Young American tennis players

I periodically despair about the state of tennis in the US. For decades, we regularly produced a crop of world-class players, fromĀ  Tilden and Vines and Budge and Kramer to Schroeder and Riggs and Gonzalez and Trabert to Ashe and Smith and Connors and McEnroe and Agassi and Sampras. And that’s just the men.

But for the last ten years or more we haven’t had any truly first-rate players on the pro tour. The best we can come up with are players like Roddick and the Williams sisters, decent players but not true greats. So I’m always glad to see up-and-coming young players like Kiah.

The video is from about a year ago, when she was still 15. She has several other videos posted, showing her serving and so on. Watching her play, I’d guess she’d play about even with most fair-to-middling 15-year-old male tennis players–those good enough to make the tennis team at a large high school–although that’ll change over the next couple of years, as the boys continue to get faster and stronger, while she doesn’t. If I’d played her when I was 15, I certainly wouldn’t have taken the match lightly. I’d probably have beaten her four matches in five, and maybe even five in five, but this girl has enough tools to be dangerous.

I hope there are a whole lot more like her out there.


11 thoughts on “Young American tennis players”

  1. I hadn’t thought about Bollettieri in years.

    I’m just itching to talk to Kiah about what she’s doing right and wrong. Watching her video on her serve, I was delighted to see that she uses a very high toss, despite prevailing wisdom to the contrary. I’ve known and played many huge servers, among them Roscoe Tanner, and every one of them without exception tosses the ball very high. Kiah does need to place her toss a bit more to the right to flatten out her serve. Just that one change could increase her pace noticeably by cutting down the excessive topspin.

    She also lacks aggression and waits for the ball to come to her instead of constantly moving forward and taking the ball on the rise. She’s built like a serve-and-volley player, and I think she’d do well playing in that style, even on clay. The depth of her groundstrokes varies. At times, she keeps the ball very deep in the opponent’s court but too often she hits short balls.

    And, of course, she needs to lose the two-handed backhand. She’s handcuffing herself and losing pace, angle, and flexibility. I wish she’d talk to Pete Sampras about what happens when a decent player converts from two to one hand on the backhand side. He was just another player until he made the switch.

  2. We had a wonderful time at a weekend at a Vic Braden tennis camp about 30 years ago. Was always underspin from the baseline on the backhand side but did learn to hit topspin backhand, one handed at that camp. He was a great proponent of the minimal ball toss. I can never get his admonitions out of my head. OK, I’ll try to not worry about it tonight.

    I did notice her using only one hand on that last backhand, slice return. However, I do agree in preferring one hand for all backhand returns and I think that it also promotes better volleying capability on that side.

  3. Geez, I used a very high toss even in gusty winds strong enough that I’d end up hitting a topspin or slice serve even when I’d tossed for a flat serve. Once or twice, I think I even ended up hitting an American Twist.

    I’ve always found the arguments of the two-hand backhand proponents ludicrous. They’re well-represented in the Wikipedia article. In particular, they argue that one can generate more pace with a two-hander, which is a crock. All of the most powerful backhands in history have been hit one-handed, with maybe one or two exceptions. I think what they’re talking about is that a two-handed backhand can generate more pace than a one-hander hit with a locked wrist. That may be true, but I haven’t hit with a locked wrist since I was about 14 and finally realized that people who were telling me to do that didn’t know what they were talking about.

    I hit my backhand with almost exactly the same wrist action used to throw a Frisbee. During the swing, when my forearm has come forward nearly parallel to the net, the racket is still pointing straight backward toward the baseline. I snap my wrist at the moment of contact, just as for a serve. That’s the only way to generate any real pace, and it also makes it very difficult for the opponent to have any idea where the shot is aimed.

  4. I know little about tennis, but I always did wonder about two-handed backhands. Holding the racket that way ties up your whole body, and has got to reduce your flexibility and your reaction time.

  5. …um, make that “reduce your flexibility and increase your reaction time”

  6. Although there were a (very) few two-handers before them, it was really Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert who started the avalanche of two-handers. Both of them started playing tennis when they were literally two or three years old, and neither was strong enough to hit a backhand one-handed. Of course, they became American’s darlings and were romantically linked briefly. At the time, tennis was much more popular than ever before or since, so thousands of kids grew up emulating Jimmy and Chrissie.

    For some reason, most people find it difficult to hit a backhand. I never had that problem, because I started out playing with my brother, who’s left-handed. It’s natural to rally cross-court, so both of us quickly learned to hit equally well from either side. In fact, people often looked at us strangely when we played doubles, because I played deuce court. That put both our backhands in the middle, where about 95% of strokes are hit in high-level doubles.

    Neither of us ever even considered hitting two-handed. As you say, it reduces flexibility greatly, especially when you get a high or low ball, and it greatly limits your spin options. One reason the net game is almost gone is that it’s almost impossible for a two-hander to volley well, so they tend not to come to net. Using two hands also reduces the power and pace dramatically. I had a strong forehand, but I could generate more pace on my backhand side because my body wasn’t in the way. I’ve played a lot of guys whose backhands were like cannon shots. It wasn’t unusual for them to break balls or literally hit the covers off them. And every one of them was a one-hander. I’d given up tennis by the time two-handers became really common, but I used to love to play them. They always hit with lots of topspin, which meant their balls cleared the net by a good amount and didn’t have nearly the pace they should have. That’s ideal for someone like me, who often charged the net even after returning a first serve.

    That, incidentally, is the one thing I disagree with the great Bill Tilden about. He commented in one of his books that a good baseliner would beat a good serve-and-volley player every time. Well, yeah, if the baseliner was Bill Tilden. But even on clay, a good serve-and-volley player should beat a good baseliner, and on grass or a fast hardcourt, it shouldn’t be a contest.

  7. I’m Kiah’s dad. Just came across your article. The videos you speak of were posted by me, so family members out of state can see Kiah’s tennis progress. Thank you for your appreciation of her talents. Kiah is now 17, bigger and stronger. A couple weeks ago she won her first girls 18 National Open championship. Hopefully her success will continue into the Super National girls 18 Hard courts Championships in San Diego, Calif. ( winner gets a wildcard into the US OPEN Main draw*)
    Thanks again.

  8. Hi, Victor

    Thanks for updating us. I’ll look forward to following Kia and cheering her on in the US Open. I think she has a great career ahead of her.

  9. Congratulations to Kiah. I’m expecting great things from her.

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