In a recent ATP Newsletter a writer commented on “the marvelous feel of McEnroe’s wrist backhand.” In an interview on WCT’s televised round robin event this year, Adriano Panatta said: “When I’m behind 5-0 in the first set I do not give up, but I try to regain my feel.”
In the chapter on advanced players, most instructional books discuss the “touch shots” –the lob, dropshot, drop volley, half volley, and other delicate shots. Being more of a player means having more touch or feel. Gundars Tilmanis in his book Advanced Tennis writes: “when emphasizing the most important aspects of a stroke, the coach should attempt to make the players feel the difference between a desired performance and their own.” What precisely is meant by feel and how can an understanding of this concept help the average player to improve?
Feel – An Explanation
Feel is best understood when it is broken down into three parts: (1) a player’s ability to observe the ball being hit by the strings; (2) sensing one’s body; and (3) sensing one’s target area without letting that awareness interfere with points (1) and (2).
Paul Cohen, coach of Harold Solomon and other tournament players, talks about seeing the blur of the racquet – the results of the racquet moving as it meets the ball. In the case of the volley, however, a player should usually see a still racquet – the result of stopping the racquet at contact with the ball. But many players never see the blur of their racquet; they look instead toward their intended target area. At contact with the ball, a player should not have visual contact with the target.
A player must sense how his/her body feels as it meets the ball and compare this feeling with the results. It is of the utmost importance to note the results of each shot and to duplicate the feel which gives success. For example, the hips are located very near a player’s center of gravity, so that, on any given stroke, they are in slow motion compared to the rest of his moving parts. If he can sense the hip rotation, which is relatively easier because of its slower speed, then he can duplicate his better shots.
In his book Zen In The Art Of Archery, Eugen Herrigel describes the learning process involved in shooting an arrow. Interesting enough, the target is the last element introduced into the shot. At the start, his lessons focus on getting the proper feel for the correct tension in the bow. He emphasizes the uncanny feel of his own Zen Master who was capable of hitting the bull’s-eye blind-folded at 100 yards. The fact that the Zen Master stressed feel before results deserves our attention. I do not advocate a complete disregard of the target; however, if the desire to hit the target is too great, it will distract the player from seeing the blur of the racquet and sensing the movement of his body.
Simultaneous execution of all three elements enables a player to feel a particular shot. Looking the ball into the racquet and sensing the target are not new ideas. But the sensing of one’s body, often underemphasized by even the most innovative teachers, is the key ingredient.
Muscle Tension and Feel
The sensing of one’s body happens most easily with relaxed muscles. For example, in order to sense a slight variation in the weights of two similar objects, one would hold each object with a relaxed arm. Holding the objects tightly or tensely would make it nearly impossible to sense or feel a difference between them. Similarly, in tennis, a player’s ability to feel his shots is directly related to the relaxation of his muscles. It is extremely important when serving to have complete relaxation in the shoulder and neck muscles. This gives a player the feeling of weightlessness in his upper body and serving simply becomes the ability to allow oneself to fall into the ball effortlessly.
A player must walk onto the court already relaxed in order to maximize his ability to feel his shots. Thus, stretching and loosening the muscles before play is very important in maximizing performance.
Competitive Pressure and Feel
At nearly every level of tennis from the public parks to Flushing Meadow, there is pressure to win. Playing with feel – directing one’s attention partially inward toward the awareness of one’s body – has in itself the very means for performing well under pressure. Tom Seaver has often said that much of his skill stems from an awareness of what his body is doing when he pitches. Seaver feels himself pitch, he doesn’t think about it. Thus, one of the all-time great pitchers in baseball attributes his success to feel.
Seeing the blur of the racquet and repeatedly sensing the movements of one’s body can induce a hypnotic state which enables one to concentrate with complete singularity of purpose. Such is the case with Bjorn Borg. In the 1979 U.S. Open Roscoe Tanner played very quick aggressive points against Borg, thus denying Borg the repetition he needed to attain his usual feel.
Feel also involves preparation before a point starts. Body awareness begins as a player prepares to serve or to receive serve. This preparation can be most effective if it involves a ritual or repetitive act which enables a player to feel the same before the ball is in play. This ritual-like preparation is very important – for, if a player begins a point with feel, there is a good chance that he will continue to play with feel for the remainder of that point. On the other hand, if the point begins without sufficient internal focus, there is no chance at all of attaining the feel needed to play well. For example, when returning serve in matches where he is confident, Vitas Gerulaitis has a habit of checking his grip just as he sets in the ready position. This habit has the above-mentioned effect of being a sort of ritual which focuses Vitas into an awareness of his body. Against McEnroe in the 1979 U.S. Open finals, Vitas deserted his ritual and did not play as well as he could have. In this case the pressure from outside prevailed over Vitas’ ability to retain his inward focus.
Though it gives structure and purpose to the game, the score must remain subordinate to playing with feel. Feel is the process which allows the goal of victory to be reached.
To consistently play tennis well, feel is a necessity. It is the awareness of one’s own body which is the key to feel. For those with a somewhat esoteric inclination, feel can be described as learning about a lost part of ourselves. Some thinkers, like G. Gurdjieff and M. Feldenkrais, believe that there is a center in everyone which governs our movements and that this center must be consciously developed as much as our emotional or intellectual selves. Yoga or any of the other body awareness systems can be very helpful in learning how to sense the body.
Above all, however, feel is doing. All discussion aside, when the feel is there, it’s there.
Bob Schewior is ranked in the ETA and is Head Professional at the Chestnut Ridge Racquet Club in Mt. Kisco, N.Y.
Note: Article originally published in Tennis Week, February 7, 1980