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Thu, May 23

Column: Unconventional shots can be fun

The game of tennis is normally an across-the-board type of game when it comes to shot selections. The better your game, the more shots you own, and with that the aspect of power and touch. Yet, it's still played on a rectangular surface that allows a certain amount of high-percentage geometry to take place, based on speed, spin, trajectory and racquet movement. It's the unusual player who deals with the low-percentage shots and succeeds that amazes us as opponents and spectators.

Anyone decent can hit a groundstroke with topspin or backspin - cross court, down the line, short or deep. Anyone worth their salt can hit a very good serve - flat, topspin or slice. The net game is made up of driven or angled volleys and overheads cracked off the court. But when it comes to specialty shots many very talented players don't own the goods because they rarely practice them and it probably goes against their nature to take that kind of risk.

So what's a specialty shot?

Specialty shots are normally in the realm of touch shots, lobs - half volleys and drop volleys fall into this category. Moon balls, which are high hit groundstrokes, or low lobs qualify. Shots hit between the legs, behind the back and sometimes with your back to the net, around the net post, spin that brings the ball back to your side of the net without your opponents help, the Jimmy Connors inside-out slice, inside-out serves, underhanded-slice serves, drop-shots off of potential overhead smashes ... all of these are specialty shots.

Frenchman Fabrice Santoro who made over $10 million in prize money was nicknamed the "Magician" for the special trick shots he pulled off day-in and day-out as a crowd favorite and pleaser.

He was so good with his two-handed forehand and backhand gets and incredible shots he beat a total of 18 number-one, world-ranked players, keeping them off-balance and befuddled.  He retired in 2010 after 20 years on the tour.

It was always fun to watch the entertaining and mystifying IIie Nastase. Once, I watched him throw up three consecutive skyscraper lobs to then each time duck behind an umpires chair, come back out right before the overhead was hit, return the next high lob - go back behind the chair and on the last smash come out of nowhere to hit a winning passing shot. The crowd went wild.

Mansour Bahrami who is now 57 - and one of the few players to come out of Iran and make it on the tour - always provides the crowd with a show. While he waits for a match to begin Mansour might be seen standing near the net hitting the ball over it with so much spin it returns back to him (after hitting his opponents side) and continues doing that until it's time for the match to begin or he gets bored. And that's just the beginning of what this court jester will do, even today at his advanced age.

So why do players work on hitting what seems the impossible or improbable?

When you see Roger Federer hit a ball that's been lobbed over his head back over the net between his legs, do you think it's a fluke? He's practiced this shot thousands of times. Not only can he hit it, he can place it many times as well.

Many top players dwell on hitting shots with pace, so when they come up against a player who hits "moon balls" and loopy, slower, soft shots it can drive them absolutely crazy.

Drop shots followed by lobs are one way to take a baseliner and make them start talking to themselves.  

France's Gael Monfils, currently a top-player on the tour, has a special gift for using unconventional wisdom in his selection of shots and strokes. He moves with the dexterity and speed of a cheetah, cat-like reflexes, nanoseconds of timing and ball-reading capabilities that border on genius. I sometimes think it's more important for Gael to hit a crazy shot he conjures up in his imagination to make - than winning the match he's playing.

Every now and then you'll run across a player who's never taken a lesson, is self-taught and has some very weird looking strokes. Yet, they get the ball back pretty dog-gone well, even though strange. Their will to win may be against the grain of what most players have learned. Maybe an unusual grip, killer power, angles that shouldn't land, balls hit from the fifth dimension, but they have conquered these skills against the odds.

If you're lucky, you get a stroke named after you - say like the Jimmy Connors "Sky Hook." Francoise Durr, who was a major women's doubles champion, was known for her "lob volley."

Sneak attacks, chops, swinging volleys, flicks, diving winners - the kookier the better. If this type of game appeals to you and you're good at it, you may get more than your fair-share of crude comments coming your way, but the players will have to respect you at the same time. And, if you're driving players crazy and enjoying it, keep up the good work!

Chris Howard is a local USPTA Elite Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry.  He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or choward4541@q.com.

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