As a coach, it is really important to not only talk about technique and strategy but movement because if you are not in the right position you won’t be able to apply that technique. So many of the top juniors can hit the cover off the ball but they don’t move well and it’s a vicious circle because it’s hard for them to have a clean technique if they are off-balance all the time.
I remember speaking to Andy Murray and his former strength and conditioning coach Jez Green a few years ago and they said defence has become much more important in today's game. And that is what the top guys are doing so well. Time and time again you see Novak Djokovic in full control of a rally and capable of hitting a winner, even when he has been pulled wide and you think he’s on the back foot.
That’s where these guys have taken tennis to anotherlevel. The way players move on cour thas changed as much as racket technology. Ten years ago if you had taught a player with a single-handed backhand to hit open stance everyone would have said you were bonkers.
I recently presented at a coaching conference organised by Tennis Australia. There were around 350 coaches from all over the country and another 70 coaches from overseas. I had the privilege of presenting after Nick Bollettieri. I was talking about the evolution of movement in tennis and what the players, particularly the top guys, are doing so well. As Bollettieri said to me after my presentation, “you can't hit what you can't reach”.
It’s about being able to move economically, not taking more steps than you need to, and how you recover and move back into position. As a coach you should offer your player as many tools as possible – there is not one right answer. If you’re moving into the forehand corner do you go right-left-right or do you jump or hit on the right and then land on the left? Do you cross over? If you watch Andy Murray hit a backhand he will hit on the right leg, push off and land so right away he can recover again. For the best players it is all about he next shot, but they don’t think about it because they have trained off the court so many times that it is muscle memory. It is a process that is implanted in their brains and it is instinctive.
That is what I wanted to stress: forehands and backhands are great, tactical patterns are important, but how do you apply those if you are not in position?
I am a big advocate of stroke training devices because I believe if you want to make a change or explain something to kids you have to make it very visible and you have to show them what you want them to do. You start off walking very slowly towards the training aid and execute the stroke while thinking about your movement. When you feel more comfortable you can do it faster, and then develop it using both corners, always moving back to the centre, and then you build it into a live drill.
Last season Milos Raonic enlisted the help of a biomechanics expert to help him improve his back- hand. They recorded his practice sessions and helped him maximise his efficiency, explaining how kinetic chains work. I tip my hat to Milos and his coaches Riccardo Piatti and Ivan Ljubicic because they have done a tremendous job and that stroke has improved a lot. That project only worked because Milos was able to see the evidence for himself rather than have a coach try and explain what he needed to improve.
Not all players have had a full education so it is impossible for them to know everything. They need experts from specific fields to fill in the gaps, whether that is biomechanics or nutrition. But all of this advice from experts has to be tailor-made. You cannot just say you shouldn’t eat any carbs or you must hit your backhand in this particular way, for example.
Once upon a time a player had a coach in his box. Now he will have whole team of experts in all aspects of the game from fitness to nutrition and psychology. I was watching a replay of Boris Becker versus Ivan Lendl recently and they were great athletes, but I am curious how good they would be now with all the nutritionists and analysts that the players benefit from in today’s game.
There are still some players who don’t believe in it all, and I respect that, but more than anything I admire players who are investing in their careers. I remember seeing Kei Nishikori in the gym about five years ago and I saw how hard he was working, not just lifting weights but really specific stuff, small muscle groups. I was speechless and I knew then he was going to do something special.
In the locker room you earn your respect not just by winning matches but the hard work you put in off the court. If you are committed and dedicated you earn the respect of your fellow players
This article originally appeared in tennishead Volume 6 Issue 1. Mats Merkel writes a regular column for tennishead. To read more from Mats, subscribe to the magazine today.