The weekend of April 6 – 8, 2007, saw some of the top tennis players in the world at the Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem. It was the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup with the USA vs. Spain. The US was represented by Andy Roddick (world ranking # 3) and James Blake (# 9) playing singles, and the Brian brothers (# 1) playing doubles. For Spain the players listed included Rafael Nadal (# 2) and several others ranked from # 7 to # 35. Unfortunately, Rafa had a minor injury and did not compete.
Davis Cup competition started about 100 years ago as an annual meet called a “tie” between the USA and England. Since then it has expanded to about 130 countries, with matches spread across the entire world over a whole year’s calendar. The women have the equivalent competition called the Federation Cup. During that time the USA has won the most trophies. But not recently.
Paul Anderson, the Grand Poobah of the Paul Anderson Tuesday Afternoon Tennis and Tea Society ordered a bunch of tickets and distributed them among himself and his son John, Bob Laney (the Minor Poobah of Court C), John Willardson, Terry Cleary, John Barker, Jim McCrae, Bob Boettger and Bruce Rosen. Attending on their own were Danny Raymer, Joe Richardson and Marvin Brame.
This tie was something of a revenge factor. The USA had been beaten before the finals more often than not in the last couple decades. The last final that the USA reached it was won by Spain. Another factor is that the host country can semi-cheat by picking a venue that has a court surface most favorable to the home team. That factor, plus a wildly partisan home crowd, means that more often than not, the visitors lose, regardless of their relative rankings. When Spain last beat us, it was in Spain on a soft clay court. This past weekend, it was on a suitably hard court. The Winston-Salem crowd was the largest to watch a Davis Cup tie in the US in 17 years.
This tie was won soundly by the USA, 4 – 1. But the greatest value to me was what I learned by watching the pros. This was the first professional tennis match I had seen in person. Here is some of what I observed:
Fit: The pros are all skinny. Even the ones with broad shoulders and lots of muscles have skinny legs. No extra fat.
Hyper-activity: they bounce around the court like Tigger from the 100 Acre Woods in Winnie the Pooh. They roll on their feet soles in a way that never leaves them flat-footed.
Serve: they use their entire body to swing their arms totally extended, pull and bend from the waist and use their legs to jump into the shot so their whole weight contributes to the force of the hit. They hit the first serve mostly flat with a small component of topspin. The second serve has much more top spin; but it is not significantly slower or softer, just more top spin.
Return of serve: always hyper-alert. Since this shot comes at them the fastest of all (Andy Roddick holds the world record at 153 m.p.h.) they focus with laser-like force and clarity. They also read the server’s motion long before the racket strikes the ball. You can see them shift position to one side, forward or back to be in a better spot to meet the ball as the server is swinging his racket, before it strikes the ball. They also have tremendous variety on their returns. It may be a simple, frantic block and semi-lob of a serve they can barely reach, or it may be a cannon blast for a clean winner off a serve they can easily reach.
Position: usually where they need to be, when they need to be there. Of course, sometimes they guess wrong or just miss it, but 85% of the time they have the opportunity to hit back the shot they need. Anticipation, foot speed and body position win more points than great shot making or strong arms.
Ground strokes: frantically powerful effort. If you or I hit the greatest shot of our career, where we didn’t care if we missed it or not, we just wanted to crush the ball and hit a screamer across the net, with a wind-up and follow-through that rotated entirely around our body, that would be typical pro ground stroke, which they may hit 20 times in one game.
Volleys: the only technically advanced things I could spot were speed to get to the ball with great hand / eye coordination. Other than that, I could not see a lot of difference between the pros’ volleys and our group’s volleys.
Overheads: unlike our group, the pros basically don’t miss. With rare exceptions, they don’t need to wait for the ball to bounce and slow down. If they can get to it in the air, they usually win the point.
Lobs: a lot more top spin with more variety in speed and angle than our group hits. An offensive as much as defensive shot. The coolest one: James Blake retrieved a lob by running past it, letting it fall to his ankles, and then hitting backwards between his legs as a perfect counter-lob over his surprised, net-bound opponent for a clean winner.
Topspin and slice: a lot of both. Shots are rarely flat or side spin, except for an intentionally soft bunt to keep it away from a wrong-footed or wrong-courted opponent. Obviously, their topspins are the heavy duty artillery. But, they seem to hit a much higher percentage of slices than I would expect. And though the slices are more often a defensive shot when they have a hard time reaching the ball, the slices are not a “second choice” weak shot. The slices are hit with huge power to pound the ball back and keep a low bounce.
Tough shots: the pros missed a surprisingly high percentage of the same kind of shots that we would find difficult – like being pulled wide for a shot to their alley and having to hit a thread-the-needle passing shot back up the same alley while on the run; or having to rush to the net for a drop shot and trying to hit back a sharp cross court shot. At our level, we may rarely try such a brave stroke. But if we do, we may miss them 70% of the time. The pros will attempt such a shot more often, but still miss it the same 70%. That human element affords some comfort for us hackers!
Winners: the pros seem to want to win the point more, while at our level we try not to lose it. They hit out and try to pass their opponent way more than we do.
Losers: the pros seemed to forget the last, lost point and move on with a clear mind to the next shot better than us amateurs. And for practice, they frequently will swing their arm in a practice stroke between points, to remind themselves what they should have done differently.
I hope that the members of the Paul Anderson Tuesday Afternoon Tennis and Tea Society learned from this experience and we all play better.