An Interview With Pancho Segura
by Ed Collins/January, 1984
When Jimmy Connors was 15, growing
up in Belleville, Illinois, his mother decided to send him to Southern
California to be coached by Pancho Segura, the pro at the Beverly Hills
Tennis Club. It was a good move. Pancho and Jimmy had a lot in common--both
are comparatively small with average serves, both use two-handed strokes,
and both share an indomitable desire to win.
At age 62 Pancho has
enjoyed two great careers--as a player he was among the best in the world
during his era, as a teacher he has shaped of the games of a number of
todayís best players.
Are there specific lessons that
are learned at an early age, that canít be learned later on?
You can learn them, but the question
is match play--experiencing competition. If I was teaching a kid of seven
I would make sure he had good fundamentals, but I would make him play tournaments.
And at least twice a month I would make him play players that are inferior
to him. I sometimes fight with parents who donít understand this.
They donít think their kid has anything to prove by this, that heís wasting
his time. But when the kid has nothing to gain, thatís when I find out
more about his character, his pride, about his feeling for competition.
I learn more than when heís playing someone where he has something to gain.
What fundamentals do you emphasize
during the juniorís development?
I check their grips. Weíre
all individuals, I know. And now weíre going through a phase where everyone
wants to topspin. To me itís a little bit of an exaggeration of the fundamentals
of the game. Look at the great players like Connors, McEnroe, Rosewall
and Kramer--they all go to the ball, not just let it come to them.
Your recommendation for grips?
Eastern grips. I donít teach the
western grip. If they have a western grip I make them play with a continental
too. I make them play both at the beginning. If not theyíre limited
on slices, drop shots, volleying and serve. However, if the ball is high
and short, and you can hit it with a western grip, why not? The idea is
to apply grips according to shots. I try to teach everything to a kid.
I donít want him happy with just one game, but thatís my mentality.
For two-handers, do you suggest
they change grips from on the dominant hand?
I make them change to the backhand
grip. Without it they often do not develop the serve, especially females.
This is where good coaching comes into play. And they can volley better
In developing a juniorís game,
do you take into consideration physical characteristics?
Compare Nastase to Tanner--weíve
got two opposites. So if Iím teaching a guy like Tanner I want him to have
a heck of a serve or a fantastic return of serve, so heís controlling the
point from its beginning, so theyíre not moving him. But if Iím teaching
a guy like Nastase, I want him to have all the shots. I want him to have
the lob, drop shot, everything. Heís so flexible and has such good balance
that he can do anything. He can shorten the motion, he can lengthen it.
I always look
at a kidís mobility, his serve, and I put him at the net and check his
hand-eye coordination. I consider a great tennis player a guy who can play
both ways, at the net or at the baseline, one who can adjust to the circumstances.
Iím not happy just having a baseliner.
What else can the coach do to help
the juniorís development?
I make the kid move up to the baseline.
I donít want him standing six feet behind. I donít believe in that. I want
him to learn how to take the ball early. How else is he going to
learn to volley?
I try to introduce the
idea of mental toughness early. I ask them after losing, ëWhy did
he beat you? What did he do better?í Iíll draw a court and
ask, ëDid he serve better than you? Was his second ball deeper than
yours? Did he return deeper than you? Did he volley better than you?
Did he pass better than you? Did you play badly? What did he do better?
Give me some dialogue, some explanation.í Then I begin to realize whatís
in the kidís head. I ask, ëHow did he play the 30-all point? Where
did he serve on this point? After missing the first serve, where
did he hit the second ball?í Iím trying to get the student to be
conscious of the pattern that players follow. They donít know. Theyíre
not mentally tough. To recognize and prevent himself from doing the same
thing, Iím encouraging him to concentrate intensely. Itís not easy.
How do you help the player understand
his game and tactics?
I draw the court into four zones.
Supposing youíre playing a player with a game similar to yours. I say,
ëLook, the purpose of your serve is not to ace but to make your opponent
return short, so you can play from the aggressive zone. From here you can
volley or approach, or put it away, or you hit it so deep you put him in
the defensive zone. From there he has to lob; if he tries to pass, well,
good luck, because you can place your volleys short. In the rallying zone,
near the baseline, you hit crosscourt, or deep, or to the middle. The fourth
zone, from the net, you hit winners.
What lessons follow?
Now we start talking about the score,
about how to play points, about how to win points. You can have the
best game and you can still lose. You can win more points and lose.
You can win more games and lose. Tennis is a mathematical game. Providing
you have the mechanics, strokes, shots, you have to play the score.
30-all, second ball,
you can run around and hit out. If you have a short ball, run around, hit
a crosscourt deep, and come up. Why not be aggressive on the second serve?
The second ball lands inside the box--in a rally that would be an approach
shot, wouldnít it? So why canít you be aggressive on the second serve?
Why not make the guy aware that if he misses his first serve heís going
to be under pressure, then he will miss more first serves.
I think Borg and Vilas
would have been better if theyíd been able to attack the return of serve.
But they couldnít because of their strokes--too big of backswings.
I teach both--big forward swing, shorter backswing. If you have lots of
time, like on clay, itís good. But I see Borg and Vilas miss-hit a lot
against the guy with a big serve. Too big a windup.
And if a player is afraid of taking
Youíre not taking chances if you
have a lead. If you have 5-30 youíre not taking any chances. If you have
30-40 youíre not taking chances--the other guy is taking chances. If youíre
serving at love-30 I want you to serve to the body so you prevent the angles
on the return of serve; I donít want you to serve wide because you might
miss, or the guy might get lucky and angle you back, or he may make a desperate
shot. I want you to find out how good his serve is, find out where
he serves at a certain time, so youíll have time for execution. So what
youíre trying to do, by knowing that, is strengthening your return of serve,
so you might worry him at 30-all.
I guarantee that if
you tabulate a tennis match between two players playing equally well, that
most of the misses of the first serve are from 5-30 on--30-all, 30-40,
deuce, particularly in the late stages of the set, when the score is 3-all,
3-4, 4-all. Everybody does. I make my students aware of that. Because
of the nervous pressure, theyíre tense, theyíre trying too hard. But they
donít recognize it. They become so desperate that they want to make the
serve so tough, instead of just hitting three-quarter speed and good length.
More on shot selection?
You just have to know your opponentís
weaknesses. You know the score at all times. You know where youíre hitting
the ball graphically, in relation to the center. And you know where your
opponent is in relation to the center. In other words, if the guy is in
the backhand corner I want you to play to the open court, to his forehand.
I donít want you playing behind him unless youíre inside the service line
or a little bit above. I donít want you to play behind him if youíre
behind the baseline, unless youíre 40-love or thereís some weakness.
I want you to play the open court as much as you can. Only play behind
him if youíre well inside the baseline, near the service line.
I always want you to
play two shots --yours and his--to anticipate.
Will this prevent confusion in
deciding which shot to hit?
It becomes automatic. If youíre going
to make a stupid shot, make sure you protect it by the score. That way
you donít beat yourself. If the guy aces you, or makes a great return,
well, thatís something else--the guy was better than you that day.
Itís like Iím playing
you and I serve twice to your backhand, and you make two big winners against
me. Iím going to find the forehand right away, or your body. If I
come to the net and youíre passing me, Iíll stay back. If you canít pass
on the backhand Iíll come in on the second ball, maybe the first. If you
donít like high balls Iím going to give you moon balls. If you donít like
low balls Iíll slice short. But Iím going to find out. But Iíve got enough
ball control to be able to do that. The fundamentals come first, then comes
the application of the fundamentals, according to circumstances. And thatís
the hardest part to make the kids realize.
How is that accomplished?
For example, I worked with Stan Smith
a lot when he was 14. I said, ëStan, youíre a big guy, why donít you take
the second ball and come in behind it? You have great reach; guys
will try to pass you clean; theyíre not going to go at you because theyíre
not that bright.í And he won a lotta points that way.
I donít teach to pass
on the first shot, unless heís inside the court. I tell ëem to hit it at
ëem, and move up--play it on the second shot--move them a little, then
pass or lob on the second shot. Hereís an example: Tony Roche and
John Newcome. To me Tony was the better tennis player, but Newk won all
the tournaments. Why? Because he played the score better. He came in behind
the second serve. He had a hellova first serve and he could break serve.
Threats--it comes after fundamentals. The good coach tries to introduced
it early, so it becomes part of his game. You have to make ëem realize
as they play tournaments. First you have to teach them control, so
you can serve where they want to, so they can return where they want to.
Your recommendations on practicing?
You should do some drills, thereís
no question about it. The problem with too many drills is that there becomes
a pattern of play--you know whatís going to happen. I see guys drill an
hour and not miss a shot. The minute the game starts, even in practice,
they start missing. You see, when you start playing sets the court
becomes bigger--you donít know if the ball is going to be there. To me
the set is the drill. For me, there is more benefit in playing sets.
I do believe in practice,
though. I call it rehearsing. For example, weíre practicing the drop shot:
put him behind the service line. I throw the ball so he has to come in
on the run, with a low stance, fake me, and after he makes the motion he
comes in on a dead stop, to see if he has balance. I say, ëSo do it. Do
it down-the-line. Do it crosscourt. OK.í So now we do it for
half an hour, forty minutes, and then I say, ëNow youíve got a pretty good
drop shot. Now letís find out if itís true. Now we rally and Iím not going
to tell you when Iím going to hit short. Force me to hit short.í
So I eventually hit short and I want to see that shot. And it doesnít come
true. And Iím not happy until it comes true that way.
The same thing on lobs.
I make him hit lobs from side to side, but he knows heís going to lob.
I say, ëI want to see you do it when you play a set. You were there and
you never lobbed. You forgot, right?í
But you have to be there
with him. Thatís why I say, the more shots you have the better.
And if a player is one dimensional?
I donít want a student to tell me
he has a good shot if he can only go deep. I want to see if he can control
the motion. I want him to be able to go deep and high too. I want him to
be able to control the tempo and flow, the follow through, so he can increase
it, decrease it--so he can do anything. Hitting hard all the time is terrible.
Theyíre never going to produce it in a match.
Can you help him become more competitive?
How do you find out if the guy has
guts? Itís a tough game. But I like it because it shows desire, pride.
The guy who says to me, "Why did I lose, Pancho? Where did I go wrong.
How did I go wrong?" I like those guys. I donít like a happy loser. I like
a guy who shows some pride. He comes the following day and works. And reconstructs
what he did wrong. He says, "Pancho, I missed those crosscourt passing
shots." I say, ëWas the ball hit with topspin? Was it high? Was it here?
Were you on balance? Where were you hitting it from? Where to? Where was
the guy in relation to the center? OK, letís do it.í Thatís the way
Reprinted from 1984 San Diego Tennis