Roger Federer entered this week’s French Open with a 2300-point lead over world #2 Rafael Nadal. By now we all know the reasons behind this lead. We’ve seen him play. Winners from all over the court, on the defensive, from in between the legs, or around the net post. Backhand overheads. Clutch shots coming out of nowhere.
Science and our curiousity have tried to chip away at how great athletes like Roger come to be. Back in March, Daniel Coyle, via a NYT article attempted to explain the phenomena — not just that of amazing players, but of amazing players from the same geographical area: South Korean women golfers, Dominican baseball players, and seemingly endless supply of Russian tennis players (the latter an enigma that vexes U.S. Fed Cup team captain Zina Garrison everyday, I’m sure). Is it coincidence, or is there a scientific explanation?
Coyle travelled with Elena Dementieva back to her childhood training academy, Spartak (in Moscow), to get some more insight. The academy was the perfect research specimen: it spawned Dementieva, along with Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, and Anastasia Myskina, all from the same group of kids. On one hand he attributes their talent to biology — “super-athletes” have more myelin in their nervous system — and on the other he cites intense parenting, training, and time investment. Nothing conclusive, but a well-written article.
And this week’s Wired brings up the idea of field sense, a skill “which mixes anticipation, timing, and an acute sense of spatial relations”, and a skill which the writer deems untrainable. But not if Australian Instute of Sport scientist Damian Farrow has anything to say about it. In tennis, he’s developing ways for players to anticipate a serve as early as possible (perhaps even before the ball toss), thus giving the receiver extra milliseconds to react.
The article also mentions unstructured play as a way of developing good field sense (a skill perfected by Martina Hingis during her childhood — her coach/mother Melanie Molitor would feed her balls to hit from all over the court, leaving Hingis to scramble and anticipate where each ball would land).