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The Wrong Shot

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Two weeks of Grand Slam tennis provides with a lot of TV coverage of a lot of matches. There are plenty of commentators, which can be divided into two camps: former professional players that have made the crossover and “Professional” commentators, people that for some reason or another get the credit of “knowing” about the sport.
Needless to say, many in both camps have no idea of what they are talking about.
The most flagrant example of this level of ignorance is when one of the athletes on court hits “the wrong shot”. You have matches that go for a couple of hundreds of points and there is the statistic of Unforced Error, a shot that the pro should have made but was unable to. And indeed, on many occasions the pros, perhaps to encourage all of us hacks, miss an easy volley or a wide open forehand. But the concept of the Wrong Shot is different. It involves the belief that the offending pro made a bad decision, was wrong in his/her technique or did not understand what to do.
One particular former top five player in the world broadcasts for Latin America, which makes me a perennial victim of his comments. Every single shot that a player misses is immediately dissected into the many aspects of why such player missed it. “He opened his hips too fast”, “She did not lead with her free arm”, “he was not well planted on court”. For some reason that I do not quite grasp the Latin America crop of tennis talking heads have become adept at using the phrase “he did not have proper support”, inferring that the position the player was in was not balanced.
The point that these sportscasters miss is simple. Tennis, played at the speed the pros do, is a sport in which minor changes result in huge variations. The difference between a wonderful stroke that lands 5 inches inside the lines and one that nearly decapitates a ball kid is just a few degrees of inclination on the racket head. Hitting a ball that is coming at you at 120 KPH two inches late or early makes a wild difference in where it will land, if it clears the net at all.
No shot is more meticulously dissected and therefore criticized than the drop shot. There are only two kinds of drop shots: the marvelous, almost miraculous brilliant drop shot, or the embarrassing mental gaffe that merit disbarment from the tour for the nitwit that hit it. When the shot lands deeper than expected or, god forbid, does not clear the net, the analysis is brutal: the wrong time to hit it, the nerves that betrayed the player, the lack of hand/eye coordination that led to failure, the wrong grip or technique or head. When the ball clears the net and dies like a buckshot-full quail on the opponent’s court, the adjectives are equally extreme: the brilliance, the courage, the God-like touch and feel, the Kasparovian strategy of using it at the precise time. The idea that, like all other shots, the drop shot can be executed successfully or not simply seems to be anathema to the narrator. Death or eternal glory goes to the performer, depending on the outcome.
The reality is that players miss shots. Simple as that. 20 years of extensive training and a world ranking mean excellence, not infallibility. At the super speed at which the players of today play the game, keeping an eye on the ball while keeping the other on the opponent and gauging if she is so far she will not reach the drop shot is a task better suited for a chameleon with Einstenian IQ. The same has to be said for all shots: the open court can close very fast when playing against super fast players and the margin of error gets reduced accordingly.
Sure, sometimes the gaffes are extreme but that is the nature of sports. Ask Robertino Baggio (who missed a World Cup penalty that clinched the championship game for the opponent) or Scott Norwood, of NFL Wide Right fame or Bill Buckner, who fielded thousands of balls but let one slightly more important than the others go through his legs. Perhaps the best quote about this phenomenon belongs to Andy Roddick, who himself miss-hit a high backhand volley that perhaps still haunts him. Talking about how players sometimes miss balls, he roughly stated that commentators went too far on their assessment. In a shorter version of this essay, he roughly said that if one went too soft, one had no guts, and if one went for too much, one was reckless. Perhaps with more propriety than anybody else, he reached the conclusion succinctly:
“Tough sport, isn’t it?”

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Updated 06-11-2019 at 06:45 PM by ponchi101



  1. GlennHarman's Avatar
    I enjoyed your discussion as always. Sort of on the same theme: I think we all have certain commentators who annoy us more than others. For me, one of those is Tracy Austin. She seems to change her assessment of the relative skill of any player based on every shot. The player hits a cross-court forehand winner, even if the previous 4 attempts were all wide. Comment: "She has really been working on her ground-strokes and it's starting to show." Same player then misses a backhand volley. Comment: "She really needs to work on her skills at the net." Over the course of 5 minutes, the player can be said to be well on her way to perfect tennis one minute, and needing to improve her fitness, her strokes, and everything else the next minute.

    Just had to rant in response to your better-thought-out rant.