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Respected tennis writer Joel Drucker answers your questions about the thrills and spills of the recreational player. Got a hole in your game or a question for Joel? Drop him an email at therovingplayer@thetennischannel.com and you may find yourself in a future column.
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Q)Dear Roving Player: 
With the French Open coming up, I'm wondering what I can learn from watching today's pros play on it. I'm only a 4.5 player, but surely there's stuff I can gain from seeing the world's best compete on clay. 
-Robert

A)Dear Robert:

The biggest challenge when studying world-class players is to figure out what's useable and what isn't. For example, I wince when I hear tales of recreational players trying to mimic Rafael Nadal's forehand technique. First of all, the tendency is to pay more attention to his wrist and arm than to see how much work the legs and hips are doing. Second, this kind of mimicry can lead to injuries. And third - and most important - what is the purpose? If you're over the age of 40 and mostly play doubles, a Nadal-like forehand is of little use compared to building a solid overhead. 

That said, here's what you can learn from watching Roland Garros. Notice how much effort the pros put in to getting depth on their shots. Since it's extremely rare for an opponent to serve and volley, notice how service returns and groundstrokes clear the net by several feet. Tennis is a lifting game, requiring you to get down and swing and through the ball. The other thing you see a lot on clay is patience. While surfaces like grass and fast hardcourts reward the sneak attack, on clay that can be disastrous. So there's a lot of time spent carefully driving balls deep and crosscourt. And finally, note that clay is a surface that literally alters the ball. As the points wear on, the balls pick up clay and gets heavier. Because of that added weight, it's important to aim your serve and strokes a few inches higher over the net. Otherwise, you'll keep hitting the tape. 


Q)Dear Roving Player:
What's the key to learning how to chip and charge effectively?
-Nick the Netrusher

A)Dear Nick:

I applaud you. At a time when it's easy to watch how much the pros are camping out at the baseline, you're wise enough to seek added dimensions to your game.

I've always felt that while groundstroke prowess is primarily technical, net play has more to do with attitude than technique. Don't get me wrong: knowing how to volley is important. But even more important is grasping the attitude of the netrusher, an awareness that yes, you may be passed occasionally, but over the long term, by coming to net you are creating cumulative pressure that as the match wears on will work in your favor. As the great Pancho Segura once asked me, “When it's tight, would you rather make a four-footer or a 27-footer?” 

The chip-charge play requires extensive practice. You simply must will yourself to attempt it - repeatedly, even if it means you'll lose your share of practice matches. It's best to do so on second serves, and also easier to have your body in place on your backhand return than on the forehand (most people chip their backhand far more effectively). Think of it as a movement-based shot. You are literally trying to run through a short ball (after all, the serve bounces short of the service line). Don't worry so much about the racket swing, but instead work on moving your body through the ball. Get yourself into a good net position and remember - whether you win or lose the point, you have taken a positive step. For what you've done most of all is force your opponent to make a tough shot. That's a good, long-term investment that will do you well as the match continues. But again, you can't merely practice this tactic the way you would hone a groundstroke. The chip-charge is best practiced in real-life, match situations. Don't let a short-term loss - a point, a match - deter you from a long-term gain. 

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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."