J. DONALD BUDGE and ARTIST ED VEBELL combine with the tennis editor of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to analyze and interpret the basic strokes of the game
Tennis is a game anyone can play. Swinging a tennis racket properly comes just as easily and naturally as throwing a ball or swatting a fly or performing any of the other untutored everyday movements that are virtually automatic. So the fun you get out of the game depends directly on how much effort you are willing to devote to memorizing and perfecting the simple tenets of the four basic shots—the serve, forehand, backhand and volley.
On the following eight pages I have set down and interpreted, step by step, the way Donald Budge, one of the truly great champions of all time, plays these shots. There are, of course, limitless variations, and these you will learn with practice and competition—just as in dancing you embellish the simple fox trot into the rumba, the tango or the mambo. But first, learn these fundamentals as they are demonstrated by the only man who ever scored the grand slam of tennis by winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships in the same year (1938).
I would not want to imply that anyone can become a champion—even of the local club—just by imitating Budge. Like any competitive game, tennis involves far more than technique—for instance, temperament, concentration and the will to win. Yet these are of little significance if you don't have the proper strokes. The strokes are the weapons of tennis. Without them you are not even equipped for the battle.
June 9, 1957
The payoff on a good tennis stroke, as with a good boxing punch, depends on how much of the body's power can be compressed and unleashed—like a tightly wound spring—and thrown behind the shot. This means coordination—of feet, knees, hips, hands and shoulders. So it is worth repeating that you will only achieve this coordination—once you have mastered the technique of the stroke—through practice. Fine, you may say, but supposing there is no one around to practice with. The answer to that is: use a backboard as much as possible; it is the practice fairway of tennis and many of the finest players have polished their shots against it.
Now, turn the page and begin the lessons, preferably learning the fundamentals one stroke at a time. If you do, you will be surprised how much more fun you will have on the court, no matter what kind of company you play in.
It is the major offensive weapon so learn to control it
The serve, which was originally designed simply as a way to put the ball into play, has evolved into the principal attacking weapon of tennis. As such, it should immediately put the receiver on the defensive by playing to his weakness and forcing him out of position. Thus, when working well, the serve breathes confidence into the rest of your game and gives you the opportunity to get the maximum benefit from the rest of your shots.
There are three principal types of service—the cannon-ball or flat serve, the slice and the American twist—and the same basic rules of stance and delivery apply to each. Their variation lies in how the racket head strikes across, or into the ball and in the follow-through to left or right. The service grip is the same as that used for the backhand, with the handle held firmly but not too tightly.
More than any other stroke, the serve accents the importance of the left—or throwing—arm, since the shot cannot be hit properly unless the racket meets the ball at the top of the throw. A common mistake is trying to hit "down" into the opposite service court; the ball already has a downward motion, so hit it away from you as if you were trying to throw the racket into the opposite court.
The fastest serve is not always the best, so it is wise to first develop control and to learn changes of pace with twists and spins. On the flat serve and slice, the ball is struck on the right side of the head with the racket following through to the left side of the body. The American twist finishes on the right side of the body, and the exaggerated spin it gives the ball offers more control.
IT IS A UNION OF TWO MOTIONS
The service requires the coordination of two separate activities aimed at bringing the ball and racket into perfect union at the top of the swing. First, you should take a position about four or five feet from the center of the base line, allowing you to either hit down the middle or angle the serve across court. The left foot, pointing at a 45° angle toward the base line, should be two or three inches behind it to avoid the possibility of a foot fault, and the right foot should be about 18 inches behind the left. The weight is evenly distributed between the two. The racket is tilted at a slight upward angle with the throat cradled gently in the fingers of the left hand. The balls should be held comfortably in the fingers, not in the palm. Relaxation and balance are the most important keys to the stance at this particular moment.
The stroke begins with both arms commencing their separate actions simultaneously. The right arm moves back like a pendulum, the wrist remaining in a natural, un-cocked position until the racket is overhead and behind the back. When your elbow has reached the height of your shoulder in this continuous, circular backswing, the wrist is broken and the racket head drops. Then the forward thrust begins. As the wrist snaps the racket head forward, you achieve the feel of "throwing" the racket—just as if it were a baseball—across the net and into the service court for which you are aiming. The follow-through is natural with the weight shifting entirely to the left foot. Once the ball has been struck, the right foot follows across the base line in the direction the ball is taking, thus returning you to the anticipatory position from which you are ready to begin the next stroke (see next page).
At the same time, the left arm has thrown the ball—in a natural, easy motion—to a point where the racket will meet it at the absolute top of the toss—the ball neither rising nor falling at the point of impact. This requires intensive practice, inasmuch as the toss must instinctively place the ball where the racket will strike it at a maximum height without overreaching.
At the start racket is cradled in left hand, right elbow close, weight on back foot (1). Toss begins with racket backswing. Then start to shift weight forward as racket reaches bottom of swing (2). Body coil builds up power (3).
As Forward motion starts the ball approaches peak (4). Toss must be accurate with body thrown forward, ball met at full extension of racket and arm approximately 24 inches in front of base line (5). The left arm serves as a good counterbalance.
Snap wrist forward, pointing racket head to receiving court (6), shifting weight to left foot, which pivots only slightly throughout. Thereupon right foot is pulled naturally forward, bringing the body back to anticipatory position (7 and 8).
The workhorse of tennis is the forehand drive, the staple of the game for most players. It can be the big stick with which to beat down your opponent or the last bulwark of defense when all else fails. The best forehand is the simplest, and none proves the point better than Budge's. When Don hits the shot it is a free and effortless movement, a fluid sweep with the arm and racket as one.
The forehand and backhand—the so-called ground strokes of tennis—are useful in direct proportion to their pace, depth and accuracy. Pace and depth come only from the perfect blending of those magic ingredients of any good athletic stroke—coordination and timing; or, in simpler terms, the ability to lean your weight and strength into the shot at the exact moment you strike the ball. Accuracy and the ability to place the ball you will learn by subtle shifts in the distribution of your weight. It is about evenly divided between the two feet on shots down the right side line; on cross-court shots it is shifted to the left foot somewhat sooner.
One added point on ground strokes: never neglect the follow-through. Hit the ball with confidence and decision and always finish the shot.
TWO PERFECT ARCS
On the forehand, each arm should describe a perfect arc in the course of the stroke. The left arm follows the right arm into the hitting position and starts the racket head on its backward motion before turning the work load over to the right. As the right arm takes over, it completes the backswing with the racket head high. Then the right shoulder drops, guiding the racket into the bottom of the arc just before it meets the ball. As contact is made, the full face of the racket is brought across the lower inside of the ball. The wrist is cocked until point of contact when it locks with the forearm to utilize full power. The left arm swings forward and around in front of the body. The stroke is always completed with a full follow-through.
THE ANTICIPATORY POSITION
This is your position of security to which you return after every shot. The body, well relaxed, is poised on the toes, weight forward. The racket is cradled in the left hand, ready for next shot.
Finish of shot finds the racket head slightly above shoulder level to give free and confident follow-through (8). The weight remains forward as arm and racket action pull right side around to anticipatory position and the left hand resumes its hold on racket.
Firm wrist propels racket forward, full body weight leaning in, racket head below wrist, elbow away from body (6). With arm fully extended, hit the ball comfortably about 18 inches in front of the left foot (7). The eyes must always be fixed on ball.
Start moving from the anticipatory position (1) as soon as you sense the direction of the oncoming ball. Never taking your eye off the ball, pivot on right foot and cross over with left, keeping body sideways to net (2). Put your entire weight on back foot and counterbalance with left arm.
Racket head continues back, reaching top part of arc, face of racket still open (4). Elbow and arm straighten as the racket head travels below ball and weight transfers to left foot. Left arm leads forward thrust (5). Note fluid body motion.
The backhand drive is executed on the same mechanical principle as the forehand drive. Properly hit, it can be just as effective as the forehand. The average player finds the backhand shot more difficult than the forehand, but actually it should be easier because you're swinging away from your body. Contrary to the general belief, it should be an attacking and not a defensive weapon.
Budge's backhand, the strongest shot in his repertoire, is a classic stroke without an ounce of lost motion. Note especially his perfect weight distribution—from left to right—and his free and easy follow-through. A good rule is to get as close to your work as possible without cramping so as to meet the ball comfortably in the center of the racket head. You should never be so far from the ball as to feel you have to make an undue effort to reach it. Note also how the elbow, as in the forehand stroke, is held close to the body until forward motion starts—then straightens to release coiled energy.
The left arm is unusually important to a good backhand. To start with, it does most of the work in taking the racket back to the start-forward position. From this point it serves an equally vital function in helping achieve and maintain balance. An interesting and sound formula to follow is that of executing a perfect circle in preparing for and completing the shot. Wait for the shot from the squared position (always on your toes), pivot, swing, follow through and return to the original position, waiting for the next shot.
THE PERFECT CIRCLE
The backhand must be a fluid and continuous motion, not a series of separate acts performed one after the other. Properly executed, the steps are simple and related, creating a natural sequence without hesitation or acceleration. Starting with the anticipatory position in the backcourt, the right hand is relaxed on the handle, the throat of the racket cradled lightly in the left. As the ball approaches you move into position, following the flight of the ball. That is of the utmost importance. The left hand guides the racket until the downward arc begins, when the right hand tightens its grip. At point of contact—approximately 12 inches in front of the right foot—the ball should be met waist high. If the bounce is low the knees should be bent more to meet the ball at its height. The shot should be made with a firm grip, the wrist straightening and locking naturally at the time of contact.
Baseball swing is analogy used by Budge to describe backhand motion. Don has likened it to swing of Ted Williams.
The last step is a pivot on the right foot (9) to bring feet, knees, hips, shoulders, head, eyes, arms and racket back to anticipatory position (1). The circle of action is then complete.
Naturally following through, racket ends at shoulder level or slightly higher (8). Body remains collected yet relaxed, leaning into the stroke. Left arm counterbalances and permits a full and easy follow-through motion (7 and 8).
Racket head starts below flight of the ball, right shoulder well down (6). Right arm is straightened, brought around body. Hit into and straight through (7), transferring weight from left leg to right.
Anticipatory position (1) is facing net, on your toes for quick movement, with racket held easily in both hands, elbows in close. Then pivot on left foot (2) as left arm pulls racket, torso back.
Body pivot (3) comes next, stepping over with right foot so back is half turned to net. Right hand makes¼ turn to left for grip change and receives work load as racket head reaches highest point of arc (4), is about to drop into position (5).
The knockout punch of modern tennis is the volley. It should be used aggressively, but only when you are in a strong offensive position—able to keep your opponent off balance and finish the point with a briskly hit placement.
Since you are never more vulnerable on the court than when approaching the net, do so behind a strong—and preferably deep—forcing shot. And never attempt a finishing volley or half-volley on the way up to the net. Once there, assume a position about halfway between the net and the service line. The best players, like Budge, play closer to the net, since the most effective volley is a downward shot hit above the level of the net. But only experience will teach you how close you can play without leaving yourself easy prey to a lob.
The volley is a short, crisp stroke—like a boxer's jab—requiring no backswing and little follow-through. The one exception is the drive volley, of which Budge is the master. This is a stroked shot against a soft return, so there is a backswing and follow-through; since it is almost invariably a point-ender, the ball should be hit flat or with slight overspin to put it out of reach.
The best net stance is a slight forward crouch on the balls of the feet for better agility. If you must play a low volley, bend down to it—don't just drop the racket head—and use the shot to defend your position. You score the killers when the ball is higher than the net cord.
Budge, like most of today's leading players, uses the eastern grip on all forehand shots, making a quarter turn of hand and fingers to the left to hit his backhand and serve. The advantage of this grip is that it is the most comfortable, easiest to switch from forehand to backhand and most convenient for both high and low strokes. There are, however, some acceptable variations, such as the western grip favored by the great champion Bill Johnston and the continental grip that Fred Perry used so effectively. Yet each of these presents its problems: the western can be extremely awkward for low shots, and the continental deprives you of power. Whichever grip the player may use, the basic mechanics of the shots described on this and the preceding pages remain the same. And so, only a couple of fundamental precepts are mandatory: once the shot has been decided upon, never change the grip; and always relax the grip between shots to avoid tiring hand and arm.
Short punch characterizes the backhand volley (above) as well as the forehand. With the racket head held slightly above your wrist, the racket travels about 12 to 18 inches as you take a short step into the ball. The angle of the racket head is increased with lower shots.
Hand on top of racket with the V between thumb and forefinger pointing to the left shoulder at impact is the proper position for this grip—also used for serve. For ground strokes extend thumb back of handle for support.
Like catching baseball, you start the volley with the racket head where the mitt would be. Then, taking a short forward step with the left foot, the arm and racket as one lever make their short, sharp movement into the oncoming ball. The best volleyers are those who confine themselves to the essential motions of the shot and thus minimize the area in which they operate. When hitting a volley above the level of the net cord, snap the wrist; lower volleys must be played with wrist locked.
Shaking hands with the racket is a good way to assume this grip, making sure the handle extends behind the heel of the hand. Important: the grip is the one and only contact between you and the ball, so make it firm.