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 ‘76--85, and the Sacramento Capitals from ‘86--‘89. 
    It was during Larry’s 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 wasn’t 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 don’t often use nowadays, I think he was a natural.

Define creativity in tennis.
    Let’s compare Borg and Laver.  On a crucial point, when someone rushed the net on Borg’s backhand, he would pass with an unbelievable short-angled topspin crosscourt.  He didn’t 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 can’t handle.

“On important points (Evert) would move the lines in three feet and hit harder...”

      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 didn’t know.  He did it strictly by feel.
    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 I’d never seen before.  For example, when we practiced at the Sports Arena, and someone hit a ball in the third row of the seats, he’d be up there returning it.  There was no such thing as a ball he didn’t go after.  I’ve watched him run side-to-side in this drill for 45 minutes straight.  You hit short and he’d come in and drill the ball at you, and you’d better be ready because if you missed you felt you were cheating him...After two-on-ones he usually played games, sometimes sets.

What traits do great champions share?
    The characteristic or personality trait that is found in great players is the will to win.  It’s 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 can’t be done, but as close as possible -- you have to develop the will to win.

What’s the difference between the will to win and the fear of losing?
    The difference is in how you feel after the match.  When you’re asked if you gave everything you had on every singles point the answer is always yes.  If you’ve 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 that’s all you can do; then it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose.  The only difference between winning and losing is who won the last point...You don’t have to convince anyone that you tried.  The only person you really have to convince is yourself.

How do you develop a student’s 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:  I’ll feed balls and he’ll 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 he’s negative, even in the most positive situation, then it’s easy to get him to compliment himself,

“Complimenting yourself is the simplest and most important form of reward.”

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 opponent’s play?
    The way to make your opponent play better is by giving him a psychological edge.  I’m 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 opponent’s mind that on these points he’s going to have to beat you, he’s going to play worse.  He’ll doubt himself if he knows that on a big point you’re 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, he’s 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 wasn’t aware the line was slightly moved in. 

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 you’ll be able to do it on the court. 
    Another thing I’ll 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 interference.

A couple tips on relaxing for the serve?
    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

“...when you improve your tennis what you’re doing is making yourself a better person.”

court I’ll 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.
    It’s more import with passing shots than trading groundstrokes.  People don’t fear the groundstroke when the opponent is at the baseline; they fear them when he’s at the net, especially if he’s a good volleyer.  It’s 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 -- that’s a huge plus. You’re out there by yourself -- no one to rely on.  When you succeed you feel so good.  The exercise you get is tremendous.  Then there’s 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 you’re 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? 

“The way you positively encourage a tennis player is to look for and reward effort...

Understanding the game is unnecessary; parents who play the game can be more harmful because they think they know what’s going on out there.  It’s not the parent’s responsibility to analyze the match.  Loving the child and understanding effort -- recognizing it and rewarding it -- that’s all a parent needs to do.

Any other lessons Laver taught you?
    He reminded me daily that it’s 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 I’ll tell my student this:  “You’re now going to play the best player in the world, and every serve you hit is going to be the best serve you’ve ever hit in your life, and every return is going to be the best you’ve ever hit.”  Then I’ll ask what would happen in the match.  They’ll answer, “I’ll win O and O, because I’ll ace him every time, and my returns are always hit for winners.”  This, I explain, is what we identify as their potential. v