Mayotte discovers the missing link in teaching tennis

Former tennis player Tim Mayotte, whose new breakthrough book, The Framework: A New Paradigm in Analysis of Technique and Movement, closely examines technique and movement as these two elements unfold together stage by stage, explains The Framework in both theory and practice, using superstars in tennis and other sports as paragons of excellence.

Tim Mayotte... Studying the game with as much passion and rigour as he played it.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Ever since the first tennis balls were hit in earnest in Victorian England in 1874, players have pondered how to improve their technique and their movement. Fifty-one years later, superstar and sage Bill Tilden wrote the sport’s seminal treatise, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. Its most famous and timeless dictums — such as “Never change a winning game. Always change a losing game”; and “Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes.” — were both tactical and psychological.

Advances in biomechanics and analytics later in the 20th century steadily increased the knowledge of strokes and footwork, but the most authoritative tennis science was presented in the 2002 tome, The Physics and Technology of Tennis, by Howard Brody, Rod Cross, and Crawford Lindsey. Today websites, such as TennisPlayer.net and tennisabstract.com, analyse videos and statistics in greater depth and detail than ever before.

But aside from the “kinetic chain,” which explains how the sequenced and coordinated actions of the body create an efficient shot, the connections among all the phases of movement and technique proved elusive. Until now.

Tim Mayotte, an NCAA singles champion at Stanford University, a Wimbledon and Australian Open semifinalist, an Olympic silver medallist and No. 7 in the world in 1988, has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with tennis. Like Tilden, he’s studied the game with as much passion and rigour as he’s played it. And like most of us, from hackers to heroes, this fascinating sport has confounded him at times.

Mayotte became a coach in part to learn more so he could better teach players, especially boys and girls aspiring to excel in national and international tournaments. He worked as a national coach for the United States Tennis Association’s Player Development Program for two years and now runs his own high-performance tennis academy in Boston.

As Mayotte’s expertise expanded, he discovered the elusive “missing link” between technique and movement. His new breakthrough book, The Framework: A New Paradigm in Analysis of Technique and Movement, closely examines how these technique and movement as these two elements unfold together stage by stage, so that coaches and players can better diagnose and fix problems.

In this enlightening and thought-provoking interview, Mayotte explains The Framework in both theory and practice, using superstars in tennis and other sports as paragons of excellence.

Question: Are you the first coach to discover and analyse the symbiotic and biomechanical relationship between technique and movement? If not, who were the pioneers in this field?

Answer: I don’t know if I’m the first. I’ve done some research (on the history of tennis teaching), but not a tremendous amount. Most of what I have seen focuses on strokes. There has been a smattering of work done on movement. I know, for instance, that David Bailey, from Australia, has done quite a bit of work on movement patterns. What I have seen is that he doesn’t talk much about the relationship between movement and technique.

Is this technique-movement relationship that you’ve discovered “the missing link” in tennis teaching and coaching?

Perhaps “missing link” is too strong. Still, the connection seems central to me in constructing an accurate and workable model to analyse a game. I haven’t read about this connection anywhere.

Here is some background. When Patrick McEnroe and Jose Higueras hired me, I started working at the USTA High Performance Center in New York City. I was put in charge of developing young players. Fortune had it that a man named Lee Hurst was there. And I quickly realised I knew very little about teaching and analysing technique. Lee, whom I worked with for several years and still do, laid out this concept of seven stages. That was an enormously helpful foundation for me.

Andy Roddick... his backhand was far inferior to his forehand.   -  Getty Images

 

Then, as I started writing, I realised I needed to pay more attention to what was going on with the racket in relationship to the movement. There wasn’t a clear definition of the way the racket and movement needed to work in tandem in the way Lee described it. He came up with the concept of the seven stages, and I tried to deepen the understanding of the two elements.

What ignited your curiosity and passion for figuring out this intriguing technique-movement relationship?

That curiosity has been going on ever since I was playing (as a junior). There was quite a bit I couldn’t understand about why my game got stuck where it did. Bill Drake, my coach during most of my pro career, helped me a lot. But I just felt something was missing. I knew my groundstrokes weren’t great, but I didn’t know how to look at the problems.

Shortly after working with Bill and before I started working with Billie Jean (King), I worked with my former Stanford University doubles partner Jeff Arons. He started to talk about what he saw as the more advanced biomechanical elements of creating power, which he observed players doing. He was dabbling in how movement to the ball affected the stroke itself. But he didn’t take the thinking to a deep level. And Bruce Wright, who was my coach as a junior and an All-American gymnast before he got into tennis, made me aware of the importance of posture, which ignited my interest in biomechanics.

What took your growing passion to the next level?

What really got me so riled up was that I was going to so many coaches’ meetings, and it just seemed like no one was addressing, in any kind of organised fashion, how one should best look at a shot. I found that very unsettling. There was a lot of good stuff on stroke production itself. But I could tell there was a massive hole in the picture; no one was investigating how the stroke and movement impacted each other. I began by articulating the difference between a stroke and a shot.

In my work, fixing strokes was not very helpful without fixing what was happening to the racket and what the movement looked like before the stroke started.

Why is this relationship between technique and movement extraordinarily important?

It’s most important because — and this is why I used the word “framework” — without an understanding of how those two things work together, you can never fully help someone improve. You have to look at the whole sequencing of how those things work together over the course of every shot.

What The Framework tries to do is to to help players understand where a shot is compromised in the whole sequence. Because, if you don’t see where it breaks down — and it usually breaks down way before you get anywhere close to a stroke — then you’re never going to help someone become as good as they could become.

The last American man to win a Grand Slam title was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. No American woman, other than 35-year-old Serena Williams and her 36-year-old sister Venus, has captured a major since Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open. In 2014, you wrote an article titled “What Ails American Tennis?” It cited former world No. 1 Roddick and underachiever Ryan Harrison as telling examples of what has gone wrong. What were their major shortcomings? And how pervasive has this problem been among world-class American players this century?

This is an almost endless discussion, but the vast majority of male American players in the 21st century have games dominated by two strokes — a big serve and a big forehand. So, for whatever reasons, this has resulted in our top talent not developing a very full game. What has happened to Roddick and Harrison and so many others is that their backhand is far inferior to their forehand. That leads to poor court positioning, besides the fact they have one bad stroke, the backhand.

Novak Djokovic's split step...the gold standard in tennis.   -  Getty Images

 

While many folks recognised that those guys had subpar backhands, what few discussed was how their poor backhands led to a compromised capacity for recovery to reach the next ball. That’s because it’s only through the appropriate sequencing of the racket and the use of the base that allows the fullest athletic recovery to get back to the next shot. So not only were they hitting poor backhands, but they were not recovering in the most effortless, efficient way.

Many folks talk about tennis as a game of inches. We need to see it also as a game of fractions of seconds in terms of movement to the ball and in recovery from the shot. Harrison and Roddick were not slower than other players. They were inefficient in their recovery because of poor movement to the backhand and an inevitable subpar recovery caused by a poor technique. The American men can often hold up over two or three sets, but to win Grand Slam events, which have three-of-five-set matches, the lost fractions of seconds add up, and our players have faltered.

 I hope this is changing but attention must be given to the smallest details—not often seen or measured—if we are to create Grand Slam champions again. 

Does the vicious cycle culminate in these players making poor tactical decisions?

Yeah. Because their backhands are bad, they tend to want to hit mostly forehands. So they run outside the (backhand) alley a tremendous amount to try to hit forehands. That’s obvious with Jack Sock right now. That puts them in poor tactical positions. That’s true with John Isner as well. That’s one issue because they’re so far out of the court.

The second issue is that it puts so much psychological pressure on the execution of their forehand. We may be talking small fractions of a second, but their recovery is less fluid and less powerful as they come out of the backhands that they do hit. That’s because only in a perfectly hit shot is the recovery allowed to be perfect. That is one critical area in which the stroke and the shot come together.

This seems like a profound point.

I think it’s a profound point, too. But I think it gets even more profound in a lot of ways. First, to be a truly great player, you have to have both great strokes and great movement. Those two augment and build upon each other.

Second, most shots are compromised well before a player gets to the stroke. This, in turn, means that much more practice needs to be done in these preparation stages and in the recovery phase.

Third, we need to structure practice so the beginning phases are done well. In general, this means more “live ball” drills, with a focus on split-step/racket preparation and footwork patterns.

The quality of potential world-class players depends, to a great degree, on the quality of their coaches. You worked for two years as a national coach for the USTA. What did you learn and conclude about the USTA’s top coaches, its culture, and its Player Development Program?

I spoke very publicly about my disappointment with the lack of sophistication, particularly of the top two guys, McEnroe and Higueras. Jose had developed what he called “the philosophy,” which I thought was a nice beginning point at which to look at developing players, but it certainly didn’t have the depth that was required. The most problematic thing to me was there was a lack of curiosity about how to take in information and change. This was particularly important because they saw “the philosophy” as potentially an understanding of how to develop players that they were pushing on the whole country vis-a-vis the 15 regional tennis centres.

I had many discussions with them. I believed it was not sophisticated enough to train good players. That was borne out by the fact that the players who trained and developed as kids in their centres never really materialised (as world-class players). The players who are good now never came out of their system.

Would you apply that that experience and knowledge to what you’ve written in your new instruction book, The Framework?

The Framework is a more sophisticated method of analysis of developing players. To be clear, I think it’s just a beginning because it's nowhere deep enough to be a total guide. But The Framework offers a way to build shots that begin to become sophisticated enough to start analysing players in a way more beneficial to their progress.

Were McEnroe and Higueras interested in your “framework”?

No, they were not.

So that was tragic.

That is too strong word, but it was sad. It’s noteworthy that my understanding then wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. I first went to them with Lee Hurst’s beliefs, which at that time was much more complete than mine. I said that they didn’t have to implement this 100 percent, but let’s talk about it. They were not open to that.

The biggest telltale sign was that they wanted us to train players in my programme who were between the ages of 8 and 12 the exact same way as the 15- to 20-year-olds they had at the Boca Raton (Florida) training centre. That was absolutely absurd to me.

Venus Williams at the 1998 Grand Slam Cup in Munich, Germany. Early in her career, Venus was unbelievable at covering the court with giant steps.   -  Getty Images

 

Why have you titled your book The Framework: A New Paradigm in Analysis of Technique and Movement?

There is a big difference between analysing and teaching. I hope The Framework offers a substantive enough model to compare an individual’s progress on any particular shot versus that of a great player to determine what’s being done well and what’s being done poorly.

Great teaching is both art and science. There is an alchemy to it. A great coach has to have sensitivity to know how to motivate and when to introduce new concepts and what tools to use to help a player in the best way. The list is endless. Still, I hope a more accurate model of great technique and movement can be a helpful guide to coaches.

Should every player be compared to great players, and should they try to emulate what great players do?

That is a great and complicated question. In general, we have to be sensitive to what certain bodies can do. Obviously, older players and children are more limited in what they can do. For example, I start most young players with a square or closed stance on their groundstrokes. Open stance requires putting 70 percent of your weight on one side. Younger folks need the stability and power of both legs. Also, the focus on rotational power grows as a player gets stronger and gains better balance. This topic demands a book all its own. In general, coaches push their players to play like the pros too early.

The Framework closely examines technique and movement as these two elements unfold together stage by stage. This information enables coaches and players to better diagnose and fix problems. What are the stages for both player movement and racket movement?

The first stage is the split step for movement and the ready position for the racket. The second stage is the unit turn and the grip change, if needed. The third stage is the footwork pattern and the racket preparation, also called the take-back. The fourth stage is loading and the racket enters what we call “the pull position,” which is its path forward. The fifth stage is unloading and the racket goes to contact (the ball). The sixth stage is when the racket goes to finish and there is a reorientation of the feet. The seventh stage is recovery and back to the ready position.

What are the goals of the ready position and the split step?

The goal of the ready position is to get the racket in the best possible position to be able to instantaneously deal with any incoming shot. The goal of the split step is to put the body in a particular kind of motion that best enables the body to move to the shot with balance, speed, and rhythm.

What are the particulars of the ready position?

The particulars are that the racket head normally rests about chest high and above the wrist because for the great majority of shots, the swing path starts with the racket head above the wrist, whether it’s the loop on the groundstrokes or for the volley. The key element for this is that there should be a 3- to 4-inch space between the arms and the torso because when you make the unit turn you want to eliminate variables.

So if the racket is in the correct ready position when you turn and swing, that elbow position and the space will stay the same through all the movement, which will reduce the variables for the movement of the racket head. The combined weight of your arm and racket is about 12 pounds, so unless you are carrying that in the exact, proper fashion, you can’t move in the easiest, most balanced way possible. That covers the upper body. Then you get into movement. I conflate the ready position and the split step. The ready position, as I described it, should be in place as the split step is unfolding. So they go together. Finally, the underpinning of everything that has to happen for great ball striking is that you have to be mentally alert and physically relaxed. Many players are too tight in the upper body when they don’t need to be. So you have to be extremely relaxed in the upper body.

Why does the ready position typically receive only cursory attention by coaches and teaching pros during lessons, in instruction articles, and on tennis websites?

Because we have a fascination with the stroke, the finish, the beauty of what’s done. If you go to the public park, you’ll see people imitating Federer’s forehand, and they keep their heads (a long time) at the contact position. In the old days, they used to imitate Jimmy Connors. People see the result of hitting the ball. But there has not been nearly enough awareness of what has to happen in the preparation to make that shot possible.

The split step is more complex than many coaches and players may realise. Please state its basic requirements.

The timing is probably the most important element. You should be coming down from the peak of the split step when your opponent contacts the ball. The farther back the player is from the net, the higher the split step. So when the player is at the net, the split step is lower because he has less time to react to his opponent’s shot.

The split step should be as wide as you can possibly go, given that you can still maintain power, speed, and rhythm as you move to the incoming shot. At the net, your split step should be wider because normally all you would need in the most desperate circumstances is one lunge to one side or the other. So the potential width of the first step is directly related to the width of the split step.

When the best players are in the backcourt, they have started to turn their feet in the direction they need to go on the way down in the split step. When they don’t have time, they just do a quick step and they decide their direction when they land.

For the best posture, you’re leaning forward a couple of degrees. It also depends on the overall flexibility of the player. But all the great players tend to be very much upright, but leaning forward very slightly.

You likened the split step to an earthquake. What did you mean by that?

Perhaps a better way to see it is to imagine that people could generate electricity from an earthquake. Both the benefit and the drawback of the split step, and why it is so difficult, is that the split step, as a player jumps, creates energy for movement. The difficult thing to do is to be strong enough when you land to stay stable in your core and upright in your posture so you can translate that into organised movement and racket preparation.

So it’s possible to do a lousy split step?

It happens a lot. I believe it is one of the defining qualities between the best players now and the crummy ones. Vic Borgogno is a split step guru, and he has done studies, particularly on the timing of split steps. (http://www.sports-split-step.com/index.php/about-sss/about-vic-borgogno/) He’s found that Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have better timing on their split steps than anyone else on the men’s tour. What happens is that the poorly timed split step not only makes you slower, but just as important, it takes you out of sync and rhythm with the sequencing of the oncoming shot.

You praised Novak Djokovic’s “super-wide and well-timed split step which put him in a grounded pose as if he is a triangle.” Is Djokovic’s split step the gold standard?

I would say so. Because of its width, posture, and balance. Also, it is noteworthy that Djokovic’s capacity to open his outside foot after he lands in the direction he needs to go is almost super-human. If he lands and is going to his backhand side, his left foot will slide open like it’s on a hinge. That’s the foot closer to the oncoming ball. All players want to get in a stance in which the back foot is parallel to the baseline on almost every shot. Djokovic does that with his outside foot probably better than anyone. That opened hip allows an athlete more rotational potential from which to create power to generate an accurate, well-hit ball.

"The way Nick Kyrgios moves is inefficient. He doesn't hit well on either side. It helps a lot that he has a fantastic serve," says Tim Mayotte of the Australian.   -  Getty Images

 

For an analogy, you could not imagine a baseball batter with his feet not turned sideways. It’s absolutely critical in tennis to have your feet totally parallel to the baseline on every shot, at least in the backcourt. When most players land, they do a decent, but not exceptional, job of opening up that hip and getting the foot parallel.

What happens when Djokovic hits his great return of serve?

I was watching Djokovic play a guy with a big serve at Wimbledon, and he was returning from the baseline. In this particular match, he would split step, the guy would hit the serve, he would land with his feet perpendicular to the baseline. Then, almost instantaneously, after landing — this is what is almost surreal about it — before going to his backhand return, his left foot would open up like it was on a hinge. And that became the ground from which he either shuffled to the side and returned the serve or just hit an open-stance or a closed-stance return.

What is a “unit turn”? And why is it important?

The unit turn orients the feet, then the hips, and finally the shoulders in the direction the player needs to go. So the unit turn finishes what the split step has started. It turns the feet, the hips, and the shoulders so that they are perpendicular to the baseline. About 90 percent of all shots require an instantaneous turning of the body. So the unit turn, in essence, prepares the player to either move to the shot in the best possible way, or if the play is right at him, to turn his body which gets the racket in its prepared position to deal with a fast oncoming shot. In essence, the unit turn is a compact turning of the feet, hips, and shoulders.

You’ve called the positioning of the back leg “the cornerstone of all great shots.” Why is that the case?

That's because the back foot being parallel to the baseline gives the player the best possible position to generate power through full body rotation. If that foot is facing forward or perpendicular to the baseline, the potential for stability in the rotation is diminished.

When does the grip change take place during rallies?

The grip change should happen before the end of the unit turn and before any movement toward the ball because there is greater stability when the player has two hands attached to the racket and because there is no confusion about the grip as the player moves to the shot. Otherwise, you can’t deal with fast incoming shots. The non-dominant hand cradles the racket throat and turns the racket shaft to change the grip.

What are the main footwork patterns, and when should each be used?

The best footwork pattern is defined by the movement which gives you the best tactical position that also allows rhythmic and balanced movement to the ball. There are positives and negatives to both open and closed stances. But the steps have to be as big as possible without creating a loss of rhythm and balance. The best players understand this, and they arrive at a specific set of patterns that work for them. My contention is that through natural ability, or through awareness, players have discovered a more efficient set of patterns which also entails using larger steps as often as possible. Now a large step could mean (only) two inches. This is true when a hard shot forces just a minor shift to one side or the other.

What do you mean by that?

When coaches tell players to take small steps, they’re trying to help players find ways to prepare for a shot rhythmically and accurately. The problem is that as ball striking gets faster and harder, there is rarely time for small steps. So with a lot of good juniors, the size of their steps are what was acceptable in the 12s and 14s when they were playing a lot of pushers who hit the ball softly. But they never adjust the size of their steps when they get older and the ball striking gets more and more powerful.

The reason for large steps is that you want to cover as much distance as possible with each step without reducing the balance and the rhythm.

Which players best display this skill?

Venus Williams, early in her career, was unbelievable at covering the court with giant steps. Look at the width of her base on her returns. It’s like Djokovic’s. Her centre of gravity is higher, so it’s a little more complicated for her. If you watch some of those earlier Wimbledon finals, she was getting across the court with tremendous speed because of the size of her steps.

It should also be noted that Federer and others have learned to take almost imperceptibly small shuffle steps when needed. This happens after the split step and when an extremely hard shot like a serve has to be dealt with.

What about small adjustment steps?

Besides getting you in the right position, small adjustment steps keep energy in your body. Similarly, boxers bounce on their toes constantly because they need to keep energy in their legs and their systems to be able to punch and avoid punches properly.

When should you begin your backswing, which is also called the take-back and loop? And why then?

Once the racket leaves your non-dominant hand, it should travel continuously to the contact point, picking speed up all the way to contact. With most intermediate players, the racket stops at some point in the swing path. That breaks the momentum. You want to have constant energy. Once the racket head starts, it should continue to go without stopping.

The fourth stage involves “loading” and getting your racket in the “pull position.” You asserted that “loading” is perhaps the most misused and poorly understood concept in teaching. How and why is it misunderstood? And which top players, past and present, have done “loading” best?

Roger Federer and John McEnroe are clearly the best loaders. Now most of the Americans, especially on the forehand, load — bend their outside right knee — too deeply and way too early so that they give up time (to their opponent), and they lose potential lateral energy that’s available if they’re moving into the ball.

The misunderstanding is that by stopping deep loading on an open stance and then unloading, that is somehow more beneficial than any other type of loading. But McEnroe barely loads. As Federer does, he just takes the fastest possible angle to the ball. Some people might say they don’t bend their knees enough to get maximum power from stroke production because they don’t load deeply enough. Obviously we know that’s not the case because they hit their shots unbelievably well. They go right to the fastest point. So whether they use an open stance or a closed stance, they’re getting lateral energy transferred from their movement to the ball into the stroke.

Take a look at Sam Querrey’s forehand or Jack Sock’s forehand. There is not always an instantaneous stop and a deepening of the knee bend as they start to unload their forehands. They’re giving away time and creating a more static position from which to hit the ball.

Is this shortcoming due to Querrey and Sock are being lesser athletes, or because they were not taught well?

I think they weren’t taught well. But I think that is what everyone is teaching. In almost every video, the coach talks about the modern forehand and the open stance and deep knee bend and angular energy. But the players lose time and give up lateral energy because they’re stopping. All the Americans, including Ryan Harrison, lose time and energy with this type of deep loading. I was watching a video of McEnroe last night. He and Federer and Justine Henin are great at it. Kim Clijsters did a pretty decent job at it.

Please describe and analyse how these two actions — loading and the pull position — work together as a crucial part of the “kinetic chain.”

They don’t work together. I want to clear that up. When the racket preparation starts, the racket should be in the pull position just as the unloading starts. The unloading starts with the hip and torso rotating just prior to the pull of the racket head. A stretching of the muscles creates elastic energy. With the unloading, the racquet snaps towards the ball. This is the kinetic chain in action.

In the fifth stage, energy is transferred from the lower body to the upper body through “unloading” which coordinates with swinging the racket forward to the contact point. What are the keys to making this stage work efficiently?

There has been some really great analysis of what is really happening in the strokes. John Yandell does some great work on TennisPlayer.Net that analyses strokes better than I do. The biggest element of the swing path in general is the length or extension of the swing path. When you watch a baseball batter, you can see the 270-degree rotation of the bat as it goes through the strike zone and all the way to the finish. That is the model of what a tennis swing should look like.

Is the baseball swing better because it’s longer or because it goes straight ahead for a longer distance?

Both. Everything about the baseball swing is better. Look at (former superstar) Alex Rodriguez. The guy didn’t even look like he was swinging hard, and his acceleration was extraordinary. The length of the swing enhances the racket acceleration because the racket has a longer path to travel.

Just as in the follow-throughs for golf and baseball swings, the tennis follow-through matters a lot even though the ball has already been struck. Why? Please explain how the end of the body rotation and the finish of the swing are connected.

If everything is being done properly, the racket head continues its acceleration and that creates more extension. That’s critical because you’re getting maximum acceleration. But it’s also super-important because it enables the player to have the fullest athletic stance in the recovery. The body unfolds in the fullest fashion. At the end of the coil, the feet are spread wide. The rotation of the shot has almost brought the feet around fully so that you’re ready for the recovery. The follow-through and the recovery are interwoven as well. The extension is also critical because it keeps the swing on the correct plane just as a train stays on the railroad tracks.

The seventh, and final stage, can look like poetry in motion at best or an off-balance, momentum-breaking mess at worst. What are the keys to movement “recovery” and regaining the racket’s “ready position” to increase the odds your next shot will be effective?

The most important thing when you’re recovering from a shot that pulls you out of position is to be able to flow into the appropriate court position and at the same time flow into the split step so that the split step is done at the perfect fraction of the second. That takes court awareness.

The physicality of it is very demanding because, as you’re recovering back to the appropriate position near the centre of the court, to effect a really good split step, you have to be in good posture and have the racket in the correct position, which we talked about for the first stage. That is very difficult to do properly if you’re not strong enough to land on the split step in a balanced position.

That takes us back to the earthquake question. As you recover and you’re floating into the split step and you stabilise your body so that you can push back in any direction, the toughest thing is to go back from where you came. That’s why players are so successful hitting behind their opponent.

So can a case be made that players should wrong-foot their opponents more often?

I totally think so for a lot of reasons. The physical requirements of landing and reversing direction make it difficult to recover. At the highest levels, what I call the floating split step — where you recover when someone pulls you wide to the forehand and you recover toward the middle of the court — makes you hang in the air quite a long time. So it’s more difficult to time that split step properly. People usually time that split step late because they’re flowing toward the open court. It also requires more strength to stabilise as you’re floating back toward the centre of the court and then change direction again.

What is the connection between dancing which requires a lot of rhythm and balance and these seven stages? Put differently, why are rhythm and balance important in tennis?

Rhythm is organised energy. To be able to play tennis properly or well, you have to be able to organise your energy in relationship to the incoming object. That is obviously very difficult and complicated. Some players are able to do that better than others.

Roger Federer moves and hits so fluidly that there is much less stress on the joints.   -  Getty Images

 

Where tennis differs from other sports — and this is why some players are better against some styles than other styles, but very few players flourish against all styles — is that tennis, particularly in a long point, requires multiple dance rhythms inside (just) one point. For example, a player may have to move forward for a closed-stance forehand, and then their opponent hits a high, heavy ball to their backhand. That requires a different tempo of movement and rhythm than if an opponent nails a shot which forces the player to do a quick stutter step with a different rhythm. At the highest level, you have to be able to dance a number of different rhythms and tempos inside of one point.

Should tennis players take dance lessons to improve their dance rhythms?

There is some case for that, but this idea is overblown. I’ll tell you why. I teach a couple players who are dancers. Both dance ballroom and ballet. Then tend to move on the ball of their foot a great deal. If you watch Federer move, he mostly moves in a heel-to-toe position. So when he’s moving, his heel hits first and then he goes to his toe. This happens in the last part of the shot as he is loading and unloading. Most dancers move to the ball and stay on the toes of their feet. That may be good for dancing, but it doesn’t produce the smoothest creation of energy to hit a tennis ball.

Rhythm is created to develop racket speed and balance. So the rhythm in a tennis shot is used to build energy then transfers into the arms to hit an object. Whereas in dancing, the rhythm serves its own aesthetic purpose. So, everything in tennis needs to be done in relationship to how you strike a ball. That’s quite different from dancing, so dancing could be counter-productive.

The Framework works with the premise that to achieve great technique and movement you need to eliminate as many variables as possible without sacrificing racket and foot speed. Which variables should be eliminated? And why?

If you were to look at a great mogul skier, you would see that their core stays very steady as their knees and legs and skis go up and down. That’s a very good analogy for tennis because you’re trying to keep the head and the torso as steady as possible so that what’s happening with your racket and vision isn’t changing much. Because those are the two elements that you want to reduce the variables with. If you use everything below the torso, then you reduce all the variables with the elements you need to.

Are there any other variables you want to eliminate?

The initial unit turn is so important because when you do it, your head and your eyes turn. And that immediately sets the appropriate depth perception perspective for your eyes. If you don’t turn immediately, you create a variable with your eyes, and (as a result) you go from looking at an object straight on to the last split-second or late to having to go to a position that forces a different type of depth perception. So when you change that variable late in the shot-making process, that makes it much more difficult to track the object.

 You want to keep your head very still. But you want a turned head, too. So imagine a baseball player facing a pitcher straight on, and then just as the pitch comes, he has to turn his body and his head at the last split second to try to hit the ball. One of the big problems there is that he goes from a depth perception in which both eyes are working equally in the same relationship to the moving object to one in which very late in the visual process he's turned his head. A baseball batter has one eye in front of the other. So it takes a nano-second for even a great athlete to re-focus their depth perception to an incoming object if their eyes shift.

You mentioned superstar sprinter Usain Bolt as a paragon of functional simplicity...

That goes back to the analogy of the great mogul skier. If you watch Bolt or any other great sprinter, his torso, upper body, and head stay remarkably still while all the elements around it generate energy.

Which off-court exercises do you recommend?

The first thing is that players, if possible, should practise their shots — meaning these seven stages — in front of a mirror because that gives them the body awareness they don’t often get of what the body does and what the racket does. People think they’re doing one thing and they’re not. So if it’s helpful in dance and other activities with motion, then I’m sure it can be helpful in tennis.

This is done without the ball. A coach should be with the player during these exercises and make comments. That would give a player a sense of what their game really looks like in terms of particular shots. Players would see what their ready position and split step looks like and what their movement to the ball for a closed stance forehand looks like.

You could do that in a relatively small space like a small yoga gym. The players could do the split step, the unit turn, a couple steps forward, and swing the racket and back and recover. It’s like “shadow tennis” with a mirror.

Which on-court drills do you recommend?

The profundity of the whole idea of “The Framework” and of looking at the movement and the racket is to play much more “live ball” tennis. This means you are recovering to the spot that you would in a match.

If you go to most tennis academies in the world, but particularly in the United States, they do a lot of organised, controlled drills where balls are either fed (by a pro) from a bucket, or they’re doing drills in which each player knows where the ball is going. The disadvantage of that is that the first two or three elements of “The Framework” are being ignored. They are not being tested in a real live situation. That’s because the instantaneous reaction into the split step to the unit turn to the movement pattern is either being denied or not being pushed to its limit.

If you’re doing drills, make sure you imagine that you have to cover the whole court and you recover to the appropriate spot that you would if you had to cover the whole court. The feeder of the balls — standing either with his back to the net or on the opposite baseline — should spray the balls everywhere.

The exception would be if you’re working only on a specific, technical, stroke-based idea. Let’s say you’re learning to use the hips in a more powerful way as you generate an open stance forehand. You could isolate some stuff there with racket feeding where the player knows where the ball is going because you’re working on the stroke — as opposed to a whole shot.

The more advanced the player is, the more the feeder sprays the balls around the court. That’s because you can’t really test the split step if the player knows where the ball is going.

In the old days, everyone used to just play sets. Now if you go to these tennis academies, everyone is drilling. Either they are being fed balls or they’re hitting two balls crosscourt and then one down the line. The problem is, players know where the ball is going. At a certain point of stroke proficiency, the most difficult part of the shot — the split step and unit turn and first steps — are not being practised.

Would the unpredictability of this drill be especially valuable to prepare you for opponents with versatile, deceptive games?

Exactly. That’s why you see so many great ball strikers who are terrible tennis players. People love to practise with those guys. They hit the ball beautifully when they do controlled drills. They underachieve in part because they’re not practising for the unpredictability that happens in matches.

This also bring up the element of taking time away from your opponent as opposed to (just) hitting harder shots. You have to move diagonally to cut the ball off and hit it early. That causes the mistiming of the split step by your opponent.

Can you give me an example of that by a great player?

I was watching a video of McEnroe last night. It’s just unbelievable the angle that he takes moving toward the ball.

A woman like Monica Niculescu, the Romanian, who can’t even hit a (flat or topspin) forehand, wins with a slice forehand because most of her opponents aren’t used to dealing with that slice. That gets back to dealing with different rhythms of movement.

Is there a case to be made for playing with a wide variety of practice opponents, even players with freakish styles?

Absolutely. That’s why I try to get my kids to play with adults because then they see different kinds of games.

Do the stages and rules in The Framework apply differently to girls and women who have very different physiques from men and somewhat different playing styles?

I don’t know enough about physiology to comment, except I will make these observations. The women’s stroke on the forehand tends to be longer in the backswing. If you look at a men’s forehand, the racket would start directly behind that person’s back, and then he would make a 270-degree swing path. Girls, in general, tend to take the racket even farther back, so they break the plane of 270 degrees. But they still make the sequencing work at contact. The rackets of Caroline Wozniacki and Coco Vandeweghe go farther around them in a circular position. The same is true for Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams.

The only woman who hit forehands like a man is Samantha Stosur. I think that has to do with upper-body strength. That’s because the greater the muscle mass, the tighter that circle is generally going to be. You have to define what “long” is. If you draw a 270-degree circle from the take-back, which would go right behind the player, to all the way around to a full rotation — the girls go back farther than that with the racket. That fuller circle generally works well for girls.

If you look at Stage 3, the preparation of the racket into the pull position at Stage 4, they pull the racket around them farther.

On the backhand, I don’t see much of a difference. Because you have two hands, you have more muscle mass, and that prevents any further rotation.

You said, “The Framework pays close attention to the physical strengths and weaknesses of the player.” How does it do that?

The basic guideline is that the focus is much more on a linear stroke, both on the serve and on the groundstrokes and with a closed [square] stance when teaching younger players. They’re not as strong so they need both legs for stability and balance to hit the ball properly. As they get older and stronger, you start to add more (body) rotation, so then you encourage them to use more open stance (footwork).

The same is true for the serve, though I don’t look at it much in the book. When you’re teaching an eight-year-old how to serve, you don’t put them in a sidewinding stance like McEnroe. That’s because they can’t control their bodies with balance in the unfolding of a highly rotational serve structure.

One of the worst things you see with young players is that their parents or coach starts them in a position that looks like a pro.

Does The Framework make scouting players easier? If so, how?

It makes scouting players easier because you have a fuller understanding of what’s happening in the whole shot. We could do stage by stage, and I could tell you if you were to see certain things in a player that may — you never know because a player can compensate as the match goes on — give you clues.

Here is a recent example. I was working with this 42-year-old guy who played in college. A nice player and a big guy at 6’6”. He set his racket in his ready position very low, the racket head was down below his waist. I could immediately tell he would have a very difficult time with high-bouncing, topspin shots. Because as he goes into his unit turn, he was setting the racket head so low that he was not going to be able to generate power on a ball that bounces up high on either his forehand or backhand side. When I talked it over with him, he told me that was exactly the case. This problem is usually worse on the backhand side because players aren’t as strong there. Imagine trying to hit a high volley when most of your stroke travels from down around your waist.

Shouldn’t that problem be relatively easy to correct?

It should be, but it’s not. That’s because everything that has happened to that guy on the tennis court in the last 35 years has been built around him moving with his arms and his racket — and therefore his weight distribution — in a particular pattern. Making him aware of re-setting it is very difficult because everything about the way a person moves has to change.

Would looking at himself in a mirror would help him?

Yeah, but it’s so hard for older players to change because of the musculature of just the movement itself. It’s like saying I’m going to teach you how to walk differently. Or I’m going to teach you how to run differently.

That’s why I brought up the Tom Brady situation. I went to see his trainer. One of my girls who I think could become a really good player is working with Brady. They do a very sophisticated analysis of how she moves. They have cameras all around her feet and her hips. Because the way the body moves and creates energy is dramatically important for playing high-level tennis, or doing anything (in sports) at a high level.

You assert “The Framework offers a basic model that can be continuously developed with increasing nuance.” What do you mean by that?

I hope there is enough accurate description of each phase of the stroke of the shot. I hope that foundation is accurate enough to hold up as players start to go into deeper analysis. Let’s say we look at the grip change component. I would argue that by the end of the unit turn, the grip change has to take place. I think that is absolutely true at the highest level. Then you could ask: What are the most efficient switches? What is the fastest way to handle John Isner’s serve?

Or if you were to look at the equations around the footwork pattern. I give the definition of the footwork pattern. I hope it’s an accurate definition — which is that it is the most tactically beneficial path to the ball that allows appropriate rhythm and balance at contact. Now you could analyse exactly how Federer does that compared to Djokovic on a particular shot.

Historically, coaches have relied on three methods — cues, checkpoints, and corrective techniques — to teach students. Do you use these traditional methods or other methods to diagnose and fix errors?

I definitely use those three methods. That’s a solid way of teaching. The Framework offers a more sophisticated model to do all those checkpoints. For instance, Jose Higueras laid out four or five parameters in most topspin strokes. He said the racket head starts above the wrist, as I said, and it drops below the contact point, and it goes to the contact point.

Okay, that’s fine. But if Jose doesn’t include the fact that the racket should be in continuous motion, he ignores the fact that most great players don’t stop the racket head at the base of the swing or the loop. Jose is missing a big piece.

The Framework is just the beginning.

Are you saying that in five years we could have another book, The Framework II?

Oh yeah! What I hope is that there will be a discussion of everyone’s work. Right now there is not even an agreed-upon model from which to have a discussion. That is what’s so frustrating when you go to these meetings. One coach says, “Well, my player has to hit through the ball.” And, “my guy is using the windshield wiper stroke.” These terms have very little meaning whatsoever. Everyone is interpreting these terms differently. So the first thing is to establish a common and accepted vernacular.

 But the other really crucial part is that there is very little emphasis on these very important first three or four stages of the movement and the racket. A lot of people could hit the ball more like Federer if someone could just put them in that position to start with. The really hard part doesn’t involve hitting the ball. The hard part is to get the racket into position with the looseness of the body and the appropriate balance to finish the stroke. The finish is easy.

Can you imagine if in 2030 most of the top 100 tennis players were like the many super athletes in the NBA?

This is why the top 4 have been the top 4 for so long. There is no one of the class of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. The way Nick Kyrgios moves is inefficient. He doesn’t hit well on either side. It helps a lot that he has a fantastic serve. He may develop those abilities.

Like Gaël Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Kyrgios does not have a core stability. They have so much movement in their upper bodies when they hit their strokes on the run. And then they struggle to maintain their balance on the recovery, and then get back to do a balanced split step.

If you look at Tsonga and Kyrgios versus Djokovic and Federer, and you lay that over the course of a five-set match, the greater the chance that Djokovic and Federer are going to win, the longer those sequences continue to take place.

Is there a connection between superior movement and technique with greater stamina, all other things being equal?

Oh yeah! First, you’re sequencing all your muscle movements very efficiently. Second, you can refer to Rule 3, which covers the smooth acceleration and de-acceleration of movement. If your muscles are doing the work appropriately, it puts much less strain on your joints.

So Federer and (Ken) Rosewall are moving and hitting so fluidly that there’s much less stress on the joints. This enhances both match stamina and career durability.

Are there sports in which the athletes’ movement to the ball and the athlete’s technique — whether an implement is used or not — are interwoven more effectively than in tennis? And if so, which sports, and why?

I don’t know if it’s more or less effectively. I just know the same elements would take place. For instance, if you watch an NBA player flow into a jump shot, would you have the player standing there and shooting jump shots? Or would you have the player do the very difficult action of running constantly without the ball — as (1960s-1970s star) John Havlicek did to get open — and then flow to get into the jump shot?

The awareness of that flow of movement as it translates into the jump shot is enormously important. That is very similar in tennis.

Another parallel is throwing a javelin. The throwing action connects to the build-up of the energy of the release of the javelin. It’s similar to tennis. But the difference with the javelin is that the athlete is accelerating at full speed at release. A tennis player has to be de-accelerating at release because they have to get back into the next shot. You’re also seeing, in the javelin throw, giant steps that generate the running speed. The top javelin throwers can throw it more than 300 yards. It’s amazing.

You recently spent time with one of your students at football great Tom Brady’s training programme. What did you learn there that can be applied to tennis?

What was reaffirmed there was the importance of movement and upper-body control. The way he uses his legs and his posture are exquisite. The way it impacts his vision and the way he develops energy from the ground up. All that confirmed what I already thought. They are becoming masters at teaching the faster ways to create the most efficient sequencing of the muscle groups from the legs through the core to the upper body. They were training my player in a way that involved a specific type of muscular sequencing massage to try to break down old neural pathways and to recreate new ones. So they would give her a very specific sports massage. They would massage certain parts of her core and then have her move her legs in a way that, hopefully, would break old patterns and establish new ones.

A masseur would rub right near her hip flexors and just above. And she was required to bend, and shortly after that, move her legs in a more efficient way. It’s the same process as re-wiring your brain. It’s basically re-wiring as quickly as possible the way the muscle groups and the nerves work together.

My player had problems pushing off to her backhand properly because she was using her left foot wrong. It took us over a year, working three times a week, to get her to do it properly. I’d like to think with their help we could have done it much more quickly.

Could this revolutionise the sport of tennis?

It has revolutionised other sports. So I don’t see why it couldn’t impact tennis.

You said that the only technical part of your game you were truly happy with in your prime was your volley. In retrospect, if you knew during your 1980s pro career what you know now about technique and movement, how would you have played differently?

The main difference is that I would have been able to stay in the backcourt longer if I need be to get the right chance to come forward [to the net]. I remember watching Patrick Rafter play. And I always thought that even though he was not a great backcourt player, he was good enough to hang in there until he got a better chance to come in than I did. That would have been the logical benefit of this knowledge.

It would also have depended on how early in my career I learned this stuff. Because the problem now with training pros is that if they’re really going to make a big change, everything else changes around it. So even if we could improve Jack Sock’s backhand, I don’t know if he could ever get to the point where he would trust himself to not run around every backhand. This habit is so ingrained in who he is as a player. The psychological imprint of the way a player puts a point together is put together relatively early in a player’s life. To change that is very difficult.

You said, “In 20 years we will look back and be astonished as to how poorly most players move now.” What do you predict will be the biggest improvements in both movement and technique in 20 years? Will players, like the ethereal Federer, dominate? Or will 7-foot tall giants, who pulverise every shot, reign?

 I don’t think the giants will reign because the mere physics of very tall people make it more difficult to change direction. I think the trend will continue in which many, many players are quite tall but very few are great ones. We haven’t had a No. 1 player in the world over 6'3" yet. Unlike basketball, which is almost all up, tennis is down and up and lateral—side to side. We still haven’t broken out of this mold of 6'1" being the optimal height. I don’t see a super-tall player becoming No. 1 unless you get an extraordinarily sophisticated, strong athlete who could also change direction.       

The biggest improvement will be having more players like we’re currently seeing like Djokovic, Federer. The efficiency of the movement, meaning the footwork patterns to the ball, will get better and better angled. And so will the ability to generate a tremendous amount of power off of those patterns on the offensive side. You’ll have greater and greater flexibility, a la Djokovic, to play defense both to return serve and return shots in the sequencing of the rallies.

One big equation is the serving potential of Federer and how many players can translate that down at 6'1". Djokovic and Murray do not have great serves, and Nadal’s serve is terrible.

What are the next frontiers in tennis coaching?

One of the next frontiers will be visual training. How well players react to the incoming object can develop significantly. Visual training involves the ability to recognise objects in motion and react to them as quickly as possible. This is huge in baseball. The earlier you develop these skills, the better you become because there are windows of time when you can really develop.

For all athletes, developing quick recognition of oncoming shots will impact the ability to do all the things we’ve already talked about. You will recognize a better footwork pattern if you can see immediately where the ball is going. If we start training players early in that capacity, then we’ll get better players.

The other frontier involves the timing of elements. You imagine a player of Djokovic’s speed hits a forehand from his forehand corner. You could measure exactly how long it takes Djokovic to finish that forehand and get back across the court to defend on his backhand side. Then you could practice very specifically to the speed of the recovery of the best players in the world.

Let’s say you push Djokovic out wide, and 90 percent of the time he returns the ball about 65 miles an hour and it lands four feet inside the baseline. If you knew that if you could get that ball across the baseline in under 1.3 seconds so that Djokovic isn’t going to get there, then you could practise that sequence over and over and over. That would give you very specific guidelines as to what you had to do. Then you would determine whether you had to hit the ball 68 or 72 or 76 miles per hour to put him on the defensive. You would also factor in how deep and how close to the sidelines you’d have to hit the ball. You can’t start doing that until you develop sophisticated and great technique. But once you do, then you just start setting your timing targets.

Overall, in the future we will see more players who play like the Top 4. Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi had many similar qualities. If we study what the great players do, we can train more players to play with their fluidity and efficiency.