Even when he is just talking tennis, Tony Roche is every bit the coach extraordinaire, making a point until it’s understood. Inside the pavilion named after him — former India Davis Cup captain Jaidip Mukerjea’s idea of immortalising their friendship of over 50 years at his academy here — Roche gave a slice of his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport to HT on a mellow afternoon.
Would it be fair to say tennis today is 30% skill and 70% fitness once you have mastered the basics?
I don’t think it’s really changed that much even though the equipment — technology in the string for instance — and the physique has over time. Obviously, these days you have got to have the power game; the big serve, the big forehand and you have got to move well. Because they are so good, the players are now looking to come in more, finish points quicker.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if, over the next few years, you see these guys keep coming in a bit more and that would mean working on their volleys at a young age. You can learn technique up to a certain point on the volleys but it’s more the instinct at the net — such as where you should play your first volley and what ball you should cover — that matters. So it’s important that kids develop that sense at the net rather than leave it too late.
How much has the hard court contributed to this power game?
It has definitely changed the game. When you play on clay and little bit also on grass, the ball does deviate and it is very hard to take it early. Whereas on hard court, you know you are going to get the perfect bounce and therefore you can stand in and take the ball early. That’s been a big thing with today’s players; how well they control the points.
Would you say the proliferation of hard courts has led to player burn-outs?
Don’t know if that’s true. The male players are now developing later than when the Agassis, Changs and Hewitts did. They were 18, 19 or thereabouts and in the top 10. Nowadays, you don’t see that and it’s mainly because of the physical aspect. It’s taking guys longer to develop their bodies…Someone like Tommy Haas had one of his best years last year and he was 35.
So, you would say there is no damage playing on hard courts?
Oh no, there definitely is. That’s where the trainers have a big role to play. You can’t avoid spending many hours on the hard court working on your game. But when you are doing off-court stuff it’s very important you do low impact training.
Well, each guy is different. Like with (Ivan) Lendl we would, say, spend five hours a day getting ready for the US Open on hard courts. And for his off-court training, he used a machine called the VersaClimber. He was introduced to it by Greg Lemond (three-time Tour de France winner from the USA) who said ‘Look, if you want to get into unbelievable shape and not put a lot of stress on your body, you can use this’. Lendl did a lot of training on that and on bikes, both stationary and non-stationary. People could frown a bit when you say bikes because it can slow you down but stamina-wise it was fantastic and you are not putting pressure on your body. That was just Ivan…
Did Roger Federer follow the same regimen when he worked with you?
Roger’s had his own trainer for many years who has done a fantastic job. Roger’s not had many injuries till his recent back problem. But then at some point, something’s gonna give, and if after all these years your biggest injury is an ankle sprain (smiles), something’s been done right.
Continuing on the power and fitness aspect, has too much of it killed the single-hand backhand?
It is a more aesthetically pleasing stroke but then maybe I am biased. Obviously the two-hand shot has its strong points, you can take the ball earlier and your return of serve is better. With the single hand, you can probably get little more variety.
Only 24 in the men’s top 100 who played the single-hand backhand…
But at one point this year, you also had three guys in the top 10 (Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov) playing single-hand backhands. I think it isn’t extinct, the two-hand is taught more to the kids but you certainly wouldn’t change someone playing the single-handed backhand if he or she is doing it very well.
Have super athletes (Roche’s words) killed serve and volley?
You would think so because the guys these days return serve so well. Having said that it would take just one along the lines of Pat Rafter, maybe with a bigger serve and a bigger athlete, to change that. These guys love to be in control, but if you are playing serve and volley you are taking that away.
For instance, when (Ukraine’s Sergiy) Stahkovsky beat Roger at Wimbledon (in 2013) it was different tennis from what these guys were used to. Serve, volley, first and second serve, the points are quick and you really don’t have much say in the points. The top players of today don’t like that. It will take someone very special to make that happen, but if it does, you will see more people wanting to do it.
Chris Kermode, the ATP executive chairman and president, has said team tennis leagues are just exhibition events…
It’s in the off-season. Anything that promotes tennis is good and they are taking tennis to places where it would probably not go otherwise. That is a positive.
Maybe preparation for a major tournament gets impeded. I don’t think it is the ideal situation. It’s all pretty hectic because everything is crammed into three weeks but maybe the top players haven’t committed to all the matches. Don’t know how many matches Roger will play. (Mukerjea says, he will play two). That’s not going to hurt his preparation (for the Australian Open). But if a player is going to do this for three weeks, then a pretty crucial time of his preparation is gone.
Do you think the competitive tennis has the bandwidth for leagues as cricket?
It’s a sort of a copy of that (the IPL, Big Bash etc.) isn’t it? It’s quick, it’s like going to a movie. That’s what they are trying to appeal to. If it gets people who are not tennis people to go and watch, then it is good.
Talk us through the time when Leander Paes trained with you.
You could see Leander had good feel. He was quick, he didn’t have a big serve but he utilised well what he had. Pretty smart player. We did a lot of work on his volleying and serve. When he came to me, I had actually thought he could do well in singles and the Olympics bronze (1996) was proof.
Did India lose a good singles player for a doubles champion?
I would have thought he should have kept playing more singles but he formed a good partnership with Mahesh (Bhupathi) and I guess what happens then is that it hurts your singles. Once you start doing well (in doubles), your ranking (in singles) slips.
Somdev Devvarman’s been with you from the start of this training camp. He seems to have been stuck around the 130s.
He has to beef up his game. A lot of work needs to be done to improve his serve and this week I have been trying to work on his forehand a lot, trying to make it a bigger weapon. I know what he is going through. You are doing well when you get injured. When you come back, it’s hard because when you are injured and playing, you tend to develop bad habits because you are compensating for certain things. If Som can get into unbelievable shape, beef up his serve and forehand, and be more aggressive in his approach, it will work.
Are tennis stars born or made?
Born. But you can certainly improve. It is up to you to make what you can of it. I have seen enough underachievers. What makes the star stand out is that he or she hates to lose, even a practice game. That’s a mentality I think they are born with as well.
In over 50 years of tennis, who would be the one player who has stood out?
Rod Laver and Roger Federer, I couldn’t really split the two. The two Grand Slams Rod’s won are pretty equal with what Roger’s achieved.