It’s been nearly three weeks since I hit a tennis ball. But over that time, I’ve seen plenty – oodles of tennis at Roland Garros 2017.
Still, I’m tired of watching, keen to return to active duty (as it were). There is something incredibly inspiring in witnessing the world’s best up close. It might be as simple as seeing two unidentifiable players on a remote court hit some on a Monday morning. Or Rafael Nadal, on Court 4 in front of 60 people, striking forehand after forehand with off-the-charts intensity. Or a pair of legends, Tennis Channel colleagues Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova, rhythmically striking one ball after another. Then come the matches – the quick, the long, the easy and the hard. There are the early rounds, a blizzard of scores and names. Then the middle: Who’s got the good form? And then, always so rapidly, the rush to the finish.
Through all of this come the lessons. What do the pros do differently than we civilians? The first answer is tempting: Outside of everything? But seriously, there are things the pros do that we can learn from, particularly in such subtle areas as balance, footwork, spacing and striking smoothly again and again. These athletes are superb at using their entire body, a repetitive motion that makes them look effortless – and also a quality that is sustainable. Do note that none of this has anything to do with hitting the ball at any particular speed. That is merely a byproduct.
Based on what I’ve seen at Roland Garros this year, I see how it’s much better to try and hit 25 straight balls in the court at a lower gear than slap at five. This holds true not just in practice, but also in match play. Newly crowned women’s singles champion Jelena Ostapenko certainly threw one big punch after another the entire tournament, but with her skills, these were hardly low percentage shots. The day before the finals, I watched Ostapenko practice. From ten feet away, those strokes are clearly owned. She is coordinated, smooth, powerful.
Another lesson: Commitment. While certainly pros miss, you don’t often see the pull off their swings. Again, these strokes are pruned, honed, practiced. Something about the clay and its slow bounces makes the technical dimensions even more visible. Even as the likes of Ostapenko or Nadal strike the ball so forcefully, the clay seems to trap the ball and give the opponent yet one more chance to fling it back. And this they do not with deliberation, but with urgency and complete swings. Viewed up close, it’s also clear that the swing begins not just with the feet, but with the eyes. As Jimmy Connor once told me, “I think I’ll be OK out there as long as I just pay attention.”
Monday I’ll fly home. By Tuesday afternoon, it will be time to pay attention on a tennis court. Hopefully, at least some of these lessons will take hold.