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INSTRUCTION: Serena’s Secret Powers

8/21/03 0:03 AM


We marvel at her strokes and court coverage, but most of us can’t imitate Serena Williams’ playing style. Or can we? Master these overlooked aspects of her game and you’ll be a more imposing opponent.

By Tracy Austin

Excerpted from the September 2003 issue of TENNIS Magazine

Power, speed, size, and athleticism—Serena Williams has it all. From a physical standpoint she has just about everything you’d want in a tennis player. Couple that with an aggressive style and penchant for great play on big points, and you’ve got the WTA’s No. 1-ranked player. But in addition to these obvious attributes, there are overlooked elements of her game that have helped take her to the top. These subtle technical and mental skills allow her to hit harder and cover the court more effectively than anyone else. You may never strike the ball as cleanly or with as much pace as Serena, but if you emulate her attention to detail you can improve your game in the process.

Play the Percentages

When Serena is backed into a corner she plays the smart shot. This was not always the case. Serena has great speed, which gets her to a lot of tough balls, but many players have that ability. What separates Serena is her capacity for putting something on the ball when on the dead run, but still with a margin for error. In the past, Serena would overhit. She’d attempt shots that would be winners if she nailed them but were so difficult that the odds of executing them weren’t good. Now she plays the percentages when she’s on the defensive and puts the ball back in play, still with great pace and depth but also with safety.

So much of tennis is simply getting more shots in than your opponent. If you’re on the run, send the ball back deep down the middle or crosscourt to keep yourself in the point. If you go down the line, it had better be a winner because you’ve left your side of the court completely exposed. Don’t forget: If all else fails, send up a high lob near your opponent’s baseline to give yourself time to recover. It won’t be a dramatic winner, but it’s a smart play.

Make Preparation a Habit
As soon as Serena recognizes which side the ball is coming to, she gets her racquet back and turns her body. It’s so ingrained in her game it’s like a reflex. While she can’t move with the racquet all the way back, even when she’s on the run she gets her body turned and the frame ready. It’s a common mistake for club players to take so long to get their racquet back and shoulders turned that they end up playing catch-up with the ball. But when the racquet is back early you’ll have better balance and your stroke will be smoother.

Remember, though, when you bring your racquet back don’t get it stuck there. You want to keep it moving so it builds momentum through the swing. Otherwise, you’ll lose racquet-head speed and rhythm. You want to pivot, get your shoulders turned, and start the backswing loop so you have acceleration at contact.

Take Little Steps
Performing small adjustment steps helps Serena get in a good position for each shot. Right from the start of her career Serena was great at tracking down balls using big steps. That’s why she could get to seemingly irretrievable shots and put them back in play. But she had trouble getting organized on shots that were close to her body. She didn’t take the little adjustment steps necessary to put herself in the best possible hitting position.

Serena has improved this part of her movement, and it has increased her ground-stroke efficiency. The reason players don’t use adjustment steps is that it’s a lot of work. Many players think that if they can get their racquet on the ball, they’ve done enough moving. But when you use those adjustment steps to get in a position where you have the most leverage and best balance you hit the ball much better.

Use the Whole Court
Taking pace off the ball and using angles has added finesse and versatility to Serena’s game. Obviously, Serena is a power player. She doesn’t have to rely on touch to win matches. But she has learned that it’s easier to hit big ground strokes by her opponents rather than through them. So Serena tries to use more spins and angles to create gaps in the court before she goes for her winners. Off both sides and on her serve, Serena hits on the outside of the ball and dips her shots so they go shorter and wider.

For example, Serena used to blast away on her first serve, simply trying to overwhelm her opponents with pace. Now she’s developed a wonderful slice out wide in the deuce court that takes her opponents outside the doubles alley. It opens up the court for her big ground strokes and makes her flat serve down the middle that much more effective.



Embrace the Net
After a penetrating ground stroke, Serena isn’t afraid to move forward and finish the point at net. Again, this is part of her on-court maturation. Like many players who can win from the baseline, Serena used to stay back when she had someone on the run. She would allow her opponent to neutralize the point and force her to come up with another big ground stroke and perhaps make an error. Serena now comes to net after she has hurt her opponents, and although her volleys aren’t special, they’re solid and she has a great overhead. Serena also hits an effective swinging volley, which is another way to deal with a floating return from your opponent. You have to become competent at net if you’re going to be a complete player.

Hit Big on the Big Points


In crucial stages of the match Serena plays with the right balance of aggression and safety. On big points, she once had a tendency to get a little tight. She would have one of two reactions that are common to the everyday player. First, Serena would swing with everything she had, trying to end the point quickly when the shot called for her to ease up a bit. Second, she would get tentative and push a ball that she needed to hit out on. Now she tends to play somewhere in the middle. She stays in the big points with smart, safe, but still effective shots until she has an opening, then she takes advantage of the opportunity. That’s the best strategy on big points. Don’t go for something that isn’t there, but be aggressive when you can. If you do that and still lose the point, it’s because of poor execution on your part or superior performance from your opponent. But you can live with that because you made the smart play.
 

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Yep, that early preparation and smarter play has helped her overcome Venus and all others.
 

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Tracy summed that up well. Explains all the changes in Serena's game that has elevated her career.
 

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That was good. Really good. However to put all that together makes one special.

There just isn't no one else around that and stand toe to toe with her.
 

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"Use the Whole Court
Taking pace off the ball and using angles has added finesse and versatility to Serena’s game. Obviously, Serena is a power player. She doesn’t have to rely on touch to win matches"

you mean you can have finesse and variety and still be a power player? Hmmm sounds like justine's game.
 

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DA FOREHAND said:
"Use the Whole Court
Taking pace off the ball and using angles has added finesse and versatility to Serena’s game. Obviously, Serena is a power player. She doesn’t have to rely on touch to win matches"

you mean you can have finesse and variety and still be a power player? Hmmm sounds like justine's game.
Yeah that does sort of sound like Justine's game as well. But here's a thought - Why don't we use the vastly more successful player to illustrate a point? Like the one who has won the grand slam and has six slam titles. Mmmkay? :rolleyes:
 
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