14 Mar The Waltz and the power of timing
What can a tennis player learn from a professional dancer? Dancing and playing tennis are both skill-related activities and, therefore, we can find some similarities between them. According to experts, the quality level of a basic dance step is the key ingredient of every complex dancing choreography. For example, the most important thing for a Waltz step is to be in perfect harmony with the music; you must synchronise your feet and body movements at the exact right moment so that you become one with your partner and with the music.
Here, we can draw a parallel with tennis. A prerequisite for hitting a perfect shot is that same harmony as in dancing, the only thing is that here it happens between the body, the arm, the racket and the ball. When the racket meets the ball at the right moment is what we call in tennis “the perfect timing”.
A couple of years ago, I decided to take dancing lessons. I wanted to learn how to dance a classic ballroom dance. The first in line was, of course, the Waltz, the most glamourous and elegant of all. At the first lesson, our coach introduced the basic Waltz step and that was the only thing that we did for sixty minutes. As the lessons went by, although I expected something a little bit more complex, the only thing we did was still that simple basic step at every single session. This was around the Christmas time, and I usually like to watch the New Year’s morning concert of Vienna Philharmonic orchestra on the 1st of January. In the second part of the programme, they introduced a dance performance, and I recognised a few Waltz sequences. My eyes were only looking for that basic step that they carried out so elegantly, so perfectly.
I was starting to understand the teaching concept of my dance coach, so I told him that during my next lesson, and he said one very interesting thing. He asked me: Nick, what do you think they did at their first practice session after the glamourous show? Believe it or not, they practiced that same basic step. Wait, these people have just performed the most extraordinary dancing choreography in front of the whole world, and they must practice the same simple step as I do? Shouldn’t they be practicing something more complex? And then it finally hit me when the coach replied: no matter how complex the choreography, it is always based on a simple basic step. In order to make that step constantly better, softer, lighter, more elegant and, most of all, better harmonised with the music, they need to practice it every day. It’s a never-ending process.
For mastering any skill at the highest level, you need to endure quite a lot of basic repetition practice. Same as in dancing, complex game patterns in tennis largely depend on the quality of the basic shots. Tennis players need to practice the basic technical elements every day. It’s an ongoing and continuously changing process, therefore it requires everyday training. There is no point in time where a player can say: ok, now I know this, I’ve learned it and I’m never going to forget it. The very next day you can lose it if you don’t practice it, it’s just the way it is.
The best players in the world practice their basic shots every day so that they can master them to perfection. In tennis, every player hits the ball differently and therefore they have their own ‘personal basics’ to focus on, however there is one common element they’re all constantly working on, and that is timing.
The crucial element for every shot in tennis is timing. It is a very basic and not-so-glamorous concept, but timing decides everything. Here is an example: take the forehand of Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov. Those are two almost identical shots by all technical standards: the grip, shoulder turn, left arm position, leg position, hip rotation, contact point, follow-through, etc. If you observe their forehands in super-slow motion, you will see almost no technical difference (slightly in style), which makes you think that you can expect the same quality of shot on the other side of the net, right? But it’s not the case. Not even close. And the one thing that makes all that difference is precisely the timing. Timing is something that nobody can show you or teach you, you can only feel it by yourself. It is the invisible connection between your body, arm, racket and the ball, and it makes all the difference. One millisecond too early or too late makes the difference between the perfect shot and an average shot. You cannot detect it even in super-slow motion.
Have you ever worked on a technical detail with a player, and you’ve managed to fix it but the shot performance on the court did not change significantly?
Have you ever seen a shot in tennis that has technical issues, but it’s more effective than a technically correct one?
Have you ever been asked by your player why her/his shot went out, and even after watching it very closely you didn’t have the answer? They did everything well, but the ball just didn’t go where it should have.
One of the answers to these situational questions is timing. You can’t see it, you can’t show it, you can’t teach it, but it’s there, and it’s crucial.
Finally, players can rely on people around them only to a certain extent, because decisive things are always up to them. Timing is one great example. If a coach was able to teach a great shot, then this coach would be a genius, a very rich man and we would have at least ten forehands like Rafa’s in today’s game. But we don’t, there is only one. A great shot is a product of hard work, dedication and consistent and deliberate practice. Yes, there are methods that can speed up the process, there are techniques that can help, but the most important part always depends on how much time, energy and concentration a player dedicates towards finding that perfect timing, that perfect shot.