(I took photo above at 2011 US Open)
By P.J. Simmons
Every year when I step into the gates at the US Open tennis tournament I feel the rush of a kid on Christmas morning headed down to open presents under the tree. For me, there’s still nothing like seeing my tennis heroes up close performing surreal athletic feats. I still get starstruck every time I get to see the world’s top players like Nole, The Fed, Rafa, Serena and so many others playing live. I find it just as thrilling to witness new rising stars making their mark, like when I saw Milos Raonic a few years ago serve 145 MPH for the first time. And I live for those electric moments when the unexpected happens and the crowd goes wild — like when Roger Federer hit an impossible tweener return that hit Marinko Matosevic in the back.
I always have an incredible time being at the US Open. But lately I find I’m learning more than ever from watching live professional tennis. And it’s because I’ve been playing around with some different ways of watching that not only make matches more riveting for me– but which also teach me a ton of practical things I can take back to practice.
Here are some of the things I remind myself to do when watching matches live these days, in case it might help any of you fellow fanatics heading out to the US Open (click here for my top 10 tips for attending or getting tickets to the US Open):
1. Watch one player, not the ball
When it comes to working on technique and movement, I’ve found it incredibly powerful to spend time carefully observing details about one player at a time during a match. This involves a lot of discipline: we all want to follow the bouncing ball. But the practice offers many rewards.
2. Keep your eyes on one part of the player’s body
And no, I’m not talking about just the attractive parts– although that’s fun too. Take any of the following areas of the body and really study how they move during an entire game:
- Non-dominant arm: Whether for forehand, volleys, or serve, the non-dominant arm plays a critical but under-appreciated role in great technique
- Shoulders and upper body: While some players are more “tight” than others, watch the relatively relaxed shoulders and loose arms of the most powerful players on the planet. It’s a reminder that power doesn’t come from “muscling” the ball with the arms.
- Hips: Watch the hips rotate as they prepare for shots and how they release during the shot– especially on groundstrokes and serve
- Knees: One of Nick Bollettieri’s adages is that “Good things happen to tennis players who bend their knees.” Watch the knees of any great athletic player for a while (ready position, preparation/hitting/recovery phases– at baseline, at net etc) and you’ll see what he means. But as you watch, remember tennis is also a “lifting sport” as Jeff Salzenstein and other great coaches have reminded me– so watch the knees in the context of loading and unloading, noting that it’s much more artful than simply “staying low.”
- Feet!: How many times do we hear coaches yell “move your feet!” But how? Great coaches teach great patterns of movement so they become ingrained. Watch the great pros and you’ll see superb split steps, carefully coordinated changes of direction, efficiency through proper use of the crossover step, and more. But don’t just watch the feet out of context; add the rhythm of the ball in and observe when things happen in relation to the timing of the sending, receiving and recovery phases of each shot.
3. Watch how the player loads and unloads energy (including transfer of weight into the court)
Understanding how the body’s kinetic chain works is essential to technical breakthroughs. Observe how players rotate their upper bodies as a unit before striking, how they load (bend and put weight on) on a particular leg as they wind up for the hit, and how everything uncoils to release all that stored energy. When it happens most powerfully (in offensive or neutral situations), notice how the weight transfer happens into the court.
4. Track only the racquet head
Whether trying to add more topspin or slice to groundstrokes, finesse volleys, add spin to serve, or make any number of other technical adjustments, understanding racquet head movement is essential to progress. It’s easy to get distracted by any number of other things when analyzing strokes. But when I just focus on how the head of the tennis racquet moves — and tune out what the rest of the player’s body is doing — some basic “rules” of great technique get reinforced very quickly. And many “A-ha!” moments happen too.
Video I shot of Roger Federer at 2011 US Open
5. OK, now watch the ball
But don’t just track it: watch the ball’s trajectory and notice how it is spinning, and what happens to it after it bounces. What looks different about the ball after a Nadal-super-heavy topspin forehand as it flies over the net then bounces? What happens after a powerfully effective kick serve? What about after one of those work-of-art Federer backhand slices? Also notice where the body is relative to the ball at contact point, especially on groundies and serve.
6. Feel the rhythm
Tennis is a game of rhythm. First, think “Bounce-Hit” to yourself every single time the ball bounces and gets hit by either player (especially the one you’re focusing on); then watch the body and racquet as the player prepares within that rhythm. Second, try the same idea on serves: Say “Place (the toss) – Drop – HIT” to yourself and notice how the height of the toss affects timing and also when and how the entire motion picks up in speed and intensity after starting relaxed and slow.
7. Play “What’s the Next Shot?”
In addition to technique and movement, I’m watching to learn more about strategy & tactics. I’ll focus on one player during a point and concentrate only on strategy and tactics, asking myself before every strike of the ball: What shot would I hit? Of course the choice of what shot is “best” can often be subjective, but many times there is a high-percentage shot that should be the favored choice. Challenging myself to pretend I’m the player I’m watching and decide where I want to place the ball in my opponent’s court and how (i.e. slice, topspin, flat, lob, dropshot, etc) is instructive and fun – especially when I get it “right.” I’m learning a ton trying this with both singles and doubles matches (and it works equally well with televised matches).
8. Pay attention to rituals and body language — both when players are up and down
This is one of the many reasons David Ferrer is one of my favorite players. The guy goes out there for every battle with the same fighting spirit and, even if he’s on the verge of losing, almost always brings the same confident body language and intensity as he would if he were at triple match point. Perhaps an even more textbook example is Roger Federer, who at least outwardly appears even keeled whether far ahead or far down. In contrast, watch players have meltdowns, express them outwardly, and start to unravel. It’s a good reminder of how counterproductive that kind of physicality usually is– and how it pays to at least “act” the part of confidence with one’s body language, even if inside you’re feeling lousy.
9. Sit back and watch it all work together
After doing “strategic watching” for a while, just sit back and admire the best in the world as they make all these things work in harmony and make it look so effortless. Enjoy following the bouncing ball we love so much and watching the point unfold. This is my moment of Zen— when I remind myself how lucky I am be able to be there at that moment, to be able to appreciate what I see given all I’ve learned, and how lucky I am that I’m able to call myself a tennis player.
10. Try the above from seats as close to the players as you can get. My most enjoyable and best learning experiences at the Open have almost all been those when I’ve been seated relatively close to the players– which for budget reasons have often been in the smaller stadiums outside of Ashe. I share recommendations on that front in my post on Top 10 tips to maximize your experience at the tournament.