Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tennis Has Gone to the Clones

By Tom Kosinski

On Saturday, a friend and I watched the final of the Family Circle Cup. I found it to be typically boring, as I have come to find most WTA tournaments. As most of my readers know, I am a huge fan of women's tennis, having coached it for over a decade and having written about it for longer.

During the match, my friend mentioned to me that he saw an article about John McEnroe's tennis academy in NYC. I was very interested in hearing what my friend had to say, as I know that John McEnroe's tennis academy approach is going against the grain of every other academy in the world.

My friend was predictable, and immediately decried that it would not work, and that John is competing against all the Florida and Spanish based academies with "proven" records. I proceeded to tell my friend he was wrong, and that Johnny Mac would create a top-10 player quicker then any academy on the planet.

I think my opinion is even more spot on now. This past weekend, we saw Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki take two more WTA Tour finals. Funny thing is, if I didn't know what the differences in clothing styles were on these players, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell which one was which. Tennis, and women's tennis more so, has become a sport of clones. I'll thank and curse my compatriot Nick Bollettieri for that.

Western grip, open stance forehands. Loopy, high topspin backhands. Almost mechanical service motions. Almost non-existent net games. Heck, they even all have similar grunts.

John McEnroe is taking his approach back to the way it was when he was coming up, and the way it was when tennis produced much more prolific and interesting champions. McEnroe spends his days not trying to create strokes in the same way, the same motion, but instead works on enhancing the skills and style the players bring to him. John McEnroe learned his game from one of the greatest, Mr. Harry Hopman. Hopman alone was responsible for the amazing Australian dominance of men's and women's tennis in the late 1950s through the late 1970s, and is personally responsible for McEnroe.

I scanned the top 10 woman's players right now. Of that list, only three have what I would call unique styles and they aren't even that different. Kim Clijsters, who tends to hit flatter and chop her forehand a lot, Maria Sharapova, who again hits flatter (thank you, Robert Lansdorp), and Francesca Schiavone, who has the epitome of the traditional Italian clay game. Everyone else, by and large, is a clone. And that even goes as far as the mental pieces. How many times do we have to do the fist clench and pump after every point anyway?

No one can argue that John McEnroe didn't have one of the most unique games and styles of all time. With that cutting slice serve and deft touch at the net, serve and volley tennis never had it so good. And it was always amazing to watch McEnroe go it toe-to-toe against the ultimate baselined, Bjorn Borg. The two contrasting styles made for many memorable matches.

What made those matches great, and those players great, was the way they hit the ball and the way their games were fashioned around a unique capability each had. You could tell, immediately who was on the court. Ilie Nastase did not look like Jimmy Connors, who did not look like Arthur Ashe, who did not hit like John Newcombe, who did not serve like Rod Laver. With just one swing of the racquet, you knew who was playing whom.

Tennis isn't alone in this cloning. I used to love Major League Baseball. You could tell each batter by his stance at the plate and his swing. Rod Carew with his nearly horizontal bat. Carl Yastrzemski with his bat pointing nearly right at the pitcher. Willie Mays and his right arm pump, Joe Morgan and his left arm pump. Then came Charley Lau and his creation of the Kansas City Royals. Every hitting coach in the world suddenly ran out and started cloning his approach and style. Now just about every batter in the game has the same stance, same swing, and same swing style. In many respects it makes baseball boring, at least to me.

Tennis has become the same. Everyone coaches and teaches the same style and method, having cloned Nick Bollettieri's camp a million times over. Tennis doesn't need that. Tennis needs more "style," and I don't mean more Serena Williams Aneres fashions nor do I mean new designs by Stella McCartney for Adidas. The game needs more unique players, and more individual, unique games. Johnny Mac is on the right track.

The French Open is quickly approaching, as the European clay season has begun. The academy-created games of the baseliners will be everywhere. The competitive field now goes to the clones. I am just hoping that I'll be able to tell the difference between whichever blond-haired, blue-eyed, perfect-stroking woman is in the final while I'm watching.

And I'll be hoping that Johnny Mac is successful very, very, very soon.

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