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Chris Lewis Tennis Interview

Chris Lewis (1983 Men's Singles Wimbledon Finalist) was kind enough to join us in the Tennis4you Forums for a Q&A session. Below you will find the questions asked by our forum members and Chris Lewis' responses. Tennis4you would like to thank Chris Lewis for the time he spent answering the questions below, we enjoyed every minute of it!

Chris Lewis is also the webmaster of www.tennis-experts.com and also has an online tennis store at www.tennis-experts.com

Chris, some day when you have time, will you tell us a little about your encounter with the super brat (Johnny Mac)? I remember Kevin Curren (the guy you beat up on at Wimbledon), a South African who was an all American at university of Texas if my memory serves me correctly. He must have been tough with his monster serve on grass. Finally, did you ever play Borg? What was he like?

Chris Lewis: Yes, I played Bjorn once (on clay in the quarters of the Swedish Open in the late '70's). I lost 7-6 6-3. I also toured with him in an exhibition series playing him a number of times throughout Asia & New Zealand at the end of '83. And I often practiced with him on the court at his house on Long Island when he was living in New York. He even wrote the introduction to a book I released in New Zealand in the early 80's.

Bjorn was one of the few tennis players who achieved rock star status around the world. Like Vitas Gerulaitis, it didn't matter where you were, Bjorn turned heads. But he wasn't a publicity seeking sort of guy at all. In fact, just the opposite. In true Swedish fashion, he was -- and I imagine still is -- private and reserved. On the court, he possessed an iron will that wasn't all that evident off it, unless you spent some time around him.

He was an incredibly driven, single-minded, individual who was universally liked by the rest of the guys on the tour.

Tennisfan78: Chris, along with your other successes, I have noticed that you played Cincinnati Masters Final in 1981 with Johnny Mac. I would love to hear your experiences.

Chris Lewis: First, I played John three times -- final of Cincinnati ('81), semis of Queens ('82), final of Wimbledon ('83). I lost all three matches. What made him so extraordinarily difficult to play was his ability to hold the ball later than everybody else. You'd commit to moving one way, he'd go the other.

I could get around the court pretty quickly, and had decent anticipation, but John successfully neutralized those aspects of my play with his uncanny ability to delay his swing until I was sure he'd committed to a shot in a particular direction only to see him hit it in another.

Even though I'd seen him play numerous times, I didn't appreciate just how good he was until I was up the other end of the court. Each time I played him, it was in the later rounds when he was hitting the ball well. Having also played Bjorn, Jimmy, and Ivan, I found John to be the most difficult opponent. His unique style, combined with being a left hander, meant that you never played anybody with even a remotely similar game. Needless to say, this made life very difficult when you played him.

Kickserve: You talked about Mac's game, what was it like facing his personality? Did he 'act up' in any of encounters?

Chris Lewis: In the final of Cincinnati, a reasonably close match (From memory I had eight or nine break points, he had two), which he won 6-4, 6-3, I remember serving an ace, which the umpire overruled in John's favor. Get this...John yelled at the umpire on my behalf! The umpire wouldn't budge, and I'm pretty sure that John tanked the second serve return. There were also other occasions in the match when John let the umpire know what he felt about him.

For sure, the way he was on court did add something extra to a match that you had to contend with, but during the three matches I had with him, he never gave me reason to complain about anything he did. Got to say here, too, that I got on very well with him off the court. In fact, when he played an exhibition in New Zealand a few years ago, upon my request, he went a long way out of his way to help a charitable organization that I was involved with.

Regarding his personality, one of the many interesting things about John was that he never treated Bjorn with anything other than with the utmost respect. However, there were many guys who were literally driven crazy by his antics. And they weren't shy to express their feelings towards him in the locker room after the match.

TennisFan: Hi Chris, glad to have someone who'd been in the competition. I read somewhere on the net that you reached rank 19 in singles. You also coached Ivan Lendl and C U Steeb. I wonder if you want to put your thoughts into the level of competition in today's tennis as opposed to the 80's and 90's? Many thanks.

Chris Lewis: There's no question that in absolute terms tennis has moved on. However, the technology is different; the racquets are different, the strings are different, the balls are different, even the surfaces are different.

Personally, I don't think that it's possible to objectively compare one era with another. To do so, you have to completely drop the context of the conditions that prevailed in a particular era compared with another era.

For example, take Borg. He played his career with a wooden racquet that was extremely heavy as it had an extra layer of laminated reinforcement around the head in order to support his string tension of 80lbs. Bear in mind that the head size of the old Donnay (a heavy racquet to begin with) that he played with was 70 something square inches. That's the equivalent of stringing a mid or mid plus frame today at an enormously high tension. I'm just guessing, but likely somewhere in the vicinity of 95lbs in a 100 sq" head.

If you were to put the same Donnay racquet in the hands of one of today's promising juniors, he or she wouldn't be able to play with it. They wouldn't be able to maneuver it properly, and neither would they get the ball to behave anywhere near like what they were used to. They would have to adapt to playing a completely different game in order to win points.

My point being that the context was vastly different twenty five years ago. To a huge extent, the racquets (& strings) limited what you could do compared to today.

In the mid to late 70's & early 80's, it just wasn't possible to generate the sort of power that you can today. It required a different approach. With the arrival of Borg on the scene, generally speaking, juniors developed games that enabled them to construct points by relying more on consistency and accuracy rather than power. Heavy topspin and solid baseline play became more prevalent. Vilas, Solomon, Dibbs, Wilander, Clerc & many others were all top players who belonged in this category. Many matches turned into wars of attrition.

(As an aside, I've got to add that this is a complex question, making a short summation virtually impossible. I say this as there were also many pros in the early 80's that didn't fit into the baseline mold. My observations are generalizations at best. My intention is to convey my impression of what were emerging styles that were evident during a particular period. I fully realize that there were numerous counter-examples of the atypical 80's baseliner, with Johnny Mac being an obvious example.)

By comparison to the mid 70's & mid 80's, in the 60's and early seventies, when Australians were very dominant, serve & volley tennis was the order of the day. Much of that had to do with the number of tournaments that were played on grass. And much of it also had to do with the aggressive approach of great Australian players like Laver, Hoad, Rosewall, Emerson, Newcombe & Roche, all of whom volleyed as well or better than anybody in the history of the game (settle down guys). It was fascinating to watch the game make the transition from the s&v style of the Australian greats to the baseline games of Jimmy & Bjorn.

And then, when Ivan came along, he upped the power level. He had flatter, harder shots, and a particularly lethal forehand that he used very effectively to take early control of a point before closing it out with a forehand winner off a short ball.

In the 90's, when Pete dominated, he had much more in common with the Australian style of play. During this era, a player who had even more in common with the Lavers & Rosewalls was Pat Rafter. To me, Pat was a throwback to the 60's and 70's. Don't get me wrong, I don't say this in a derogatory sense, just the opposite. Pat was a *great* player who was more than competitive in the 90's, but also a player who I envisioned fitting in very comfortably at the top of game with previous Australian greats thirty years earlier. With his style of play, when comparing him to players in the 60's, I almost felt as if I *were* comparing apples with apples.

As far as today's players go, I would say Federer is as complete a package as the game has ever seen. But I wouldn't go as far as to say he is the best. I just don't know. It's an entirely subjective call. To me, it comes down to context. Would Roger have beaten Pete or Bjorn or Laver when they were all at their best, and in conditions that created a level playing field for all? Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Britbox: Hi Chris. A bit of a coup for tennis4you.com getting a Wimbey finalist on board! I remember your Wimbledon final well. Would you rank making it to the final as your most satisfying achievement in tennis? Also, I didn't know you worked with Lendl - how did you find that?

Chris Lewis: As for your first question -- yes.

Re Ivan: I spent three years working with him.

It was both a thoroughly enjoyable & memorable experience. We've kept in touch over the years. In fact I saw him a couple of months ago. He hasn't changed one bit. Intelligent, ambitious and *always* purposeful. He could be the most goal-oriented person I've ever met.

Anyway, he spent an afternoon with me watching and giving advice to promising young players in a junior tennis program I'm closely involved with in California. He was absolutely superb.

Tennis4you: I want to know what you did the day/night before the 1983 Wimbledon finals. Did you practice much? Did you get much sleep or were you up most of the night like I assume most players are. Even Federer before this last USO win said he had problems sleeping the night before the finals and he is suppose to be an expert at it by now.

Chris Lewis: The night before the final, I ate dinner with Tony Roche and a few friends, during which we discussed the following day's strategy. In London, the public attention I was receiving everywhere I went was staggering. My semi-final against Kevin Curren was a long five setter and had drawn a wide television audience. I slept okay, unlike the night before the 16's as I didn't get a minute's sleep.

My daily pre-match routine involved an hour's warm up at 10:00am, but after missing a night's sleep, it was tempting to opt out of practice and instead try to sleep.

I ended up sticking to my routine, & then grabbed some sleep on the floor of a bath cubicle in the Wimbledon locker room. After being 0-40 down on my serve in the first game, I won 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. Hardly missed a ball.

Hercules: Great stuff there Chris. That super brat really was born to play the game. He also picked up 77 doubles titles which showed that there was nothing he could not do on the court. I remember some players saying that the best doubles team is Johnny Mac and anybody he plays doubles with.

By the way, is Peter Snell a big name in New Zealand

Chris Lewis:
Huge. He was voted NZ's sportsperson of the 20th century. I've met Peter on a number of occasions as I sit on the Board of an organization called the Peter Snell Institute. It's an entity that raises and distributes funds to promising young athletes.

Dmastous: Can you see serve/volley as a consistent tactic (ala Pete Sampras' early days, John McEnroe or Paul Annacone) being successful again. I have to say I feel it's would be nearly impossible to succeed with such a style in today's tennis with the variety of shot available to today's players, both from the middle of the baseline, or on the run.

Chris Lewis: I think it's still possible. However, it's hard to imagine a young player developing a successful enough serve and volley game to take him or her to the very top in the current environment. Today, winning in the juniors with serve and volley tennis is also virtually impossible.

And as the S&V game takes longer to fully mature than one played from the baseline, the chances of seeing a dominant serve and volleyer in the near to medium future are certainly not high. Guess that puts me in the "nearly impossible" category with you.

OSUBuckeye: Hey Chris, I am wondering if you still play much or are you too busy with everything else? By the way, what is the everything else nowadays?

Chris Lewis: I still spend a stack of time on court. I love working with promising juniors, doing what I can do to help them realize their ambitions. Since arriving in California two years ago, I've been heavily involved with a wonderful junior program at the Woodbridge Tennis Club in Irvine, Orange County, Southern Cal.

I also own an online tennis equipment business called Tennis-Experts.com, and I run the pro shop at Woodbridge. I also publish my own tennis site, Expert-Tennis-Tips, which I would classify as my hobby.

Every spare second that I have, I spend with my wife and three children, aged 14, 11 & 9. Almost forgot, I also have to find the time to walk the dog. He's waiting for me now.

Hercules: I enjoyed your post about the intricacies of Johnny Mac's game. He really could hold that ball for the longest time on his racquet. That also explains why he strung those racquets with such little tension. I think something like 50 pounds. Contrast that with Borg's racquets which were strung at 80 pounds+.

After having seen Nadal play Nalbandian today and Murray yesterday, what would you conclude about his hard court game? Is there hope for him and should he even worry about being proficient on hard courts?

My take is that the mechanics of his heavy topspin strokes just do not work out on fast hard courts. The ball sits up and these cats today have the ability to take it early go for the first strike advantage. They also do it on their serves and their return games. The name of the game on fast hard courts is to be assault minded and capitalize on the first strike advantage or somebody else will. The only person who won't is Nadal and it is because he can't. Not having a much of serve and relatively weak return puts him at a massive disadvantage from the start. What are your thoughts? Thanks in advance.

Chris Lewis: Re Nadal, I was too busy to watch him play this week. But, interestingly, one of the questions that was put to Ivan Lendl when he visited my club recently was how he thought he would compare with Nadal. First of all, Ivan prefaced his comments by saying that he thought the standard is much higher now than when he was playing. But he also said that of the top players, he would find Nadal the easiest to play.

Ivan's reasoning was that he thought neither he nor Nadal would have any physical advantage, but that he, Ivan, would be able to hurt Nadal more than Nadal could hurt him. And I would wholeheartedly agree with that. One of Ivan's strengths was his ability to take control of a point, and then progressively force his opponent into either an error or to hit short, in which case Ivan would (usually) hit an inside-out or inside-in forehand for a winner. On a hard court, for the reasons you state above, I can't see how Nadal could have prevented this from happening.

When it comes to tennis analysis involving himself, Ivan is as objective as it's possible to be. When evaluating and subsequently commenting on his perception of how he sees things, the only thing of interest to him is the facts. He's as straight a shooter as you'll ever meet.

Kittens25: Is the reason the serve-volley game is now dieing off completely when it was in such strong prominence back in the 60s, and both the 70s and 80s when you played, just due to the players themselves and being a period where the players are less proficient at that type of game? Or is it some other factor, be it the surfaces, the increased power of the game with the upgraded technology and equipment making it harder to employ that game (along with many more players developing the two handed backhand due to the much more baseline-oriented game style of today), or maybe even the way the game is being coached today?

Right now almost everyone is a baseliner. So who is on top comes down to who has best baseline game, which right now is Federer and Nadal, and to an extent Djokovic, so they are on top since the baseline game seems to be all there is today.

Chris Lewis: Kittens, this serve and volley issue is really an interesting one. For there to be such a swing away from serve & volley tennis, there have to be very good reasons. The difficulty is identifying what the reasons are. The question I ask myself is whether there is a *fundamental* reason; i.e., is there a single reason that gives rise to all the other factors that have led to the decline in S & V to the point where it's virtually extinct?

For instance, let's say it -- the fundamental reason -- was the slowing down of the courts, which was brought about as the answer to the criticism that was being directed towards the game because many were saying it had become boring. Even Wimbledon has slowed the grass down considerably in order to deflect criticism of "rallies being too short," and that "tennis has become nothing but a serving competition," etc.

Now, as a result of slowing down the courts, let's say that players who were previously winning with a S & V game all of a sudden started losing to players whom they could previously beat. Inevitably, those players would have to change their games if they wanted to remain competitive.

To concretize the dramatic effect that different surfaces have on players' games, you don't have to look any further back than the example of a totally-dominant-everywhere-else Pete Sampras being unable to win the French. Now, if there's an international tendency towards slower courts around the globe, it has to have a dramatic impact on the way tennis is played, in the same way that Pete would have had to adjust/change his game if tennis were suddenly played on clay for 12 months of the year.

There's no question that, generally speaking, guys (or girls) who develop their games on slower courts tend to play a different game than players who were brought up on faster courts. With (much) slower courts having now become more universal, juniors today don't even get to see examples of players who served and volleyed, unlike Sampras who, when he was a junior, would study videos of Laver.

Just wanted to pause for a second to say that I absolutely am not offering what I've said above as the definitive reason for the death of S & V, I'm putting forward some food for thought out of which I'm sure we'll get many different opinions. At the end of the day, we'll all most likely come to different conclusions, but they'll hopefully be more informed opinions than yesterday or last week.

Kittens, in further answer to your original question(s), I just wanted to list a few of my own observations of what I think have also contributed to the dominance of baseline tennis:

  • Grips...The trend (started by Borg) toward the semi-western/western grips (unnatural to volley with)
  • Prevalence of two handed backhands (incompatible with backhand volley)
  • Slice backhand quite often not taught anymore (slice backhand/backhand volley go hand in hand.
  • For juniors, lighter, more powerful racquets make finishing a point with aggressive groundstrokes far easier and less risky than venturing to the net to close out a point (less incentive to develop approaches & volleys)
  • Strings...Luxilon and its equivalents allowing players to take giant swings, yet still able to maintain control of their shots (making it easier to pass & making it even more difficult to come to the net for fear of being passed)
  • Generally speaking, for a number of years, junior development coaches (many of whom now can't volley themselves) have devoted far less time to teaching volley technique than in the past (far fewer junior players developing competent volleys).
  • Aside from the introduction of slower bouncing courts, there's also been examples of the introduction of higher bouncing surfaces like Rebound Ace at the Australian Open (far more difficult to hit a penetrating, low bouncing volley). In Australia, the impact of digging up most of the grass courts around the country had to have a massive impact on the way tennis is now played there. And it sure has.

Tennisfan78: Chris, it was a true pleasure to hear your opinions. we appreciate it very much. I don't know if you have time to answer any more, but I would like to know what was the most memorable experience you had as a player???

Chris Lewis: The elation I felt as I watched Kevin Curren's return go wide on match point on center court in the 1983 Wimbledon semi-final. When I served for the match at 7-6 in the fifth, I was down 15-40 & then another breakpoint at ad out. I then won three points in a row. As I came out of the chair to serve for the match, I had goose-bumps and my hair felt as if it were standing on end.

Hercules: Chris did you ever play the mad man (james scott connors)? What impressed you the most about him?

Chris Lewis: I played Jimmy once -- at Wimbledon in 1981. I lost 7-6, 7-6, 7-3. There was only one break in the match.

His return impressed me the most...and his *fiercely* competitive nature.

Britbox: Just a quick one - what did you think of Stefan Edberg as a player (I believe you met once when he was a young buck)

Chris Lewis: Stefan was one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. I doubt there was anybody on the tour who disliked him. He was exactly the same in private as he was in public. Both on the court and off, he was a class act.

And yes, he surprised me the first year he entered the pros. As I was playing him, I recognized that it was a foregone conclusion that he had a brilliant career ahead of him. Among other things, his coverage at the net was extraordinary.

Kittens25: What was your biggest head to head win ever, as far as a specific player you beat?

Chris Lewis: I had a hot patch mid-late '78. In the quarters of Kitzbuhel, I beat Vilas on clay 6-1 6-4, (then Clerc in the semis 6-1 6-2, and Zednik in the final 6-1 6-4 6-0). I won the tournament losing 19 games, and also won the doubles.

After a pretty successful US summer circuit that year, I injured my shoulder badly. I couldn't serve or hit backhands for six months, then couldn't play on a fast surface (no serve) for well over a year. It took another year after that, to get back to anywhere near where I was. '79 & '80 were two extremely difficult years.