As in every sport, no matter what standard of tennis player you are, everyone benefits from a bit of coaching. Whether it’s the 1980’s throwback in the unbelievably tight shorts at your local tennis club who stands uncomfortably close to you to demonstrate how maintaining a stiff grip rewards you with a smooth stroke, or the guy sporting the sponsor’s cap and designer sunglasses in the centre court crowd who helps the pro player stay calm and focused, tennis coaches are worth their weight in gold (and often as expensive).
As a tennis simulator, 2K Sports’ Top Spin 3 was hard to beat. If you were willing to persevere, there was a wonderfully rewarding game just waiting to be uncovered, with a depth and poise that managed to capture much of the rhythm and realism of the sport. As a coaching program, however, Top Spin 3 was like a ‘Teach Yourself Pro Tennis’ kit where they’d included all the equipment but forgotten to pack in the instruction manual and DVD. The result was a game that was as initially unhelpful as it was demanding, one that unnecessarily ignored casual players and frustrated the more experienced, thereby committing the most heinous of opening double faults.
Confident in the belief that Top Spin 3 did little wrong beyond mentally tying your shoelaces together before it sent you out to play, the developers’ have made assistance and education top priorities in Top Spin 4. The Top Spin Academy, which in TS3 was a lonely place that provided ample space for practice but little in the way of guidance, returns now a much more welcoming venue, falling over itself to chaperon you through all the basics of movement and stroke play right up to developing an instinctive feel and strategy for the sport.
Another set of training wheels have also been provided in the form of Top Spin 4’s new suite of visual aids, which are made up of a power gauge, simple feedback messages on shot timing and an aiming marker. In Top Spin 3, winning a point was too often down to either wearing out your opponent or pulling off one of the game’s super-shots, which were basically all-or-nothing attempts at hitting winners. Now that these have been removed, snatching points from opponents in TS4 is set to be all about the much more natural combination of timing, power, accuracy and tactics, with the on-screen aids building your confidence until the point where you become so comfortable that 2K hope you’ll turn them off and play the game in its pure and intended form.
The majority of your efforts in Top Spin 4 are once again set to be channelled into the game’s career mode, where you’ll create your own player and then try and play your way up the individual rungs of the tennis ladder all the way to the dizzying heights of the top of the pro ranks. As in Top Spin 3, with progress will come experience points – which have now been placed into bundles that make it much simpler to build the style of player you want – and the opportunity to develop different technical and physical attributes. There’s even set to be a roster of coaches to pick from who will set you objectives – such as hitting a certain number of aces – that, once completed, will reward you with bonus abilities.
In terms of famous faces, Top Spin 4 is set to continue the series’ tradition of allowing the biggest names in the current tennis world, the likes of Nadal and Murray, to mix it up with hall of famers such as Chang and Lendel. Despite the presence of such racket-wielding royalty, television-aping presentation and support for Move controls on the PS3 however, it’s Top Spin’s new willingness to embrace the role of coach for its players that’s easily the headline feature for this forth outing. Hopefully, with it in place, tennis will end up being a more rewarding sporting endeavour for everyone involved.