When Bruce Wright watched a tennis match, he didn’t watch the monotonous back-and-forth action of the ball. He was more interested in the person hitting — specifically, 40 years ago, he was interested in Rod Laver.
Wright took a break from coaching gymnastics at the Naval Academy in Richmond, Va., and took in a tennis tournament. It was then that he noticed something peculiar in Laver’s stance. It was something an eye untrained in floor exercise may never have noticed at all.
"My eyes stayed on Laver," Wright said. "I don’t even know who he played against that night. My eye was watching the person."
Because Wright, a former nationally ranked gymnast at Springfield College, was accustomed to watching tumblers, he was attuned to noticing the way Laver moved as he prepared to hit the ball. When Laver got into his set, he didn’t crouch. He didn’t bend his knees and get down. He stood tall, producing a high center of gravity and minimizing the movement of the lower portion of his body.
"The tennis coach never sees the movement part of it — they see a person hit, but the movement goes on in between," said Wright, now a volunteer assistant tennis coach at Harvard. "Gymnastics just gave me a perspective that was different."
Laver’s set was different, to say the least. Tennis players, from the day they step on the court for the very first time, are taught to do the exact opposite. But Laver was doing something that worked, and Wright made it his mission to find out why.
Though the tennis paradigm — and common sense — preached the opposite, Wright had seen proof that the body was quicker from a higher center of gravity. Wright had seen Laver prove the method worked. Now, he needed to do the research and the testing to prove that the method held firm.
"We get tricked by common sense very often," Wright said. "We have to do valid testing [to prove] what works as opposed to what appears to work."
Try telling that to the players, who have been taught their whole lives that a low center of gravity is the way to go.
"The challenge," Wright said, "is the 'authorities' are teaching the opposite."
That was the biggest obstacle. Tennis aficionados could appreciate the high set method, but they weren’t going to adopt it. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe it worked for Laver and for Laver only. Just because one guy did something that completely contradicts the basic principles of the sport and it happened to work doesn’t mean that it has to become the new paradigm.
Or does it?
"I, more than anyone, play the devil’s advocate," Wright said. "I never want to be right. I want to know what was right. I want to know what works best."
Wright embarked upon years and years of testing and experimenting. He needed verification, and lo and behold, he found it.
"If you took a look at the best tennis players in history — the cream of the crop — they will exhibit extremely high centers," Wright said. In fact, there has only been one player — one — who did as well from the low set. Former World No. 1 Stefan Edberg was the sole exception.
"There’s empirical evidence [it works]," Wright said.
Wright discovered that the high set not only works "without exception," but it dramatically reduces stress upon the knees, which could result in elongated, more successful careers for those who abide by it.
Moreover, the high set allows for more consistency.
"It allows the first step to be quicker in initiating motion … and moving out to the ball," Wright said.
In addition to improving quickness and agility, it lessens the potential for injury.
And yet, despite the overwhelming proof, there’s still resistance.
Wright’s old acquaintance, Harvard tennis coach Dave Fish, bought into the method. He saw it as a way to put his own players a cut above the competition, and he invited Wright to share his expertise with his squad. The Crimson became the guinea pigs. They could be the team that proves to the mainstream that the high set works.
But still, the players were skeptical.
"There was great resistance on the part of many, to the point where [the method] did not have the impact that it should have," Wright said. "Those youngsters who did fully commit were the ones who did make huge advances."
And then there were the contrarians, the ones who were hesitant to abandon everything they had been taught in the name of this radical new method, empirical evidence or not.
Wright, however, understands. It’s a risk. He just wishes more would see the reward.
"Some are very au contraire," he said. "But these are young people, and I love them all, and all I can do is give the information and hope for the best."