So, the French Open has just begun, and with it, the temptation to plonk my backside down on the sofa and commandeer the remote control for the next two weeks. I don't need much additional encouragement, but in case you do, have you ever thought about how watching the pros (even on TV) can help to improve your own game?
Here's the Parks Tennis guide to making the most of your sofa-opportunities by targeting exactly what to watch when you are busy watching the tennis on TV.
Looking at the feet of a professional tennis player is like watching ballet. Notice how they get set up early to hit the ball and remain still and balanced through contact with the ball. Can you predict where they are going to hit a shot by looking at how they position their feet - open stance, closed stance, weight on the front foot to hit a slice?
Also, can you follow their style of movement to the ball? Are they using simple, sideways steps or crossover steps. Can you notice a drop step for more explosive movement to a wide ball or even a carioca step to remain balanced and penetrate the court on a sliced approach or a volley.
Think of the footwork drills you have practiced on court during coaching sessions and try to identify them during a match.
Where on the court are the players standing to receive serve?
What point are they choosing to recover to after they hit a shot? Can you spot the different recovery positions when they hit cross-court or down-the-line?
When do they decide to approach the net and where do they position themselves when they do?
This one is a biggie. But it also pays to be realistic. I'd love to hit a single handed backhand like Stan Wawrinka, (it's sublime) but that's not going to happen in this lifetime. Instead I look to watch a specific element that I am working on with my own strokes and see if I can isolate the pros doing it.
For me, this could be the perennial 'left hand across' on my forehand, to help me with my balance, tracking the incoming ball and improving my shoulder rotation. But for you it might be your split-step, or having a more compact backswing, really getting your contact point out in front, making sure your follow through is consistent or keeping your back straight and your head still. Actually, if truth be told, I could use some work on all those things.
But the point is this - choose one specific element that you are working on and watch like a hawk for that. Chances are, there is a great role model to be found on your TV screen.
Can you identify patterns of play and how a player is using them to target their opponent's weaknesses?
What shots are the 'go to' choice for a player to hit when they are in trouble?
What selections give them the opportunity to close the net? This week, in one of our coaching sessions we have been working on using a sliced backhand to approach the net for a volley. If you've been working on a pattern of play like this, can you identify it during a match?
One of the simplest situations to look at and notice, is when a player opts to run around their backhand. Where do they hit from when they do this? Do they choose to go inside-out or inside-in. Is the shot they hit a winner?
Who can resist a little game of 'what shot would I hit next' or to try and figure out what the highest percentage shot to go for in a break point situation might be.
Use your ears
Yes, you are probably listening to the commentary and there's plenty to learn from there, but also take a moment to crank up the volume and listen to the sound of the ball on the strings. Can you pick up the difference between the sound of a hard, flat serve (crisp and deep) and a sliced or kick serve (a longer, and more rat-a-tat sound).
Watch just one player
When you are looking to isolate movement or technique, try to forget about the ball and just watch a single player for a while. You can get even more specific and look at a single body part. Suggestions might be:
- the non-dominant arm - so vital for balance
- shoulders - see how relaxed they are and watch the rotation on serves and groundstrokes
- head - that quality of stillness when the player contacts the ball and how steady the head is, even when the player is running
- hips - how side on hips are for smashes and how good hip rotation lends power to groundstrokes
- knees - as I've been told many times 'if you straighten your knees, you're dead' - too true. Watch the athletic position of the pros, with knees bent, throughout even the longest rallies. Feel your thighs burn in sympathy.
Watch the ball
Yes, I know it sounds obvious, but can you really focus on how the ball moves and what spin does to it. Can you spot the ball kicking up after the bounce when hit with heavy topspin, is it swinging out to the side after a sliced serve? Does the backspin on a perfect drop shot have the ball die or even move backwards? Now can you predict how the ball will move from watching how it is hit?
So grab that remote control, quick! It's not just idle watching of the box - you are really working on improving your game. And when you've absorbed what you can, get out and join us on court to see what difference it has made!
Happy tennis :)