The Disruptor

The Disruptor: Joel Drucker
The Disruptor: Joel Drucker
In January, I wrote about a singles match that was, according to my brother, “like watching a root canal.” That is because my opponent was someone who wouldn’t let me play my game.

Just such a player is my good friend and fellow Newk Camper, famous tennis writer Joel Drucker. Author of the book “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life,” Joel lives in Oakland.

I asked him to write a piece about life “from The Disruptor’s side of the net” and here is his very enlightening explanation of his style of play…

The Disruptor

Though there is no scientific proof for this, my belief is that every tennis player is issued one genetic gift. Some have innate foot speed. Others are naturally smooth. Others are powerful.

My gift: disruption. Win or lose, my opponents rarely feel they have played particularly well.

Favorite shots of mine include the chip-charge, the lob over the net man, the sneak attack, the carved angle volley hit behind the opponent, joy in taking pace off the ball, the cheese doodle slice approach and groundstrokes of various height, spin and pace. And yes, I’m a southpaw. Call my game a vast left wing conspiracy.

Offense or Defense?

Dare call this style “defensive” at your own peril. Mine is a West Coast offense: dink-and-dunk, persistent probing for soft spots and delicate but diligent forward movement. Once upon a time there was a TV show called “Columbo,” featuring a disheveled detective who pinpricked the arrogant villain with one question after another. It was delightful to see how at the end the villain would attest to his guilt with nary a trace of violence. I’m screwed. It’s over. Take me to jail.

My tennis model is John McEnroe, the man Arthur Ashe called a “stiletto” rather than a sledgehammer. Death by paper cut.

There Are Lessons For All of You

You might be tempted after reading my riff that there is little in it for you. Like many ambitious players, you seek to strike the ball with sustained force. You have repeatedly hit against ball machines, taken lessons and watched many videos.

From your vantage point, my playing style is a foreign planet populated by ghastly creatures you disdain with such lefthanded (sic) terms as “junk,” “off-pace” and “spinny.”

But why not learn to alter speeds yourself? Is it truly so hard to hit a moonball approach shot, take pace off a backhand and carve a slice, roll a crosscourt forehand angle or occasionally decide to crack one hard down-the-line?

Consistency vs. Variety

While I’m at it, let’s also take a crack at the narcissism of students and instructors who learn in a vacuum, who place a premium on striking every ball the same way. Call me when you see the instructional video that suggests you hit three straight balls with different speeds and paces.

The result of this self-focused bludgeoning is a failure to acknowledge that there is someone else across the net. Tennis is a not an individual sport. It is a relationship sport. The two opponents are bound together in a dance, a dance where your mission is to trip the other dude in the same way a baseball pitcher mixes up his pitches and a basketball player makes a guy who shoots better from the left side move to the right. As ten-time Grand Slam champion Bill Tilden wrote many years ago, “Never give your opponent a chance to hit a shot he likes. . . . the primary object of tennis is to break up your opponent’s game.”

Researching an article informally titled “Winning Ugly, Revisited,” I interviewed the man who coined that phrase, Brad Gilbert. I asked Gilbert for his thoughts on a certain tour player who enjoyed slicing his backhand short, occasionally chipped his forehand and served darn well but not quite as fast as many rivals. “I know who you’re talking about,” said Gilbert. “It’s Roger Federer.” Fancy that: winning ugly pretty. Federer – a supreme disruptor.

Thanks to Joel. Are you a Disruptor or have you been a victim (like me)?

Know someone who should read this? Send them a link and if you are not on my “new posting alert email list” and want to be (I promise, no other uses of your email address!), just drop me a note at

My Book: and if you’d like to get a copy of “Senior Tennis”, just click on the link on the upper right of this web page.

8 thoughts on “The Disruptor

  1. Nice article Joel. I admire your thoughtful Tennis play and have seen it first hand.

    You always seem to put your own interests above your opponents!


  2. Have a few of those in my group!! Often my partner will “lose” it mentally and then make the comment “we don’t want her playing in our games!!” Often the disruptor wins the match which adds to the grief.

    Marty, I think they win more than they lose! thanks, george

  3. To me the fun of tennis is using a variety of shots and figuring out what you have to do to find your opponents weakness. One element is to try to master most of the shots so that if you need to hit a topspin backhand passing shot, drop shot, loopy you can execute them. One reason I dislike grass besides poor footing without grasscourt shoes, is you are limited to one main style of play , serve & volley. If you are lucky to play at Wimbledon, you might get to hit some groundstrokes, but most US grass is bumpy and low bounce. I digress, I agree with Joel and our pros are mostly bang and more bang. Alicia Keys being a good example.

    Larry, and you tried to teach me the open-faced slice forehand approach, which i still haven’t mastered! thanks, george

  4. In a follow-up email this morning, Joel and i shared this…

    I played singles yesterday vs. a guy who used to be top ten in hardcourts. Beat him easily and he said, “you kept the ball deep in the corners and didn’t let me hit my shots.” So, I guess I too am A Dispruptor!!

    At heart, I’ve been told by several world class players, it’s ALL disruption.
    – some do it with consistency
    – some do it with power
    – some with a mix of all

  5. Love this!
    I also enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out what my opponent doesn’t like and then serving up a steady diet of whatever that is. I actually run through a series of checks at the beginning of a match against someone new to identify their tendencies.

    Do they prefer hitting high groundstrokes or low ones, do they rush the net at any opportunity or will they never leave the baseline? And usually, if I pay attention, my opponent will show me their weakness by going out of their way to avoid it. Running around obvious backhands or failing to attack the net on a short ball.

    But I’ve always thought there is a metric missing in tennis for a ‘forced error.’

    If I know my opponent hates high backhands for example, and I keep rolling them up there high and deep and he keeps missing them, well its not really a winner for me since he could have hit it back, but yet, while he might consider it an unforced error, I’ve successfully exploited a weakness, so it seems I should get some credit for that!

    Jon, I have felt the same way for a long time! Thanks, George

  6. Jon makes a great point, connected to one I’ve often brought up with my media colleagues: Rarely is there such a thing as an unforced error. Having to field an incoming high ball to one’s backhand and then missing the backhand is scarcely unforced error. Or: missing an approach shot wide versus a very fast opponent. Indeed, as Jon noted, pressure is applied in many ways.

  7. I think my favorite example of this is the ability to ‘force’ a double fault.
    Not through unfair distraction or anything untoward, but just through pressure. I like to try to ‘SABR’ a second serve or two early in the match, typically when I’m ahead in the game and have a point to spare. Maybe I blow it and back off, but if I can win one, then maybe another one, all the sudden my opponent starts worrying about it. Maybe he backs off his first serve a bit to make sure it goes in, or maybe he tries to overhit the next second serve to keep me away, but either way I’ve started to get ‘in his head’ and if I’m lucky he starts blaming himself for ‘not having a good day’ which, as Joel mentions above, shows he is only thinking about himself and not me. And once he has decided he is having a bad day, which many vocal opponents will pretty much let you know outright as they rant and rave to make themselves feel better, well that generally means I’m having a good day!

    Jon, this is one of my favorite things to do! Emmo taught me to “show him your forehand” and stand in the alley when returning an important second serve. Close to half the time, it brings out a double fault. George

  8. I love sensing what annoys my opponent. I particularly enjoy knowing when they are uncomfortable inside the service line. Players that struggle with, or lack confidence on the volley …Then I try and chip short angle slices, dinks etc. bring him in, lob him, and so forth. Great blog George!

    Jim, the Thanks go to Joel for his great piece of writing! george

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