Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tennis racquet balance explained-finally!

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

Serving as Northeast Ohio's largest tennis pro shop, we certainly see our share of players coming in looking for a new tennis racquet. The idea of purchasing a racquet (especially if you plan on investing in something of value) can sometimes be a daunting process when figuring out what works best for your game. There's a few things to consider when looking for a racquet: weight, balance, feel and overall comfort. For some players, just demoing a bunch of racquets will narrow down what you like, but how would you like to eliminate some of the field work by narrowing down what you want to try before you step foot on court?

Many a time we have players that don't realize how detrimental it is to have the correct racquet weight distribution, so check out below what racquet balance entails and then you'll be one step closer to choosing "the one."

This Wilson Triad XP3 is 3 points head heavy, providing 
players with a whole ton of power.
Head Heavy: POWER. What makes a racquet head heavy? Rest the throat of the racquet on your finger to see where your racquet swings. If your racquet tips more toward the head then its considered head heavy. The primary feature of a head heavy racquet is it provides more power. Here's how: Place a ball in a tube sock (or towel) and swing it at your side. The weight at the end of that sock should feel like its guiding your arm back and forth and will gain momentum as you continue on. Now if you spun that sock in a loop by your side and let go, your sock and ball would go flying. As you make contact with the ball with a head heavy racquet, the extra weight will create greater force at impact as well as keep the head stable from twisting, providing more stability (so less rimmers). Head heavy racquets are popular for beginning players as well as senior players needing some more oomph in their shot.

This Wilson Pro Staff is a Roger Federer favorite. His
signature racquet sits 12 points head light giving him 
optimum control over his shots.
Head Light: CONTROL. Head Light racquets, or what I like to refer to as handle heavy, are incredibly popular among players because they provide more control and accuracy, and are essentially easier on the arm due to reduced vibration and shock as you hit. Recreating our little experiment when demonstrating the head heavy racquet, this time reverse your tennis ball sock puppet and hold the ball in your hand and let the sock dangle. This will emulate the feel of a head light racquet. Notice you have greater swing speed and control in your motion. That reversal of weight distribution in your hand allows you to generate your own power and precision when striking the ball, thus having more overall control. Head Light racquets are popular among Intermediate to Advanced players as well as the pros on tour. It has also proven to be a savior for players with tennis elbow or other arm related issues.
This Babolat Pure Drive Lite sits -4 points head light
from equal balance providing ample control with an 
edge in power. 

Even Balanced: Power AND Control. You can have the best of both worlds! When your racquet sits perfectly(ish) level on your finger, you will find a happy medium between the power and stability of a head heavy racquet, while maintaining control and reducing the vibration and shock you'd find in a head light racquet. Even balanced racquets are popular for their versatility--almost anyone can play with them. The only drawback is it could play a tad 'tame' for someone looking to add more to their game. This is a great racquet choice for players still fine-tuning their strokes from the Beginner to Advanced level. It also serves as an excellent option for juniors.

Having this simple knowledge of tennis racquet balance can make all the difference when choosing your next weapon of choice. If you need additional help, ask a teaching pro or one of our front desk staff to find the best racquet for you.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The worst shots to get and how to hit them

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

Whether you're a seasoned USTA player or just playing recreational tennis, there's always that type of player or a particular shot that will drive you nutso, to the point of thinking you suck at tennis and should just quit. This isn't true. You just need a better plan of attack, so with these tips when that dreaded shot comes again your body will just react.

Heavy Topspin 

What you get - Shots that pop off the court with so much spin your straining to reach them or struggling to return the ball with the same amount of power.

What you do - Catch it early or back up. Have you ever noticed pros on TV standing behind the baseline when rallying with their opponent? Many a time players stay back with heavy topspin hitters to gauge the depth and direction of the ball. You don't want to catch the ball over and over at its high point--your shoulder will fall off. Another option is cutting the heavy topspin shot off while on the rise. I was taught this when struggling to return a heavy topspin serve, and not only did it work, but I got up to the net that much quicker!

Rafa Nadal races to scoop up a drop shot in the 2010 US
Drop Shot

What you get - A ball that drops short over the net, or worse a ball that dinks the top of the net onto your side of the court.

What you do - I have a love/hate relationship with this shot. If you're not hitting deep enough or have a few unlucky breaks, opponents love to throw in a good drop shot. I love them because I love the challenge of getting to the ball, but the reason why they are just the WORST to hit is because its an easy shot to blow. We either try to do too much with the shot or we rush into it while sprinting for the ball. If you can take just the slightest moment to slow down then you'll have control of the shot and can place it where you want (push it deep or lob). If you're rushing in or the ball is too close to the net, then your only option might be to scoop it back.

Slicey Dicey

What you get - You set up for your shot only to watch it veer away from you so instead of hitting a solid return, you're chasing down the ball or rimming it. Or, you ARE able to set up for the shot but because of the heavy backspin it 'dies' on your racquet.

What you do - I love to throw in a slice to throw off my opponent, but to be on the receiving end is not so fun. If there's a lot of spin, the ball will begin curving on its way over so you can anticipate where its going to land by split-stepping before you set up to hit. Split-stepping will give you that extra moment to prepare for a shot, so if you're not doing it already ask your coach to help you practice it. If the slice isn't as dicey (or you're at the net) then sometimes all you need to do is strongly push the ball back. When you return with something too fancy (or my fave--slice a slice), many a times it will end up a dud. Simple is best.

Justine Henin can only awkwardly block the shot in this
body jam.
Body Shot

What you get - A ball that comes right at your face, body or feet.

What you do - 1) You can get the hell out of the way--it might go out! 2) If you don't already have your racquet out in front of you in ready position, then its time to start doing so. But, how would you like to not only block the ball back, but block back a thoughtful shot (lob for instance). Next time you have your racquet up in ready position prep it for a backhand, because guess what? Your racquet is already in place for a defensive block and you won't feel as jammed up.


What you get - Whether its a floater coming to you at the net or the baseline, a ball with no pace is just the worst! This is especially true when you suddenly get a floater in the midst of all these fast-paced shots, since you'll either go for the kill shot and blow it out, or panic and dump it in the net.

What you do - In case you haven't noticed, footwork counts for a lot. When you have a floater coming at you, you have more time to get your feet into position so take advantage of taking that extra step needed to attack the ball. Also, a ball with no pace will need that extra oomph in return so try brushing up on the ball more or slice it back.

Without a doubt, the most important skill-set in majority of these tricky shots is footwork, patience, fast hands and then practice, practice, practice. One thing is for sure, these shots might be among the worst to get but it'll feel pretty sweet when you're able to hit them effectively.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How to tune out on court distractions

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

Have you ever been in a match where you've been completely in-tuned, focused, and driven when suddenly some clown comes onto the court next to you and starts pulling the curtains and setting up the ball machine? Absolute mental chaos! What's really frustrating is so many of us are pretty good at tuning out silly distractions: music, arguments, players tumbling on the court--the works. So why is it that some external distractions throw us completely for a loop? And how do you manage to pull yourself together and stop the mental downward spiral?

A streaker prances across Centre Court before the men's 1996
Wimbledon final. Talk about a distraction!
On court distractions come in all forms; lessons next to you, viewer chatter, grunting, kids squealing, power outages, water leaks, rain, wardrobe malfunctions, bad string job, lights shattering overhead (yes, that happened), fist fights (also happened). I can go on and on and on--and on and on. The thing is its these distractions that test your mental strength on the court, which can be the difference between a win and loss. The real test is figuring out how to refocus quickly after one of these disruptions attempts to shatter your attention, so here are some quick tips on how to do just that!
  • Drink water and stay hydrated. Being even a little dehydrated will make you feel tired and sluggish, which can make it possible to become easily distracted. 
  • Get enough sleep the night before a match. Lack of sleep makes you tired, irritable and completely disrupts your ability to focus. 
  • Be aware. Yes that person who's obnoxiously cheering for your opponent from the sidelines is annoying the crap out of you, but now that you've acknowledged it you can now regroup and focus back on the game. What tends to happen when we come onto the court without being aware of say darker lighting or that there's a cheering squad for your opponents, is you'll start to notice these things say while waiting on return of serve--you know, moments that really call for your full attention.  
  • Use a cue word, "Calm. Focus. Strong. Control. Breathe." This is actually one of my favorite ways to regroup after a distraction. Of course it only works when you remember to use it, so this is something you'll want to continually repeat before points so that at moments when you really need to be alert, these cue words will eventually become a light-switch to tuning out all the static intruding your mind. 
  • Plan ahead. When you make a game day plan/routine, you are actually organizing your thoughts which helps focus your attention to what's relevant to your game instead of distracting thoughts. 
Like in life, there are some things that are going to be out of your control. Sure, you can try to tell the club manager to cancel all other fitness classes and drills during your tennis match, but I'm not sure how much headway you'll get with that. Instead, redirect your attention to the things you CAN control. I love blaming a bad match on anything but me, but really I knew I should've gotten a better night sleep or I should've left for the match earlier rather than freak for being late. Hey, we're human. The point is have a plan of attack on how to avoid becoming a victim to the next distraction, whatever it may be. So next time you see that ball machine being rolled out onto the next court, you can just tell yourself, "bring it on!"

Monday, January 22, 2018

What is so different about the new Babolat 2018 Pure Drive?

New 2018 models have
Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

The newly updated Babolat 2018 Pure Drive has officially made its arrival and trust me, it's worth the wait! While many are probably wondering if they slapped on a new paint job and called it 'new', there was a little more involved than just giving it a face lift. For the past 20 years, Babolat has been known as THE racquet for players who want more power and are continually looking at innovative ways to further improve on this racquet. So for the 2018 Pure Drive, what's so different about it?

To give you a little refresher, when the 2015 Babolat Pure Drive was introduced it's main feature was more power and finesse with a newly designed string pattern/sweet spot. The feedback was generally positive as it was an easy racquet to use with plenty of control, though some people didn't feel it was as flexible as the older models (flexible as in the feel of getting used to ground-strokes, serves & volleys all in the same manner). So what did Babolat do? They went back to the 'Babolab' and created a new model that provides a better feel, and if you can believe it, even more power with a new concept: Cortex Pure Feel.

Babolat has partnered with SMAC, a company that specializes in high tech custom parts for harsh environments (harsh as in the ocean and space), to create Cortex Pure Feel. That's right, a company that works with technology for space, planes and the military is designing for racquets! Together, they integrated SMACWRAP technology (a thin rubber they use in the aerospace industry) into the 2018 Babolat Pure Drive to optimize vibration absorption. The feel and comfort are unrivaled with other racquets.

On top of better vibration dampening, there is a new string pattern and new diamond grommets with updated FSI technology that provide an improved sweet spot. So even if you are close to rimming it, you should be able to maximize power on every shot. No more accidental winners!

Players endorsing the 2018 Babolat Pure Drive are David Ferrer, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, and Fabio Fognini, to name a few.

Overall, the 2018 Babolat Pure Drive is a powerfully smart update to the Pure Drive series, featuring a more comfortable and controllable feel. You can demo them here at Towpath Tennis Center in the Tour/+/Team/Lite/100/107. Just make sure when you're on court to subtly brag to your opponents that your racquet features technology used in space...just saying.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Become a Better Tennis Player Through Writing

Alex Millar | Towpath Tennis Member

Venus Williams states that, “Tennis is mostly mental. You win or lose the match before you even go out there.” After fifteen proud years at Towpath I have grown both professionally and personally. Creating a strong mental game on and off the court has allowed me the freedom to truly express myself as an athlete and person. As a lifelong tennis player, the most rewarding yet challenging aspect of the game is mentality. In life, its about trial and error and I find the greatest part of the sport lies in the individual challenges, whether on or off the court. In order to address the concerns I began journaling, and through that I achieved a strong and more proficient mentality. 
Longtime Towpath member
Alex Millar encourages play-
ers to strengthen their mental
game on court by journaling.

Journaling in many ways is like playing tennis. You are solely responsible for your performance mentally, physically, and emotionally. You leave your mark on the court and in this case, the page. While in tennis you trade shots with your opponent, journaling requires one to trade the racket for the pen. Rallying your thoughts back and forth between yourself and the page. Think of journaling as the practice match for the mental game of life.  

This is how I think, journaling daily is a mental practice of life and of tennis. My method is to find quotes that challenge, inspire, and motivate me to question, understand and relate them to everyday life. It has helped me become a more critical thinker, concise writer and more importantly a stronger tennis player. The greatest benefit of journaling is allowing me to self-reflect on the person I am. As a new father this is something I wanted to pass onto my children. I want them to have an understanding of what thoughts shaped their father, and an offering the same platform to develop the same skills I have instilled in myself. 

Available for purchase at
As my hand writing is notoriously poor, I found abandoning my journals was not an option. Instead I compiled a journal of my top quotes, the ones which influenced and impacted me the most. After that I created a journal quote book titled, Your Thoughts Through Their Words: Daily Quotation Guide Journaling. The best part of my book is each day for a year the reader is set with a quote and an engaging writers prompt. Allow this book to challenge your mind. Personally, I consider the quote as an analogy for a net, and the opponent is the quote/prompt or both if you feel like playing some Australian doubles.  

Towpath will remain my home for Tennis. As a contributor to the community I would like to extend an offer for all readers to access my journal for personal reflection and mental practice at Towpath. Remember to support the club that supports all in the game of tennis in and around Northeast Ohio. Copies are $15, or 2/$20 at Towpath Tennis Center. Another option is purchasing through Amazon though I recommend supporting the club that supports us all in our tennis, and is foundation for the Akron and Northeast Ohio community.

Alex with his wife, Yuriko, and
their 2 kids. 
My sincere hope is this journal can spur self-awareness, discussion, and give you the edge in your next match whether on or off the court. This journal is your court, and make sure you leave it all on it.

(Alex Millar is a father of 2 toddlers (Anna and Chris), and husband of 7 years to his wife Yuriko. He is a USPTA certified pro teaching all ages for the last 12 years. Alex came up the junior ranks at Towpath and went on to play collegiate tennis at John Carroll, as well as abroad in Japan. His next journal, On Court With Your Thoughts: Quote Guided Tennis Journaling, is slated for publication in 2018.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The best age to start your child in tennis

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

The best age to start your child in tennis...obviously this is open to debate, but a very relevant topic in my household with young children as I'm sure in yours as well. As long as I can remember, I've had a racquet in my hand. I'm the youngest of 5 children that grew up in a tennis playing family. I never had a shortage of players to hit with, I had the option to play singles or doubles, I played against players better than me, someone was always there putting their two cents in how to improve my game (whether I wanted to hear it or not), and we had a tennis court at our house. I was incredibly fortunate to have that pathway as a child. To not play tennis never crossed my mind. But in most cases, families don't have that clear of a route. And now being a mother of 2, I'm now wondering when do I capture the "right moment" in starting hopefully a lifelong interest?
Kids ages 3-5 enjoy a day of Little Tennis.

You can ask friends, family members, teammates, coaches or check out when certain pros began playing tennis, and you will find a whole range of answers. U.S. Open Champion Sloane Stephens didn't start playing tennis until she was age 9 for crying out loud. So great news is my daughters can still be U.S. Open champions if they start later in childhood; bad news is I'd like to introduce them sooner, but how do I know when they're ready? With USTA's new youth tennis program, Net Generation, the guessing game has become a lot more clearer.

What is Net Generation?

In an effort to make the game more accessible to parents and kids, Net Generation has created a platform for parents and guardians to connect to local programs, as well as seek out all of the information about youth tennis around the country in one location. Designed for kids ages 5-18, you will find on their site certified teaching pros, facilities, instructional videos along with other "how-to's" about the game. This is the first time the sport has had one unified brand for kids interested in playing tennis, so whether kids are introduced by a parent, picking up a racquet at school, training with a coach, playing recreational tennis or competing at tournaments, Net Generation has created a development program with a singular pathway in which all children should follow.

The Pathway

As you grow, so will your racquet!
So often do we hear parents wondering, "Is my teenager going to have to take lessons with a 12 year old if they're the same level? How do I know when my child is ready for tournaments? What do I do if my child wants to play high school tennis but has never picked up a racquet before? What racquet size is needed for my child's age?" The great thing about a singular pathway, is you won't hear a range of answers. The Net Generation curriculum will spell out what skills and knowledge each player should have before moving on to the next color ball, court size and level of play. I remember playing a young boy half my size in high school, and while rolling my eyes at having to play somebody younger, he cleaned house! After that, I was more focused on how many games I could get off of this hot shot. To be the best, you have to play the best--no matter what age!

Certified Pros

What's great about Net Generation, is all tennis professionals who join the program are certified and have passed a background check. Safety is the #1 priority, so that parents can sit back and relax and trust that their kids are in good hands.

Progress Reports

One of the best parts about Net Generation is you'll be able to track your child's on-court progress! In 2018, parents will be able to create an account to check out the latest updates on how their child is doing during lessons. So for those times you won't be able to watch, it'll feel like you didn't miss a thing!

To answer the primary question, the best age to start tennis is when your child shows interest! Tennis is not an easy sport. Hand-eye coordination is key. Some kids will have a knack for it and will pick it up a little faster, but for many it'll take time and dedication to get a good grasp of the game. Therefore, the most important factor is and shall always be their interest level. If they're enjoying their lessons, which Net Generation has devoted it's philosophy to into motivating and inspiring kids by making the game enjoyable at all ages and levels, then your child without a doubt should have a healthy career in tennis.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Secret to a winning lineup

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

The Men's 3.0 40+ Team captained by Michael Kramer
reaches the final four at the USTA National Championships
in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

With our summer Men's 3.0 40+ Team & Men's 6.0 55+ Team from Towpath Tennis competing in Nationals this year, we once again applaud their effort for making it among the best of the best in the country. This is the 4th consecutive year Towpath has had teams qualify for the National Championships and we couldn't be prouder. It takes quite a lot of motivation and work to get to the national stage, so it's interesting to take a step back and look at how these teams were able to make it each year. Having strong players is obvious enough, however it's not all about having a few ringers on your team. In fact, you may have the strongest team in the league, but you won't get anywhere if you don't know where to place your teammates. In the past we posted an article on How to create a winning tennis team (check it out). While we still stick to these fundamentals in creating a solid team, we did miss something that is kind of important in making a winning tennis team--that is creating a winning lineup!  So where do you start?

  1. Roster Likable Teammates - Hate to admit it, but one sour pickle can spoil a team's fun and success. They don't ALL have to like each other, but your team should genuinely get along not only to avoid a toxic atmosphere amongst the group, but also to make players interchangeable in the lineup so that they become indispensable when its time to pull out the big guns.  
  2. Singles Anyone? - If you have a full roster with no singles players, then you might have a problem. However, you'll be surprised at who is actually good at singles when they don't even know it. If you have solid singles players then hurray, good for you! But, if you're like many struggling captains who are trying to fill the spot then first look for willing participants, second look for a hacker/backboard player, and third look for somebody with solid ground strokes. Sometimes players might be intimidated to see a young, hard hitter on the opposing side of the court, but truth is younger, harder hitters tend to make more errors and are generally impatient. If you don't think you can find a singles player that will knock their opponent out, then look for someone that will tire their opponent out. Trust me, it works!
    The Men's 55 & Over 6.0 Men will compete this weekend at 
    the USTA National Championship in Orlando, FL.
  3. CHEMISTRY - For doubles, I'm a true believer that on court chemistry among partners is everything to a team's success. Chemistry is not just about being nice and encouraging to each other, it's about moving well together, speaking the same language (I get you), having the same goal and making each other laugh. Sometimes what looks good on paper may not translate well on court so that's why it's important to practice and switch teams around until you find one that absolutely gels. 
  4. The Lineup - Typically, you want to place your strongest doubles team at 1st doubles and then place the rest subsequently after. Makes sense right? Well, if you're able to fine tune your team enough to predict the result (this team has been undefeated, this team has a strong serve/net game, this team can run anything down), then you will have a better idea of where to place your players. 
    1. Second Court - The reason I bring 2nd court up first is that many of the most successful lineups include playing your most solid and valuable singles/doubles team in 2nd position--they're dependable for a win 9/10 matches (in theory). 
    2. First Court - The most 'intimidating/fearless/powerful' singles/doubles team play well on 1st court for several obvious reasons. They might not always get the win, but they'll have a higher probability to come out on top or at least put up a damn good fight.
    3. Third Court - Let me make something clear, being placed on third doesn't necessarily mean it's the 'forgotten/toss up' court. It's just as crucial to get this right since many a time it's the 3rd court team pulling off a win for the match. The difference is you're allowed a bit more freedom when deciding who to play on 3rd. Third court is a great position to play a stronger/weaker player combo, experiment a potential partnership if you're not able to in a practice, or play those backboard/hackers that will make your opponents want to scream in frustration. 
  5. To Stack or Not To Stack? - Here's the deal, I'm not a fan. I understand if you may want to play around with teams in different positions, or even if you place a team with a lower rating in a higher position because you truly feel they are the stronger partnership. BUT, if you play your 1st singles/doubles team that has remained at 1st singles/doubles all season long, only to now play 3rd court against a particular team, then you're not playing a fair game, which isn't great sportsmanship. Play a fair game, and you will be rewarded. 
There you have it! This will certainly not give you overnight success, but with continual practice and a little luck you'll find that your team will be the one to be reckoned with.