Some adults who played tennis in their youth have a harder time relating to and comprehending how high level tennis is taught and played today. The evolution of tennis rackets and now string advancements have fueled changes in the game and are still doing so. Understanding this evolution explains the reasons why tennis instruction varies widely from coach to coach and why tennis has become some much more athletically demanding today than it ever was. I credit Coach Chuck Kriese and Oscar Wegner for educating me on this evolution.
In the “good old days” tennis was played with smaller wooden rackets. Players were taught to stand sideways to the ball and have very long linear strokes. The game revolved almost completely around precision and accuracy. The game was more of an art form with much less emphasis on power. Then the new and powerful high-tech rackets were introduced to the game and over time have changed everything. At first the rackets had little to no effect on the game because everyone who coached tennis still taught with the same methodology as was used with the smaller wooden rackets. People were using high-tech rackets with the same stroke mechanics as those used with wooden rackets.
In the 1990’s we had the first generation of players who grew up exclusively using high-tech rackets and they were experimenting, discovering, and developing their own styles. The game revolved more around power and this is how techniques like the open stance and circular swing paths with tremendous racket head speed were born. Players who generated the most force used gross motor movements with their legs-trunk-shoulders for power and the fine motor skills in the hands for spin and control. The open stances used also made recovering with a crossover step much more efficient than the traditional shuffle steps that were taught prior. These changes in technique, driven by high-tech racket technology, have led to the tempo of the points becoming faster and faster. The new demand for power and speed is the exact reason why tennis has become more and more athletically demanding. Stronger more athletic players can hit the ball harder. Quicker and more agile players recover and move to incoming balls faster. Tennis went from a game of art and precision to a game of power, agility, and overall athletic ability.
Currently we have a mixture of conflicted coaching styles. Some coaches still teach the traditional style of the past focused on linear strokes with precision, some coaches teach a hybrid of parts from the old and parts from the new, and yet other coaches who throughly understand the game teach in the new fashion along with understanding the critical importance on overall athletic development as a necessary part of the game.
Knowing how tennis stroke mechanics have slowly evolved over the past 40 years is critical to understanding what it takes to excel into high levels of the game currently. It also gives insight into the future which I believe will focus even more on combining gross motor power with spin for control and overall long-term athletic development of the player.