How the tutelage of a Cuban émigré helped create the modern game

by: Steve Tignor | April 20, 2017

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Antonio Arias re-engineered the forehand, and his son Jimmy unleashed it on the tennis world. (YouTube)

“Kid, you aren’t getting another game,” Rod Laver said to his 12-year-old opponent. The Rocket had goofed around and gone down 0-2 to the precocious pre-teen from Buffalo, NY, but he wasn’t smiling anymore.

When you’re 12 and the Rocket says those ominous words to you during an exhibition match in your hometown, chances are you’re going to believe him, right? Not when you’re a 12-year-old named Jimmy Arias, and you’re armed with a forehand unlike any that had been seen before. In that case, you win three more games, and lose a close 7-5 set to the 11-time major champion.

Then, if you’re Arias, you walk over to your father and hear him say, “You played all right.”

“That was the closest he came to paying me a compliment,” Arias told journalist John Feinstein with a laugh. “My dad’s philosophy was, never tell you what you did right, tell you what you did wrong. I think that’s what got me to No. 5 in the world.”

When it came to tennis, Antonio Arias didn’t believe in limits or conventions or expectations about what you couldn’t and couldn’t do. With an outsider’s eye, an engineer’s mind, an athlete’s competitiveness and an immigrant’s do-it-yourself work ethic, he would leave an unsung mark on the sport.

The forces of history had brought Antonio to upstate New York. He was born in Spain, but his family left for Cuba during the Spanish Civil War. After growing up on that island, he left for the U.S. before the 1959 revolution to attend college. A soccer player for the Cuban national team, he introduced the game to his oldest son, Jimmy. Soon, though, Antonio tried the newly popular sport of tennis, and one day he handed Jimmy a Dunlop Maxply with a 4 5/8 grip. Even with that tree-trunk in his hand, Jimmy hit 10 straight balls back to his dad.

Antonio began teaching his son to play tennis the way any father who didn’t grow up playing the sport would: First from a textbook, and then with private lessons from a local pro. But the engineer spotted a flaw in the technique that Jimmy was being taught on his forehand.

As anyone who learned the game in the 1970s or earlier will likely remember, the standard procedure in those days was to take the racquet straight back, swing through horizontally, and finish by pointing the tip of the frame in the direction of your target. The man with the most advanced forehand of that era, Bjorn Borg, used a newfangled Western grip; but he still finished by pointing his racquet at his target.

“The pro was teaching the conventional style,” Arias told Tennis Magazine, recalling a lesson from when he was 7 or 8. “Continental grip, straight back, stay on your feet. I could barely get the ball back.”

Antonio had other ideas. He realized that stopping the racquet in mid-swing meant that you had to slow the frame down first, thus robbing yourself of power and spin.

“[My dad] said not to stop the racquet, to let it end up wherever it did,” Arias said. “He said to let my arm go. That was the start of my racquet-head speed.”

From the vantage point of 2017, it only sounds natural, right? The full-whip forehand is taught on tennis courts all over the world today. But in the mid-70s, it required an entirely new approach. Arias used a semi-Western grip, set up in an open stance and, as Antonio encouraged him, moved forward to take the ball earlier and create sharper angles. All of that is normal today, but even for a talented kid like Jimmy, it wasn’t an easy concept to understand, or master, at the time.

“I practiced seven or eight hours a day” to get it down, he said.

Once he had it, though, he had a game-changing weapon. Arias began to dominate the junior ranks; by the time he was 10, he had reached the final of the 12-and-under national championships. When he came home after losing to the top seed, though, all Antonio could say was, “How could you lose so bad in the final?” By the time he was 12, he wasn’t losing in national finals anymore.

While Antonio was stingy with his compliments, he did everything he could to further his son’s career. That included making a trip from Buffalo to Sarasota, Fla., in the family’s red Volkswagon Beetle. There Jimmy and Antonio met with the proprietor of a brand-new tennis academy at The Colony resort, Nick Bollettieri.

In reality, Bollettieri hadn’t built his academy yet, so he put up Arias at his house. When this skinny, 5’1” kid leaped into the air to hit the forehand his father had taught him, Bollettieri saw the future flash before his eyes.

“He shocked us all by jumping off the ground, throwing his full body into his forehand, and wrapping his shoulder around on his follow-through,” Bollettieri said. “Add to this his weird grip (semi-Western) and you get a preview of today’s game. He was smashing the ball around the court when others were just pushing it.”

“I just knew in an instant,” Bollettieri said, “That was the way to hit the ball.”

Soon the Antonio Arias forehand had become the Nick Bollettieri forehand.

“My other juniors started to imitate Jimmy’s forehand,” Bollettieri said, “and it became the signature stroke of the academy. I believe that it revolutionized tennis.”

Arias would take his forehand into the Top 5, but at 5’9”, he couldn’t leap enough to make up for his lack of size. The sport was growing more physical in the mid-80s—Boris Becker muscled and dove his way to the Wimbledon title at 17 in 1985—and power was at a new premium. In the hands of fellow Bollettieri Academy graduates Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, Arias’s forehand would help the U.S. keep pace with the sport’s evolution over the next decade.

The power game had come to tennis, and the U.S. benefited. But it had taken Antonio Arias, a Cuban-American, to engineer it.

“Today the Arias forehand has a different name,” the author Matthew Futterman wrote in 2016. “It’s called a forehand.”

Rod Laver had no idea who he was talking to all those years ago in Buffalo.

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