Simon Ramo’s Guide to Playing ‘Smart Up’ Tennis

Times Staff Writer

“Strategy,” Simon Ramo says, “is a route to achieving your objectives.”

One of his current objectives is to win more often at tennis, and he has developed a strategy toward that end. Only the unwary would dismiss this news lightly, for Ramo has an impressive record of achieving his goals.

Quick and intense, with a hint of ready laughter in his piercing dark eyes, Ramo at 72 is a world-renowned scientist and engineer. He was the chief architect of America’s intercontinental ballistic missile system. He is the “R” in TRW, the multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate, and Fortune magazine has called him “the father of the electronics revolution.”

He is also a violinist, skillful enough to play in a quartet with professionals who gather regularly at his home. He has written more than a dozen books.


Quick to Joke

Among friends and acquaintances he is recognized as a man of swift improvisations. Science historians still chuckle at a remark Ramo made during the ‘50s, when the ICBM was being developed. During a series of key experiments at Cape Canaveral, at which Ramo and Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever were observers, test rockets blew up with dismaying regularity on their launching pads. When at last one missile rose about 6 inches into the air before toppling over and exploding, Ramo beamed and said: “Well, Bennie, now that we know the thing can fly, all we have to do is improve its range a bit.”

Ramo’s improvisations are, by any measure, more remarkable than his tennis volley. After years of playing “merely ordinary” tennis on the court at his seven-acre estate in Beverly Hills, he decided that it was time to improve his game strategy.

Learning to ‘Smart Up’

His reasoning: The size of the standard tennis court and the height of the net have been chosen “to accommodate the play of extraordinary players. But if the court is just right for outstanding tennis athletes, then it follows that it is too spacious for players who, by reason of lesser athletic talents and, perhaps, deterioration of abilities with age, are lacking in energy, fast court coverage, quick body reaction and powerful strokes. Tennis players, as they slow down, must smart up.”

In his effort to smart up, Ramo claims--tongue firmly in cheek--that he was helped immeasurably by the “chance discovery” on a trip to Florence, Italy, of a manuscript, “The Prince, II,” written in the “unmistakable hand” of Niccolo Machiavelli, whose 16th-Century classic, “The Prince,” dealt with the wiles and strategy useful in the game of running a nation.

To Ramo’s delight, the topic of “The Prince, II” was how to win at the game of tennis, and its basic principles, Ramo said in an interview recently, “apply to everything in life. Your absolute qualities do not determine how you fare in the world or on the tennis court. What actually counts is your performance relative to others. So an awareness of competition must always be in one’s mind.”

Eager to share his chance discovery with other ordinary players, Ramo--in still another free-wheeling invention--”translated” the manuscript “into Americanese for easy clarity.” Noted Ramo: “A few charming peculiarities of language turned up. For instance, I discovered that in scoring tennis in Florence it was customary to use, in place of the words zero or nothing, the word amore.

Now published as a book ($13.95) by Rawson Associates, “Tennis by Machiavelli” (as translated by Simon Ramo) contains a reminder to readers that “To be Machiavellian is at once to be devious, slippery, sly, sneaky and tricky--a conniver, deceiver, opportunist, maneuverer, intriguer, conspirer,” and it sets forth a number of strategic suggestions. Among them:

‘Reconnaissance Mission’

--A warm-up routine before a game is viewed by most players as exercise “solely to loosen their muscles and joints,” but “the much more important duty for you to perform during the preliminary period is an intelligence and reconnaissance mission intended to bring to the surface and pinpoint the weak spots in the defense and offense of your opponents. . . .


“Common courtesy dictates that during warm-up you should direct the balls to opponents equally toward their forehand and backhand sides, to grant them opportunity for balanced practice. But since they will expect your accuracy and control to be poor in the initial stages of warm-up, they will not think ill of you should your initial returns go mainly to their backhands and even force them to move substantially to meet your badly directed shots.”

--Points in tennis are more often lost than won, resulting not from “brilliant, super-fast” shots but rather from “stupid mishaps, those for which there is little excuse except carelessness, loss of concentration, or weaknesses in the thinking capacity of the error-maker. Such botches have consequences (sons of botches, or SOBs). Thus, an all-out dash to a distant part of the court in an attempt to return a ball headed there, rather than conceding the point, may result in a loss of breath. This botch may cause the next two or three relatively easy returns from the opponent to be badly mishandled by the breathless player, a succession of lost points, all SOBs.”

Watching for Poachers

--Playing doubles is the proper game as players slow down, and a poacher--one who intrudes into a partner’s territory--must have a strong ego. “To succeed in the poach satisfies that ego. To fail is to lay an egg and create an enraged partner. Poaching is a dangerous business, not merely because it endangers relations between partners and may lead to the violent applying of the poachee’s racket to the poacher’s head.

“Worse, overdoing poaching can lead to steady losses of points. Skilled poachers, however, are tremendous assets to their side. Poaching--even the mere threat of poaching--can constitute a very high payoff by enhancing alert net-play, particularly of net nettling,” i.e., exploiting the net position “by constantly changing it and maneuvering so aggressively and mischievously during the play as to nettle the opposing players.”

--Never underestimate the importance of “talking a good game”; be liberal with compliments and comments when an opponent produces a shot well above average quality. If a player with a mediocre backhand happens to let loose with a point-winning shot, applaud him lavishly and “tell him the altered way in which he held his racket made all the difference in the world. . . .”

Even though the opponent may wonder what actually happened, “Your commendation will focus his attention on his grip when next he goes to hit a backhand. Such concentration will ruin his ability to return backhands at the quality of even his modest average for at least the rest of the match. . . .”


Similarly, after an exceptional serve, tell the opponent it was terrific and add: “When you threw that ball up way in front of you that way--much more in front of you than you usually do--I knew I was in trouble.” That statement is bound to cause the opponent “to contemplate his throw of the ball as he commences all his serves to follow. . . .”

“Remember, the important rule leading you to quick invention of appropriate comments is to call attention to something the opponent did that sounds as though it must be a key factor in producing the extraordinary shot. You do not have to worry about its bearing any true relationship to the dynamics of your opponent’s play.”

Ready When They’re Not

--Another strategic use of the art of court conversation is to ask “Are you ready?” of an opponent, or “Were you ready?” Although “both questions appear basically considerate, to a player who is indeed ready, the first question riles,” while “the second question is insulting, in a way. It requests a public confession of poor playing habits on the part of your rival, who clearly should have been ready.” Either question “is almost certain to handicap your opponent for at least the next few plays.”

--Partners, however, “should avoid making specific suggestions as to where and how the other should return a ball when it is actually on the way from the opposite side. Also, the performance of a partner on the next play is rarely enhanced by queries after a loss of a point, such as ‘Why did you do that?’ or ‘When are you going to learn to hit a backhand?’

“To those convinced they possess such superior analytical abilities . . . the following advice is submitted: A lasting contribution to posterity through the articulation of tennis fundamentals is best ensured by writing a thesis devoted to the matter.” In effect, tell a jabbering partner to knock off the chatter and send you a letter on the subject--preferably by 4th-class mail.

--One of “the most unwanted criminal errors” of the game is often committed by men who “are capable of punching balls with powerful racket blows but do not possess the combination of timing, form and muscle coordination to produce an ace serve. It is not a rarity that such Samsons will perforate the net with supersonic speed balls on their first serves. Seeking to avoid this on their next attempts, they may raise their sights, but then the cannon-powered balls usually will touch ground well past the backline of the service rectangle. . . .


“(This syndrome) has been known also to afflict two other classes of players: men with limited physiques who, also possessing limited intellect, find the fact of their lack of power unacceptable; and women who are stronger than they are smart.”

--What counts ultimately is, of course, the score, and this depends not only on the plays but on the calls. If opponents are more or less equal, the outcome may be determined by close calls.

To employ a devious strategy whereby close calls are decided in your favor, “You should take the first step early in the match.” When your opponent hits a ball “clearly out . . . you must call it in, and, you must perform this step twice.”

That will plant “three important impressions in your rivals’ brains: (1) you cannot see well; (2) your honesty is impeccable; (3) what you cannot see you will call in their favor out of sportsmanship. Your image will thereby immediately be established as so singularly admirable that . . . the remaining 20 or 30 close shots you deposit in their court during the rest of the match will all be seen and called by them as in, whereas, without the spell your behavior has cast, your balls falling into the narrow blurry zones would have been called out.”

--When playing mixed doubles, select a partner “carefully with the sex issue in mind. If you are a man with a deep knowledge of your limitations physically but high confidence about your skills in the mental dimensions of the game, you must choose a female partner who will supplement and make up as much as possible for your physical deficiencies on the court. But you will also want to be able to make use of your trickery and craftiness, if that is where your strength lies. . . .”

That bit of Machiavellian advice, Ramo told an interviewer, struck close to home, for Ramo often plays mixed doubles, with his wife, Virginia, as his partner, and with an opposing male-female team on the other side of the net.


Added Ramo: “Virginia is a much better player than I am, so I always try to position myself where it will cause our opponents to send the ball to her. As a result of my trickery and her impressively steady play, we do extremely well at the game. We can beat any couple at all--unless they’re actually good!”