Yesterday while watching the Sydney finals between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva, it occurred to me that these women have a future market in producing instructional tennis tapes if they wish. It’s incredible the degree to which their rivalry produces consistently high quality and creative tennis. They have faced each other 11 times in their career, with Serena having a seven game advantage. And they quite literally bring out the best in each other.
Their matches are not only beautiful to watch but they are also highly instructional. If I were a tennis coach, watching Serena vs. Elena matches would be required homework for my students. This is because between these two women you can see exactly how to go about constructing and winning (or defending) a point.
From watching their matches closely you can learn how to move from aggressive to defensive, when to use drop-shots and lobs, when to move into net and volley, how to use the other’s pace and power, when and how to re-direct the ball, how to create perfect angles, and of course how to serve and return serve properly. Of course Serena maintains the advantage in serving but yesterday Elena produced some surprise down-the-line winners that let me gasping. And even the bad serves can be instructional because they highlight the importance of the toss and proper follow-through.
Between both women you also see the importance and effectiveness of proper footwork. Serena was injured yesterday so her speediness was a bit lacking. But let’s be honest, even when she is playing 100% there are times when Serena can get tangled up in her feet; this rarely if ever occurs for Elena who is quick-footed and moves sharply. Both women are fluid tennis players with excellent and intuitive anticipation. And of course both are very fit. Between them they offer a ton of free tennis instruction.
I’ve also been thinking about my distaste for side-to-side bashing tennis of the kind that women like Jelena Dokic and men like James Blake play. I’ve since grudgingly conceded that this type of tennis can be effective, particularly against baseliners who are allergic to coming to net. And yes, everyone needs to know how and when to play side-to-side tennis. Even between Serena and Elena yesterday, there were moments of excellent side-to-side exchanges. But what makes their matches instructional is that this is not all that they can do. They produce and create (and therefore teach) so much more.
To clarify, the kind of side-to-side bashing that turns me off is when that is all that the players know how to do, and when their only goal is to move the tennis ball from one pocket of the court to the other, from the deuce court to the ad court, back and forth and back and forth, until the opponent gets tired or preferably sprains her or his ankles and can move no more. That kind of tennis shortens careers. And makes me yawn.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of tennis players for whom this is their only game-plan. Nada mas. I personally find it is boring as hell. And no match was more boring so far this year than the finals between Bhadatis and Mardy Fish in Sydney. Side to side, back and forth, pocket to pocket, sprinter vs. sprinter, until Mardy started running out of steam, hit a ball out of the court, and the match was finally and blessedly over. I had dental surgery yesterday so I couldn’t even numb the painfulness of this match by drinking a beer. I had to endure it stone cold sober. I can think of few punishments more awful.
What makes Serena vs. Elena the best instructional match-up for me is the sheer variety of the shots they manage to produce between them. More importantly, you get a sense of the high level of strategizing that goes into the choice and timing of each shot. I’m not saying that theirs is the best rivalry in woman’s tennis (although it is certainly one of the best). I’m arguing that theirs is the most instructional. Feel free to tell me in the comments below who are your best instructional match-ups in tennis.