Hi-Tech Tennis

Tuesday, March 05, 2013 /by
Tom DiPace
Tom DiPace

Like every recreational player, I have a flawed game. Extremely flawed. Shoulder turn and hip rotation? I have some, but not nearly enough. I’m tall (6-foot-2) and I have a decent arm (lots of backyard baseball as a kid) but my serve doesn’t have as much pop as it should—at least not unless I’m willing to trade three sets of tennis for a three-week ibuprofen binge. I don’t bend low enough on my strokes. My feet are pretty fast, but my footwork is suspect. My two-handed backhand feels natural; my forehand feels robotic except on the best of days. The kick serve confounds me, despite years and years of off -and-on lessons, conversations with the world’s top instructors and months spent following the pros around the world. I hit what might be called a “sit up” topspin second serve. Kick it does not.

My largest problem is a common one: I don’t have enough time to play or practice, or enough discipline (or distaste for fried food) to remain at an ideal playing weight. Like most adults, I consider it an achievement if my game doesn’t deteriorate, never mind improve. But then a few years ago I heard about Brian Gordon and his 3-D technique analysis, and suddenly, there was hope. Maybe with more precise information—real data, real images, no nonsense—I could improve more of my game in less time.

Gordon is a biomechanist, a man of science in a sport that has too few of them. I visited him at Rick Macci’s academy in Boca Raton, FL. Across from the hard courts where Macci spends all day molding tomorrow’s best players, there’s a hitting wall with a canopy over it and 10 high-speed cameras (each one can capture 400 frames a second). They also emit infrared beams. Gordon dresses subjects in a nylon suit that fits tight like a wet suit; it has reflective markers all over it, and Gordon places more markers on racquets and sneakers. He uses custom-built software to collect and interpret the data.

After I squeezed into the suit, it took Gordon 20 minutes to arrange the markers and make sure the cameras were aligned and working. He then fed me forehands and backhands, and had me hit serves. The best part: He didn’t say a word about my strokes. No guesses, no predictions, nothing but a few cracks about how much I was sweating (the suit is black, and Boca is hot). I like a doctor who doesn’t diagnose until the test results arrive.

Gordon and I met for breakfast the next morning. He brought his laptop, I brought mine. He pulled up the videogame version of me, a spaghetti figure with an oval head and three-dimensional movements. He gave me the good news first.

“You’re consistent,” he said. “And you won’t hurt yourself.”

“What about the rest?” I asked.

“Your biggest weakness is synchronization,” Gordon said. “You’ve got body parts firing at different times. Your parts are doing things they should be doing to hit the ball, but they’re not coordinated. Everything’s a little messed up.”

“Everything’s a little messed up”—this I had figured out on my own, many years ago. But I had never had it explained in as much detail as Gordon proceeded to do. On my forehand, my racquet was parallel to the ground as I prepared; Gordon wanted it pointed up, and he showed me slow motion video of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and others to demonstrate (as different as the two players are, large chunks of their forehands are remarkably similar). I reach too much to the side when I swing. I had to learn, Gordon said, to pull the racquet forward by the handle while relaxing my other muscles so the racquet head dropped and then whipped around because of the force at the handle.

Gordon complemented my forehand hip rotation, with a caveat: The peak speed of my hips was 383 degrees a second, not far off from the 400-per-second mark that he has determined is common in top players. But I was reaching that speed after my shoulder speed peaked at 639 degrees per second, below the 800 he sees in high-level juniors. So I turned my hips fine, but mistimed the turn so badly that none of that energy was transferred to my racquet, leaving me with a racquet-head speed of 54 mph.

Gordon found much better timing on my two-handed backhand, which made sense: It’s a shot I can hit consistently, even if I haven’t played in months. It had the opposite problem as my forehand: It’s a decently timed stroke, but my hip and shoulder rotation speeds are low, so I waste much of that good timing and don’t hit the ball as powerfully, or with as much spin, as I could. I don’t drive through the shot with my left arm; instead, it just drags along behind my dominant right arm.

Gordon estimated my fastest serve at 95 mph (based on the speed of my racquet), but it’s all arm. On a good serve, the legs should drive as the racquet head drops down with the face about 90 degrees to the torso. When the racquet is at it’s lowest point, the legs should be off the ground. All that energy is transferred into the up-and-out momentum of the racquet and into the ball. Again, my timing was off. My legs were driving up as I was swinging at the ball, and contributing nothing to the stroke.

“You muscle the ball,” Gordon said.

“So I’m not going to play in the U.S. Open this year?” I said.

“I don’t think you’ll be in the main draw, no,” Gordon replied.

Now for the hard part—fixing this mess. Gordon and I got on court and he walked me through the components of the modern forehand, as mastered, in his estimation, by Federer. Both hands on the racquet as you turn, racquet pointing up, hitting arm at 60 degrees. Then extend the elbow, keeping the racquet above the level of the hand and outside the wrist as it drops. Rotate and pull the butt cap forward toward the ball. The force of that pull will send your racquet back farther—imagine a whip—before it accelerates rapidly toward contact. Sounds easy, right? Well, it’s impossible. I couldn’t hit a ball in the court; I felt like I did at age 11, when I had just started to play and my older brother beat me 120-some-odd consecutive games (true story).

The backhand we left for another day, largely because of time limitations, and because Gordon was reluctant to fiddle with something that felt natural, even if it could be much improved. We worked on my serve timing, and it helped. But for all Gordon’s analysis, a tip from Macci helped more. He caught a glimpse of us working, stopped what he was doing and said, “Drop your racquet and throw a ball over the net as far as you can.” I did. “You can throw really well,” he said. “Why don’t you do that when you serve?” Good question.

I spent about three weeks trying to hit a forehand like Gordon wanted me to hit it. At first I was miserable, to the point where I dreaded playing sets because I knew I would lose. Slowly, I got more comfortable with it, but then something happened: My elbow started to hurt. A lot. I had never had tennis elbow in my life. I called Gordon and he was frank: “It’s hard for me to say, because I can’t see what you’re doing. But maybe this isn’t for you.” I had already decided as much. Gordon and his technology are remarkable, but for a player like me with ingrained bad habits and not a lot of time, it’s near impossible to reconstruct an entire stroke from scratch. I went back to my traditional takeback and swing; I feel like the timing of my shoulder and hip rotation has improved. My forehand is better than it was, for sure. It’s just never going to be radically better.

Technology is never a substitute for practice, but for a junior—or someone with real talent, unlike me—this is the future. Gordon taught me more about my game and its flaws than any instructor I had ever worked with. I’ve never known more about how I hit the ball, and while I can’t do all that much with this knowledge, a younger player—or a far better one, like a pro athlete—could benefit enormously from it.

I’d love to have a kick serve that jumps or a forehand that dives into the court at 80 mph. But after looking for those things, I came away with something better: I’m less worried about what’s wrong with my game, and more likely to just get on the court and enjoy playing. When I curse a bad miss or a sloppy stroke, I try to remember Gordon’s initial analysis: “You’re consistent and you’re not going to hurt yourself.” Really, what more could the tennis hackers of this world want?

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