Game, set and biggest mismatch
Published at 08:56, Saturday, 18 June 2011
One of the mysteries of British life is why we embrace tennis for two weeks every summer then forget about it for the rest of the year.
Strawberries and cream. Young Russian women with short skirts and long names. Very nice – see you next year.
Some of us love tennis enough to follow it through every page of the calendar. I’ve been hooked since watching Wimbledon as a child in the 1970s. Down the decades my heroes have been Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and, now, Roger Federer.
The connection began with a shared name – there aren’t nearly enough sporting superstars called Roger for my liking – but I think his game would have hooked me anyway.
A tennis shot takes a fraction of a second to execute. Some of Federer’s shots will live forever in the memory.
I know I’ll never play like him. But with Wimbledon beginning in a couple of days, I wanted to see if it’s possible to improve my game to the dizzy heights of awful.
Every year I head for the courts at Bitts Park in Carlisle, spend an hour being beaten to a pulp by a friend who can hit the ball over the net – I hate those people – then sulk and scowl in a manner that would shame Andy Murray.
My forehand rarely lands in the court, and it’s a lot better than my backhand.
My serve lacks a bit of zip. I’ve seen opponents bend down, tie their shoelaces and stand up again in the time between the serve leaving my racquet and reaching them.
All this puts me comfortably inside the British top 10, but there’s always room for improvement.
My coach was Cumbria’s county champion Lee Burrell. Lee is a Lawn Tennis Association-licenced coach who works for Carlisle Leisure with adults and children at Bitts Park, and in local schools.
Lee confirmed my suspicion that more players take to the courts during and just after Wimbledon.
“More people come down but it’s not as drastic an increase as people think. Most people that want to play tennis play anyway,” he says.
Lee thinks that in one way Wimbledon actually damages tennis by perpetuating its image as a sport for toffs.
“I think the best thing to happen for British tennis would be to get rid of the all-white dress code at Wimbledon. Tennis is for everybody but that rule reinforces the image that it’s elitist.”
There was nothing elitist about my attire: shirt from an outdoor shop’s January sale, Carlisle United shorts and battered old running shoes.
My lesson took place on court number four, which to my dismay was not covered by curtains to hide my ineptitude from the outside world.
I know the theory. Topspin. Slice. Get the ball between the white lines.
But putting theory into practice is not necessarily easy. It’s like the episode of Rising Damp in which Rigsby discovers that Alan’s bold talk of women hides a lack of experience.
“But you know where the erogenous zones are!” says Rigsby.
“I know where the Himalayas are, but I’ve never been up ’em.”
Lee knocked the ball across the net and we began a gentle rally. I’m a left-hander, just like Rafael Nadal and John McEnroe. The similarity ends there.
One of my many weaknesses was instantly apparent. Most of my forehands were sailing long, some of them into the back fence. And my backhand comes with unwanted slice which carries it barely to the net.
With a few simple tips Lee quickly improved both shots. First he worked on my grip. Squeezing the racquet like a caveman clubbing a mammoth is apparently not the best technique for tennis.
On my forehand side, he showed me how to start with the racquet quite low then swing it up, improving the chance of lifting the ball over the net.
We moved onto topspin. This allows you to whack the ball really hard, with the spin meaning it should drop inside the court rather than hit the snogging couple on the grass outside.
Try to brush your racquet up the back of the ball and follow through so the racquet head ends up behind your opposite shoulder.
Lee emptied a basket of balls as he tossed them one at a time to my forehand. He encouraged and advised until, with the basket nearly empty, I was starting to hit the ball with a teensy bit of topspin.
On the backhand side, Lee suggested placing my right hand on the back of my racquet as I pull it back, and releasing the hand as I hit the ball. This helping hand really worked, instantly giving my backhand more stability and direction.
Lee was lobbing tips at me all the time, like step into the shot rather than standing back as if the ball has a sizzling fuse on it.
Finally we came to the serve. This is regarded as the most important shot in tennis. A big serve earns you lots of cheap points. My serve earns my opponents lots of cheap laughs. I tossed the ball skyward and hit it. It didn’t come back, which had something to do with the lack of anyone on that side of the net. But I still regarded it as an ace.
I followed it with three more. A perfect service game.
Lee brought me back to earth. “Well, that’s a 100 per cent first-serve ratio,” he said. “Approximate speed, 10 miles an hour.”
He described my technique as “frying pan”: a flat slap somewhat lacking in power or finesse.
“To build power on the serve, you have to get a throwing action.”
He demonstrated hanging both arms by his sides, bringing them up together, releasing the ball, and BOOM. The whoosh of Lee’s racquet through the air and the crack of the ball on the court turned heads among passers-by.
“To master a skill, it can take the average person over 8,000 repetitions,” he said.
So maybe I wasn’t going to crack this tennis lark in one session. But my love of the game had intensified thanks to my sense of progress. I was confident that the next time I played, my opponent might not be leaving the court with my racquet wrapped around their head.
Finding a suitable playing partner can be a skill in itself. “You can usually find someone your own level,” said Lee. “When you step up a level, that’s when the 6-0s and 6-1s come in.”
That’s the thing about tennis. The best player usually wins. Which is very unfair as far as I’m concerned.
With Wimbledon starting on Monday, did Lee think I had a chance of getting a last-minute wild card into the draw? I think we all know the answer to that one.
“Your technique needs a lot of grooming. You could pass as a good intermediate club player with regular practice.”
I’m happy with that, even though I’ll never be the best tennis player called Roger.
Lee is also a Federer fan. “He’s just a really stylish, classy player. You can learn a lot about how to hit the ball properly by watching the professionals. I try and model my backhand down the line on Andy Murray’s. My forehand’s similar to Federer’s. Maybe just a little bit better.”
And yes, he was smiling when he said that.
Age: Mind your own business
Singles titles: We can skip this bit
World ranking: Seven billion
Playing style: Temper tantrums and sulking
Career low point: Too numerous to mention
Career high point: Not yet
Sponsors: Danny’s Discount Store
Singles titles: 67
World ranking: 3
Playing style: A beguiling cocktail of grace and power
Career low point: Losing the epic 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal
Career high point: Winning Wimbledon in 2009 to break Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles
Sponsors: Gillette, Rolex, Mercedes-Benz
n CARLISLE Leisure provides a wide range of tennis coaching and classes at Bitts Park for children and adults of all ages and abilities. Mini tennis is for children aged 5-9 and junior tennis is for 10-16-year-olds. There are adult coaching sessions for ladies and for beginners, intermediate and advanced players of both sexes. CardioTennis sessions offer tennis-based drills to music.
For more details about all these courses contact Paul Frampton on 01228 817581, email email@example.com or visit www.carlisle.gov.uk
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk