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The Roving Player: Champions Cup

One of the benefits of life as a Roving Player is the chance to watch and learn lessons first-hand from the world's very best tennis players and wisest coaches. As the Champions Series airs on Tennis Channel this month I thought it would be best to share some pointers from some of the games best.

Champions Cup - Mastering the Ordinary

What separates pros from us mortals? Mastery. But of what? Check out the matches on the Champions Cup and you'll see that mastery is less a matter of dazzling shotmaking and more about the ordinary.

No one does more to make the ordinary brilliant than Todd Martin. His well-crafted game is a testimony to discipline and intelligence. This is particularly vivid in the way he handles tennis' two most important shots - the serve and the return. 

Martin never rushes himself. He has a series of rituals he performs before each point that put himself in the best possible position to play effectively. When serving, he carefully bounces the ball several times. When receiving, he gets himself set in a solid stance. These little things make a big difference. I know how many times under pressure I will rush and be excessively out of balance prior to serving. This is never the case with Martin.

And then, when he serves, watch how deliberately he takes the racket back as a means of harnessing his strength prior to contact. Martin may not have ever had the most powerful serve in tennis, but he is a master at doing something we all can learn from: pinpointing his delivery to a spot he knows will elicit a return he can anticipate and work off. In other words, he's not so much serving to end the points as much as start it on favorable terms from a standpoint of court positioning.

Martin's return is even more impressive. Though his shots are quite flat, when up against a baseliner he always makes sure they clear the net with significant margin. And his stroke is complete. Martin's backswing may be short, but his forward swing and follow-through are long. Too many recreational players are so concerned about the next shot that they pull off the one they're hitting without completing it. Have faith - you've got enough time to finish one swing and then be in place for the next one.

No question, there is a patterned quality to Martin's game. He may change his tactics, but his execution is exquisitely well-crafted, patient and thorough. Even if your opponent knows what you're doing, if you do it well, the odds are still in your favor. 

Champions Cup - Learning From The Lefty

The players competing in the Champions Cup can scarcely be called old-timers. Barely off the tour, hovering near 35, they're still quite fit, agile and skilled. There's much a recreational player can learn from them.

Consider Goran Ivanisevic. What, you say, the wild man of tennis? The man who once tanked the final set of a Wimbledon final and was known for a game that personified the notion of feast or famine? The man who referred to his matches as "horror shows"?

Yes, there are lessons to be learned from Ivanisevic. I first want to aim my comments at a portion of this column's audience near and dear to my heart: my fellow lefthanders.

Goran has oodles of what another lefty, commentator Mary Carillo, calls "leftyocity." You won't find this term in the dictionary, but you'll see and learn from it whenever you watch this man serve. And even you righties can gain pointers from this too.

Do you think much about how you begin your service motion? Watch how relaxed Ivanisevic is, particularly with his loose, limp wrist - nearly spaghetti-like. Commence this part of the motion too tight and you'll never get loose.

Then, note how Ivanisevic is willing to deploy his weapon. He doesn't back off, but just keeps going after his serve with a simple, slow takeback that leads to a committed swing at impact. You certainly won't serve as fast as him, but you too can learn to be this relaxed in the early part of the serve as you coil into the motion. No matter what your big shot might be, here's a lesson: If you've got a gun, fire it. That doesn't mean you'll always hit winners, but certainly you can look to press with this shot.

How do you do learn to build a bigger serve? We play so much quasi-competitive tennis that we don't always give ourselves the chance to feel as free as possible when swinging the racket. Practice. It won't take more than 20 minutes, two or three times a week. Get out with 40-50 balls and hit a bunch into each court. Start off very slow, and then give yourself the freedom to let it rip. But again, don't hurry the motion. Relax, get that toss up there and feel the sensation of generating racket acceleration. I'll leave it to you if you want to rip off your shirt after matches ala Goran.

Check the schedule for complete detail on times for the Champions Tour

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Oakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, CBS and The Tennis Channel. For The Tennis Channel he's worked as an on-air analyst and is co-producer of the program, Center Court with Chris Myers. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded 4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning Ugly."