Red ball and the illusion of skill
Part I looked at the emergence of the ‘nextgen’ forehand technique at the professional level. In Part II we analyze grassroots tennis and the effects it may have on player development more broadly.
Despite no technological breakthrough in tennis equipment since the advent of polyester strings (adopted by players in the late 90s/early 2000s), the forehand has undergone a technical change. Players today have more noise in the racquet head due to these heavily lagged swings. The downside is consistency. The question is, how did we get here?
Go to any tennis club (interested in being profitable) and you will find at the junior level a version of tennis that provides parents, coaches, and players, with the illusion of progress and skill. A big, red, soft tennis ball (‘red ball’) is hit over a low net on a small court. The rallies can look quite impressive:
Fun? Certainly. But it’s not clear whether playing this miniaturized fluffy version of ‘tennis’ will transfer to a real court and real balls any more than playing ping pong might help your tennis. Skills do not transfer well. A chess player’s remarkable memory of chess positions does not make his memory any better than yours when outside the narrow domain of chess. Many of the shots hit in this rally would sail wildly out if played with a real ball. That’s not a knock on the young players, just a reality of tennis. By comparison, look at the care and difficulty a young Novak Djokovic must put into every ball when training as a nearly 7-year-old on a full-size court with real balls.
The frustration evident in Djokovic’s miss at the very start of the video is well-known to all who have taken on the game. Like other technical sports (golf comes to mind), tennis is hard. In theory, the advent of red ball tennis sounds good: make it easier to hit so they can rally and learn point construction. As Merchant of Tennis explains on their website (emphasis added):
“…the types of tennis balls your child uses can aid in their tennis skills development. As your child grows taller, stronger, with more fully developed strokes and hand-eye coordination, they will gradually be able to handle a tennis ball that more closely mimics an adult ball. Junior tennis balls fall into four classes: foam, red, orange and green dot. Each progressively firmer than the previous one. Subsequently, as the ball gets firmer, the height of its bounce and distance it travels down the court increases. By matching the correct progressive tennis ball to your child’s needs will promote longer rallies, greater consistency and a more positive experience on the court.”
That last part is definitely good for a club’s bottom line. What is not clear, is whether such an easy introduction to the sport helps with the long-term development of a player. In fact, David Epstein’s ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’, suggests the very opposite:
“…it is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later. It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learner themselves, both about their own progress and their teachers’ skill.”
In a nutshell, Range argues that being a generalist and sampling in your youth leads to better performance later in the domain you choose to pursue more seriously. By trying different sports or studying multiple subjects, a person can make connections between disparate fields. The benefits are apparent within narrow motor tasks as well. The term ‘desirable difficulty’ was coined by Robert Bjork in 1994. It describes learning tasks that require a considerable amount of effort that tend to slow down learning in the short term but provide greater long-term benefits.
It is a desirable difficulty that mixes practice on related skills together. Studies found that groups who practiced a motor skill with variety (e.g., practicing throws of 8 feet and 12 feet randomly—"chaotic" practice) improved performance compared to a group who practiced a motor skill with “blocking” (e.g., only throwing from 10 feet), even when the performance measure was the distance practiced by the blocking group. A tennis example might be getting Zverev to practice second serves two feet in front of, and then two feet behind the baseline in a random fashion, to learn the motor skill more effectively and reduce his double faults. Another example? Give juniors a real tennis ball that varies spin and bounces more widely, instead of a watered-down red ball. Will they miss more? Yes. Will it be frustrating? Absolutely, but in the difficulty lies the magic. You want more variety to build a resilient motor skill, not less. Uncle Toni knew this, as told in Rafa:
“If at the start of a session they were playing with good, sound balls, Toni would unexpectedly produce a bad one, a bare one that bounced erratically, or a soggy, lifeless one that hardly bounced at all.”
Perhaps the ultimate example of the desirable difficulty in sport belongs to the statistical GOAT of GOAT’s, Don Bradman.
The video below shows how Bradman spent his time developing his cricket with a task exceedingly more difficult than cricket itself. This practice is well-known in cricket folklore, yet I’m not sure how many coaches have tried to replicate it.
When I look at the modern tennis landscape, what is clear is that players are moving better for their height compared to prior eras; Zverev and Medvedev move better than Todd Martin, and De Minaur covers the court better than Hewitt. Tiafoe and Berrettini exhibit huge power on serves and forehands. Matches grind out for 6 hours. The athleticism is there. If we look at what Epstein’s Range and desirable difficulties suggest, this is not surprising: band work, beach runs, weights, track sessions, stretching, yoga, ice baths, diet, and sleep are all implemented in a player’s program today. The fitness and recovery aspect of the sport has blossomed as the training has embraced variety. Viewed through the same lens, we should not be surprised that the skill set of players has weakened as the conditions of modern tennis have narrowed. Balls are softer, slower, and bigger. Courts aren’t as quick and most players are baseliners with a two-hand backhand. Block returns, slices, and volleys are less common. Polyester strings are used from the beginning of a child’s career, as are light racquet frames with huge sweet spots. Recall the quote from Agassi’s biography, Open:
The advent of a new elastic polyester string, which creates vicious topspin, has turned average players into greats, and greats into legends.
In summary, juniors are practicing with less variety and with less difficulty (in terms of equipment). What is produced are topspin baseliners with lighter racquets and noisier swings that struggle to implement or handle variety. Plenty of young promising players have emerged in the last 10 years, but all fall short of the Big 3. It is as if there is a ceiling effect. Two of the most talented shotmakers coming through—Tsitsipas and Shapovalov—can’t effectively block returns as single-handers. This is a red flag that reflects how homogenized the sport has become. Compare these two to Federer and Wawrinka, who blocked the majority of returns in a bid to get into the point, then hit topspin once established in the rally.
There are recent tools that have been made available, such as the ‘Tennis Pointer’, a spoon-like wooden paddle that has a tiny sweet spot, to recreate desirable difficulties. It surely focuses a player to watch the ball closely and remove some wrist action, but they are only 300 grams and aren’t used all the time; they only scratch the surface of the problem. I suspect the real solution lies in any local garage sale for $10. If you wanted the best desirable difficulty for a junior, why not pick out an old racquet with a small head and non-poly strings? Using that for a significant chunk of their development may be better in the long run.
The absence of polyester strings in the junior years of past and current greats may have been a key desirable difficulty in their development.
Part III looks at the concept of ‘via negativa’ in the forehand.
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