by Vic Braden
Contributing Tennis Writer
Because the popularity of tennis has grown dramatically around the world, a number of countries are now looking for clues, methodologies and reasons to identify potential champions, and produce international sports figures that will bring notoriety ot themselves and the countries they represent. So far, I?ve run into at least a hundred people who feel they have the answer and best route to follow to accomplish this. But, for now, when it comes to numbers, the Eastern European countries are leading the way. Why?
I?ve listened to players and coaches from several Eastern European nations, however, and I haven?t heard anything unique being put forth as the formula to follow. What I have heard is is how hungry and anxious the players are to succeed, coupled with the extensive and careful attention that is being paid to an old fashioned work ethic. I?ve watched Russian players work for two hard hours just returning serves. I recall a national USTA meeting in Palm Desert, California, where High Performance Director, Jean Nachand, was telling the attendees that her experiences with American girls was that they would work approximately one-half of the time that Eastern European girls would work. It came down to dedication, desire to achieve and self-denial of other items that were not as much of a priority as the path to success.
Research efforts are needed to determine the role of hunger, native talent, quality information and work ethic. The old argument of nature vs. environment surfaces again and again in our great sport of tennis. I used to watch Ian Tiriac work Guillermo Vilas for five hours. At the same time, I watched champion Jimmy Connors work one hour periods, but with a great intensity that compensated for the lesser periods of time, coming under the heading of "what you put into it will have a direct effect on what you take out of it." Motor learning experts tell us that each player should know his/her practice time parameters where and when their brain is no longer performing adequately. That, apparently, varies with many players.
In a media room session, I asked Roger Federer where he learned to play with so many options. He said, ?I studied the players I would have to play, the shots they owned, the shots I would need to beat them and I developed those shots." That was a beautiful analysis made by one of the greatest players in tennis history, but he didn?t say how long it took him to perfect the winning shots. In January, 2007, Roger did say that he didn?t realize he was literally sabotaging and impacting negatively on his own success with his poor behavior until he was twenty years old.
Could it be that there is no specific formula that fits all champions, but that there are some common variables? For example, an intense desire to succeed is one I?ve noticed in my 62 years of coaching. I remember having Andre Agassi on my knee when he was six years old during a tennis telecast in Las Vegas with my partner, baseballer Don Drysdale. Andre was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up and he quickly replied, "Number one!" Another incident sticks out in my mind, this one involving Jimmy Connors. I was doing a telecast in Dallas, where Jimmy was playing John McEnroe in a seniors event. Jimmy got so angry at Mac early in the first set that he picked up his rackets and went straight to the locker room. After much encouragement, Jimmy came back onto the court and did something I had never seen him do - he just started hitting balls into the net, hitting them long and wide in a manner that clearly indicated he only wanted to get out of the tennis stadium fast. However, his competitive spirit wouldn?t allow him to look like a jerk and tank a match. Slowly, he began to get his feel back and he played some amazing tennis. He defeated McEnroe in the end and I don?t think there?s any coach who can teach that, nor do I believe that there is any out there that would want to go that route out of a need precipitated by the athlete. Connors respresent an exception but, in doing so, made a point.
Jon Niednagel, the braintypist, has been the most accurate person I?ve known in predicting success in professional sports. He has studied the relationship between personality and motor skills. He has been called every dirty name in the book, but the fact of the matter is that his accuracy has been outstanding. Having worked with Jon for approximately fifteen years, I have been astounded at his success ratio. He is currently involved in a major scientific effort and the results will no doubt be published in 2008. Perhaps braintyping will be the next major frontier for countries looking for champions. We shall see.
On a closing note, in a club I helped build, the Jack Kramer Club in Palos Verdes, California, there was a young girl for whom not a single coach I interviewed predicted success in her early years. She was overweight, moved slowly but it was evident to anyone watching closely that a lot was going on in her brain. Two years ago, I told her that she maximized performance and enjoyment of our great game better than anyone I had ever seen. Lindsay Davenport, the former world?s number one, just gave me a knowing glance and smiled.