I am always trying to learn and tennis is no different. When I watch the pros play I often imagine what I would say if I were their coach. I consider what one or two things could really make a difference to the players game. Being a Brit the natural question is what I would work on with Laura Robson. I see her as a wonderful talent with an excellent game. There is very little I would change.
For me she has the most important element any player can ever have. A great mind for overcoming challenges. I attribute that to her outstanding success so far. When I watch her play I feel she is hungry to prove herself and enjoys the big challenges because the sense of achievement when you overcome them is greater. I don’t feel she dwells too much on defeat. She is more interested in learning to get better and defeats can teach you that. What you tried didn’t work, change something and try again.
Now though she is reaching the top of the womens game. She was seeded at the US Open for the first time so she only has a few places left to climb but like any discipline this is where it gets really tough. Everyone at the top is solid and has multiple weapons so you need more. The problem is often that pushing too hard leads to injuries or errors or both.
Laura is clearly an attacking player. She fits well at the top of the game because she can both absorb pace and generate it so she can trade comfortably with players in the top ten. So all bodes well. I would just leave that part of her game alone because she clearly knows what she is doing and you don’t fix what isn’t broken.
What I would improve is what I feel most of the women can improve which is her footwork and movement. Building on my analysis of Rafa and Novaks US Open final 2013 lesson at tennisfrontier.com both players exhibit the highest quality movement on tour. It is what makes them so good. All I see on the WTA tour are rallies that end on a shot that would have been returned on the mens tour. Since women in other sports like athletics are only just behind men in terms of results I am certain that a woman could reach these shots just like the men do. I just feel they don’t know how. Their tour hasn’t matured to that level yet much like the mens game in the 90’s.
This analysis though is pretty straightforward I have heard many mention it so I think it’s an obvious conclusion. The question is how I would get Laura to actually want to do it. As a player I develop aspects of my game for a reason. When I understand what something will give me then I make it happen. So why should Laura add better footwork to her game.
What I would explain is that there are similarities with Lauras game to my game. At a very different level you understand but like her I am an attacking player and my game is built around my attack, not my defence. That is bolted on later and doesn’t get much work. When the chips are down I just hit as hard as I can and I enjoy it. What I have learnt is that this can feed players who know how to redirect pace. Against them the harder I hit the quicker I lose. Serena in particular does this well. Sharapova doesn’t get it yet because it works against everyone but Serena. At my level I have had to accept that to reach the higher levels I need to learn defence which I am coming to see as the ability to lengthen the point and wait for a better opportunity. A lot of that has been about footwork and waiting for the right shot.
As an attacker though my trouble is that this often feels dull and I lose my enjoyment of the game, I lose my patience and end up just feeding my addiction to fun shots. Ultimately giving the match away but having fun doing it. If I am lucky Ido a Rosol and hit winner after winner or, most likely, I start missing or leave sitters for my opponent to enjoy.
Recently though I have learnt just why I should enjoy this defensive dance before taking the wining shot and that is what I would share with Laura. Good defence actually makes your offence better which makes the feeling of hitting that winning shot better. That is a language I can understand. It can get very technical but the essence is that all good shots happen when you are on balance, all power comes from balance, all spin comes from balance. The key to balance is footwork, your connection with the ground and how you transfer your weight.
By improving your footwork you will automatically retrieve more balls than you used to forcing your opponent to take more risks and giving you more confidence that you can last the point. So you are less likely to rush it. At the same time better movement means you will be in good position much more often and thus able to take advantage and play your favourite shot at the same time it is this very footwork which will help you transfer your weight better during a shot and maintain your balance through it to produce even more power and spin in your attack.
So, all I would really do is show Laura how her big weapon, her attack, would improve simply by improving her defence. So we would still be improving the thing she obviously enjoys doing. Better footwork would make it easier and easier for her to take advantage of the ball her opponent gives her without making any changes to her attack, so we won’t risk hurting the best part of her game.
That is what I am finding at my level. As a natural attacker my attack isn’t something I have to work on because I find it fun so I do it any chance I get. Footwork and defence are something I have to work on. Now that I see their place in my attack they have become part of it and my game is far better for it. I am now starting to really enjoy the waiting game. I don’t feel the need to go for every ball I am now waiting for the best opportunity. Something I can really enjoy and feed my attacking addiction. I don’t want to waste my energy on a weak opportunity. Tiring myself out and helping my opponent. I now prefer to pick the best opportunities and really accentuate my natural attack. It’s just more fun.
It is the fun that it brings to her natural game that I feel is the most important aspect. Laura seems to have a good fun attitude to her work and her play. So I think it is important that she maintain this attitude in building up her game even further. You need to match the improvements to her personality. Then they should just come naturally instead of being tacked on and requiring effort to maintain.
For brevity I have left out much of the technical detail as to why footwork improves defence and attack. Try it for yourself. I think it is a neglected art. See what you think and let me know.