If you're a typical tennis hacker, the nightmare is familiar. After a brief, sloppy warmup, the first serve of the match floats toward you, as big and inviting as a pizza. But instantly your brain freezes, your elbow turns to concrete and the ball dribbles weakly off your racquet.
This never has to happen, according to Vic Braden and Bill Bruns, coauthors of Vic Bra-den's Tennis for the Future (Little, Brown, $12.95). You wouldn't choke if you had developed a few dependable strokes; it is knowing that you rarely swing the same way twice that undermines your confidence. "Losers have tons of variety," says Braden. "Champions take pride in just learning to hit the same old boring winner."
Braden should know. He's widely regarded as one of the sport's top analysts and coaches, and he frequently dispenses morsels of humorous wisdom during TV broadcasts of tennis tournaments. Braden also operates a tennis college in Southern California. His writing reflects his teaching experience; he anticipates and corrects the average player's misconceptions about stroking form and strategy, meticulously justifying his less orthodox advice (i.e., hitting top spin on every drive from the baseline, backhand as well as forehand).
This is as demanding an instructional book as you're ever likely to find, thorough and packed with detail, but then tennis is a far more demanding game than most manuals admit. The accurate movements in tennis aren't natural; they must be learned through thousands of repetitions. And if grooving a swing is infernally difficult in a sport like golf, with a stationary ball, it's much more difficult in tennis.
Ingrained bad habits give ground grudgingly. Braden relates one short-lived experiment in which he nailed a student's shoe to the court to force him to anchor his rear foot properly. On the very next swing, the student repeated his mistake, yanking himself forward so violently that he tore ligaments in the leg.
Tennis for the Future doesn't promise any miracles, just the steady improvement that results from dedicated practice. You can kid yourself forever, but there's no alternative if you seriously want an arsenal of pressure-proof strokes. As Braden says, "You can talk a great game in the locker room, and you can tell everybody how terrific you are—but, pal, eventually you have to play."