The Road Less Traveled in Sports


The Holden Alternative to the Standard One Handed Tennis Backhand

The unorthodox inside-out backhand (ursine contribution to the sport of tennis...)


Serving tennis balls (and volleyballs for that matter...)

Tennis involves a number of complex skills, three of which are difficult enough that being good at any one of them is a significant advantage. That list starts off with any kind of a reasonably hard serve which is controllable.

My own pick of all the serves I've ever watched in professional tennis would still be that of Roscoe Tanner and there were several things which set Tanner's serve apart from anything I've observed before or since. Watch for a moment:

You might have noticed you have to watch closely since it doesn't last long, which is one of the points which separates it from most other service motions. The ball never fell; it was either being hit on the rise or as it stopped at the top of the toss. That meant that Tanner could toss the ball further in front of his body than you normally ever see which is leverage, and that he didn't have to worry anywhere near as much about timing as most players. Particularly on a windy day, he didn't have to pray that the ball came down in the same county...

Notice also that his foot positioning was simple and did not require bringing his trailing (left) foot around his lead foot as is the case with most tennis professionals.

There are several factors involved in generating power on serves:

The following youtube video shows the extent to which leg drive was involved in Tanner's serve:

There was at least one other unusual factor involved in Tanner's serve. Knowing that he would tighten up in games, Tanner used to practice serving to a point eight or ten inches outside of the service line; that meant that in actual play, it would tend to fall in an area within six or seven inches inside the line.

Tanner wasn't as big as any of the people with the biggest serves today; his serve was simply better thought out and conceived. He was playing with wooden racquets and with the first generation of man-made material racquets which were not much larger than the wooden ones and yet he was serving upwards of 140 mph consistently and once or twice managed to get a serve in at over 150 with a wooden racquet.

Of the various parts of what he was doing, the one item which would do the average player the most good was the low service toss. That doesn't mean everybody needs to learn to take a ball on the rise when serving; but it does mean that somebody like Pete Sampras who let the ball fall two or three inches before hitting it is infinitely better off than the players who toss the ball 20' over their heads and hope that it comes down on the same day and in the same county.

Believe it or not, the same idea works for volleyball. You can produce a much better volleyball serve tossing the ball a foot and a half or so over your head and hitting it at about the level of your own forehead.

Then again.....

Not all of us are born six feet tall or taller than that; what are shorter players supposed to do about serving tennis balls? There actually is an altogether different approach to serving. Pat Rafter won several major titles with a serve which never appeared to move any more than about 105 mph if that; the serve had so much action on it that it was like dealing with a knuckleball in baseball. Nobody ever got enough of a read on it to hit hard or penetrating returns and Rafter was basically using it to set up a decisive first volley. Height wouldn't really matter much in such a scheme.


The other two skills which are relatively rare would be any sort of a weapon backhand, and being able to play near the net (i.e. take balls in the air) without looking spastic.

Godfather of the Wishbone, Jack Mildren

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, an effort was made to make a science out of American football.

This is what that looked like.

To make the wishbone work, you still had to be able to throw the ball effectively; otherwise defenses would simply start lining up with ten or eleven men on the line of scrimmage like the Florida teams started doing against OU in the late 80s. Jack Mildren brought that to OU by dint of inheritance, having been a passing quarterback in a previous life. Paul Bryant at Alabama eventually devised a passing game keyed to the wishbone and won national titles in 78 and 79 with that system. The Alabama version of the wishbone was never "disproven" or otherwise made obsolete by any new wrinkles in defenses. The NFL viewed it as disruptive technology and it eventually went away.


A Japanese Version of the Ugly Duckling Fable...

Coming out of high school, Isao Inokuma appeared to have all the makings of a second tier middleweight judoka. And then he kept on growing. Scenes from the 64 olympics show him dominating good heavyweights, some of whom appear to be as much as 50 lbs heavier than himself:


The best of professional prize fighting

The best professional boxers in the world certainly number some of the world's best athletes. There have been two genuine super stars in the world of prize fighting in the last half century or so, i.e. Roy Jones, and Roberto Duran. Both of these fighters eventually scared everybody close to their own sizes into the woodwork and had to start beating up progressively bigger people to earn a living, their natural weight divisions being junior welter and super middleweight.

Aside from boxing, Duran's workouts used to include something which was cleanly impossible, i.e. a Russian cossack dance, thighs parallel to the ground, with a jumprope; that went on for several minutes with the rope basically a blur and being switched and not just swung around. People used to watch that and the question you'd hear was, "Could Baryzhnikov or Nureyev DO that?" Friends who are into music and dance tell me that the one professional dancer who probably could have managed it would have been Edward Villella but, guess what? That's right, Villella's career in showmanship started off with prize fighting...

The Greatest

This is something which might take place annually, I don't really know, the only case I've read about occurred in the early 1980s, basically a group of NY sports writers took a straw poll for all-time greatest professional boxer in each weight division and the only two unanimous choices were Ray Robinson at middleweight and Duran at lightweight, and this was obviously prior to Roy Jones' career. To my own thinking there should have been one other no-brainer type choice, i.e. Joe Louis at heavyweight.

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