On spring afternoons in college, I’d sit in the bleachers and watch the varsity tennis team practice. It was relaxing to sit out in the Bay Area sun after classes and listen to the deep thump of a well-hit shot.
The first players to arrive would grab a court and lazily stroke the ball from baseline to baseline not really moving their feet, the tennis equivalent of treading water. The rallies lasted for ten, twenty sometimes thirty shots before a ball would catch the tape. A new ball was immediately put into play and the rhythm began again.
I watched the smooth strokes of each player: one was the number one player on the team, the other was a scrub. I called the scrubs “cannon fodder”; players who practiced with the team but never played in matches. They did whatever the coach asked them to do and received very little instruction. They were there to make the elite players better.
But today, I couldn’t tell which player was better.
Why Scrubs are Scrubs
Each groundstroke was smooth and effortless; each ball landed halfway between the service line and the baseline. At a glance, these players were equal.
Then they started playing rally points, points that started without a serve but evolved into a proper point after the third shot. Still, the players looked about equal.
What separated the best player from the scrub?
They warmed up their serves and played out points. Now the difference was startlingly obvious. The scrub was scrambling from the first ball, sprinting side to side, hacking the ball back any way he could to stay in the point. On the other side of the net, the number one player was unhurried. He moved smoothly to where the ball was going to be and waited for it to arrive.
“Movement,” I thought, “that’s the difference.”
But it’s more than that.
The Elements of Movement
Greg Garber wrote a column, The Secret Behind Every Great Shot, in which he asserts that great shots are created by great movement. Top players from the past: Steffi Graf and Bjorn Borg could have been world class runners if they hadn’t chosen tennis.
Garber makes it clear that pure speed is not enough; it’s the complex combination of all-direction movement that makes for an elite player. The top players today: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are all very quick and move well laterally, diagonally, forward and backward.
It’s the comments from the players that are the most revealing:
Because you are very quick doesn’t mean you will move quickly on a court. Movement is more about how you perceive the bounce of the ball, assimilate where you are, where the ball is going to be — and how you are going to get there. – Jose Higueras
The smart players hit shots to their opponents and have a pretty good idea what their corresponding shot will be. That always makes you a little quicker out there. – Mats Wilander
Speed is a lot about your attitude. When you’re at your most confident, you’re at the best of your ability. To be a free-mover you have to be very clear, no gray areas, otherwise you’re inhibited. Djokovic, he’s always been a great mover. With this newfound confidence, he seems to be reading the court and his speed is even more deadly. That’s because he’s not tied up, not worried about his serve and what his forehand’s going to do. It’s all flowing. – Pam Shriver
Elite tennis players are quick. But it is their ability to predict where the next ball is going to be that provides them with just enough of a head start to be unhurried. Their brains have logged the data from millions of points and know intuitively where the next ball is going to land. They make it look effortless out there.
Wayne Gretzky said that he skated to where the puck was going to be. He knew from the way the game was unfolding in front of him where each player was likely to be and could confidently predict the best spot to be on the ice.
Tennis has a lot fewer players to track. What Wayne was able to do on the ice makes tennis look like a kid’s game.
Movement is more than quickness. It’s all those physical skills: speed, balance and footwork working in synchronicity with the mental: prediction and intuition earned from thousands of hours of practice.