I just finished a super season of summer camp in Vermont. Players from all over the country and world visited our small academy in the green mountains for serious high performance training.
It’s becoming harder and harder to find serious training in the summer. Many academies and camps offer more recreational programs—Mickey Mouse type training—with watered down tennis and easy fitness. In addition, good coaching is also hard to find in the summer as the top academy coaches usually are traveling or only working with the best players. I’m proud to keep it real in summer by offering intense training with only two players per court and coach and professional level fitness. And I work with all campers personally: from beginning tournament kids to top ranked players. Thanks
Each summer I am shocked at the skills and tactics that some kids are being taught back home. I call them dinosaur techniques and tactics because they are very old school. Come on coaches! Let’s get with the program! It’s 2022, not the prehistoric ages—or even 1980! Let’s evolve and teach players the modern technical and tactical game.
Here are some old school pet peeves of mine—outdated techniques and tactics that are being taught—and what should replace them:
1. Forehand follow through to the shoulder and catching the follow through
How many top players in today’s game follow through like back in the 70s and 80s, around the neck or at the top of shoulder—or high and out in front? Very few. Medvedev and Djokovic come to mind—sometimes—but the vast majority of pros windshield wiper their forearm and rotate their shoulder creating a finish lower than the traditional high to the shoulder one that has been taught for decades. I say we should leave this technique in the past. Just teach players to wiper their forearm and rotate their shoulder like the pros do. Finish to the side of the deltoid. Finish to biceps. Finish to the elbow. Heck—finish to the waist! And don’t catch the racquet with the opposite hand! Just let the racquet finish fully behind the body and wrap the finish around the trunk without catching.
In anticipation of the catch, players will often reduce their racquet speed pre-impact. In addition, the follow through to the neck or top of shoulder decreases the elasticity in the arm and creates a stiff hitting arm structure. If I had a dollar for every kid who came to my program with a stiff, tight forehand, I would be rich indeed. Most of these kids can’t generate natural, easy power or high rpms because their local coach has had them “following through to the shoulder” ad nauseam since their first red ball lesson.
I like to teach my students modern parobolic swing shapes, inverted finishes where the racquet head is below the level of the hand, the wrap finish and the low finish.
2. Two-handed backhand with wrists locked
The days of Jimmy Connors and Chrissie Evert are over. The two-handed backhand should not be stiff and flat. The wrists should move, creating a “flip,” as Rick Macci and Brian Gordon describe it, with a lag and snap effect. This movement in the wrists and forearms helps to create racquet speed, whip and topspin. If you have trouble seeing the pathway of the wrists on the backhand during the acceleration phase, I highly recommend filming the stroke and analyzing the swing in slow motion.
3. Only closed stances
It’s not that closed stance is necessarily bad; it’s that coaches stubbornly insist on teaching only the closed stance on forehand and backhand. There are a multitude of stance options from closed to open and they should all be taught, along with their related movement patterns, to children and adults from the very beginning.
I have had excellent results teaching kids open and semi open stances, not only on the forehand, but on the backhand side too. Open stances are fundamental nowadays because the game is fast and players are being stretched laterally to the max. The open stance has become essential to be able to move and rally consistently, to defend well, and to prepare and recover quickly in the modern game.
I have also discovered that the open stance can be more natural for some players and help them swing more fluidly with more elasticity. Oscar Wagner has been arguing this point for years and he is right. For many players the open stance can feel liberating and help them to feel the correct load-explode kinetic chain, and the open stance can also promote a more parabolic swing shape, which typifies the modern forehand swing path.
4. Only grounded shots
It’s not that grounded shots are bad either, it’s that coaches teach only grounded shots and refuse to allow or encourage players to leave the ground for airborne shots. The modern game is typified by airborne shots with players leaving the ground routinely during the explosion phase of the swing. It makes no sense to force beginning and intermediate players to stay on the ground for every shot. That’s the way everyone played in the 1970s.
In today’s game, being airborne is fundamental. In addition, learning to jump in a controlled way helps a player develop lower body power, body control, and balance, and encourages players to rotate their hips better than when staying grounded.
On the serve, one of the best techniques to introduce to a beginner is loading the legs and jumping up to the ball. Yet most beginning players I meet tell me their coaches want them to stay on the ground. Crazy. I have taught jumping on the serve successfully to kids and adults of all ages and skill levels. Jumping is a great way to get the lower body activated and to work on balance. In addition, when you get players to jump on the serve, you can start honing the critical timing of the racket drop in relationship to the leg drive, which is critical (more on this below).
5. Serve—racquet on the back
The all-time worst way to teach a beginner kid or adult—besides using no legs—is the classic method of breaking down the serve into parts and starting the player in the backscratch position or with the racquet resting on the shoulder or upper back. This type of half serving can create one of the worst habits and severe biomechanical flaws in tennis serving. The reason is that when players are taught this way, they learn to stop the racquet in the backscratch when they should be taught how to keep the racket moving quickly through this position. A hitch is created and many kids start developing a racket entry into the backscratch position too early and before the leg drive.
This poor sequencing can lead to a loss of power. Rick Macci astutely describes this early racket drop as an epidemic in junior tennis and it’s even present on the pro tour, especially on the women’s side of the game. The early racket drop problem is clearly exacerbated by all the coaches out there forcing beginner kids and adults to rest the racket on their back, shoulder, or behind their head.
6. No spin on serves
I see dozens of players visiting me each month who have never been taught a spin serve—any spin serve. They only hit one serve. This is dead wrong. Players can’t hope to develop into champions with one flat first serve and then softer flat serve for a second serve. That’s a joke.
Players should be taught from an early age how to brush up and create topspin on the second serve and how to hit a side spin slice serve in order to open up the deuce court. The worst is when a player tells me that he or she has a good spin serve because his or her coach told them it was good. Then the kid shows me and the ball has little movement and barely any rpms. Poor kid! I can’t discern if these coaches are just being nice or if they honestly don’t know what a good spin serve looks like—or how to teach it.
7. Only forward movement patterns
Many coaches are still teaching that tennis is a one way highway and that good players always try to move forwards. The entire system in Spain is predicated on the opposite of this philosophy. In Spain, good players are taught to move in 360 degrees, both forwards to attack and backwards to defend. Never just one way. Many ways! I meet so many players who never move back from the baseline and, in fact, many of them have well-meaning coaches who tell them that moving back is plain wrong, even cowardly.
In reality, moving back on tough balls is smart. It will be easier to manage a deep and/or powerful ball by retreating to achieve a better position to receive the ball rather than holding one’s ground and fighting the ball with a half volley. The player can hit better topspin by moving back in the court and can often be more consistent because the player has a little more time and space to set up for the shot.
8. Always play crosscourt for defense
It’s silly to teach players to always play anywhere. Tennis is a game that requires surprises and unpredictability. I am commonly told by my students that past coaches have instructed them to always defend cross court. This is very foolish because it’s important that the attacking player can’t anticipate the defenders intention. The defender has to be able to play both cross and down the line with equal control.
Players should not be afraid to defend down the line. The court is a bit shorter and the net is a little higher, but a well-placed high and heavy shot line can be a wonderful defense.
9. Always approach down-the-line or down the middle
These two golden oldies tactics will never die! Many players tell me their coaches said to always approach down the line. Many coaches also still encourage students to approach with middle shots. Many coaches also still teach a slice approach line or middle. These ideas are straight out of the 1970s and 1980s playbook. These plays are antiquated and usually don’t work as successfully as they did in the past. These types of tactics are not as effective because the game has changed. The surface is no longer predominately grass and courts have become slower in general, racquet and string technology has allowed players to hit with more power and spin, and players are passing with more power than ever before. Therefore these plays are less effective. Even the great Spanish coach William Pato Álvarez believed in approaching angle cross court and he has recommended that strategy since the 1970s.
In today’s game, the smart approach shot is a big powerful forehand with topspin. The shot should go towards the opponent’s weaker wing in general, but must be disguised and mixed up from time to time—sometimes cross and sometimes down the line. It never made sense to tell players to always approach down the line! The opponent would pick up on that pattern very easily in a match. Players attacking the net should use the forehand (unless their backhand is better) and attack the weaker side, while sometimes attacking the strong side as a surprise. Players should not be afraid to attack cross court or approach on an angle shot.
10. Always look to finish points at the net
This is related to number 7. Many coaches tell students that the only way to win points is to attack the net. According to these coaches, finishing points at the net is the holy grail of tennis. While it’s certainly a good pattern for some players to move forward and finish with a volley, many famous players and highly successful competitors never or rarely come to net. It is possible to be a champion tennis player and rise to the net infrequently, but kids are rarely told that in the U.S.. For certain personalities, player abilities, and game styles, coming forward a lot may not be the best strategic option. For example, some players are very successful luring their opponents to the net rather than going to the net themselves.
From what I have learned from players visiting me at the academy, there is no nuance about the net being taught. Most coaches are telling the kids to go to the net, and that if they don’t master the net they cannot become top players. This is a fallacy that needs to stop being promoted. The net is good, but the net can also be bad. The net can be a dangerous place to be. Alcaraz, for example, can win at the net, but he is equally adept at baiting people to come forward with a drop shot. Helping players understand the nuances of the net is the right thing to do. The idea that moving forward to the net is always right is dead wrong.
Watch out for outdated teaching! My recommendation is that if you witness any of these dinosaur methods being taught, run as fast as you can. Get away! They are dangerous to your tennis game. Find a coach who is teaching the modern game with forward thinking, cutting-edge technique and tactics. Your tennis life and future may depend on it.
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.