Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book review: "The Secrets of Spanish Tennis"

Rafael Nadal leads the Spanish Armada.
2014 photo by Paul Bauman
   Spain, with a population of 47.7 million, has five of the world's top 20 men's tennis players and 12 of the top 100.
   The United States, with a population of 318.9 million (almost seven times Spain's), has one man in the top 20 and five in the top 100.
   John Isner, the leading American at No. 18, would rank sixth in Spain.
   And consider this tally of Grand Slam men's singles titles since 2005: Spain's Rafael Nadal 14, United States 0.
   Chris Lewit, a certified USTA high-performance coach, examines Spain's success in his 2014 book, "The Secrets of Spanish Tennis."
   Before discussing six "secrets," Lewit acknowledges several factors contributing to the Spanish Armada.
   Spain has a strong tennis tradition, tournament structure, club system and coach education program. The weather is favorable, and clay courts that place a premium on patience are abundant. Coaches and players are eager to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Also, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics poured money into Spanish tennis.
   The six "secrets" (arguably eight or nine), according to Lewit, are:
   1. Movement, footwork and balance. Lewit notes that Europeans tend to play sports (i.e. soccer) with the feet and Americans with the hands (i.e. baseball).
   2. Racket speed and weapon building. Because clay is slow, players must generate their own pace.
   3. Consistency. Spaniards believe tennis is a game of errors, not winners.
   4. Defense. Spanish coaches preach moving back to defuse power rather than taking the ball on the rise or staying on the baseline.
   5. Physical conditioning. "Modern tennis," Lewit writes, "is a physical game where generally the strongest, fastest, fittest and most powerful athlete wins."
   6. Suffering. Spanish drills feature nonstop repetitions of 20-60 balls or more to teach discipline and perseverance. "There is nothing like hitting your 30th ball -- legs burning, lungs on fire -- only to realize that you still have 30 or more shots left to go in the exercise!" Lewit notes.   
   It doesn't hurt Spain that hardcourts and even grass around the world play much more like clay these days to increase rallies, television ratings and -- surprise -- revenue.
   Lewit calls Lluis Bruguera, the father of two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, and Pato Alvarez "genius coaches," which they may be. Oddly, though, there's no mention of Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and arguably the greatest coach of all time.
   Nor is there any mention that Spanish women have not matched the men's success, although Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007 and Conchita Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994. The top-100 figures vs. the United States are the reverse for the women: five Spaniards and 12 Americans.
   One obvious reason for the disparity between men and women in Spain and the United States is that tennis doesn't face competition from football and baseball for U.S. female athletes. Furthermore, the WNBA pays poorly because of microscopic TV ratings, and pro softball is virtually nonexistent. Meanwhile, Spain's attitude toward women might be more conservative than the United States'.
   "The Secrets of Spanish Tennis" won't win any literary prizes. It could be much more in-depth. At 164 pages with many drill diagrams, the book can be read in about two hours. Even so, many words -- especially "obsessed," "obsession," "hallmark" and "holistic" -- and statements are repeated frequently.
   Lewit does, however, help illuminate the reasons for Spain's amazing success in men's professional tennis.    

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