Evolution in Tennis Instruction

In the history of tennis instruction, researched by John Carpenter, 2 champion brothers from England, R.F. Doherty and his younger sibling, 1897 Wimbledon Champion H.L. Doherty, described in a 1903 book how they played, recommending the open stance. In 1904, a self-appointed “expert”, an attorney by the name P.A. Vaile, wrote a book called “Modern Lawn Tennis” in which he contended that tennis was played closed-stance, as in cricket and golf. This notion was then exported to the USA, and cricket replaced by baseball, which fortified also the theory that a tennis groundstroke is a linear, forward effort. To this day, these two erroneous concepts, closed-stance and hit forward through the ball are still thought to be the most acceptable way of starting a child in tennis. Compound this with the idea that you have to prepare early, and you have three immediate barriers to the ease and naturalness of your game.

Because the USA has been regarded as the leader and model in many facets in life, celebrated American coaches and associations who promoted the linear follow-through concept, early preparation and closed stance made a wide impact, which was, in effect, exported back to Europe and spread throughout the world. This was regardless of the fact that most major champions played the forehand topspin across the body and mostly from an open stance, including Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Jack Kramer, Rod Laver and almost everyone else who has made a mark in the game.

In sports most players copy the best performers in the field. Why was tennis the only sport in which the amateur player should not?

I successfully argued in working with Pancho Segura at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club in 1968 and 1969, after my retirement from the international tour, that we should teach everyone to play like the pros. Pancho saw the results I was achieving and let me experiment with his student body, which included the likes of Charlton Heston, Dinah Shore, the Kirk Douglas family, Ava Gardner, the Robert Taylor kids, and other stars, including the charming Dean Martin Jr., who looked outstanding in his Wimbledon final against Guillermo Vilas in the movie “Players”.

In the span of a decade I had the chance to compete against and practice with players spanning 3 generations, including Laver, Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Pancho Segura, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Manuel Santana, Martin Mulligan, Roger Taylor, the Flying Dutchman Tom Okker, Niki Pilic, Boro Jovanovic, Ronnie Barnes, etc, etc. It was then when I was able to observe the huge difference between the way the top pros play and the way tennis was being taught.

Unable to convince USA coaches, I then went to Spain. In 1973 the Spanish Tennis Federation appointed me Junior Davis Cup Captain and one of 3 national coaches in charge of the Federation’s Spanish Tennis School in Barcelona. We had the 28 best Spanish Juniors assembled in Barcelona and I put my ideas to the test. I immediately noticed that these kids were the best in the country because they played like the pros. First opposed by the 2 other coaches, who wanted to enforce the universal linear concept and closed stance on these marvelous “exceptions” to the rule, I insisted that their open-stance forehands and topspin should be maximized. The youngsters loved it, helped me convince the associated coaches, and the results within 2 months were spectacular: our trip to the 1973 Monte Carlo Open resulted in 4 Spanish juniors (and the winner, of course) in the semi-finals of one of the major tournaments in Europe, eliminating from the competition the representatives from the rest of the world. Spain, which had had just a handful of top players, including Manuel Santana (one of my favorite players and a model for the modern forehand) and at the time the buddying Manuel Orantes, would within decades become a major tennis force within the world.

It was at the Orange Bowl in 1973 that I first caught the attention of Bud Collins, the famous tennis historian who would notice the marvels of the Spanish team juniors hitting with such pronounced topspin and open stance. He would later document this in my second book.

I returned to the USA and Florida in 1974 determined to convince the USTA and USPTA to adopt these outstanding techniques. I coached, supported by great results, at Aventura Country Club, The Tennis Club International and Laver’s Racquet Club, but my attempts to reform coaching from the grassroots to the upper level were being scorned by the major US entities in the game. But a former #10 player in the world player I met at Laver’s Racquet Club, Jurgen Fassbender from Germany, invited me for the spring/summer season to Weiden (Cologme) to coach both the juniors and to help him with the main team. My juniors went undefeated that year and I helped Jorgen get the main team up to the Bundesliga.

An invitation to Brazil in 1982 gave me new testing grounds. Working with a small 4-hard-court club owned by the local telephone company, and backed up by a great coach and supporter, Carlos Alves, we created, out of 60 kids, 40 nationally-ranked Juniors, some of them top-10 ranked in the world. Two of them, Gustavo Kuerten and Marcio Carlsson, went on to win the Sunshine Cup for Brazil (the Davis Cup for Juniors). Gustavo, “Guga” Kuerten, by then in the hands of another coach, won 3 French Opens and was #1 in the world in 2000, in a campaign culminating with wins over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in winning the World Cup.

What happened in Russia and Eastern Europe?  My donation of my first book, Tennis in 2 Hours, to the Russian Tennis Federation in December 1989 was enthusiastically received. Moscow coaches became immediately aware that their classical coaching style needed to be revamped. Bud Collins, the famous media dean and tennis historian, coming to his Florida winter retreat after his 1990 December first visit to Moscow’s Kremlin Cup, told me local Russian coaches had approached him asking if he knew me and for more of my books. Bud asked me to show proof of my techniques that winter with his family and I obliged, leading to his agreement to write the foreword to my 1992 sequel and on the front cover picture with me. Bud arranged, as well, a wonderful dinner event presentation to the international press in March 1992 at the Miami Lipton tournament, in which he was the MC, where my new book was formally introduced.

Interestingly, Manuel Santana was present at that venue and I presented him with a copy of the book in which I acknowledged, with a personal note and my signature, that he had been an extraordinary influence and inspiration in my coaching in years past.

Kids at Spartak, Moscow’s renown tennis factory of champions and other Russian venues were started, as verified years later by participants, hitting forehands up and across the body and with an open stance from day one. The Real History of Tennis Instruction has pictures of the kids at Spartak in an open stance and translations of Russian coaches emphasizing more feel and more finish, basic tenets I had in my first book. Four and five year olds are seen with Western grips. Daniel Coyle visited Spartak as part of his best seller book  The Talent Code and documented that this academy, with one indoor court in a cold Moscow climate, produced more tennis champions and top tennis players by the first decade of this century from that local area than the entire United States. Furthermore, some of my teachings regarding stalking the ball and accelerating from close to the contact point to the finish over the shoulder were aptly applied and became precept and the norm.

The results were outstanding. Having the combined influence of my techniques and the dedication and focus for which Soviet athletes were famous, it was no wonder that 5 Russian women were in the top 10 in the world by 2004, conquering the French, Wimbledon and US Open titles that year.

In the USA an American father got hold of my techniques via a weekly tennis television show (first called The New Tennis Magazine Show and then The Tennis Television Show, hosted by Brad Holbrook, in which Brad included me exclusively as the Instruction Editor for close to 4 years, and broadcast on Prime Network (now Fox Sports). Richard Williams, using my techniques, built two champions – Serena Williams, with over a dozen Grand Slam titles, and Venus Williams, with 7 more. A big hug and acknowledgement from Richard Williams in 1999 was one of the biggest emotional thrills of my life.

Tennis In 2 Hours” and its 1992 sequel spread across the globe, with 10,000 copies sold by 1993.  Belgrade coaches have reported having the first book in 1991.  Chan Srichaphan, father/coach of Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan, had my 1992 book and videos in the late 1990’s and a group of Chinese coaches had asked for my permission to translate the book in 1999.

The influence of these materials, coupled with the 1997-1999 broadcast of the 40 Play Like the Pros, with Oscar Wegner tennis tips on ESPN International, viewed in more than 150 countries and with over 10 billion impressions* (including 2 billion impressions between the 1997, 1998 and 1999 NBA finals with Michael Jordan) stripped conventional tennis lore from its authoritarian grip overseas. Unfortunately, these tips were never seen in the USA .
(*an impression is each time a viewer sees a tip)

The balance of power in tennis would shift. How much of that was due to the adoption of  my techniques by the old world, and how much is due to equipment changes is subject to debate.  Technical advances in rackets and strings would mandate a technical change of course.  Graphite and other materials made tennis rackets much more powerful. The new equipment required more control, which amateur players could not handle with conventional techniques. The way to control this new power was not understood, as illustrated by an initial plan from the industry to introduce stiffer rackets, tighter strings and heavier balls. On the contrary, balls are now slightly bigger and on the lighter side, meaning more air resistance and, as the noted 60% baseline to baseline researched figure indicates, more loss of speed.

Racquet manufacturing is now tending to make rackets more flexible than ever, most likely by demand of top professional players who already thrive on spin and precision with the newer techniques and usually choose rackets with smaller grips, which altogether adds to their ability to maximize the feel of the contact with the ball without losing ball speed nor control. Modern racquets are also lighter, to which professional players respond by adding lead tape where needed, according to their preference of balance, power and control. Racquet custom design is also another custom for top pros.

Racquet strings have developed brilliantly as well, developing additional spin capabilities and response.

More technical discoveries are now at hand. Great players, freer than ever from the chains of conventional misconceptions, are instinctively experimenting with techniques that make tennis more of an art, a powerful but delicate art, emphasizing, within the speed of the game, ease, feel, naturalness and simplicity of movement and operation. The next changes in tennis will not only be in the technical arena but in the mental and spiritual realms as well.

Oscar Wegner – TennisTeacher.com

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3 thoughts on “Evolution in Tennis Instruction

  1. Thanks for a very interesting read. I look forward to your ideas regarding the next advances in tennis. I have just started my daughter in the 10&u tournaments. She is a leftie using the Monica Seles grip on both sides. Every coach immediately tries to deconstruct the double handed forehand, her best shot, into one-hand Western grip.

    In my humble opinion she is too weak in the wrist & arm for one hand topspin and further, she can remove the extra hand if & when she is ready. I look at the strength of Serena Williams and think this increase in power will be mandatory for the next step in women’s tennis. However, smaller players such as the Hingis type will never likely attain such physical strength. I wonder if two hands on both sides might be needed to compensate. I notice a number of the Asian female players using the two hand forehand.

    The coaches tell me that she can hit harder and with more spin with one hand. Looking at the domination of two handed backhands after Conners, Borg, Evert I am dubious about such conventional wisdom.

    Will I have to coach my daughter myself?

    Kind regards

    • Both of my kids hit double two handed. My son, 5’9″ and strong was #1 at his high school. He could pound the ball with his double two. The coaches tried to switch him to a one handed forehand. He began losing. He went back to two and won out the season. He played JC tennis with his double two. My daughter is small (5’2, 105 lbs.) and was #1 at her college. She is now 42 and hits the heck out of the ball. She dated Byron Black at USC who became #1 in the world in doubles. He was a double two. They met on the tennis court because he saw her double two. And she was and is cute as heck, which I’m sure helped. So…… Both of my kids were too small when they started tennis, so both hit double two. I’m not trying to upstage Oscar in answering you. He is Tennis God as far as I am concerned. But that is my experience. I hope it’s helpful.

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