped a forehand at my feet. I gave the ball some space, crouched low, and angled a half-volley into the open court. The pro shook his head in bewilderment. “You can hit a 5.0 shot like that,” he said, “but you’re having trouble with a 4.0 forehand.”
At the start of the lesson, I’d been trying to hit my forehand on the rise. I stood on the baseline. The pro fed me deep forehands. The ball was on top of me before the racket face had begun to accelerate through the hitting zone. The pro put ball after ball in the same spot, but I couldn’t find the groove. The stroke felt unnatural. And yet here I was picking half-volleys, a shot I never practice, off my shoelaces.
My peculiar mix of skills was a function of baseball.
Short-hops and half-volleys
As a kid, my sport was baseball–Little League, American Legion, two years of high school ball, and countless afternoons shagging flies and fielding grounders. I played the shortstop until high school, when my weak arm put me at second base.
I had a good glove. Through hours of practice, I developed the fast-twitch reflexes necessary to short-hop a frozen rope exploding in the dirt inches from my face. I could smother a bad bounce as the ball careened off a stone or clod of dirt.
These days, when I scoop a half-volley off the court, I feel those same instincts and reflexes at work. When I learned to play second base, I was unwittingly working on some of the all-court attacking techniques I’d use in tennis some 20 years later.
Wait for the pitch, but not the forehand
Baseball may also explain some of my limitations in tennis. I bat right-handed, the same side as my forehand. When the ball is in my strike zone, I can rip my forehand with pace and spin. The racket grip reverberates in my hand. It feels like a stick of Louisville lumber after a solid line drive.
But if I have to move to the ball to keep it in my hitting zone, I struggle. You don’t chase the baseball out of the batter’s box. You wait for your pitch. In tennis, you can’t. Cement shoes limit your ability to make the most of whatever your opponent gives you.
On my backhand or left side, where I have virtually no experience hitting baseballs, I have a much easier time moving to the ball and hitting on the rise.
My experiences on the court suggest something self-evident that I’ve nevertheless found surprising. We don’t develop discrete athletic skills, each tailored to a single sport. When we learn to throw a football, we’re learning elements of the serve. When we learn the balance, control, and footspeed necessary to dribble a soccer ball past a defender, we’re developing the scrambling skills that can keep us in the point against someone who’s groundstroking thunderbolts into the corners.
The tennis player I am today is the baseball player I was yesterday.
Which sports have shaped the tennis game you play today? Or has tennis shaped your skills in any other sports?