Watching Tennis Can Improve the Games of Pros and Amateurs

Serena Williams | Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Serena Williams | Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images

“The blue skies and brisk breezes of early September mark the end of the United States Open, and its corresponding state of near-total immersion in the shifting fortunes of professional tennis players. For observers who play the sport, this often means an enthusiastic return to the court, after two mostly sedentary weeks on stadium benches and upholstered furniture. This does not mean, however, that they are out of practice: many amateurs report that seeing tennis played at the highest level improves their own games.

Watching tennis and playing it can be mutually helpful activities, dialectically entwined.

“You get a boost, definitely,” said the tennis historian Bud Collins, who has been watching and playing the game for 60 years. “But six days later, it’s gone.”

Jon Levey, a writer and avid player said: “I always play better after watching the pros. Their form shows you that less is more. They move their body weight into the ball much better than I do. Everything seems to work in symmetry. After the Open, I suddenly know how to hit ‘up’ on my serve, like they do. But after a little while, it leaves.”

Maybe the answer is keep watching lots of professional tennis? Andy Murray said he watched about three sets per day.

“I learn a lot from doubles, where things happen slower,” said Lauren DeLong, an amateur player, who was on the grounds in Flushing Meadows. “Today, I saw Leander Paes turn his racquet face at the last minute to disguise a shot. I thought, I can try that.”

Professionals, too, often pick up techniques by watching, Patrick McEnroe said.

“Take the squash shot,” he said, referring to the loose forehand slice pros hit when in trouble. “That started on clay. Players saw it and thought, ‘I’ll try that too.’ Now almost all of them use it now.”

Seeing the fluency with which the pros rally can synchronize an internal sense for the game, according to the commentator and former top-five player Jimmy Arias.

“When I haven’t played or watched for a while, my game loses something,” he said. “When I haven’t played but I’ve watched a lot, like the last two weeks, I still have my timing.”

Certainly, professional players seen up close can mesmerize with their unimpeded strokes, hitchless service motions and sweetly struck volleys. Even the sounds of professional tennis, a rhythmic series of deep thwocks, can be an inspiration. But is the sense of improvement real?

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach who runs his own academy in France, said it was.

“When you see people doing the right thing all the time or most of the time, it comes into your head and then you do it more naturally,” he said. “I know a lot of people who improved just by watching. That’s the best way to learn, because you don’t think, you just copy, without trying.”

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