Friday, April 10, 2015

ADRIAN WHO?

Mannarino.  That's right - even though I'm a grown-ass man, and I just can't bring myself to worship anyone (that ship sailed about 20 years ago), if I did have a favorite player on the ATP tour, it would be none other than Adrian Mannarino.

Now if you don't follow tennis (even if you do), you'll probably have to google him - and when you do you'll discover that there's almost nothing distinctive about his bio.  He appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a player who's only distinction from the monotony of baseline hugging, two-handed backhand hitting, 1980s-born supplicants to the four corners of the tennis kingdom known as "the big four", is an endearingly strange haircut.  And when you look up his highlights on youtube, you would be hard pressed to put your finger on exactly what it is that he does that has brought him to the hallowed ground of the seeded players locker room (as he most certainly will obtain by the time Wimbledon rolls around).  He's not that tall, rail thin, walks like he's wearing thin socks on a very cold basement floor, and appears to have developed only one-half of the stroke production required to hit a decent groundstroke.


But I urge you to take a look at this guy again, and ask yourself this:  if you can start your forehand from your hip and still finish across the shoulder and hit winners...why the hell is everyone else's strokes so much more elaborate?  Why introduce all the risk associated with a big wind-up, and leaping into the stroke, and groaning like the pard, when any one of those extraneous elements, if mistimed or malformed, puts your strokes at the risk of missing the mark and being more bark than bite?


Put it another way, given that he doesn't seem to do anything that isn't absolutely necessary when hitting a ball, what does this guy know that everyone else slept through the day they taught groundstrokes in Groundstrokes_101?

You see, there are people out there who watch tennis and just don't get it - they don't understand how important it is to have good technique.  Some of them play, but play so poorly that they wouldn't know good technique if drilled them right between the eyes on a good poach in a doubles match.  Some of them play with so much talent, that they can't comprehend how anyone would find it difficult to do what they do, so they assume there must be something else to this racket (pun intended).  Some don't play, have never played, and don't understand how the game is played, and desperately want success in the game to be attributed to something they can plainly see (like speed, strength, stamina and athleticism) or something they can't see and therefore can attribute almost anything to it (the mental game, confidence, belief - just take your pick of any metaphysical machination espoused today).


But watching Adrian Mannarino play, and more importantly play successfully, against some of the best players in the world, some of the biggest, strongest, fastest, hardest hitting jocks the game has to offer, forces even the most keen observer of our beautiful game to wonder:  how the hell does he do it?  I mean the guy is maybe a buck-45 if he's wearing his shoes and a track suit, and most of the time it does look like he's more massaging the ball left and right than hitting it.  But every once in a while, when he has to inject pace into his shots, he can and does, and when he does so, the stroke's production is almost indistinct from his neutral strokes, and the results are all the more effective because of the element of surprise.


The reason is that he is the most technically efficient player in the world.  Nobody on the planet plays at that level with so little outward effort, and the reason for that is because there isn't a single wasted movement in his stroke production, nor is there a stone left un-turned in the eternal pursuit of easy power.  His serve for example is a marvel of modern physics.  Taking two steps into the delivery, he's already moving 10 miles per hour when he hits it, so everything else he generates in the way of pace is on top of that base.  And because he's 6 inches off the ground when he hits it, it is essentially as if he is six inches taller than he actually is, when the ball makes contact with his strings; this explains why he's able to generate so much pace, spin and angle from his narrow and sinewy frame.  Furthermore, because his point of contact is in front and to the left, he puts more side-winding action on that stroke than 99 out 100 opponents he'll face, and more importantly more action than 99 out of 100 opponents his opponents will face.  They've never seen anything like it because there is nothing like it.  It's totally unexpected, and there's so much movement on the ball by the time they see it, it's already somewhere else.


Add to that the fact that's it's left-handed, and it's really not fair - and that's just the serve.


Both the forehand and backhand have almost no backswing, which is almost the opposite of what most teaching professionals will tell you about how to hit a tennis ball.  In fact, I'm guessing that the first thing you heard, the first time you were taught to hit a tennis ball was, "Get your racquet back".  And here, a frizzy haired nymph from France is taking that most basic element of every ground stroke in professional tennis and throwing it out the window.


Now what happens when you eliminate the back swing?  First and foremost the stroke doesn't take as long to produce, so you don't show your hand to your opponent until the very last minute of where you're going to hit the ball.  Furthermore, because there are fewer moving parts, presumably there are fewer things to screw up, and like the rotary engine of ground strokes, Mannarino's rarely go terribly awry.  Additionally, it's very hard to take time away from him, so no matter how hard you hit it, in all likelihood he's going to have a shot at getting it back.  And certainly you can't rush him anywhere within 12 feet of either side of the center of the court, which means, while his error rate is low, yours will increase just by virtue of where you have to put it to disrupt him.


But the most valuable distinction of Adrian Mannarino's strokes is that because they are technically efficient, his footwork has to be right, and because of that, there's almost no shot in the game that he can't hit.  You have to get to the point of contact with your full stroke production at the ready on any shot you hit - that's why footwork is the holy grail of tennis.  With the exception of Serena Williams, if you look down the line at every great player in the history of the game, the only thing that every single one of them have in common is good footwork.  Flat shots cross court or up the line, neutral or aggressive loopers, short slice, deep slice, short angle - the game is really an open book for him because for him to play at all, everything aside from hitting the ball has to be just right...and as a result, it usually is and he is free to do almost anything he wants with the ball.


And it is that broad technical omnipotence that makes him such a pleasure to watch.  


Don't be mistaken, I'm not saying Adrian Mannarino is the best player in the world, or that he's going to win a major.  This is sports, an athletic endeavor, and at the end of the day, all things equal, the jock wins most of the time - particularly in the modern game, where the technical side of the game is so monolithic, and the physical attributes rise to the level of decisive in most match ups. But there is something irritating about commentators and pundits who over emphasize the physical:  it's almost as if they'd prefer to eschew the technical for other more palatable attributes that certainly factor into the result, but aren't necessarily the deciding factor.  You've got to get to the ball, and if you hit it hard enough that the other guy can't, then you'll probably win the point...and if you do that enough, the match.


But the beauty of Adrian Mannarino's game is how it pierces the premise that precedes every conversation about the athletic and mental aspects of the game - that all things are equal.  Mannarino proves they couldn't possibly be, because while other players have more elaborate strokes, are bigger and stronger and faster, and appear to more emotional and committed, all this little Frenchman does is hit the ball just hard enough, with just enough spin, to get it where it needs to go...and from that he is as technical and competitive as someone with all his physical attributes has to be, and could hope to be.  


We should all be so technical.
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