Review of "Tennis Viewpoints" by Robert Llewellyn
by Ran Coble
If you are a tennis player or fan, this is a book for you.
If you are a fan of great photography, this is a book for
Robert Llewellyn is one of America's great photographers.
He also loves playing tennis and learning from more than 10
teachers, usually pros, in the Charlottesville, Virginia area who
also coach at the University of Virginia. He has combined what he
has learned about tennis over the years with two-page spreads of
one-sentence lessons and photos that illustrate the lesson.
For example, one lesson is "Deal with what comes over
the net. Whatever" that is paired with a picture of a tennis ball
poised on the top of the net. It could fall over on your side - with
you losing the point - or it could fall on your opponent's side - so
you win the point. How he got the shot of the ball poised for a
second that way, I'll never know.
Most tennis books are boring instructional books,
reminiscences by famous pros, or tales by sports writers
describing the drama behind the pro tour. This is more for the
player who wants to learn and improve, and it gives us two ways
to remember the lesson, both visually and with one-sentence
I love the organizing principle for the book - what he has
learned from different teachers - and how that builds over the
course of the book. That makes it a story and also illustrates the
value of having different teachers or coaches over time. I have
always wondered how many more Grand Slam tournaments
Caroline Wozniacki and Michael Chang would have won if they
had had other coaches besides her father and his brother,
I also love the quotes by non-tennis players scattered
through the book - by Jefferson, Hemingway, Confucius, and
Pablo Casal - that make us think about how we learn. For
example, the Confucius quote is "I hear and I forget. I see and I
remember. I do and I understand." Perfect for tennis.
Another enjoyable feature of the book is Llewellyn's
humor, sometimes in the photo and sometimes in the text. For
the warning about getting angry on court, there is a picture of a
crying baby and the comment by a British tennis TV announcer:
"Don't throw your rattle out of the pram." For the warning about
being mean or grumpy, he advises, "Don't be. No one will want to
play with you" and pairs it with a picture of a rattlesnake.
Llewellyn has made magic with his books of photos about
Monticello, the National Cathedral, Virginia's landscape in aerial
photographs, and Washington, DC. The D.C. volume was once
used as a gift to visiting foreign dignitaries by the White House
and the U.S. State Department - that's how good and how
beautiful it is. The magic in the photos here is in shots of a tennis
ball on racquet strings, a spinning ball to illustrate topspin, a
human body full of nerve endings to demonstrate the value of
warming up, and an impending thunderstorm to emphasize
playing the conditions. But, my favorite photo is the one that goes
with "Explode off the racket." Check it out.
Llewellyn also once told me that he thought photography
and tennis had many parallels. To be good at both, he said, "Hit a
million balls and make a million exposures."
There also is wisdom in his tennis lessons. For example,
the advice of "Aim for the line. It will go out" is exactly right.
That's why you hear TV tennis commentators advise to aim for
"big targets" well inside the lines. I learned this the hard way
when one of my coaches once told me to try to aim drop shots for
the top of the net as a way of hitting the shot really close to the
net, but when I would succeed in doing that, half of my
"successes" would drop back on my side.
My wife, who played college tennis at UNC-CH, also
laughed ruefully at Llewellyn's advice to "Beware of getting
compliments," because she used to lose to an inferior player who
would compliment her on a particular shot and then ask her how
she hit it. The result was that she would start thinking about how
she hit the ball rather than just relying on muscle memory for her
The simplicity of the two-page layouts counters the
mistake that I see too many tennis teachers make of talking too
much or having a player work on too many things at a time. The
mind and body just can't handle remembering and doing multiple
tasks on the same stroke. So, if you hear a pro advising a pupil on
the serve - to use a straight arm toss without bending the wrist,
swing like throwing a baseball, arch your back, bring your back
foot up, and hit around the outside of the ball - that may all be
correct, but it's too much hay to feed the horse at the same time.
Llewellyn's plan of focusing on one thing at a time is much better.
My favorite lesson is the two-page spread that has
"Instinct - use yours" on the left and "Attitude - choose yours" on
the right. But, that may change. My viewpoint of tennis may
change with years and experience and hitting that next ball - and,
a re-read of this wonderful book.
Ran Coble has been playing tennis since his father taught him at 12
years old. He has been ranked in North Carolina and the South for
several decades. He loves seeking pickup tennis games in other
countries as a way to meet people and explore their cultures.