The times they are a changing...
  | By Gilad Bloom
Photo courtesy of Getty Images


Growing up as a young tennis player in the late 1970s was very different from the reality that junior tennis players are facing today. In Tel Aviv, Israel where I grew up, the coaches were all using a wood racquet and they all used to play with one grip: continental. They all used to play with a one handed backhand, mostly slicing it.

In those years the top players on the the tour were Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Nastase, Vilas, a mish mash of styles and characters that made the game very exciting, they were strong personalities with contrasting styles, the game was changing rapidly in front of my eyes.

By the early 1980s most of the tour had switched to graphite racquets and soon after the over sized and wide body frames (and some say the strings too) changed the game forever). As a result we saw two major changes, the first one was that 99 percent of the players nowadays hit the backhand with two hands and use a semi-western grip for their forehands.

The second was the disappearance of the serve and volley game. In the old days there were a few different styles of play and quite a few ways to win points, but in today’s game there’s really one major way that most players play. Strategically the game has become a bit one dimensional (although the quality of the shots improved), and rewards power over finesse which wasn’t the case with wood racquets.

From a coaching perspective this is major. The older generation of coaches who were trained with wood racquets and a one handed backhand had to now start teaching the two- hander which is a completely different stroke. Also, now that most players use the double handed shot there is a direct effect on the backhand slice, the backhand volley and, most importantly, on the style of play.

My old coach in the 70s told me that the best way to win a point is to hit deep, be patient, build up the point, wait for the short ball and then come in behind a good approach shot and punch the volley for a winner. This way of constructing a point still would work today but it’s not the preferred strategy of most current pro players. Their ability to produce winners from all corners of the court means that there is almost no such thing as a defensive shot.

The pace of the game in the high level is such that you just can’t hit one passive shot, any half chance to attack is taken advantage of, if you blink for a split second the point is over. The data of today’s high level tennis tells us that about 70 percent of the points end in between 0-4 shots, if you take away the serve and the return, that’s only a two shot rally.

Given the stats, as a High Performance coach you have to put an emphasis on the serve, the return and the first shot after each of them, that means a lot of serves plus one shot drills or return plus one. I once saw Madison Keys return serve in practice for one hour without a break, that’s because she understands how critical that shot is, in today’s high pace game a good return means an early lead in the point and a quick point so perhaps it’s a bit more important to hit a million returns instead of hitting a million cross courts like we used to in the 80s.

At the pro level, most times it comes down to how well a player serves or returns on a given day, it is as simple as that. The serve was always the most important shot in tennis, that didn’t change, we used to serve buckets of serve in the 80s but we used to run to the net behind the first serve and also come in behind the second shot.

Today the main use of the serve (besides to ace or get a free point) is to hit a forehand right after the return in order to open up the court and make the opponent run right away. Today’s serve sessions always include the first shot after the serve, that quick preparation after the serve is vital and needs to be repeated thousands of time, in fact the faster the serve is the quicker the server would need to re-orient themselves because in the high pace game that ball is coming back very quick.

Having said all of that we need to remember that we are not all John Isner or Nick Kyrgios, and for the vast majority of players it is of course very useful and essential to be good in the longer rallies, many times the long points that go 4-12 shots or longer are the points that decide the match. If you have a great serve and a penetrating return like the players mentioned above you make sure that the rallies never last longer than 4-5 shots, the free points on the serve and the easy holds allow those types of players to play freely and aggressively when receiving.

In my opinion, at all levels except the pro level and high Division 1 college level, it is still the consistent player that will win matches and not the 0-4 shots mentality player. My point is that if you’re going to go for the lines and play ultra high risk aggressive tennis you better be really good or you’ll lose many matches to more conservative players who choose to play the percentage game.

Therefore we still need to do the good old consistency exercises but it has to be done with a purpose, not just meaningless crosses but deep, accurate shots and mainly inside out forehands in order to open up the court. There are 3-4 patterns that usually happen in a point, and those patterns should become second nature and should be repeated in practice thousands of times, most of them involve running around the backhand and hitting a quality inside out or inside in forehand.

With the high-tech light racquets it is possible to hit an aggressive shot from almost anywhere on the court, therefore when working on defense It’s still important to have power and depth (no moon balls but penetrating shots that can shift you from a defensive position back to an attacking position).

As we know, in today’s game it is a must to develop a weapon early on in a player’s career. You need a shot that can open up the court and create an advantage early or late in the point, as being able to dictate the rallies and to force your style of play on the opponent has never been more true. That’s why it pays to encourage the players to go for their shots in practice and play aggressively from a young age. That doesn’t contradict playing smart, it’s possible to play aggressively and still play high percentage tennis, but it’s about having the right aggressive mentality, initiating contact with the the balls, cutting the angles,and taking the ball on the rise.

Once you develop the right mentality it comes down to shot selection, knowing when to pull the trigger and not hesitating when you need to, hitting to the quality areas, not too close to the line, not too close to the middle. If you choose your shots wisely you can still play aggressively and give yourself a high chance to win.

In the old days we used to serve and volley a lot during practice, especially during grass season. Now it’s merely a surprise tactic, something you do once a game at most, the chip and charge is ancient history, and there aren’t too many “special shots that can make a difference, like a backhand slice for example. Most players have a two hander thus don’t feel comfortable slicing it with one hand to mix it up, and most rallies are slugfests with two players standing a few feet behind the baseline. That’s where the drop shot emerged as an antidote to the baseline players who park deep behind the baseline, as the ability to change up the pace with a surprise drop shot can be a difference maker. We see the rising Spanish star Alcaraz use the drop shot as a legitimate weapon.

Another example of how coaching has changed involves how active today’s youth is. We used to play outside all the time, when we didn’t play tennis we were playing soccer and if not soccer, we would be on the beach or outside in general. Today’s youth spends a crazy amount of time in front of the screen and does way less exercise than 40 years ago. As a result many kids lack basic athletic and motorized movements that were natural in the past. A tennis coach can’t just think as a tennis coach, you have to train them in basic athletic movements, teach them the importance of stretching, nutrition, playing another sport and also resting.

We now know the long term effects of over training to the body and mind during the junior year. Burnout is a main reason for injuries and quitting. As a coach I insist on kids taking time off every few months in order to re-charge their battery and I always keep a close eye to see if the kids are over training.


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