by Vic Braden
Contributing Tennis Writer
I?ve been asked many times to write about the ?New Game?; the problem is that I haven?t been able to locate it. It has been easy to write about ?New rackets?. The big tournaments are still played on grass, clay, synthetic surfaces and concrete. The court dimensions remain the same, 19.1 degrees of potential angle from baseline corner to the opposite baseline corner.
I have film of players hitting with an ?Open Stance? in the 1950?s. In those cases, the players were caught in a poor position. Now, players choose to hit with an ?Open stance? because they can use the new equipment to hit hard from the baseline. But in this case, it?s the equipment that has changed.
What has changed is the number of players who only go to the net to shake hands. But there were baseliners in the 50?s and 60?s, but the majority were from countries who only built clay courts. The coaching of the ?wrap around the neck? follow-through has caused players to move their center of gravity towards the center of the baseline. In a recent biomechanics study, we found that players who move through the ball on the approach shot are normally nine feet closer to the net than the player who decides to rush the net after rewinding from the long follow-through.
Why have net rushers almost disappeared? Again, it?s not the ?new Game?, it?s the new equipment. If a net rusher hits with an ?Open? stance, it?s difficult to get the desired position at the net. To make matters worse, the new equipment hits faster shots, which means the time to get to the net has shortened. Roger Federer can play back, or up, and he?s a rare bird in today?s tennis world.
In former times, the ball traveled slower, the players moved through the approach shot, and volleying was much easier. Before Pancho Gonzales, I put one of the new lighter, and powerful, rackets in his hands and he looked at Jack Kramer and said, ?Do you think you could ever miss a volley in your life with this racket??
French Open champion Rafael Nadal is an explosive baseline player.
Watching the French and Wimbledon Championships, I watched player after player win important shots at the net, and then back off for long periods camped at the baseline. At Wimbledon, I watched Robert Kendrick win points at the net and had a noose around Nadal?s neck, and two points from a giant victory. He elected to not force Nadal to hit a passing shot and to remain on the baseline. Nadal basically owns the baseline and Kendrick eventually came in second.
It?s unfortunate that so many coaches have grown up seeing only the baseline game. Now, it?s rare to find knowledgeable approach and volley coaches. For example, each person should have quantifiable data on how fast he/she can hit the approach shot and reach the desired net position. Each person should know how, and when, to close at the net to reduce the opponent?s passing shot angle. In today?s tennis, I?ve literally watched players being passed while they were just ahead of the service line. One can pass an elephant at the service line.
Just to make certain that I?ve seen missed net rushing opportunities by players, I started observing the number of baseline drives that landed inside the service line. I was amazed at how many balls landed short and were perfect opportunities to move through the approach shot to set up perfect volley position. I watched Andre Agassi hit so many brilliant shots and never get to the net. His answer to my question in the interview room was, ?Have you seen me volley lately?. He?s right, he shouldn?t be going to the net if he fears the volley, but he also developed a forehand groundstroke weapon that others players only wish they possessed.
In today?s game, there are thousands of young players who are geniuses from the baseline. Unfortunately, there are normally only sixty-four, or one hundred and twenty eight, players invited to play in a major tournament. One day, we will all be better at understanding how we can change the electrical signals in our opponent?s brain to screw up their strokes and strategy. Perhaps we should listen carefully to Rafael Nadal?s psychological destruction of Roger Federer. However, because Roger is a brilliant thinker, I?m betting that he will find the solution to beating Rafael.