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USATT Super Camp - Day 8

By Videos/Images by Matt Hetherington & Story by Larry Hodges | July 18, 2016, 1:16 p.m. (ET)

USATT Super Camp - Day Eight by Larry Hodges

The physical training this morning was the most grueling yet, though this was partly because of the heat - already into the 80s at 9:30AM. After a quarter mile warm-up run and a number of warm-up exercises, the wind springs began. We started with 100-yard sprints, six players at a time, with the next group starting as soon as the previous one finished. Then they did it again, going back. They did about 6-8 at this distance, then continued with 50-yard sprints, and then 40 yards. We kept pushing them to accelerate as they reach the end, since many would slow down instead. We also had to keep pushing them to pump their arms as they ran. 

At first it was almost fun, as they raced each other, but gradually they got more and more tired, and many began to struggle - “It’s just as I suspected,” said coach Dan Seemiller about our lack of fitness. Two players were so exhausted they had to stop. One hard-working one hurt his leg, but it was minor, and he was back in action that afternoon. We finished with another quarter-mile jog, and then we were done with the physical. 

New players joining us were three local New Jersey juniors; Tina Lin (17, 2354), Stephen Chu (16, 2108), and Sam Rockwell (16, 1854). This gave us 28 juniors for the day, including five over 2500 and ten over 2300 - and an impressive number of up-and-comers ages 10 to 12 with ratings from 1900 to nearly 2300, plus a pair of nine-year-olds over 1800. 

Next came the best part of the day (for me) as Dan Seemiller and Sean O’Neill gave a 50-minute talk on a number issues, mostly on ball placement and other tactics, and stroke mechanics. Dan led the discussion, with Sean joining in with comments. Here’s a sampling. 
  • Dan gave the example of a past top U.S. player, who he thought had the potential to be top twenty in the world. But Coach Li Zhenshi said no, it was too late, the player too old to learn proper ball placement. Good ball placement needs to be learned early or it’s nearly impossible to get right. You may know off the table where the ball should be placed, but to reflexively do so at the table in a fast rally, and to accurately hit the target? That’s hard to teach or to learn unless you start early. 
  • Dan and Sean both spoke extensively about the importance of attacking the middle, i.e. the opponent’s playing elbow. This was ironic as I’d been pushing this same thing to a number of players here who didn’t seem to get its importance, and continued to attack the corners, which at the higher levels is often like banging one’s head on a wall. Dan said, “The middle opens up everything.” It forces the opponent to decide between forehand and backhand; into often awkward footwork; often a weak return; usually makes him play the shot later than usual so he can’t rush you; gives him no angle; and puts him out of position, which opens up the corners. This is one of those simple concepts that so many just don’t understand or take seriously. I’ve thrown up my hands at time with the number of kids I’ve coached that simply do not have this ingrained in them. As Dan said, “Became a master at finding the middle.”
  • Regarding placement mistakes, Dan said, “These are not mistakes you can make if you want to be great.” He added, “If I make the right choice and miss, that’s okay. It’s when I make the wrong choice that I get mad and want to break my paddle.” He said that few players can hit their targets half the time. If you hit it 80%, that’s good, but 90% is needed. 
  • Sean said, “Players think the biggest difference between a weaker player and a top player is the top player rips everything. This cannot be farther from the truth. They place the ball better.” They both spoke about how Americans often try to just rip the ball instead of being willing to rally longer and get a better ball to rip, as most top players do. This doesn’t mean they don’t rip the ball; it means they rip the right ones, whether it’s the first or seventh shot in the rally. 
  • Dan talked about finding the center of your swing. This means making sure your backswing and forward swing are about the same length, and the contact point on your forward swing midway through the forward swing. “This makes timing and adjustments easier,” said Dan. “Center your stroke around your contact point.”
  • Dan also spoke about being able to both hook and fade your loops, i.e. sidespin either direction. 
  • Next they talked about balance at the end of the stroke. If you are off balance at the end of a shot, you cannot recover for the next shot. This also means using your free arm for balance, as well as pulling with it for greater power on forehand shots. It means staying on your toes. 
  • Dan and Sean both harped on making your technique great. Sean spoke about how his coach sent him to Dan Seemiller camps to help develop his technique and get a different perspective. Sean’s coach was more of a hitter, while Sean more of a looper, so by going to the Seemiller camps he learned from Dan, who is also a looper. 
  • Dan spoke about mastering the things you can control, citing three: fitness, dynamic serves, and mental. 
  • On the mental game, Dan said, “Believe in yourself or you can’t be mentally strong.” “Everyone has a different route to being mentally strong. Find yours.”
  • Both harped on excelling in as many things as possible - the more weapons you have the better. “You have to understand your game,” Dan said, and keep developing it. He said that even at 62 years old he believe he can improve by learning new things. Examples of things you might excel at include serve, ball placement, power, consistency, footwork, receive, deception, fundamentals, strategy, shot selection, rally ability, blocking, looping, and reading of spin - and that’s just the beginning!
  • They spoke more about the free arm and its importance for both balance and adding power to forehand shots by pulling with it. They cited a Chinese coach who said that the racket speed of most American players was too slow, and considered the poor usage of the free arm and the rest of the body a reason for this. Said Sean, “If you don’t use your whole body you cannot get good power.” He then explained that by having such power means you don’t have to force the power, i.e. you can more easily go at any speed with less strain. 
  • Dan spoke about how players can learn by gathering ideas and skills like “nuggets,” such as playing the middle, centering your stroke, or using the free arm properly. As you gather these nuggets you improve. He said, “Be more than what you are now. If you’re a blocker, then developing the rest of your game, or your good blocking will become a trap, keeping you from developing the rest of your game. You’ll always have your blocking skills, so add to them.”
  • Sean spoke of how losses are an opportunity. “They give you a report card on your game.” Sean told the story losing in the final of Men’s Singles at the USA Nationals in 1986 against Chartchai “Hank” Teekaveerakit, who was a live-in practice partner for him at the time. Going into the Nationals Sean was the defending champion, and had beaten Hank in practice over and over. In the final Sean was up 2-0 in games and at deuce in the third. He lost his focus, lost two careless points, and next thing he knew he lost the match in five. He had to spend the next year seeing the Men’s Singles trophy in Hank’s room, and it gave him determination never to give away free points again, whether in practice or tournaments - and a year later he won the title back. He said that if you adopt the attitude in practice of no free points, it’ll carry over into tournaments. “Never let up in a point. If you want to make the World Team, no free points.”
  • They spoke of making tactical adjustments. Going into one Nationals Sean had never beaten Eric Boggan. He’s always tried to attack through him, since that’s Sean’s game, but Eric’s blocking was too good. When they met in the Men’s Final, Sean decided to just push and block, which threw Eric off, and Sean won the first two games. When Eric adjusted, Sean went back to attacking, which again threw Eric off his game - and by going back and forth, he won the match and the championship. 
The kids then got a ten-minute break (and pigged out on watermelon, blueberries, and bananas), and then we started the afternoon 12-2 session. I wasn’t needed as a practice partner this session, and so roved between the two groups, with the upper group upstairs, the lower group downstairs. (Usually it’s the reverse.) This meant I missed about half of what happened in each group, alas. 

Sean and Richard McAfee (his last session) ran the lower group, with 16 players. They started by challenging the players to his as many forehands as possible, and then backhands. The “winners” were Aziz Zarehbin (age 10, rated 1998) from the Alameda TTC in California, with 321 in a row, and Lisa Lin (age 12, rated 1986) from MDTTC in Maryland (my club), with 376. Sean then issued a challenge to them to go home and hit 1000 in a row - and promised some sort of prize to whoever did it first. He cited how his coach made him do this when he was nine years old, and how Dan Seemiller also had stroking consistency battles at his camps - with former star Jimmy Lane once getting over 5000 in a row. (At the 1978 Seemiller Camp, when I was 18, I hit 2755 backhands in a row to win the camp contest! My partner was lefty Ben Nisbet, who was hitting forehands and I think missed only three times along the way.) 

Sean called and explained the drills, and pointed out that both players are doing each drill, that if one player is blocking, his feet should constantly be moving. “Blocking drills should be tiring - they are footwork drills,” he said. Throughout the session he harped on players to move their feet and to use their non-playing arm. (One player kept forgetting this, and each time he did, Sean would call out, “Lefty!”) He said, “Heels on ground - game over.” He also talked about one of his favorite terms: “Brain dead shots,” which come in many varieties. Examples he cited here were when feet stop moving but arms continue to move, and swinging wildly. 

Two drills called by Sean while I was there stressed pushing short - though I’m guessing they did a lot of other drills while I was with the other group. They were:
  • Serve short, receiver push short, play out point. Sean stressed the importance of moving in and out. 
  • Serve short, push 4-5 balls short, and then server pushes long, receiver attacks, play out point. The drills were similar, but subtlety different. 

In the upper group, run by Dan (who called the drills) and Cory (with Lily Yip roving around both), some of the drills called included:

  • Serve topspin, and play only backhand, blocking or looping, to the opponent’s middle, who had to return to the server’s backhand. The purpose of the drill was to learn to accurately go after the middle, which is a rather small, moving target.
  • Same drill, except now server plays only forehand. 
  • Game drill: server serves until he loses two in a row, then the receiver becomes the server. 
Then it was lunch - spaghetti, chicken, and various side dishes. Then we were off until 5PM. 

I spent the 5-8PM session with the upper group. At first I was going to take notes and be a roving coach, but something opened up - and I spent most of the session practicing with Sid Naresh, 12, rated 2191. We had a great session. I was a bit leery at first as back home I spent so much time practicing with players under 1800 I wasn’t sure I could still handle 2200-level shots - but guess what? As I objectively (but not subjectively) knew, stronger players have more consistent shots, and so you get into a groove with them. With Sid, I got into a groove, as did he, and we had some really memorable rallies. He did a number of drills into my forehand and backhand block, and the rallies were fast and yet neither of us could miss (much). Dan worked with him several times on extending his backswing on his backhand loop for more power, and he practiced this for about 20 minutes into my backhand block. 

We also did a forehand drill where one loops five in a row (forehand to forehand), and then free play - and all heck broke loose as the rallies were ferocious. When it was my turn, he had a lot of trouble at first with my forehand, which is hard to read - I can make it look like I’m going crosscourt, and then go down the line at the last second, and vice versa - but he gradually adjusted. Meanwhile, my forehand looping felt like it was 1990 again! Again, a lot of this was because of Sid’s consistency. 

Toward the end of the session I practice with Matthew Lu (12, 2241), and once again we had some nice rallies. Like the lower group, they were focusing a lot on short push today, and so we did a drill where one served either backspin or no-spin, and the other mostly pushed short - but if they saw the no-spin, they attacked. Then we got to each choose our own drill. I went with serve backspin, Matt pushes long anywhere, and I forehand loop - an “easy” drill for me in 1990, but now that I’m 56 . . . but I held my own, even as I coached Mart to make things difficult by often aiming one way, going the other, and pushing aggressively to the corners. For his drill, he did a similar serve and attack drill, where he served short, I mostly pushed and sometimes flipped, and he attacked. 

Then we played up-down tables, but with Dan’s variation. Everyone played until one player on any table won a game to 11. Then the winner would yell “Stop!”, and whoever led at that point won. If it was tied, they played one point to see who would move up. I did pretty well in these games, beating five players rated from 2180 to about 2250, and losing a tie-breaker with Gal Alguetti. Finally the 5-8PM session came to an end, I hobbled out, exhausted but happy with my play - and with my opponents’! 

Next was dinner - sesame chicken, barbecued ribs, fried and white rice, spaghetti, broccoli, and various fruits. And then we were done! Well, sort of; about ten of the kids wanted to stay and play penhold and other matches. And so the night at the club didn’t end until past 9PM. On the way back I treated some of the kids to drinks and snacks at the local convenience store. And then a strange thing happened. With the sprints in the morning, and a rather vigorous day of training, the kids went to bed without argument! 

Two Mysteries
This is a good spot to talk about the two camp mysteries.
  • The Mystery of the Broken Front Door. Earlier in the camp the front door to the house many of us are staying at jammed, and wouldn’t open. It wasn’t an emergency since we had a back door. Barry Dattel came over that night to try and fix it, but needed more tools. He promised to come back the following morning. When he left, he’d taken the lower door knob off the door. The following morning we went to physical training as usual. When we returned, the door had been repaired, with the know replaced and everything. I thanked Barry - but he was confused, saying he hadn’t fixed it yet. We asked everyone, and we still haven’t figured out who fixed the door. I believe it was the Broken Door Fairy.
  • The Mystery of the Ice Cream Sandwiches. This morning we discovered two boxes of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer. Some of the older kids (who were staying at another house) came over and took most of them, which made the younger kids at the house rather unhappy. But then the question arose - whose ice cream sandwiches were they? I’d assumed Judy Hugh, who has been buying groceries for us (cereal milk, snacks, etc.) had bought them, but she said no - which made sense as she always buys large quantities of various foods, not just one item. We’ve asked around, but we can’t figure out where the ice cream sandwiches came from. I believe it was the Ice Cream Sandwich Fairy.