Excerpts from Top Flite Tennis by Mary K. Browne


Excerpts from Top Flite Tennis by Mary K. Browne
1928, American Sports Publishing, New York, 128 pages

Sometimes obtainable used from ABEbooks or Amazon.com

    Top Flite Tennis is a well-written book of basic tennis instruction by 3-time US National singles champ Mary K. Browne. The book still contains useful advice, if you keep in mind that some tennis concepts have been discarded over the years (e.g., until the '60s many people thought that topspin was generated by actually rolling the racket over the top of the ball, which high-speed photos show is not the case-- topspin is generated by brushing upward on the back of the ball while striking it, by the time you could roll the racket over the top of the ball, it has already left the strings). The book is also well-illustrated by line drawings traced from photos of great players.

    In late 1926 and early 1927, then-35-year-old Mary K. Browne played a series of exhibitions against just-turned-pro Suzanne Lenglen, who was 27 at the time. Though Browne had been ranked # 6 in the world in 1925, Lenglen won all of the singles matches they played. This was the first successful pro tennis tour in history.

    The final chapter of Top Flite Tennis is a description by Browne of the tactics Suzanne Lenglen achieved her dominance over other players, and most of that chapter is excerpted below.

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THE MODEL GAME (pages 118-128)

    I am incorporating into this book extracts from an article which I wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, immediately following a four months' tour with Suzanne Lenglen, during which I opposed her in forty singles matches and as many more doubles matches.
    The extracts describe "A Tennis Game" which I believe is the best model for any aspiring tennis enthusiast, either man or woman...
    In all the years I have played the game, I realize now that I had overlooked the simplest rudiments of tennis, which are the foundation of Suzanne's games.
    She is not, as everyone supposes, a prodigy at all. She is a product of intelligent coaching, persistent practice, and keen observation. Of course, she has unusual speed of foot and a keen tennis mind, but I have known many woman players who had such qualities but never scaled the heights that Suzanne has. In natural ability, May Sutton Bundy was the equal of Suzanne, but like the rest of us, she did not have the same quality of coaching and systematic training in technic.
    Suzanne has a purpose in every move she makes. Her accuracy can hardly be improved on. Having the necessary control of her shots, she can play a crafty game which allows her to conserve her energy while forcing her opponent to wear herself out.
    Although she can, if she wishes, drive with as much power as most men, she rarely does so, for, as she explains, power is gained at the sacrifice of accuracy, and her game is based on perfect control. Most players try to win on placements. Suzanne rarely tries a placement until she has maneuvered you out of position or forced a weak return. But an examination of the point score of most of her matches, particularly important matches, shows that she usually relies on the simple process of keeping the ball in play until her opponent makes an error.
    She can volley better than any woman I have seen, but she seldom goes to the net unless drawn there. Lenglen, in fact, has perfected every stroke. There is not, in my opinion, any woman who compares with her in any way, with the possible exception that Helen Wills strokes with greater severity.
    Ninety-nine players out of a hundred, including the men, drive as closely as possible to the top of the net, but Suzanne invariably clears the net by a good foot. A hard-driven ball that clears the net by a scant inch is no more effective than Suzanne's ball that clears it well. It is the destination of the ball that is important, and the player who tries to skin the net on most of his returns will send a large portion of them into the net.

Covering Ground

    "What good is a brilliant thought behind the ball which ends in the net?" asks Suzanne. Obviously, the answer is: "No good." She rarely loses points by netting, and in many of her hardest matches the point score will show not more than half a dozen nets, compared with twenty or thirty for nearly any capapble player you can mention.
    Next to clearing the net, Suzanne's basic strategy is to conserve her energy and at the same time to wear down her opponent. In a sense, every return she makes is to the point farthest removed from the previous one, so that you cover the maximum distance. With many players, the execution of this strategy finds expression in drives first to the right-hand corner of the court, then to the left, or backhand, corner. They keep an opponent running back and forth with the monotonous regularity of a pendulum.
    Suzanne does not rely on making you run across the backline. She can shorten her drives and place them at acute angles to the sidelines. Thus you are forced to advance to the net and retreat again to the baseline, which means that one is forced to cover a maximum of court, both up and back, as well as from side to side.
    The up and back running is the most exhausting, for one does not usually turn one's back to the opponent but retreats backward.
    Suzanne can effectively carry on a campaign of wearing down her opponent, because she can not only keep the ball in play but has the accuracy to place the ball constantly to the proper portion of her opponent's court to force her to do the running.
    She makes other players run rapidly and incessently to reach her returns, while she appears to be waiting for their returns when the ball arrives. This is due to her having been drilled in what the logical return will be from her opponent's racket, plus her own keen observation of the tendency of her opponent to make certain fixed replies.

The Opponent's Game Under Control

    Tennis critics are apt to dismiss Suzanne's marvelous ability to always be in positon, waiting, by calling it uncanny anticipation and marvelous speed of foot. It is more than that. I maintain that other players have those qualities. I may say--I hope with modesty--that I myself have possessed anticipation and a good deal of fleetness, but I was never drilled from childhood in what the logical and almost invariable results of certain definite plays will be.
    No player in the world, except Norman Brookes of Australia, in my opinion, has had such control over his opponent's game as has Suzanne. She can make you play into her hands. She can play you out of position in spite of any and everything you may try to do to avoid it. She can make three or four plays and tell you where she will end her point...
    Suzanne has been drilled in these sequences of plays, in a schedule of shots, and she has several combinations at her command. She is not a genius born but a genius made. It is the hard work she has done to perfect her technic, the research and systematic study of every type of player combined, which has made of her game a perfect machine, recognized, I believe, by the greatest players, both men and women, as the pattern for future development in tennis.
    Rene Lacoste, more than any of the Frenchmen, has studied Suzanne and used her tactics. He is now the champion of America, the first foreigner in twenty years to hold our title...

    I shall state again briefly the things Suzanne has been taught about tennis which have done more to make her great than all her natural ability: To practice, practice, practice until she could control the ball well enough to play it from any position in her own court to any portion of her opponent's court; the absolutely essential five-finger exercises. No one is born with that skill. It comes from constantly doing the same thing over and over. The result is control.
    Next, Suzanne was taught to put that control into use. She received the concentrated, predigested, tried, perfected, and finally combined methods of the then best players such as Brookes and Wilding of Australia, Norris Williams of America, and the Dohertys of England...
    Suzanne has told me that the backhand was very difficult for her to learn. It was entirely due to her father's persistent and insistent demands amid tears and scenes that she learned how to make this stroke correctly. It is now the best executed of all her strokes...
    Further, Suzanne was taught to minimize her errors...

Sacrificing the Spectacular

    One very simple thing she was taught and which her strokes were adapted to accomplish was to clear the net...
    Another very effective way that Suzanne minimizes her errors is by not trying to make a kill on her opponent's difficult shots; she tries merely to return the ball safely. Then she does not herself hit any harder than is necessary to score the point.
    There is a fiction that her father was accustomed to spreading a pocket handkerchief on the court and keeping Suzanne at practice until she was able to hit the target four times out of five.
    Suzanne laughingly denies the legend. Her target was the vital area of the court adjacent to the sidelines.
    Drives that do not reach this vital territory of her opponent's court are wasted, according to Suzanne.
    I discovered that most of our crowds were surprised that Suzanne's game was soft--that she did not have a tremendous punch in her stroking. She sacrifices speed to gain in accuracy, and none can dispute that the results have justified her course...
    For the most part, she appears to be hitting lightly. But I assure you that her soft balls are most difficult to return cleanly. At times they appear almost to float over the net, but as you set about confidently to kill them something goes wrong. Your returns find the net or drift over the lines...

    This happens because the ball carries unsuspected pace or spin slyly imparted to it by Suzanne. The most subtle feature of her game is a change of pace...

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