As I’ve noted before, I’m a big believer in the idea that you develop strokes through feel and repetition, not the application of verbal instruction. A believer, yes, but an inconsistent follower.
In my own game, I struggle to shut down the conscious mind and let the body and autonomic nervous system take control. I can generally subdue the conscious mind’s impulse to direct the action on my groundstrokes. Three or four shots into a rally, my consciousness is subsumed in the rhythmic patterns of footwork, contact, and follow-through.
Inevitably, maybe after stroke eight or nine, the spell is broken. “Get low, and step into the ball,” my conscious self shouts at its unconscious doppelganger. The magic vanishes. I shank the ball, dump it into the net, or drive it long as I make a conscious effort to apply more topspin.
For a few precious moments, however, I experienced tennis as I dream about it.
I have yet to experience these moments of perfection on the serve. I’ve taken lessons, read countless threads on tennis-warehouse.com, committed Tennis magazine’s occasional features on the serve to memory. And yet the stroke has never made intuitive sense to me. Until my 20s, I served with an eastern forehand grip. The results were so horrific that I grudgingly acceded to a tennis pro’s plea to use the continental. I stared at the grip, the racket face perpendicular to the ground, certain that the edge of the frame would chop through the ball like a hatchet.
That didn’t happen, of course, because of something called pronation, which was just about impossible for me to conceptualize. But I soon ran smack into another obstacle: an inability to keep my serving arm loose. I read the gurus. I know that my arm should be like a whip snapping through the ball.
But when I watch tape of Federer, Sampras, and Roddick, I can’t reconcile the deep knee-bend, the uncoiling of the kinetic chain, and the explosive release of potential energy with the idea of “looseness.” The world’s greatest servers look like muscle-bound strongmen, not limp lengths of rawhide.
So I strain. I tighten up. The more I try to put on my delivery, the tighter I get. My wrist locks. The ball lands two feet long. There’s a metaphor, an idea I haven’t yet discovered, maybe even a simple image, that will help me translate these ideas of looseness and fluidity into something I can understand and apply. But I haven’t discovered the magic metaphor, not yet. Until I do, my conscious self will remain in control, snapping to attention as the service toss rises above my head, and barking orders at my body.