By the time I was 11 years old, my parents recognized my love and commitment to the game of tennis. They thought it was a good idea for me to see the best players in the world performing in person, and so we took a family holiday to watch a few days of the Australian Open in Melbourne. The first night we were luckily given center court tickets to watch Andre Agassi play and I was jumping out of my skin with excitement.
What I witnessed in that match turned my 11 year old tennis brain upside down. Agassi was up two sets to love, but he quickly lost control when he stopped using angles. This allowed his opponent to run around his backhand and use his forehand with great effect. I watched as Agassi was killed from the baseline point after point; and not by a big server like Sampras, an artist like Rios or even a roadrunner like Chang. Agassi was losing to a guy whose shots looked like something out of a science experiment. Agassi was losing to Alberto Berasatagui!
Alberto Berasatagui had a grip so extreme that he hit the ball with the same side of his racket for both his forehand and his backhand; I believe he is the first professional player to ever do that. The extreme grip made it look like his wrist might snap off every time he hit a forehand. In order to hit the ball in the middle of the strings, he required a whippy and jerky swing. His technique left me wondering each time how on earth he could make contact with the ball, let alone be on the court with Agassi. The match could not have displayed a bigger contrast in technical skills; the unorthodoxy of Berasatagui’s shots were glaringly different from Agassi’s pure groundstroke swings, which epitomized perfect technique in the 1990s. On that night, by the end of the fourth set, the Spaniard’s forehand was dictating the match.
By the end of the fourth set Berasatagui’s inside-out forehand, however nauseating, was dominating Andre Agassi. I watched incredulously as spaniard eventually prevailed in an epic 5 setter. That night, Berasatagui and his strange technique provided an important lesson, one that has influenced my coaching career greatly.
Success can come in different forms, and technique can vary wildly. When it comes to unconventional technique my motto is: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – if it is broke, think very carefully about your approach to fixing it’.
Before you get the wrong idea, I must assure you that I am not one of those old-school coaches who ignores technique and just says “everyone should hit the ball their own unique way.” I firmly believe that good technique is a vital component of playing and teaching tennis; so much so that Realifetennis.com will soon have a whole section devoted to higher-level understanding of how to develop technical advantage in the sport.
I feel it is important to understand that in some circumstances, a shot that looks funny might actually be working well for a player. In these instances, it can be counterproductive, or downright harmful, to change that technique. Sport is littered with examples of athletes, like Alberto Berasatagui (who incidentally made the 1994 French Open final), who have been very successful in spite of unusual technique.
Many examples spring to mind: Monica Seles had a two handed forehand, nearly unheard of in tennis and still became number one in the world. Bubba Watson has an unusual setup and strange hand motion to his golf swing, but managed to win two Master’s Championships that way. Chad Bradford, a submarine baseball pitcher whose knuckles actually scraped the ground as he threw the ball, achieved huge success in MLB. In my opinion, all of these athletes would have been done a great disservice if a coach had insisted they change their technique simply because what they were doing did not fit the guidelines of a coaching manual. Rafael Nadal’s forehand would hardly be described as classical but in his development Uncle Toni had the wisdom to not discourage him from hitting it in a way that was clearly working well for him.
This same concept is not applicable only to professional level athletes; it applies to any level of sport. If you are playing in an amateur league and a particular shot is working well for you at the level you want to play at, then stick with it no matter what it looks like. I used to coach on a Tuesday night next to a men’s doubles league that was being dominated by the serve of a guy who jumped in the air but then already landed again before he hit the ball. It didn’t matter; this man was so strong in his shoulders that he had the biggest serve in the league and was very happy with his serve at his competitive level.
On the other hand, if that player were to step up into a semi-pro grade, he would possibly find that his serve was no longer big enough; that might lead him to change his outlook on the serve. He would likely find that what might have been his best shot at the lower level is simply not good enough against tougher competition; he might even be prepared to examine his technique and seek advice to improve.
This brings us to the main coaching point in this article: Technical changes are hard! They should only be undertaken after serious consideration of the situation. It took golf legend Tiger Woods 18 months to remodel his golf swing after winning his first Masters, and likely it will likely take any tennis player significant time also.
Changing muscle memory requires not only expertise from the coach, but significant dedication and time from the student. You usually need complete buy in from the player to make it worthwhile. There is no use in a coach trying to change a player’s technique if the motivation from the player is not there. In fact in those situations you are almost guaranteed to make the shot far worse, and end up with an increasingly disgruntled player-coach arrangement.
I had a college teammate who started his collegiate career with an average forehand. The coach, assuming that the player wanted to be a professional with an above average forehand, correctly diagnosed that a technical improvement was required. The player on the other hand, did not arrive at that same conclusion. All he wanted was to enjoy college tennis; he had no intrinsic motivation to dedicate time and energy to properly changing his forehand. Unfortunately, he did not have the courage to tell the coach that. The result was an in-between disaster where the player made a half-change to his shot that completely ruined it, turning an average forehand into a bench-riding forehand.If you are a coach, parent or even friend and you see how a technical change may improve the shot of someone you care about, then I suggest you carefully consider the situation before you launch into giving advice. In particular, pay close attention to the motivation of the student and be quite certain that technical improvement is required.
Rather than come straight out and say: “Joe you need to improve the technique on your forehand,” sometimes it can be far more productive to show a player their technical weakness by placing them in situations where the issue will be exposed. This way, the player can reach his or her own conclusion that a technical improvement is required. For example, if you think that Joe has an inefficient or too big forehand backswing, then feed him hard, fast and low balls to his forehand or have him play against players who hit hard and flat or with a wicked slice.
If Joe’s forehand holds up well in those situations and if you can’t create a situation where it struggles, then likely “it ain’t broke” so don’t fix it. If, on the other hand, Joe is repeatedly catching it late and hitting wide or in the net when the ball comes hard and fast at him, then he should come to the realization himself that he wants to change or improve. You can then proceed with your technical advice at least knowing that there is desire and buy-in from the student.
As always, good coaching is about good teaching. Good teaching requires not just a strong technical knowledge, but also a strong ability to read the personal situation and understand the student. While unusual technique is a tricky thing to tackle, the right coaching approach can guarantee the best possible outcome.