A Tennis Lesson from Homer Hickam or What Makes a Great Shot in Tennis

Homer Hickam’s 1998 memoir Rocket Boys was the basis of the 1999 film October Sky.  I enjoyed both immensely, but as usually happens films leave out key events in the interests of runtime.  One such exchange between Homer Hickam and Quentin Wilson was left out of the film, but it made an impression on me as a tennis player.

“What is your definition of a great rocket?” I asked.

He crossed his arms and jutted out his chin.  “One that does precisely what its designed to do.  It doesn’t matter if it only flies two hundred feet.  If that’s what it’s designed to do, and that’s what it does, it will be a great rocket.”  He pointed at the book.  “We want our rocket to go to an altitude of precisely two miles.  The equations to make that happen are in that book.  Do them!”

Great Shots vs Fortunate Shots

Many times in tennis we win points through great effort.  We reach for a ball we have no right to reach and poke a winner past someone or lob a ball to just the right spot.  These shots are to my mind the result of great hustle or great mental fortitude, but if we hit a ball with only a vague hope of success, I would not call those successful shots “great shots.”  There are things we can do like improving our movement, balance, and reflexes while also giving great effort that increases the frequency of fortunate shots.

Still, I agree with Quentin Wilson that having a shot do what you want it to do, knowing why it did that, and knowing how to repeat that result is what makes a great shot.  There are shots produced by great hustle.  There are also shots that are just lucky.  I have seen junior players blast a massive service ace.  They may even comment that in theory, they can serve as well as a junior who seems to serve well all of the time.  The difference between those two players’ serves is that one gets what must be done to put the ball in hard to return/unreturnable part of the box while the other just hit that spot on accident.

I don’t think tennis is harder than terrestrial rocketry, but the physics behind it might be, as tennis shots, other than the serve, are always a response to a previous shot.  Great players can impose tough circumstances on opponents making the execution of shots difficult.  An ATP pro may feel like he can do anything with the ball under certain circumstances only to have Rafa’s heavy spin or Djokovic’s taking the ball early removing those circumstances.  At this point, a player has to trust in hustle and a degree of improvising in an attempt to navigate adverse circumstances.  Flailing for winners can produce a few highlights but it also only produces a few wins.

Pete Sampras successfully hit this shot often enough to know that he knew what he could do with a ball pulling him off of the court on his forehand wing.  Heck, he even baited people into doing this.  If I hit this shot, I was either hustling like crazy and got lucky or was just plain lucky.  Great shot for Pete and Fortunate Shot for Dan

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