Technique alone does not make a champion or even a world-class player. First-rate athleticism, superb fitness, mental strength, sound strategy and a burning desire to improve are also necessary. But without excellent technique—strokes, grips and footwork—you’re handicapped, particularly against elite opponents.
Exhibit A is the disjointed and uncoordinated second serve of Venus Williams. The seven-time major winner committed seven double faults, including a costly one in both tiebreakers, in her 7-6, 7-6 loss to No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber in the Olympics third round. In the first-set tiebreaker, Venus’s overly flat forehand also erred twice. Stroke breakdowns often occur when the pressure is greatest.
Exhibit B is the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s backhand. Unlike Novak Djokovic who prevailed 6-1, 7-5 in the Olympics quarterfinals, the slower French veteran fails to plant his feet early and correctly to drive through the ball with the requisite stability and balance. As a result, his shots are sometimes rushed and wildly erratic. Tsonga’s volley technique is also defective. Hit with too much underspin, his volley lacks power and penetration. Despite his athleticism, size and strong serves and approach shots, Tsonga wins far fewer points at net than he should.
Exhibit C is Caroline Wozniacki’s weak second serve, which Serena Williams pummeled mercilessly in her 6-0, 6-3 rout over the 22-year-old Dane in the Olympics quarterfinals. While her technique is correct, Wozniacki’s serve lacks racket head speed to produce enough power and spin. The Wozniacki forehand, the least effective of any top-ten player, is seldom hit faster than medium speed and seldom produces winners because it also lacks racket head speed. Not surprisingly, far more aggressive Serena dictated the overwhelming majority of points and blasted 30 winners to only seven for Wozniacki.
Exhibit D is Andy Murray’s relatively weak forehand. The Big 3—Roger Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—have much superior forehands, though the gap has narrowed this year, thanks to coach Ivan Lendl’s insistence that Murray become much more aggressive, particularly on mid-court balls. Murray tends to swing low to high too much, which produces a loopy shot that lacks power. Like Wozniacki, his swing also needs more racket head speed to generate more power. Finally, the cautious Murray directs way too many shots (predictably) crosscourt. “If Andy had a better forehand down the line, he would have won a Grand Slam by now,” former world No. 6 Wayne Ferreira, who possessed a terrific forehand, told The Daily Telegraph (UK).
Exhibit E is Federer’s stylish but relatively weak one-handed backhand. Will it be able to handle big first serves and come through on crucial passing shots? Or will it break down somewhat as it did against Djokovic at the Australian Open and Nadal at the French Open this year?
In the four Olympic singles semifinals, superb technique abounds. Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Juan-Martin del Potro all boast terrific first serves with great rhythm and fluidity. Djokovic’s backhand is picture perfect in terms of footwork, stroking and timing. Federer’s versatile forehand both sets up and finishes points better from every place on the court than anyone else ever has in tennis history. Djokovic’s return of serve off both sides both defuses power from 125 mph and faster first serves and attacks slower and poorly placed serves.
Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and French Open winner Maria Sharapova possess flawless, highly grooved backhand technique. Their semi-closed stances enable them to drill powerful but controlled backhands equally well crosscourt or down the line. They hit through the ball so purely that they rarely mis-hit it. The Serena serve, both aesthetically beautiful and technically perfect, ranks as the greatest of all-time among the women.
“In the modern game, with the enormous increase in speed and spin, great technique is paying even bigger dividends,” points out former world No. 4 Gene Mayer. “Poor technique is far more apparent and easily exploited.”
At every level of tennis, technique is more important than ever. In many matches, the player with superior technique prevails because of that crucial advantage. Let’s see if that happens in the Olympics semis and finals.
Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.