David Freed, a top contender and active figure in the tennis world for the past forty-five years, won his first tournament in 1926. Since then he has captured many championships, including the Utah title in 1938, the National Senior Championship in 1954, and the National Public Parks Senior Singles in 1957.
He is also a fine coach and was the nonplaying captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1960 and 1961 There is hardly a tennis champion in the intermountain area who doesn’t owe something to David Freed because he originated the first little league tennis program and has remained very active in it.
Mel Young, Ray Moffat, Dave Giles, Anne Nicoll, Mary Frances Watson, and Barbara Bennion interviewed Mr. Freed for the New Era.
Q: Tennis and golf are similar in that it’s easy to get frustrated at first. Do you suggest that a beginner learn from a professional?
Freed: Yes, I think that this more or less gives you a shortcut. But the trouble with going to a professional is that you may become just a lesson-taker and not a player.
You learn to play tennis by playing, I’ve seen teenagers and adults who have taken lessons for two years and have never played a set of tennis, and this is perfectly ridiculous. The first thing I try to get a student to do is to play in sets, and then he starts having fun, in addition to getting development out of it. It’s just like playing the piano: if you’re going to take finger exercises and never learn to play, it’s no fun. It’s the same way with tennis. You want to take lessons; you want to get help. And remember that you can get almost as much help from a book as you can from a pro—not quite as much, of course. But if you’ll combine a book and a pro and a good friend who’ll get out there with you two or three times a week, you’ll come along pretty rapidly.
Q: You’ve been a great tennis teacher most of your life, and you’ve taken small children and taught them to be champions. What do you look for in a young tennis player as a possible future champion?
Freed: Generally, you can see a good athlete at a young age. I always look for the youth who can run fast. Usually he’s the athlete, and usually he turns out to be a good tennis player.
Q: When is the best time of the day to play tennis?
Freed: I usually play tennis at seven o’clock in the morning. That’s when I used to play with my children, because they were bright and fresh in the morning. Then I’d go to work until five o’clock, and afterward I’d go out and play for myself for fun. Most team practices were early in the morning. It’s a nice time to play because you don’t have the heat and there is seldom any wind.
Q: Having helped the Davis Cup team for a couple of .years, could you give us some tips on how a beginner could really improve his game?
Freed: (1) Beginners should practice their strokes in front of a mirror four or five minutes a day. (2) Hitting against a wall is highly recommended. (3) Practice strokes with your partner by rallying rather than by playing sets. (4) Remember that on most ground strokes, you hit up on the ball. (5) After hitting the ball, if you will point your racket where you want the ball to go, you will make sure you are following through correctly. (6) Accuracy and steadiness are more important than speed. (7) In hitting the ball, keep your front foot firmly anchored. (8) Adjust your body distance to the ball with the rear foot. (9) When you start to run for a ball, immediately get your racket in position to make the hit.
Q: Could you talk a little about serving, because right now that’s breaking my game. I’ve been taught to bring the racket behind my head, as close to my head as possible, and for me right now, my most effective serve is when I start higher and swing down on the ball. When I pull it all the way back, I lose my timing and often miss the ball completely; but if I just bring it back slightly, I have a more effective serve.
Freed: Serving is an individual thing. Practically everyone serves differently, and I have had much trouble with my own serve. The best thing I can tell you is to get a bucket of balls and just go out and work at it. Do it over and over again. That’s one thing I used to do when I was playing championship tennis. I’d go out there every morning with a bucket of balls and just serve and serve and serve.
I think the biggest mistake people make is trying to serve too hard. It’s more important to learn your spin; then you can control the ball. Where you place that ball is much more important than the speed with which you hit it. If you learn to get a little bit of spin by coming over the ball, you’ll hit it to your opponent’s backhand and you’ll be a lot better off.
Q: One of the hardest balls for me to hit is a high lob. What is the best way for me to return it?
Freed: You want to hit the ball as close to the net as you can. You shouldn’t let it bounce, because that drives you back in the court, but with a high ball, you sometimes have to let it bounce. If you’re not close to the net, you can’t return the ball with as good an angle. Of course, your form is also important. If you try to swing as you do on a serve, you’re inclined to miss it; but it you keep your racket high and just take half a swing, you have a much better chance of hitting it right.
Q: What is the proper wrist action? Do you want your wrist to bend?
Freed: In tennis you don’t use your wrist on ground strokes. We teach people to hold their wrists rigid with the other hand when they’re beginning. But in a serve you do bend your wrist. You got your spin that way, and it’s best to get a little twist on it.
Q: Is it important to have height on the ball?
Freed: Yes. Hit the ball as high as you can.
Q: The psychology of the other player intrigues me. Do you study them and then change your style for different players?
Freed: Oh, yes. You always want to find your opponent’s weaknesses and play to them. I’ll admit that there’s a certain amount of gamesmanship in tennis. For instance, once I was playing a champion, a fine player. I knew only one thing about him: he was a stereotype player who never varied his style. So when he was serving to me, I would move around and leave a great big hole on my forehand or my backhand. Then just as he’d start to wind up, I’d jump over and close the hole. He didn’t like that; it got on his nerves and hurt his game, and I beat him. I think I beat him because I was a little more flexible. This is just part of tennis. If I play with an opponent who has a weak backhand, I hit everything I can to his backhand.
Q: What do you do to get in shape mentally before a game?
Freed: Everyone is different in that respect. Pressure is an intense thing and hard to actually define. Let me give you an example.
I remember reading about a recent tennis superstar who was going to play in the finals at Wimbledon. He woke up at three or four o’clock in the morning when someone came into his room. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got to go back to sleep for three or four more hours,” and he turned over and went back to sleep. With me, that would have been impossible.
When I was preparing for a match the next day, I’d be tired enough so that I could usually get to sleep; but once I’d get to sleep, if I ever woke up, then my mind would start operating and I’d start mentally playing the match, and I just had no hope of further rest. In fact, many nights I’ve lain in bed before a big match and never slept. I figured I got my rest by just lying down. I’ve seen kids who were the same way. As I got older, I got a little bit better, but I was still excitable. I remember playing in the senior finals at Forest Hills. The fellow I was playing was the defending champ, and he was pretty smart. He won the toss but chose to receive, so I had to serve. When I threw the ball up, my hand was actually shaking so hard I couldn’t let go of the ball. Finally, somehow, I got control of myself and managed to play a pretty fair game.
Many times players lose points by getting what we call the “elbow,” the “steel elbow.” It’s really funny, because I don’t know whether you’re afraid to win or afraid to lose; but you get so scared you’re going to make a mistake that your elbow just won’t let you go. It happens to the greatest players; everybody gets it, to a degree, one time or another.
Q: Experience has a lot to do with that also, doesn’t it?
Freed: Yes, that’s a good point. At one point in my career I said to myself, “Well, I’ve lost plenty of matches by underhitting the ball; from now on, when the big point comes up, I’m going to lose it by overhitting. I’m really going to sock the ball.” So I started losing them by socking the ball! But I really did better in the long run by hitting hard. I lost some good points when I did that, but it loosened me up, and later I won a lot more because I was a little more cool.
Q: What should you do if you get the “elbow”?
Freed: In talking to players and coaches, I’ve found they all agree that it’s a good thing to talk about it and expose it and say, “Maybe I’ll get the ‘elbow.’” It’s better to face it and then get it out of your mind; and, of course, that’s a good rule of psychology anyway.
Q: How important is physical training for a big game? I’ve heard coaches talk about trying to outrun your opponent in a game.
Freed: That’s what I used to do when I was young. I tried to beat people by outrunning them, and I did win many matches that way; but when I played a big hitter who could control a big serve and follow it to the net, he would always beat me. Then I got older and started doing the same thing myself, and I won more than I did when I was trying to outrun my opponents. Today the top college teams do roadwork in addition to their tennis playing. When I was with the Davis Cup team, I had our kids do some running whenever I could. Rope-jumping is another good exercise for tennis players.
Q: What makes the difference between a great champion and an ordinary player?
Freed: The physical equipment that you were born with has as much to do with it as anything. Then you combine that with the right mental attitude and the great determination that you need so much and always see in great champions.
Q: It’s so quiet when you’re watching a match. Can you feel the tension?
Freed: Well, I built up pressure within myself. I always did. So I guess it didn’t matter whether anyone was watching or not. If there were a million people watching, I don’t think the tension level would have gone up. This inner pressure was one of my biggest faults, and it was one of the things I was always fighting.
Q: Do left-handers have an advantage or a disadvantage?
Freed: I’ve always thought they had an advantage, and yet when you look at the records, there have been very few great stars who were left-handed, probably because most people are right-handed. But left-handers can sure make it miserable for right-handers if they know how to curve the ball in to them or slice it in to them.
Q: What should a player do when he comes up against a good left-hander?
Freed: A left-hander always seems to hit into your backhand or hit the ball so that it curves in to you. I got used to playing against left-handers, and I always did pretty well against them, just because I had the right kind of mental attitude. That’s very important. Tennis is quite an emotional game. What you think you can do, you often can. You need confidence and concentration and a good mental attitude.
Q: What about control on the tennis court? I’ve seen friends occasionally lose control and throw their racket on the ground.
Freed: A lot of potentially great tennis players don’t make it because they can’t control their emotions on the court. You know you are under close scrutiny when you are playing tennis. A lot can happen on a football field that the fans never see, but spectators can even tell what a tennis player is saying under his breath.
I think they should and will eventually have technical fouls in tennis, just as they do in basketball, for losing control. I’ve seen some kids start out to be great tennis players, but they never became champions because they couldn’t learn to lose—they couldn’t take the pressure. Thank goodness I was able to teach my children to lose. If they lost a match, okay. It was over; forget about it and go on to the next one.
I think that’s one of life’s great lessons that you can learn from sports. I say can learn because obviously everybody doesn’t learn it.
Q: What would you say to a Mormon who wanted to really get involved in the game?
Freed: Living your religion could only help you be a better tennis player. And, of course, if you ever became good enough and wanted to join the tennis circuit, you wouldn’t have the big problem of playing on Sunday as you do in other sports. One other thing—remember that the Word of Wisdom is a great asset. Living it will not only help a person be a better tennis player, but it is also essential if you are going to be a healthy person.