Saturday, May 28, 2011

The problem with playing too much tennis

Back in the day it was popular to criticize Venus and Serena for not playing enough tennis. From the start this was their father’s strategy and he stuck by it even as the top coaches he hired to help train his daughters told him that he was wrong in his refusal to allow them to play Juniors. Despite the criticism and despite the fact that all he knew about tennis came from reading books, Richard stuck to his guns. And that became the template for his daughters’ careers. Play few tournaments, prepare mainly for the Slams, and almost always win when you play.

Despite his cautious approach, both of his daughters have suffered tennis injuries. Many saw that as the downside to playing so little. They felt that the Williams sisters came to events without being properly match-toughened. The critics felt that the approach of playing too little tennis did them more harm than good – not when it came to their bank balances because they would always pass on the lesser events and go for the million dollar wins – but perhaps in the risk of injury to a body not used to the grind of competition.

It’s a tough call and I see both sides. But if I had a daughter who played tennis, I would probably err on the side of Papa Williams than Papa Wozniacki. It is a fact that Caroline Wozniacki plays too much damn tennis. Indeed, I was shocked when none other than Lindsay Davenport made that statement categorically yesterday as she watched Wozniacki get dismantled by a resurgent Hantuchova. The 28-year-old experienced player made Caroline look like a mouth-breathing Junior.

I believe that the mouth-breathing golden retriever (hereinafter to be known as MBGR), has two main problems. I’m sure that there are more than two but I am focusing on the main ones that need to be fixed stat. The first is that she is playing too much damn tennis. The second is that she is a cautious, non-risk-taker who aims to please – much like a golden puppy who wants to play fetch. And I mean no offense with this analogy.

I am sure that it must be a very difficult challenge for a coach to try to find that right balance between practice or training, and playing. I believe it was John McEnroe who admitted that he hated tennis practice and often used playing as a form of practice. But playing and competing can never be a substitute for training or practice – not if you believe in the 10,000 hours rule. In training you work on improving your fitness, developing new strategies, building new shots, strengthening your game plan, and repairing areas of weaknesses. When you rely only on playing, there is the likelihood that you will simply keep repeating the same old same old, which then becomes a permanent part of your muscle memory. Next thing you know your game plan is as predictable as the opening of your mouth.

That is the problem that Wozniacki now faces. I’m not saying that she doesn’t do any off-court training. I am sure that she does. But she spends far more time playing and by doing so, she keeps repeating and falling back on the same passive retrieving game plan.

There was a single backhand shot that Caroline played decisively in the second set against Hantuchova. It was a single shot that stood out because you knew that those were the kinds of shots that the #1 player should be able to produce repeatedly, easily, fluidly. It was a beautiful backhand shot, and it was distinctive for being the only one that she played that powerfully for a decisive winner. Really, let’s be honest, this woman is becoming an embarrassment as the # 1 player in women’s tennis. I’ve given her the benefit of the doubt before. Having seen her up close in Charleston, I can’t any longer. She needs to get off the court and go back to practice.

But she also has to develop the mental strength that will allow her to take risks. Wozniacki is way too cautious, too careful, too concerned that her blue nail polish is perfectly matchy matchy with her dress. She never steps outside of a mental safety zone. She doesn’t dare. Whenever Papa Wozniacki comes out and talks to her, what subsequently changes is that for a moment she loses the passivity and becomes more aggressive. Her game plan remains the predictable same, but she plays with less fear. In a Slam where Papa Woz can only mutter from his seat but not in her ear, she remains hidden inside herself, too scared to cross the line. That is a psychological problem. And as long as she is reliant on Daddy to help her out of it, she will never win a Slam.


Klaas said...

I think you are confusing mental strength with mental freshness, a different animal altogether. CW has proven her mental strength on court plenty of times.

But no matter how mentally strong a player you are, if you play too many matches, sooner or later your ability to have the right perspective of the match, and to reach deep when necessary, will suffer.

As far as Daddy is concerned, I think you are putting way too much in that. Ok, his peptalks seem to energize her play sometimes, but I have also seen the reverse happen. What is certain, is, especially when you follow their danish interviews, and having seen them work out on court, that they have a quite healthy relationship.

Lastly, I accept you do not like her style, but I think it makes for interesting matchups, as too many girls on tour have a hit or miss strategy. You can now see that the better players in order to beat CW, have had to rethink their strategies, and wait with going for the big shot until the right time. CW also plays a lot more agressively than say a year ago, so lets see if she can develop that tendency in the next year.

As for the 10.000 strokes rule, I tkink, that was invented by coaches in order to keep them in the money. It applies only if you learn to do something which does not come natural to you, usually not a very good idea. You actaually wrote an interesting article about that,

But I agree with one thing, CW needs a lot smarter scheduling of her toornaments. This lesson seems to have been learnt for the grass season, so lets see.

tennischick said...

Thanks for your comments Klaas. For a minute there you sounded so defensive that I couldn't help wondering if you might be a representative of Papa Woz. :-)

Truly I did not mean to give the impression that Caroline is a mental weakling. She is not. She can be quite the fighter -- especially after Daddy whispers in her ear. The area of mental strength that I would like to see her work on is to take more risks. For most of the match she is content to retrieve and defend. And because this approach has been effective and has brought her to #1 after much repetition, it is now ingrained as her style of play.

I'd like to see her step away from competition and go off and learn other strategies for creating points, dictating play. That requires a willingness to take risks, and to not be frightened when the plan goes awry. In order to win Slams Caroline will need to develop a more strategic and commanding game. I'm not saying that she doesn't strategize at all, but but that she needs a wider repertoire on which to rely at the right time in the big matches. Anything less and she will continue to be yet another #1 player who has never won a Slam.

Now please whisper my advice into Papa Woz' ear. He doesn't seem to be listening to anyone.

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