Watercooler: Dewy-eyed Warriors

Thursday, March 06, 2008 /by

The other day, during a Tennis magazine planning meeting, we were trying to figure out the most appealing and useful instruction stories to offer our many playing readers, and I suggested that we publish what in some ways is the unthinkable: teach all our weekend warriors how to win without having a backhand because, the naked truth is, huge numbers of them don't have backhands, at least not backhands worthy of the same definition we apply to the backhand of a Justine Henin, or a David Nalbandian.

Carlos You may wonder how a player can win matches without a backhand, but if you think about it, you'll realize it happens all the time, even if "without a backhand" is a somewhat deceptive way to put it. And it doesn't just happen at the playgrounds and in the parks, it happens in the pro arena as well. Dozens of top pros, including Rafael Nadal and, to a lesser degree, even Roger Federer, overplay to the backhand side, vastly increasing their chances of hitting a forehand on any given shot. Multiple Grand Slam champ Jim Courier is the patron saint of the strategy.

So I ask you: if overplaying to the backhand, aka "running around the backhand" works for Nadal , Federer and others, why wouldn't it work for many of you typical Nadal-or-Federer-worshiping, headband-wearing, thigh-beating, NTRP-rating-exaggerating, tournament-playing, TennisWorld reading fools?

Hear me, Rolo? Skip, Beth? Ed? Asad? TT? Dunlop? Robin? Codepoke? et al?

There's a really interesting irony at work here, and it's been going on for ages. Some top pros, whose backhands already are a hundred times better than those of even the most expert (or deluded) recreational player, happily run around the backhand to club forehands all day (Igor Andreev, Fernando Gonzalez, Carlos Moya also come to mind). It seems to work pretty well for them, and many others, so why are recreational players - precisely those men and women who would benefit the most from hiding a weak, or weaker, shot -  so loath to build their games around the forehand, which is almost always the far better and steadier shot for a hacker?

Why not experience true liberation, instead of continual $50-bucks-per-hour frustration? Show some pride, throw off the yoke of oppression-by-sucky-backhand. Just decide: Backhand? Who the hail needs it?

Yet many dewy-eyed weekend warriors cling to the impossible dream - and absurd strategy - of playing tennis from a side-neutral posture.I see this all the time, when Luke and I are screwing around by the Central Park tennis courts near our home, or even when I'm just listening to weekend warriors gabbing about their games. The number of hackers whose backhands are lousy and destined - at best - to  rise to mediocre, is staggering. Yet they set up in the middle of the court, bravely spraying mortifying backhands all over the place. Instead of acknowledging and minimizing their liability (and paying tribute to their strength), they keep working on the backhand. They pour money into lessons, enroll in tennis camps, experiment with grips, strings, and new drills.

Of course, there's a reason that so many enthusiasts cleave to the notion that they should have a backhand, preferably a good (and therefore, unattainable) one. Dedicated amateur players are idealists, they think the game should played the right way, thus they ought to have a good backhands. The backhand, quite simply, is the Grail, which is why so many people are ga-ga for Amelie Mauresmo and Richard Gasquet. My own backhand (I'm lefty) was always better than my forehand; maybe that's why I resist the deification of the shot. You?

Anyway, this striving for mastery of the backhand his is a conceit for which the typical hard-working, gloriously successful tennis pro has no use whatsoever, and one that most dewy-eyed warriors might be persuaded to re-think if you could ever get one to run around the backhand and win a tennis match against that rival who previously owned him. That's unlikely to happen, though, because the entire recreational gestalt prohibits doing such a thing. Hopeless tennis addicts are in love with the quest for mastery, especially of the backhand, much like bad writers are in love with penning long, descriptive passages. Blinded by love, of words or tennis strokes: same difference. But there are bigger fish to fry in tennis, as in writing.

Ponder this: if Moya had been fiercely determined to show that he could give as good as he got with his backhand, he'd be part of the 6-8 PM Tuesday men's doubles group in Palma de Mallorca's Club de Tennis, instead of loafing around Roland Garros or Palm Springs. Moya, and all the others like him, are not - and have never been -  as interested in playing nice tennis, and mastering the various strokes, as they are in winning tennis matches. It has ever been thus, for them if not us, which really should tell you loads about the real nature of and forces driving this game. It should tell those of you who have pretty attractive games but just can't beat that crotchety old guy who returns every shot hit to his backhand with a lob  (you know who you are!) why the world appears to be an unfair place. He's playing to win, and he knows he's not going to win by trying to rip topspin backhands. End of story.

The interesting question, philosophically, is whether the extraordinarily successful game Moya developed in order to maximize his chances of winning (as opposed to looking great) is - or isn't  - also the most appealing and satisfying game he can possibly play.

That is, does a successful player by definition wind up with the most appealing game (if not necessarily the prettiest, because that's considerably more subjective) available to him or her? And consider this: Would we enjoy watching Moya more if he did not overplay to the backhand, and (presumably) also lost more matches, and made more errors, because opponents would get to his backhand more often. That is, do we love Moya because - or in spite of - his step-around-the-backhand mentality?  Now we're deep into tennis metaphysics: Do pro players make a deal with the devil that no dewy-eyed, earnest hacker would contemplate? 

Of course they do. Competitive tennis at its best and most intense on the same principle as modern architecture an industrial design: Form follows function.

Nothing so vividly demonstrates the foundational difference between playing tennis to win and playing tennis for the sheer fun, challenge and joy (all of which are great reasons, BTW) than the aversion recreational players have to running around the backhand. I know many, many players who wouldn't dream of doing it - to whom doing so is borderline unsporting, like serving underhand.

Back in the day when I played a lot, I lost routinely to one guy who had no compunctions about running around his backhand - he camped in his backhand corner and whacked forehands all day. They weren't even glorious forehand, but they didn't have to be.  The challenge of escaping that forehand, or getting to his backhand, was formidable (remember, we're talking about 3.5, maybe 4.0 players here) - it so discombobulated people that the dude won many, many more matches than most people thought he "deserved." It took a player of considerably more accomplishment that his own to beat him, and isn't that a great accolade? He beat everyone at, and even somewhat above, his level.

There's a word for guys, or girls, like that: Winner.

So there's my idea for a good instruction story. Teach those brave souls who are willing to admit they will never have good backhands the simple, cardinal rules of running around your backhand. Give recreational players a game plan meant to ensure that they would hit 75-80 per cent forehands (if that is indeed their better side) and let them see if they would rather win matches or have nice strokes.Watercooler3

Hail, maybe we can get one of you to be our guinea pig in an experiment along those lines. Volunteers?

PS - I'll have some thoughts tomorrow on the end of the Jimmy Connors - Andy Roddick relationship.

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