Tennis instruction books that have stood the test of time

From Bill Tilden’s Match Play and the Spin of the Ball to Ed Faulkner’s Tennis: How to Play it, How to Teach it and The Physics and Technology of Tennis by Dr Howard Brody, these are the go-to books on playing your best.

Published : Dec 21, 2018 20:12 IST

“All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.” – Thomas Carlyle.

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you but the one which makes you think.” – Harper Lee.

Long before the Internet and Tennis Channel educated tennis players about the basics and fine points, I read — or rather studied — Match Play and the Spin of the Ball . Written in 1925 by Bill Tilden, the sport’s first superstar and genius on tennis theory, this seminal instruction book fascinated me. As a young tournament player, I quickly realized Match Play was filled with maxims that Tilden had successfully applied to his game, and that I should apply to mine.

“Never allow a player to play the game he prefers if you can possibly force him to play any other. Never give a player a shot he likes to play,” Tilden advises. Clever champions from Bobby Riggs to Roger Federer have brilliantly executed this timeless tactic.

“Never change a winning game. Always change a losing game.” Tilden’s most famous maxim seems fairly obvious, yet some world-class competitors, such as Garbine Muguruza, are either unable or unwilling to do it when they’re losing.

“In singles, the main error of many players is the lack of knowledge of when to defend and when to attack.” This Tilden gem pinpoints the weakness of erratic, low-percentage sluggers Dominic Thiem and Madison Keys.

“If there is a hole in your game, plug it by intensive practice. Do not worry about the defeats you must bear during the time your game is developing... There is far more pleasure to tennis if you have no fear about your strokes.” Tilden epitomized this maxim. A gifted but inconsistent player, he endured years of disappointment until he developed his backhand during the winter of 1919-20 “from a feeble defense chop to an offensive attacking drive through intensive practice.” Not until Tilden was 27, at the 1920 Wimbledon, did he win the first of his 10 major singles titles.

Decades later, Ivan Lendl also worked rigorously to improve his vulnerable backhand and become a champion. Scores of other lesser players have heeded Tilden’s sage advice to reach their technique potential while revelling in the challenge. Paul McNamee, a 1980s doubles standout, even switched from a vulnerable one-handed backhand to a solid two-hander in the middle of his pro career.

Several other outstanding instruction books, such as Ed Faulkner’s Tennis: How to Play it, How to Teach it , have left lasting imprints on generations of players and coaches. Faulkner and Tilden learned the game from each other starting in 1921 when Faulkner became a professional of the Germantown Cricket Club, Tilden’s home club and the scene of many Davis Cup Challenge Rounds. Faulkner, who coached the US and French Davis Cup teams, preaches getting the footwork right first and then learning the swing — an emphasis that would have helped Serena Williams improve her dodgy footwork and balance.

To create thinking players, Faulkner tells teaching pros and coaches: “For each point of theory you introduce, you must give your pupil the technical reason for it.” He also reminds players that to hit ground strokes to either corner of the court, “It is much sounder to swing the same way every time, varying only the moment of contact.”

The greatest strength of this 1970 instruction book is its diagnostic checklist analysing “Trouble Spots” for each stroke. The checklist is divided into four parts: Problem, Why it is a problem, What teacher should do, and What player should do. For example, “the server steps through with the right [rear] foot.” Faulkner explains this is a problem because the player “moves his right shoulder up under or even past the ball, so he must reach back to hit, losing power.” What should the teacher and player do? Faulkner recommends, “Have the player leave right foot back until the ball is hit. If necessary, have player keep right foot in place throughout serve.”

How did an impoverished 5’6” Ecuadorian boy who suffered from rickets and malaria develop into a champion who overcame power-hitting tennis giants Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales in the 1940s and ’50s? Francisco Olegario “Pancho” Segura imparts those secrets in Pancho Segura’s Championship Strategy , a 1976 instruction book written with Gladys Heldman, the astute publisher-editor of World Tennis magazine. Segura, one of Faulkner’s star students, would later, as a renowned coach himself, pass on his legendary court smarts to future superstar Jimmy Connors and a host of world-class players. Billie Jean King called Segura the “PhD of tennis.”

On winning close matches, Segura highlights five factors: “knowing the percentage game; understanding the value of surprise; having steel nerves; being aware of key points; and having a balance [of stamina] in reserve.” The key points are 30-0, 0-30, and also when you are about to hold serve, break serve or lose serve.

Winning or losing key points can also change the momentum. “A player gets to a certain peak in a match, then loses one crucial point — and the pattern of the game shifts,” notes Segura. “Player X leads 6-0, 3-0 against Player Y. Then Player X slips momentarily or gets a bad call or worries over a weak shot, and Player Y catches fire. A player who misses an easy shot at 30-0 has no problem; it can be disastrous to miss at 30-40.” The moral here: “The great competitive player has the ability to block out a bad shot or a bad call.”

Like Tilden, Segura offers many valuable maxims, such as these:

“The test of changing a stroke is to try it out in practice sets (not in tournaments!), rather than groove it indefinitely in rallying.”

“Too many players will practice on one type of surface only... The greatest achievement, and the best test of your adaptability, is switching well from one court to another.”

“The best way to overcome nerves takes the most time. It involves regular practice, plenty of tournaments, and [having] a good reason for confidence.”

“Balance is the greatest asset one can have in tennis.”

“The only time a player can take chances is when he is leading 40-0 or 30-0. When a player is losing, it is not the time to take chances.”

“The players who best overcome fear are those who test themselves regularly against those they fear. The players who suffer intensely from fear are those who won’t even play a practice match against a lesser player who might beat them... Playing someone below your level but who can beat you requires all your powers of concentration and all your competitive spirit. It’s a real challenge.”

An impoverished 5’6” Ecuadorian boy who suffered from rickets and malaria, Pancho Segura developed into a champion who overcame power-hitting tennis giants Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales in the 1940s and ’50s? He imparted his secrets in Pancho Segura’s Championship Strategy, a 1976 instruction book written with Gladys Heldman.

In Tennis 2000: Strokes, Strategy, and Psychology for a Lifetime , Hall of Fame coach Vic Braden writes, “Whether you’re three or ninety-three, whether you play the game recreationally or at the tournament level, the basic question — and goal — always remains: Under pressure, do you have the consistent strokes you need to hit the shots you want?”

Braden’s fun-loving approach permeates Tennis 2000 . To engage readers, he mixes wisdom with humour. “We tell everybody going through the [Vic Braden] tennis college that we can make them famous by Friday,” he quips, “if they can get to the ball and learn to do three ‘simple’ things: get the racket head 12 inches below the intended point of impact, contact the ball with a vertical racket head, and follow through up under their chin on about a 30-degree angle from the court.” All of the above is intended to produce topspin effectively.

“Only with topspin can you play an offensive game,” Braden asserts. However, he overstates this point, which flat-hitting champions Connors and Steffi Graf and Grand Slam titlists Juan Martin del Potro and Li Na disproved. Nonetheless, topspin, in varying degrees, is a huge asset for ground strokes, as Braden stresses. That’s because topspin ground strokes consistently clear the net by a higher, safer margin. Topspin works best with gravity to make powerful shots land inside the baseline. The high, fast-spinning bounce is difficult for opponents to handle. Topspin shots dip rapidly, making them much tougher to volley. And topspin makes it much easier to create sharply angled shots to pull opponents into and wide of the alley.

“For some reason, the approach shot is commonly overlooked or downplayed,” points out Braden, “but I feel it’s the third biggest shot in tennis” — after the serve and service return. Though Tennis 2000 was written in 1998 before the near-death of serving and volleying this century, Braden presciently anticipated one of Federer’s most lethal weapons: pouncing on and attacking balls landing even slightly short. On the other hand, quite a few players today, like Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, due to either timidity or weak volleys, fail to capitalize on short balls with strong approach shots. One wonders, as did Braden, if they even practice approach shots.

To lighten footwork and heighten concentration, especially on serve returns, Braden again advocates what Federer took to the offensive extreme with his daring SABR — “sneak attack by Roger” — when Federer half-volleys bullet first serves. “A good drill next time you play is to try to move in against every serve, no matter how fast it comes, instead of automatically stepping back and waiting for the ball,” Braden writes. “You’ll be amazed at how many balls you actually get back, and at how much quicker you learn to react and move to the ball.”

The Physics and Technology of Tennis explains the science behind every property, specification and performance claim related to racquets, strings, balls and courts, and how this information might be used to improve your game. Beneath the surface, tennis is a fascinating story of collisions, energy, momentum, friction, elasticity, aerodynamics and materials. Forty-two chapters plus six appendices tell this story in language accessible to layman and expert alike.

This oversized, 406-page tome was written in 2003 by Dr Howard Brody, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania; Rod Cross, an associate professor in the school of physics at the University of Sydney, Australia; and Crawford Lindsey, then publisher and managing editor of Racquet Tech magazine and The Stringer’s Digest and currently director of tennis research and science at Tennis Warehouse.

As the authors explain, “The life’s purpose of a tennis racket is to change the speed and direction of a tennis ball. This momentous event takes place in approximately five-one-thousands of a second. During that time, the ball and the racket launch into a frenzy of technology-enhanced physics.”

Get ready for terms like vector waveform, piezoelectric, apparent coefficient of restitution, vertical acceptance window, deflection stiffness and horizontal friction force. Not to worry, a glossary defines these and many other terms.

“Swing weight alone is the number one specification that indicates the likely performance of the racquet and how it might interact with the player,” Lindsey points out. “Weight and balance themselves are components of swing weight, but they can give a very misleading story if looked at by themselves.”

How exactly does swing weight interact with the player? “Swing weight is a property related to the distribution of mass throughout the racquet,” says Lindsey. “It best describes how fast you will be able to swing the racquet and how fast the ball will leave your racquet. Higher swing weight means less maneuverability but more power, and lower swing weight means more maneuverability and less power. Ball velocity comes from both the mass at the hitting location (‘effective mass’ or ‘hitting weight’) and the speed of that mass just before impact.”

Specialised equipment is often used to measure swing weight, but the authors identify a simple method of measuring this quantity. This is quite handy for those who do not have access to this specialized equipment but are looking to perfectly match their equipment at home.

The effects of tactics on various strokes are quantified. This data can greatly help a player or coach optimize strategy for percentage play with all kinds of shots in many different circumstances. For example, six ways to increase the vertical acceptance window of a serve in order to get a higher percentage of serves in are tested based on a 100 mph serve hit at a height of 8 feet above the ground by a 6-foot-tall server, hitting flat-footed and using a standard (27-inch) frame with an impact point at the centre of the racket head. The estimated increases in the size of the acceptance window for each suggested change were as follows: “2-inch longer racket (10%); hitting two inches higher on the racket head (10%); stretching up 6 inches (30%); spin on ball due to higher toss (20%); reaching into court (10%); and jumping up 4 inches (20%).”

You can play with different shot outcomes by changing input variables — like these and others — by going to: .

Dr Brody states that “(w)hen a computer is used to calculate ball trajectories...if all else is the same, you are two and a half times more likely to make an error with the ball going into the net, or long, if you chop at the ball rather than hit it with topspin.” Next, he goes on to pose a critical question: “Then why do players still slice at the ball instead of hitting with topspin.” Dr Brody answers this lucidly even for the layman.

The authors define string properties and present experimental results with several superb charts and tables that help a player narrow down the many string types and tensions from the almost-infinite possibilities. Then players can experiment with a few modifications that could result in beneficial changes to a specific game. The authors caution, however, that strings are at times “schizophrenic” in that they behave in “mindboggling” ways that can defy generalities. For instance, tests showed that some strings, when made thicker, become stiffer and hold tension better, while other strings, when made thinner, also become stiffer and hold tension better.

Much of the expertise in the previously mentioned groundbreaking books has been distilled and expanded in Absolute Tennis: The best and next way to play the game , the most comprehensive, authoritative and in-depth instruction book of the decade. The author, Marty Smith, is not famous or celebrated, but he’s accomplished in his own right. As a teaching pro, Smith has served as director of tennis for more than 20 years at the famed New York Athletic Club, the No. 1-rated athletic club in the US. As a tournament player, this Australian native was a top-five-ranked Australian junior player and the two-time Southern Conference singles and doubles champion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Only with topspin can you play an offensive game, Vic Braden wrote in Tennis 2000: Strokes, Strategy, and Psychology for a Lifetime. However, he overstates this point, which flat-hitting champions such as Steffi Graf disproved.

Although instruction books rarely devote much space to balance, Absolute Tennis , written in 2017, gives this critical area an entire chapter, and, tellingly, the opening chapter. Did you know that your degree of balance impacts these five key facets of your game?

1. Rally ascendency: “The degree of balance you and your opponent have while hitting the ball will largely determine who is ahead in the rally,” writes Smith. “Your primary goal during baseline is to move your opponent around the court and force them to hit off balance and defensively while you hit in a poised position and control the point.”

2. Stroke power: “It’s very difficult to generate stroke power with your legs if you are off-balance.”

3. Racket control: “Not only does being off-balance alter the angle of the racket relative to the ground, but it also pushes body weight in unintended directions, a change that must be taken into account and adjusted for quickly during the swing in order to salvage the shot.”

4. Vision: “The more upright and steady your head is, the better your visual tracking will be... This head position assists your vision and judgment, helping you to establish correct positioning to the ball and good timing on your stroke.”

5. Recovery: “The more balanced you are during the follow through, the better you will be at resisting the forces of momentum, allowing you to change direction and recover more quickly for the next shot.”

You’ve probably heard the term “kinetic chain.” Smith provides a clear and succinct definition. “The kinetic chain reimagines the body as a system of chain links, whereby the energy generated by the legs is transferred and increased up the body, culminating in an end point power surge as you hit the ball.” Absolute Tennis includes more than 500 narrated photos of elite players, and photos of Federer and Williams serving and Novak Djokovic and Halep hitting ground strokes show how they optimize the kinetic chain.

It’s no coincidence that all the great players are great movers. Smith insightfully explains how they move so fast and effortlessly — from the athletic stance to the split step to the first step to small adjustment steps to sliding.

Throughout the book, readers will find numerous side tips in a “Coach’s Box.” In the “Return of Serve” chapter, the Coach’s Box offers this valuable information and advice: “High-speed analysis shows that to better their timing on the return, the pros typically cut the amount of spin they use by more than half compared to the spin they use during a baseline rally... If you use a Western grip on the forehand, you might consider using a semi-Western grip on the return and hit with moderate spin.”

Here is more essential knowledge for the thinking player:

“Always remember that because your wrist is your body’s closest joint to the racket, how it aligns through contact has a huge influence on the success of every shot.”

“The most powerful leg positioning on the backhand is the closed stance.”

On grip firmness for the three main types of ball impact on the volley: “On a slow or high ball, you will ‘hammer’ the impact with a strong grip; on the moderate speed or low ball, you will ‘catch’ the impact with a steady grip; and on a fast ball, you will ‘brake’ on impact using an absorbing grip.”

On how to use the 15-20 seconds between points: “During that time there are four stages the inner voice must navigate through to stay constructive: Respond to the last point, relax and recover, prepare, and perform rituals.”

“The game’s two most feared shots from the baseline are the inside-out and inside-in forehands.”

“First-strike points have a much greater correlation to a match’s result than extended rallies do. At the 2015 US Open, the players who won more zero-to-four-shot rallies won the match 90% of the time in men’s singles and 83% of the time in women’s singles.”

Quite a few players today, like Simona Halep, due to either timidity or weak volleys, fail to capitalise on short balls with strong approach shots.

The most thought-provoking chapter, “Future Strokes” — in the subtitle “the next way to play the game” — should especially appeal to coaches and teaching pros. As tennis becomes faster and more athletic, Smith predicts the overlapping dual forehand, the reverse serve, the volleyball serve and the hybrid backhand may be taught to future generations.

One of the very few shortcomings in Absolute Tennis is its cursory and somewhat flawed coverage of the half volley and the drop volley. It neglects to mention the contact point and how best to avoid hitting half volleys in the first place. It also recommends the Eastern grip, which is acceptable for improvisational half volleys near the baseline but less effective and versatile than the Continental grip for half volleys in the forecourt. Finally, while the racket face should be “perpendicular to the ground” for most half volleys, as Smith writes, there are two exceptions to this rule: a slightly closed racket face works better to control hard topspin passing shots, and a slightly open racket face is safer for half volleys struck close to the net to get enough upward trajectory to clear the net.

Also, Smith correctly asserts that the drop volley is more effective on clay than on hard courts, but this relatively difficult-to-make “touch shot” is often even more effective on soft grass where the ball really “dies” after it bounces. Second, he fails to note that, for best results, the drop volley should be executed from within 10 feet of the net. This closer position makes it easier for the volleyer to “measure” the optimum distance to hit the ball and also gives opponents less time to reach the ball. Third, although Smith rightly states, “the racket moves very little before and after contact,” he contradicts that by wrongly advising, “carve the racket down sharply.” Besides the excessive movement, a sharp downward carving motion produces excessive backspin. To create a top-notch drop volley, you first have to determine the speed of the oncoming passing shot. The faster the oncoming ball, the more ball speed you have to absorb. When you need to absorb greater ball speed — to produce the desired amount of backspin and shot distance — you increase the softness of your grip and also the backward tilt of the open racket face.

Tennis theory and practice have evolved enormously since Major Walter Clopton Wingfield captured the fancy of England’s Victorian society with his newly patented game of lawn tennis in 1874. These recommended instruction books have both reflected the state of tennis in their eras and have germinated new ideas and trends.

Just as Andre Agassi a generation ago advanced the return of serve of Connors, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has taken the return of serve to an astronomical level, aggressively returning 130 mph hour serves. Similarly, to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, if Marty Smith has seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants like Bill Tilden.


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