|On Laver, Confidence, and Loving the Game
An Interview with Pro Larry Willens
by Ed Collins/December, 1988
Born into a Southern Cal tennis family,
Larry Willens has been involved with tennis all his life. A graduate of
San Jose State, where he played intercollegiate tennis, Larry taught Health
Science and P.E. at San Diego State from 1965 through 1972. Since then,
in addition to teaching tennis, Larry was involved as a coach with World
TeamTennis, with the San Diego Friars from ë76--85, and the Sacramento
Capitals from ë86--ë89.
It was during Larryís
first three years with the Friars that Rod Laver was the #1 player. Being
around the two-time Grand Slam winner was an inspiration to his teammates
and coaches, including Larry Willens.
Was Laver a natural?
He wasnít a natural athlete, although
he was very quick, but he was a natural at playing the game. He knew the
tennis court, what to do with the ball, and what to do against an opponent
as well as anyone who has ever played. Creatively, which is a term we donít
often use nowadays, I think he was a natural.
Define creativity in tennis?
Letís compare Borg and Laver.
On a crucial point, when someone rushed the net on Borgís backhand, he
would pass with an unbelievable short-angled topspin crosscourt. He didnít
care that everyone knew what he was going to do--if they could beat him,
fine, he was not going to be responsible for winning or losing that point--he
put that on the shoulders of his opponent, which most players canít handle.
Laver was the total
opposite. There was no way to predict where he was going to hit the ball,
because until the ball got there he didnít know. He did it strictly by
Laver had options because he
worked on every single shot. Plus he worked on freeing his mind so that
when he got into a crisis situation he would not always hit the ball to
the same place.
Describe his typical practice session.
After a warm-up he would always do
two-on-ones, where he showed me things Iíd never seen before. For example,
when we practiced at the Sports Arena, and someone hit a ball in the third
row of the seats, heíd be up there returning it. There was no such thing
as a ball he didnít go after. Iíve watched him run side-to-side in this
drill for 45 minutes straight. You hit short and heíd come in and
drill the ball at you, and youíd better be ready because if you missed
you felt you were cheating him. After two-on-ones he usually played games,
What traits do great champions
The characteristic or personality
trait that is found in great players is the will to win. Itís difficult
to develop because it takes a commitment that few players understand. But
if you want to get someone to reach their full potential, which probably
canít be done, but as close as possible, you have to develop the will to
Whatís the difference between the
will to win and the fear of losing?
The difference is in how you feel
after the match. When youíre asked if you gave everything you had on every
singles point the answer is always yes. If youíve played with the will
to win, when you walk off the court it makes no difference if you won or
lost. If someone plays out of the fear of losing they fear what others
think of them when they lose.
Tennis is such a challenge.
The person who succeeds is the one who goes out there and gives everything
he has to himself, within himself and for himself. And thatís all you can
do, then it doesnít matter whether you win or lose. The only difference
between winning and losing is who won the last point. You donít have to
convince anyone that you tried. The only person you really have to convince
How do you develop a studentís
will to win?
The student must learn to believe
in himself. I show them that any good tennis player hits the ball well
at least 80% of the time; unfortunately, they remember the last bad shot.
The good players know how well they hit, and after missing, believe that
the next shot will be great.
I teach visual imagery
where the player relaxes and visualizes perfect shots; this is transferred
to the court: Iíll feed balls and heíll give me feedback, commenting on
his strokes and shots. The person who is completely positive will respond
only when they hit the ball well. The extremely negative person will comment
when they hit the ball badly. When the student realizes that heís
negative, even in the most positive situation, then itís easy to get him
to compliment himself, which is the eventual goal.This evolves into a drill
I call Good, where every time the student hits he ball well, he
says "Good." Complimenting yourself is the simplest and most important
form of reward.
How does a player affect his opponentís
The way to make your opponent play
better is by giving him a psychological edge. Iím talking about your attitude
and court presence--the way you walk, the way you hold head, your racquet,
and the way you play points. You can make your opponent play worse by playing
well on the crucial points. If you wear into your opponentís mind that
on these points heís going to have to beat you, heís going to play worse.
Heíll doubt himself if he knows that on a big point youíre always going
to make a first serve--not a push serve, but a good, solid, three-quarter-speed
first serve to a spot. If he expects you to hit every return at his feet,
heís not going to allow himself to get in those situations.
When I used to chart
Evert in TeamTennis, it became obvious that on certain points she would
move the lines in three feet and hit harder. Her opponent got tight as
she knew the ball was coming harder but wasnít aware the line was slightly
What advice do you have for players
who emotionally self-destruct?
I always tell a player to take a
time out. I try to get him to transfer the visual imagery onto the court
between points or during the changeover. I encourage him to talk himself
in a positive way, to use key phrases like "Attack the ball," or "Move
the lines in," or "Get it."
Confidence comes from
believing in yourself and knowing you can do it. It helps to take the situation
off the court, to see a match in your mind, where you got tight, and see
yourself play out of it. Do this a few times and youíll be able to do it
on the court.
Another thing Iíll have
them do is focus more intently on watching the ball. The goal is to see
how early you can pick it up, to see the blur of the racquet, and to pick
it up after it crosses the net. If you think about nothing else this helps
to free your mind.
It helps tremendously
to be able to completely relax when you start to lose self control.
To be able to feel yourself relax can get you back on track. There are
specific relaxation techniques that can be learned. For example, you tense
up your muscles, then you relax them. Some players will stand there and
take a deep breath before serving. You relax while you cradle the racquet.
You stare at the ball, then you go into your motion. Again, the difference
between getting close to your potential and where you are now is mental
A couple tips on relaxing for the
I believe the serve is the key to
being relaxed during the entire point. When I teach the serve I also teach
the student how to relax. I teach two phases: from the ready position
to the coiled position I call this the relaxation phase. On the
court Iíll talk the student through this. The second phase is the explosion,
where the player expends energy. In practice the goal is to see how high
up on the fence the player can make the ball bounce. With a relaxed
backswing the bounce is always higher.
Can this be applied to groundstrokes?
Itís more important with passing
shots than trading groundstrokes. People donít fear the groundstroke when
the opponent is at the baseline; they fear them when heís at the net, especially
if heís a good volleyer. Itís the same stroke but we treat it differently.
In practice I challenge the player to pass me on half the court while we
work on his relaxation.
At the net the key is
to relax so you can react to the passing shot, both with your hands and
feet. You must be relaxed to move quickly.
How do you help a player enjoy competition?
To compete well you
have to respect the game and accept its challenges. And tennis is an unbelievable
challenge--the overall concept of the game, the scoring system, the difficulty
of moving someone around the court with the ball, making the court appear
to be larger than it really is--the possibilities of what you can do within
that 78-by-27-foot area are mindboggling.
I also want my student
to understand how much fun the game is. If he or she appreciates it they
can deal with the challenges it presents. Tennis is great for so many reasons.
You can play it for the rest of your life--thatís a huge plus. Youíre out
there by yourself--no one to rely on. When you succeed you feel so good.
The exercise you get is tremendous. Then thereís the actual thrill of hitting
the ball and hitting a specific shot well. Learning is fun. There
are hundreds of shots. Learning to master a new shot, or learning to hit
one of your best shots better is fun. In reality, when you improve your
tennis what youíre doing is making yourself a better person.
How can parents affect the performance
of their child?
Positive pressure comes from the
love of the child no matter what he has done, including lose. You can criticize
people through love in a positive way.
The biggest way that
parents have a negative effect on their kids is by giving a damn about
wins and losses and rankings. The way you positively encourage a tennis
player is to look for and reward effort. How hard did he/she try?
Understanding the game
is unnecessary. Parents who play the game can be more harmful because they
think they know whatís going on out there. Itís not the parentís responsibility
to analyze the match. Loving the child and understanding effort--recognizing
it and rewarding it--thatís all a parent needs to do.
Any other lessons Laver taught
He reminded me daily that itís a
privilege to play tennis. He taught me that I have not even begun to reach
my potential, which I try daily to translate to students. To communicate
this concept Iíll tell my student this: "Youíre now going to play the best
player in the world, and every serve you hit is going to be the best serve
youíve ever hit in your life, and every return is going to be the best
youíve ever hit." Then Iíll ask what would happen in the match. Theyíll
answer, "Iíll win O and O, because Iíll ace him every time, and my returns
are always hit for winners." This, I explain, is what we identify
as their potential.
Reprinted from 1988 San Diego Tennis