I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months--not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can't serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There's a moral here--but I think it's too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can't wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.
Another breath of fresh air emanates from my recent tennis life. I now have two coaches, David and Claudio. David often counsels me to "hit the ball with love" and he can't stand sloppy footwork. Claudio advocates "more power" and works with me on precise details of the stroke. David is Latin American, Claudio is German. Both are fine tennis players, and superb coaches (and very nice guys). Under their joint, and complementary, influence, my game has been improving dramatically--especially my backhand topspin. This is an example of human cooperation at its best. I've also been employing a new method of practicing: in bed at night I go through my strokes in my imagination, dwelling on the details, trying to install the technique in my mind and body. And it works. For anyone wanting to learn to play properly, here's a bit of advice: work on the stroke with someone who knows how to play without even hitting a ball, in your front room or back yard. Get it right before you venture onto a court; then you won't have laods of bad habits you need to eradicate.
Lately I've found that as my backhand has improved my forehand has deteriorated. Now my backhand is my best shot, while in the past I struggled with it (as most players do). There seems to be what psychologists call negative transfer of training from one hand to the other. The forehand used to feel natural and the backhand unnatural, now it's the other way round. I plan to use my ball machine to get my forehand back into shape. Will my backhand suffer a corresponding decline? (David, my instructor, thinks I've just got lazy and complacent about my forehand. "Move your feet!" he shouts at me, while drilling me mercilessly.)
Last weekend I for the first time played tennis against a ball machine. It was quite an experience. I hit balls by myself on the court for a full three hours, working on my technique (half volley backhands, down the line side to side forehands). I'm sure I improved my game considerably. Then I played a couple of hours with lads of 17 and 13. All in all, I was on the court for six hours. At the end my right arm was killing me and my legs were shot. Excessive? Sure, but that's the way to get good at tennis. You just keep doing it till you get it right.
Roger won. But it wasn't his best tennis. Or was it? He managed to fight off seven set points against Novak. He was having an off day, but still he won the crucial points. Everyone has a bad day in tennis, but some people seem to be able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. As I was playing the other day, it struck me that (a) tennis is an incredibly difficult game to master and (b) if you do anything even slightly wrong you won't hit the ball well. It has to be exact. Every shot has to be executed to perfection. There's no margin for error. In philosophy, too, there's no use in getting it a bit right. Any error, any sloppiness, and things go very wrong. Technique is all.
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