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Federer’s Tweet Did Just What The Doctor Ordered

practice wall

by Ed Shanaphy, USPTA Director of Tennis

A group of us were pondered last week on a zoom call which was clearly monitored through the zoom security issue due to the nature and importance of the call. The question that had been posed: “Why has it been so long since an American man has won a Grand Slam.” The women have had Serena for years competing at the top. Although born in Russia, Sofia Kenin has adopted the USA as we have adopted her. Over the years, we’ve had Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams. But the men? Nothing since Andy Roddick lifted the US Open in 2003 – 17 years ago this summer.

In the group chatting on zoom was a renowned former Ivy League head tennis coach. And he said four words: “Bring Back The Wall. Well, guess what? Roger Federer did just that this week.

I’m not always the biggest Roger Federer fan, but this video, which has gone viral, done with Roger’s usual aplomb, has brought some humor and class to tennis during a pandemic. But it’s also brought back a tool that we often overlook. “Choose your hat wisely.” He threw out a challenge and the world of tennis and beyond has taken him up on it.

Fed’s twitter roll is now full of his fans – and fans of the game – doing the challenge in all kinds of hats. From Mexican sombreros to Irish caps, from sun hats to winter wool hats, people are finding a wall and volleying against a wall – any wall. From Rennae Stubbs to Lindsey Vonn, from Brad Gilbert to celebrities from the world of music, Roger’s fans and the fans of the game have taken him up on his #tennisathome challenge.

And that’s the beauty of the wall. As the college coach wisely said in the zoom call, “You can find a wall anywhere and you can do it by yourself.” In this day and age, that’s a recipe for greatness.

The Wall Is One Of Our Best Tools

The practice wall has always been around. With a line either curved to simulate a net, or a straight line marking 3 feet straight across, it’s been usually at the back of a club or facility, often with cracks in its facade and weeds growing at its base. Most practice walls remain largely forgotten and neglected. But in these times of self-quarantine and self-isolation, the wall has come back to the top of the charts. And now, Federer with his challenge, has made any wall a practice tool.

As a kid, I used the wall a lot. I grew up on clay courts, and the wall was on Court Six. It faced the back of the court, behind the baseline, on the South side. On the other side of the wall was a paved portion over grass in the shade. I used to like to test my skill on the hard surface in the Spring before high school practice started and then as the summer season started, I would spend more time on the clay side.

When I interviewed for a new summer position in 2016 and visited the club, I was struck by the size of the practice wall. I had never seen a bigger wall. Pavement on both sides, it rose above the clubhouse at the back to 18 feet in height. I thought it was an eyesore.

But the wall is a central meeting point for the juniors. Thanks to my predecessor who believed in the importance of practice on the wall, the juniors congregate and hit among each other on the wall, both before and after their scheduled clinic times. A morning ritual is a few of the juniors come down as the sun rises and the court maintenance folks are out preparing the clay for the day’s play. The juniors jump on the wall waiting for the grooming to finish.

This past week, with social distancing a part of our lives, I had several questions as to if members could use the wall. No one asked when the courts were being resurfaced – but because members are self-isolating – “Is the wall open?”

The Wall Can Free Up A Valuable Court

With court usage at its peak at 8am on weekdays – during our Tiny Tots and Little Little Tennis junior clinics – we often take the 2 to 6 year-olds onto the wall area to free up another court. We set up targets and obstacle courses focusing on the wall and using the wall to roll balls against or stop back swings for volleys. The wall also is a contained space, so ball pickup is that much quicker – a big factor to keeping both juniors and parents happy. And now with Roger showing off his skills at the wall, perhaps it will be more acceptable to the high-schoolers to drill on it during their clinic times.

The wall is really a two-fold drill sergeant. It allows the player to groove a swing, or in Roger’s challenge, groove a volley. But to hit against a wall, a player has to master control so that the bounce off the wall is manageable and playable. Time with the ball on the strings. The wall requires a player to create more time with the ball in contact with the strings which, in turn, creates the control needed to manage the shot so that the return off the wall is playable.

With all the pros and celebrities answering Roger’s challenge, the wall has become just what one college coach was hoping for – a training tool which had really been missing in the arsenal of American tennis at the grass roots level.

Ed Shanaphy is Director of Tennis at Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, Massachusetts, which has an enormous wall at the back of the clubhouse. It’s green just like Roger’s wall.

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Is Roger Federer Hurting Tennis At My Club?

by Ed Shanaphy, Director of Tennis

Roger has just won his 20th Grand Slam singles title. Unreal. He’s perhaps the greatest singles player to ever walk on our planet. The accolades are sincere and worthy and it is a pleasure to watch his grace, athletism, and sportsmanship. He is a wonderful role model for younger players. But is he hurting the sport of tennis?

Roger’s entire career was focused and devised with the goal of winning and doing it wisely. He played fewer tournaments than most and, therefore, had fewer ranking points to defend to keep his number one or two spot in the world. Playing fewer tournaments often allowed him to be  healthier than his opponents over the two week fortnight of a slam. He arrived at most of his finals “fresh as a daisy” and having played fewer tournaments in the lead up to the slam, his legs were strong, sturdy and ready. His playing less over the years has allowed his longevity – he was always in it for the long haul and now his strategy is reaping its well-deserved reward.

His marketing and his brand awareness in the industry and media are second to none in all of sport. He’s a world icon leading tennis to new viewership and rating heights. He is an ambassador for our sport, and sport in general, to the world. I really like Roger. But is he hurting the sport of tennis?

Tennis faces many challenges, both new and old. Tennis has moved past the quiet halls of pretigious clubs and into the forefront of national television and “big money” sport. But there are new challenges. These past few years have seen Pickleball take off across the nation. In my hometown of Vero Beach, FL, we’ve seen the changeover of several park and recreation tennis courts to Pickleball. We’ve seen Padel rising up from a grass-roots level in Europe, with last month seeing the International Padel Days Conference in Madrid, Spain. The USPTA now offers a Padel certification. Pop Tennis is a craze in Europe and gaining strength here in the USA. Where will tennis fit in with all these new and vibrant variants?

As a Director of Tennis and having taught the gamut of students in the industry and looking at the tennis industry as a whole, I have one question that keeps recurring: Where else do all those that play a game revere an idol like Roger Federer who plays a different game? By this I mean, I have rarely taught a singles clinic. I rarely teach the heartiest fans of Roger – the men, but mostly, women who set their alarms for 3.30am this past week so as not to miss a point of one of his matches down under – singles. They all play doubles. They rarely, if ever, play singles. Yet, they are Federer’s biggest fans. I am left trying to find a similar situation in other sports.

I once read an essay by William S. Baring Gould about Sherlock Holmes and why a fictional character could have such a fantastic and worldly following as Sherlock. The essay attributed the fame of the greatest consulting detective to the reader actually putting himself or herself in the story. It was the reader who was actually sitting at the fireplace across from Watson. It was the reader who fell in love with Irene Adler. It was the reader who strolled across Whitehall to help solve the government’s issues of the days with treasonous spies.

Roger Federer career statistics
Career finals
Discipline Type Won
Singles Total 96
Doubles Grand Slam tournaments
Year-End Championships

I believe with the NFL, we do think of ourselves in a way of “making that play” with hands outstretched and two feet still inside the green. My daughter and I recreate it all the time in the backyard. Perhaps the juniors of today, who do play singles, do put themselves in Roger’s shoes and hold up the trophy in their minds as I did when I watched Laver and Connors. But ladies who play USTA doubles seem to be even bigger fans than the young guns I teach. It’s difficult to reconcile this fact.

Most of us can’t put ourselves in Roger’s storyline – most of us don’t play singles. With this said, Roger has possibly hurt doubles, and doubles is the game most of us USTA registered players play. Gone are the days when we waited to see John McEnroe come back out for an encore presentation playing doubles with Peter Fleming. Gone are the matches in which Martina Navratilova, having just won the singles championship the previous day, had to come back and play mixed doubles. We loved watching Stan Smith and Bob Lutz come back for more after playing their singles. Not too long ago, we had second chances to see Serena playing with her sister Venus long after they had both lost in the singles. Proof is in the pudding: The most watched match of the Laver Cup was when Roger and Rafa Nadal played doubles – was it the first time most of us had seen Roger play doubles? It was for me.

I am left wondering if Roger is really hurting tennis. We can’t see him do what we do when we hit a cross court lob over two players or open the middle with a dipping topspin winner between the two, clashing racquets of our opponents. He doesn’t play the same game – doubles. We spend hours on court talking doubles strategy with perhaps 95% of our lessons and clinics, and yet we turn on the television with reckless abandon at 3.30am to watch Roger play singles, a game we rarely teach to our students. We teach that one doesn’t really need a big serve in doubles, and yet we tune it to see Cilic and Federer ace it out.

Our challenge is to make Roger relevant to what we do at our clubs and parks and at the recreational level across all demographics. If we don’t accept this challenge as teachers and industry leaders, we will possibly soon see Pickleball courts replacing even more tennis courts in our public and private parks and clubs. Padel will be the new immigrant across our borders – no green card needed for a sport. No chain migration legislation can end a sport’s immigration to our shores.

Roger is a fantastic role model and that helps, but I worry that he’s making the game of doubles almost irrelevant to most of us and, in fact, might be hurting tennis down the road. I hope that those teachers and instructors, far wiser than I, find a way to make Roger relevant to all of us, and find ways to increase participation in the games of singles and doubles and, hence, grow participation in the sport of tennis.