Saturday, May 29, 2010

Imitating the pros: Knowing what to copy

Pete Sampras had a characteristic series of movements and gestures that he engaged in as part of his serving repertoire. Some of his movements seemed to be a necessary part of his routine while others seemed occasional and accidental.

For example, Pete characteristically let his tongue hang out his mouth. As much as that disgusted me, I understood that this was part of an instinctive cooling method he relied on, given his reportedly genetic blood condition. I am confident that no players will ever deliberately copy this gesture. It had no relevance whatsoever to the mechanics of the Sampras serve.

But Pete also tended to lean backwards at the beginning of his serve, his left heel held downwards while his toes pointed to the sky (see photo). This was his stance regardless of where he placed the ball. As a result, it was often difficult if not impossible for his opponents to read or anticipate the placement of his serves. Hence the lethality of the American Beauty.

A number of pros have since copied Sampras’ serving motions including his unique opening stance. For example, Maria Sharapova starts her service motion with the exact same foot placement. It generally works for her.

But not everyone should start serving this way. Especially those who, like me, are inclined to be on the shorter end of the height spectrum. Think about it for a moment. Leaning backwards in this way, with the left heel placed downwards, is actually going to temporarily make you shorter. If your height hovers anywhere between 5 ‘ and 5’ 5”, you can’t afford to do anything that lowers your already low center of gravity. Certainly not in a sport that favors those who can see more clearly over the net.

Height of course is not the only dimension that one should use in determining whose game to copy. In fact, sometimes height is irrelevant to the particular shot. I copied my angled forehand return from Andy Murray. I copied my crosscourt forehand from Steffi Graf. Both of these players can eat off my head easily. But I can copy these shots because the players’ height has nothing to do with their ability to hit these particular shots.

Which brings me to the point of this article. One of the most wonderful aspects of a Slam is the tremendous opportunities that amateur tennis players get to study the games of the pros. We can all learn a lot about how to play tennis from watching those who exceed in the sport. But it’s important to know exactly what you are copying. And more importantly, you need to make sure what is right for your particular body frame and your particular kind of game.

For example, I learned a lot about how to rally effectively from watching Andre Agassi. No one could keep the ball in play like him. Indeed, keeping the ball in play was part of his strategy of wearing down his opponents. Andy Murray uses a similar strategy. It may not be accidental that he has also spent time in the former Agassi training camp.

But even Agassi was not always a reliable model of instruction. Back in the day I used to go to see him lose in the first round of the tournament formerly located at Stone Mountain GA. That Agassi was a completely different (and worse) player than the Agassi I saw every year at the US Open. It was amazing. I learned a lot about rallying from US Open Agassi. Stone Mountain Agassi didn’t have a damn thing to teach me. Some years I wondered if I had imagined his presence – he was outta there so fast.

When copying a particular shot from a pro, it’s important of course to look at the very best. But the best cannot always be determined by what is effective. Serena Williams has a perfectly effective drop shot. But Guillermo Coria’s drop shots were a far sight better in terms of quality, spin, placement, and disguise. I know that Coria has given up on tennis but his matches are worth watching when they come on the Tennis Channel. The man was a drop shot king.

But while Coria was a great model for the form of the drop shot, he was not the best model for showing when and how to use it. In fact, Coria sometimes had a tendency to go to the drop shot well a bit too often. So does Andy Murray. But Guga was excellent at timing his drop shots for moments when they are most lethal. In other words, it is important that you know what a player has to teach you. One size in tennis never fits all.

Which brings me back to Pete Sampras and his cocked feet. Pete could get away with this because he is a tall man. Both he and Maria Sharapova are over 6’ tall; they could both afford the slight dip in height caused by leaning backwards. Short players however need not apply.

 Former world number one Pete Sampras plays in an exhibition match at the SAP Open in San Jose

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