Monday, January 21, 2008

Net gains. Your loss. (or Caught in the net)

No one can argue that putting the ball in the court is the most important element for enjoyment and success in tennis. The biggest hurdle in accomplishing this is the NET. Why is this so? After all, it is only three feet high at its center, stretching to three and a half at its ends. Surely we must all recognize this fact and keep the ball away from it. But persistently balls end up trapped in its webbed clutches. Lured there by some power we have yet to comprehend. Like golf balls mysteriously drawn to a pond, so a tennis ball veers towards the net. To pierce the veil of its attractive influence let us look back at what is known of its origin. Batting a ball back and forth is likely nearly as old as the game of catch. A line in the sand separating two players' halves of a court seems a natural extension. Exactly when a cord stretched through the air dividing the court in two came about is unknown. It is known that this game of "tennis" over a cord was prevalent for a long time, inaugurating many of the complexities present in modern tennis. In the mid-eighteenth century a network of rope borrowed from the tools of fishermen gave the net both its structure and name. Now instead of scooping up fish, the net served to snag errant balls and impede their flight. That's where things stand today.

Let's look a moment at the advantages the net has brought tennis. With just a cord, a ball could pass below leaving a judgment call on the part of the players. ("Went under." "Did not." "Did too." And so on.) Also the possibility of being hit, "below the net" as it were, was greatly reduced. Why was the cord not draped with an opaque material, rather than see-through netting? This monumental decision is at the heart of our difficulties with the net. The beauty of a fisherman's net, is in its near intangibility and difficulty in being seen. While water and small fish pass through as though it wasn't there, the right (or rather wrong) sized prey fail to see it and are hopelessly trapped. This property of the fishing net, affects us in the same way. It presents us with a tangible structure to stop the balls, but we can easily see the other side of the court and oncoming balls. The next time you are on the court, notice that from the baseline you can not see the other side of the court without looking through the net. Now, make your way towards the net until you find you are able to see the opposite baseline by looking over the net. (For me, this spot occurs right around the service line.) Wherever your particular spot lies, this is the first time your eyes had an angle to look down into the other court (and only the back at that). The fact that you can see the other side of the court before is misleading. Like the fish, we fail to notice the trap between us and freedom. If this is true for your eyes, let's imagine the perspective of the ball. Since most balls are hit from around waist high, the ball can never see the other side of the court. What can be done to address this situation?

Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Robert Frost.

While taking the net down, might solve some of our problems, the chaotic game it would create, would be far from the game we know. To deal with the net effectively, we must change the vantage point of the ball, improve the "ball's eye view" if you will. Put it in a position to see the entire court unobstructed by the net. This can be achieved in a number of ways. First, taking balls from a higher spot in the air means that the ball's view may already be above the net. A line drive shot from this point will keep the ball above the net. Moving closer to the net also increases the angles the ball can see into the court, but of course it must still make it above the net. A third option is to hit the ball upward so that it can reach a height from which it can look down upon the court. Much in the same way a basketball, shot with arc, increase one's chance of scoring. If you center the top of the arc directly over the net, no matter how high the ball is hit, you are assured that the shot will land in the court. Though not absolutely essential, the ability to hit with topspin allows one to clear the net with a fair margin for error, put the ball into the court and do it all with tremendous pace. Learn to appreciate the challenge the net provides. Don't be fooled. The net might not look like much, but it has snared its share of big fish in its day. A healthy respect and understanding of the net's power can make one a better player and tennis more enjoyable. - Nick Sousanis (1998)

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