Don’t Jump!

Stay with me here: I promise, this DOES have something to do with writing.

The other day a tennis partner told me that he’d recently reworked his serve. “I was trying to jump when I serve, the way the pros do, but at 37, I’m getting too old for that.”

Here’s the thing: despite the visual evidence above, the pros don’t jump. In order to hit a serve in excess of 125 miles per hour, they have to use the most powerful muscles in their bodies. Those are, by far, the muscles in their legs . So what a pro is trying to accomplish when he is serving is to use his lower body to thrust up, driving the upper body, including the arm holding the racket, into the ball with maximum force. It is perhaps a subtle distinction, but an important one. That their feet leave the ground on the serve is a byproduct of the forces at work, not the point of them. Amateurs who see the pros on TV will see the leap and try to imitate it by jumping first, then hitting the ball. This creates a serve that is almost impossible to time correctly, and does nothing to increase the force of the serve. They jump, then swing. Little or none of the force of the jump transmits to the service motion.

As soon as this occurred to me, I realized its connection to my previous post.  I was talking about why it is that when a writer is trying to write powerfully, that writer fails miserably.  Good writing is simply the ability to focus on a powerful idea or image and find the most effective possible way to convey it. The power is in the idea itself, and only purpose of the writing is to insure that that power is conveyed fully and succinctly to the reader.

In an almost identical sense, the impressive leap skyward of a great tennis serve is not about leaving the ground, but the ability of that upward thrust of hamstring, quad and calf muscles to communicate power to the swinging arm. In fact in tennis, just as in writing, the less tension and conscious effort in the motion, the bigger the serve.


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