Matthew Willis and his followers’ questions

Translation of Matthew Willis’ article, published in The Racquet on March 3, 2022

Question: That’s the only question that matters… Short socks or long socks?
Matt: Long socks. Short socks in tennis are a capital sin for which Agassi and Fish will never be forgiven.

Q: Funny question: why do players choose balls before serving? I’ve seen this happen many times, they look at the balls and pick a few… why? I’ve seen some players even smell them …
Matt: It depends on the player and the circumstances. Some players are superstitious. Gasquet, for example, often gets it into his head that one or two balls in particular are “lucky” and will keep asking the ball boy over and over again. Others want a fast ball if they are serving, which is the least soft of the balls in use. Others prefer a slower ball, perhaps because their opponent is hitting particularly well, and feel the need to slow down the game a bit.

Q: Very open question: what is the easiest shot to improve over the course of a career? Above all, I was thinking about forehand or backhand topspin. This question came to my mind thinking about the current / future developments of Berrettini and Musetti
Q: When players work on technique (fundamental changes), when do they do it? During the seasonal break? It seems difficult to do this during the season as we are mainly focused on results.

Matt: It depends on how big the change is. In training, there are high and low latency changes. A radical modification of the technique of law or service, for example (very difficult for adult professionals) should take place during the period of the seasonal break (although it is often not long enough to complete processes like this perfectly). Mannarino is a good example of a player who significantly changed the forehand technique and Del Potro did the same with his backhand, but both did so during long forced absences due to a wrist injury, and therefore out of necessity.

If, on the other hand, it is a question of working on playing patterns, strategy or small technical adjustments (for example, both Nadal’s and Djokovic’s serves in the last decade have mostly changed gradually rather than with drastic interventions), then that is a work in progress, constant throughout the season and which continues during the break. The easiest shot to improve? I would say serve and return, especially since they are two shots that players can stop and think about before hitting them, unlike the forehand and backhand during rallies, where intuition and habits (often rooted in players from a young age ) may be more difficult to change.

Q: I wanted to understand the impact coaches have on players. How tactical is it, how mental is it, perhaps with some examples? Was Mouratoglou good for Serena? Was Ivanisevic good for Nole? and Becker? Was Moya helpful to Nadal?
Matt: It really depends on the individual player and the context. For example, it’s no secret that Mouratoglou is little more than a cheerleader and a motivator for Serena, and that he hasn’t really added anything particularly technical. For Goran and Djokovic, it appears that the real priority has been working on serve and net play as well as some of the most basic elements of strategy and the first shot. It must be said that the service in this last part of Novak’s career has been excellent since mid-2018 (and was already improving significantly from 2014/15 onwards). Moya had a specific impact on Nadal’s serve technique, second serve aggression, experimentation with lead tape on the racquet head, short stitch construction and backhand. But again, as with all of these great players, it can be hard to tell how much of their merit is, and how much impact the manager has been.

Q: What is the future for professional players under 1.70m tall? And can we find a better exponent of modern Serve & volleyball than Cressy (if we want to see him as the contemporary standard-bearer of this style)?

Matt: I would really be surprised if a player shorter than 1.70 would win a men’s Grand Slam in the next ten years. Someone could make it in twenty years or more, but it’s so far in time and it’s virtually impossible to predict what changes to the game there might be. I think you have to settle for Cressy for now if we are to think of a game of pure serve & volleyball (although I like to watch Cressy play). It’s not the optimal strategy, at least not exclusively, for most tennis players with elite ambitions these days. Things could change in the future.

Q: Do you think being more muscular than the average professional tennis player would help, or would it be harmful to a player? And as a side question, what would be an ideal physique for tennis?
Matt: It wouldn’t help at all and it would probably be bad for the game. Djokovic, or probably someone a couple of inches taller like Auger-Aliassime considering the recent evolution of the modern game, represent the ideal male physique in tennis right now. Strong legs, but very dry upper body even if with a very toned trunk; broad dominant forearm, developed buttocks (a bit like Frankenstein’s monster…). Kokkinakis is an example of how useless and counterproductive some muscle-building exercises, often dictated by simple vanity, can be.

Q: Because Rafa is able to beat Medvedev on a regular basis, but does not make progress against Nole when Meddy has beaten and can beat Nole (or at least prove more competitive than Rafa) – specific question for the coach.
Matt: It’s a pretty simple case of matching differences. Medvedev’s first serve can guarantee a decent advantage against Djokovic. His bottom shots come flat, low and often central, and can force Djokovic to push and seek corners. Furthermore, Medvedev’s young age and physical form allow him to sometimes overwhelm Djokovic under the physical aspect. On the contrary, Nadal’s serve, albeit improved, collides with a wall when it has to do with Djokovic’s response, the best of all time. Djokovic’s backhand counteracts Rafa’s favorite left-sided serve better than anyone else. Nadal also has considerable difficulty in returning Djokovic’s slice serve, much improved in this final phase of his career, and the power of Rafa’s cross forehand in rallies, shatters on Djokovic’s backhand, who is very skilled at managing the topspin on bounce on hard courts. A younger Nadal could overcome some of these problems with their physical abilities. The older Nadal, who relies more than ever on short exchanges on hardcourt, often fails to lean on the serve and the possible subsequent right to go out, which put everyone in difficulty except Djokovic. In contrast the Nadal game works quite well with Medvedev on many outdoor hard courts (but less so on indoor ones). That said, I don’t think a healthy Nadal is always destined to lose to Djokovic on hard court, as is often heard. However, he certainly starts as an underdog.

Translation by Michele Brusadelli

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