Adapt or Die

Use the tennis’s evolutionary lessons to improve your own game

What can we learn from the past that can help us with our own games? Most important, we can see there is a counter to every style of play. This leads to the hopeful and optimistic concept that if you are having problems with your opponent’s game, there is likely to be a tactical change you can make that can turn things around. It gives you incentive to stay alert for such changes. And the more balanced your game is, the more opportunities you will have to make advantageous adjustments.

For example, by improving your volley, you can (like Jack Kramer did) take advantage of baseliners that slice their backhands. If you are up against steady baseliners, you can (like Ivan Lendl did) overcome the steady baseliners of his day, develop a flat attacking forehand to take advantage of short balls. Court Awareness (like Martina Hingis did) a lot of players simply hit the ball, rather than play points. Martina Hingis never just hit the ball. She worked her opponent’s weaknesses, opened up the court and plotted every shot. What you can learn from her is, you must be in charge of the ball. If you’re just hitting the ball back, the ball is in charge of you.

There is little in today’s game that is totally new. It’s just that the top players have gotten a lot better at adapting.

Where will the game go next? Maybe a further throwback is in store when the game attracts the very big, great athletes—like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson—who would have huge serves, great footwork, and giant wingspans. (How would you like to face John Isner storming the net behind his wicked serve if he had the speed and agility of Michael Jordan?) These players could lead a reversion to the old serve-and-volley game of the 1950s and make the next 10 years very interesting.


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