In a previous article, I discussed four of the eight championship qualities that I have learned throughout my years as both a professional tennis player and a coach in Part One.
Below is Part Two of the article, discussing four more of those championship qualities.
Calm in moments of stress
It is well known that tennis is a mental sport. It's definitely not just a matter of forehands, backhands, serves and footwork. As a junior coach, I see this every day. There are those who excel during the technical exercises, but in the part of the training where the children compete against each other you can clearly see who the “winners” are. Most players have a 20-30 percent drop when starting to play points, because when the mental element comes into play, strange things happen. But for future champions, it is the other way around. They actually bloom when you start playing and competing, and raise their level as the pressure goes up.
Dudi Sela, my first student, has been like this since he was a child. In the exercises of the beginning part of the training he was asleep and on the border of being apathetic. But when we started the points phase, he would wake up and rise to the occasion. Sela had the nerves from a young age. While players his age would panic in tough situations, he would smile and wink at me during matches; he was completely in his element. The pressure did not affect him; on the contrary, he loved the action. It made him more alert and improved his game. Amos Mansdorf, was like this also. The best player that has grown in Israel, he had this ability to raise his level precisely in the most important matches of his career. I saw Mansdorf function with an astonishing composure in quite a few matches in his career, such as in our historic victory against Czechoslovakia where he defeated Miloslav Mecir and Karel Novacek in front of a hostile crowd. He was so focused; it was amazing. The thing is, Mansdorf has had this trait since childhood, and I tried to learn from him on this subject. Today as a coach, I try to find that trait in my players.
There are things that cannot be taught, things a player brings from home, as they say. It has to do with peripheral vision and innate talent. In soccer this is called game vision; in basketball, court vision and in tennis is called anticipation. For example, no one taught Johann Cruyff his game vision, or Magic Johnson his court vision. Their ability to see the entire court/field and to know where each player stands is equivalent to the ability of John McEnroe or Andre Agassi to read the opponent's ball direction and know in advance where to run before hitting.
These players had a sense of play that made the task of beating them difficult to impossible. It is almost impossible to hit a winner against such players and they do not necessarily have to be the fastest in the world; they just read the game instinctively. This is a trait that cannot really be taught. When I find a student who has this trait, I believe he/she has a chance to be a serious player. In my generation, the players who were the hardest to beat in this sense were McEnroe and Agassi; they have always been in the right place and it seems almost impossible to catch them in a situation where they have lost their balance.
A dominant weapon (or two)
In today's tennis, weapons are a must. That is, a dominant shot that will open up the court and create an advantage in the point. Sometimes players are born with the talent to hit a specific shot at a very high level, preferably a forehand or a serve. When I identify a player with a particularly high quality shot I try to build his style of play around that stroke. In today's tennis it's not enough to just exchange rallies, every shot has to have a purpose and aggressiveness is the key word. Even shots that are hit from a defensive position should have power; therefore players with a dominant shot are more likely to succeed. When I recognize the weapon I encourage them to concentrate on that weapon and improve it at an early age. Even if it means taking risks and risking losses, in the long run it can be beneficial. Agassi evolved in this way—Nick Bollettieri encouraged him from a young age to go for his forehand, to take risks and keep working on developing an incredibly powerful forehand, "When the balls start to land inside the court then you will be a world champion" was the philosophy.
First step (explosiveness)
There is hardly a leading sport where a quick and explosive first step is not essential (except maybe golf). In soccer and basketball, the first step allows the attacker to break free from the defender and create shooting and scoring situations, and also to be ready on defense. In tennis the first step not only allows the player to reach balls and return to a good position, but also allows the player to reach the ball earlier and hit a higher percentage shot with good balance. Getting to the ball quickly shortens the opponent's reaction time and causes them to make mistakes. Anyone who played against this kind of 'Speedy Gonzalez'-type player knows what I'm talking about. So when I identify a player with natural speed I believe he has a good chance of succeeding in tennis. A lot of technical elements can be taught and improved with the help of trainings, but first step and natural speed is something that can be improved but only up to a certain limit.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.