A rundown tennis club (and that’s putting it politely) in a freezing climate which, with one indoor court, has in recent years produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States. (Yes, you read that correctly.) My 2006 visit to Spartak—the original article is here—helped inspire the book.
Inside the Hothouse: Audio Slideshow
Spartak can be summed up in one word: tekhnika (technique). Every moment, every resource is devoted to helping players with the most essential task: hitting the ball correctly. Or, to put it a different way, to building a reliable, fast skill circuit. To do this, they
- Slow it down. Just like the violinists at Meadowmount, the Spartak players do their swings in slow-motion. All players also follow the same warmup routine—which starts with simple eye-hand drills where they bounce the ball and catch it—whether they are five years old or, as I saw, a world top-ten player.
- Imitate. They swing without the ball quite a lot, a drill called imitatsiya. The ball, in their view, is a distraction. The point is to make the swing—to fire the circuit properly.
- Games can wait. The rule at Spartak is that players can only compete after three years of practice – a rule that would never fly in the states, but which, if you think of it in terms of skill circuits, makes perfect sense. Competition introduces a gigantic new variable, where skill circuits matter less than the score. As a Spartak coach told me, “Technique is everything. If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!”