Sometimes people ask me to write about the bigger and heavier-duty tips that they believe the top national players must pass to one another.
Many times, I have been with coaches of world-class tennis players who gave their players that last piece of advice before they headed out to play a match. It often went something like this: “Watch the ball,” or “Stay on the balls of your feet and remember what we discussed.” “Remember what we discussed” I later learned was something as simple as “Play closer to the baseline and take your opponent’s ball earlier.”
I had lunch with Chris Evert the week after she lost the 1973 Wimbledon Women’s Singles to Billie Jean King, 6-0, 7-5. We didn’t have personal cellphones in those days, and international television, after the finals trophy presentation, showed Chris running to a telephone booth, where the commentator said she was calling her father.
Jimmy Evert, her father, was her coach, along with many other successful players he coached. I often sat with Jimmy when we watched Chris or one of her siblings play matches. At the luncheon, the president of Wilson Sporting Goods asked Chris what advice her father might have mentioned about her match with BJK.
She paused for a moment, and then said, “He told me I wasn’t bending my knees, nor was I stepping into the ball.”
I laughed out loud, because those are two of the most basic rules of hitting a tennis ball. In an attempt to draw her out on what I thought could be fascinating discussion for a racket-sports junkie like me, I said “Chris, he must of mentioned some other things.”
No, there was nothing else.
It is the basics in tennis, or squash, or pickleball. And those basics need to be practiced until they are second-nature.
Look at the Evert match with Billie Jean King. Chris was the upcoming superstar, almost half the age of Billie. Yet, under the pressure of more than a billion people watching, her nerves overcame her training and she hit the ball defensively from her heels, somewhat stiff-legged.
When I run large public-service clinics, I typically try to find younger instructors who have won considerable medals to teach different aspects, such as serve or return-of-serve, while I circulate all the courts, observing all the players and making suggestions. I often see players being taught, for example, the serve or return-of-serve. Something as simple as the way they hold the paddle will limit their improvement, but no one has previously caught that, and I will pull them aside and show them a proper grip.
Now you, hopefully, understand why I emphasize the basics in my articles. I typically try to blend a basics tip into some interesting story about racket sports because the basics alone are frightfully boring — but absolutely necessary.
I also often hear players talking about some pickleball tip they might have picked up on the internet. Two that recently came to my attention are about the volley and overhead.
Players were all excited about hitting a volley when looking elsewhere, to throw off their opponent. I laughed to myself, because their basic volley, under the best conditions, was awful.
Another is the overhead. Players were sitting on the sideline, talking about where to hit the overhead. Someone had seen an internet story on why every overhead should be hit to one particular location. It seemed to me these folks were putting a very large wagon behind a very small horse. They needed to learn how to properly hit an overhead first.
I sense many of you will be returning to the public courts this fall, and I will be addressing some important basics, including balance, footwork, volleying and doubles play. I invite our esteemed local tennis professionals — actually, professionals in any sport — to send me their favorite stories on the basics of tennis, or how adherence to the basics pays off.