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The toss connection—hit or pitch: How baseball is similar to tennis

The toss connection—hit or pitch: How baseball is similar to tennis

If not for the coronavirus pandemic, today would have been Major League Baseball's Opening Day. Earlier this week, both sports' Olympic events were postponed until 2021.

As we all know, tennis isn’t the only sport currently on hold. Today was going to be Opening Day for a sport that has an intriguing connection to tennis: baseball.

Like tennis, baseball involves hitting. Back in the 1930s, Don Budge mimicked his lefty baseball swing to create the modern topspin backhand. It’s easy to picture smooth two-handed hitters like Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams, Jimmy Connors, Novak Djokovic and Andre Agassi, slightly crouched in the batter’s box, cracking one line drive after another.

But a potentially more fitting analogy is to the pitcher, as revealed in K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, a remarkable book by New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner that was published in 2019 and came out in paperback this month.   

Given that each action involves a throwing motion from a standing position, there’s an obvious kinesthetic and strategic link between the pitcher and the server. Kepner explores many of the elements of an effective serve–leg strength, pronating, keeping the arm healthy. Steve Carlton, a Hall of Fame pitcher who rarely suffered an injury, pioneered fitness techniques in the 1970s and '80s, roughly the same time Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl were bringing that mindset to tennis.

“We gained strength in areas that most people didn’t know how to exploit as trainers,” said Carlton. “We went after weak tissue all the time, which would be the ulnar regions. We made that stronger, more able to take the stress.” 

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As with the serve, pitching has evolved.

“In the early days,” writes Kepner, “the pitcher was merely a tool for initiating action, a delivery device to place the ball in a specific spot.” 

This makes one think of Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors, players who largely used the serve simply to start the point from a relatively neutral position.    

But for much of each sport’s history, servers and pitchers have taken the throwing motion to new levels of speed and precision, so much that it triggered rule changes. In the 1950s, Australian Lew Hoad’s forceful delivery vaulted him into the court, compelling the International Lawn Tennis Association, in 1959, to make it acceptable to let both feet come off the ground when striking the ball. Since then, this has become common, with Billie Jean King, John Newcombe and Boris Becker being exemplars. Meanwhile, in baseball in the 1960s, as flamethrowers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson terrorized hitters, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.   

Then there is the matter of deployment. Kepner’s keen insights into how each pitch is used have many connections to tennis. Most obvious are these words from pitcher Frank Tanana, who led the majors in strikeouts in 1975.

“There’s no better feeling as a pitcher than to just tell the guy what’s coming—‘Here, fastball, get in the box, let’s go,’ and they still couldn’t hit it.”

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This is precisely in line with what Pete Sampras once told me.

“I loved being able to start off the match, line up my serve and hit that first one, 126 M.P.H., right down the T for an ace.”

Be it as batter or receiver: gulp. Ditto for the similarity between a curveball and a slice serve. Batters flummoxed by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s curve can likely commiserate with receivers chased off the court by John McEnroe's slice serve.

“It sounded like a little tornado, bzzzzz,” was how baseball Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda described the Koufax curve. Many a McEnroe victim would concur.    

And it’s also easy to draw the connection between a pinpoint pitcher like Greg Maddux and tennis’ supreme dart-thrower, Roger Federer. Compounding the challenge of facing Maddux and Federer is the weapon of doubt and disguise. As the saying often goes in baseball, make balls look like strikes, and strikes look like balls. This is a plausible way to describe the unreadable motions of Federer and Serena. Fastball or curve? Slice or flat? Kick or change-up? And, with a nod to Nick Kyrgios, knuckler or underhand? Even worse, unlike baseball, will it come to your left or right side? Then again, being hit by a tennis ball is rarely too painful.

But beyond the throwing motion commonalities, Kepner’s exploration of pitching might well be a way tennis players should wield their racquets not just when serving, but with every shot they strike. As Kepner writes,

“The pitcher is the planner, the initiator of action,” Kepner writes. “The hitter can only react. If the pitcher, any pitcher, can find a way to disrupt that reaction, he can win.”

In his 1925 book, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, tennis great Bill Tilden offered this advice: “Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes.” Or as Martina Navratilova once told me, “It’s all disruption, be it with power, with consistency, with court positioning, with spin, with variety, with movement. That’s the whole game: Make them do what they don’t want to do, so you can do what you want to do.”

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This can happen in many ways, as Kepner explains when speaking with another standout pitcher, Curt Schilling, about two Hall of Famers. The first was Randy Johnson, a 6’10” lefthander nicknamed “The Unit.” Johnson’s approach, writes Kepner, was to “dominate with brute force: hard fastballs, hard sliders, endless ferocity.” Is there a better way to describe the high-intensity, shot-to-shot, point-to-point fervor of Rafael Nadal, Jimmy Connors, or Monica Seles? 

Then there was Pedro Martinez, far more of a feel pitcher. As Kepner writes, Martinez was “an intimidator, for sure, but succeeded by adjusting to what he saw and outwitting the hitter.” This is strikingly similar to the subtle, dissection-like manner of attackers Federer and McEnroe, as well as that deceptively textured baseliner, Evert. As they peel off the opponent’s arsenal, strand by strand, these athletes use their tools less as hammers, more as scalpels.    

Just like tennis shots, there are baseball pitches that go in and out of the lexicon. According to Kepner, from the mid-1970s through the late '90s, the split-finger fastball was quite popular until fear of injuries curtailed its use. Largely gone now from pro tennis: the slice backhand approach shot, a shot that was coin of the realm from the late 1940s well into the '70s.

Then again, other pitches and shots have entered and endured. The slider, a faster version of the curveball, was misunderstood and often denigrated until it was more generally accepted in the 1960s and '70s. Ditto for the two-handed backhand, a stroke rarely seen as recently as the early '70s that is now mostly standard operating equipment.

Finally, there is the matter of power and control.

“Pitching has always been a delicate balance of velocity and command,” writes Kepner. “More of one can mean less of the other.”

Surely, these are relevant words for tennis players of all levels. Ponder indeed how intriguing it would be to see a pitching coach enter the world of tennis—not just to aid serves, but to explore the entire game.