The advice is endless: bring your racquet back this way, follow through that way, use a big loop, a semi-loop, roll your wrist, lock your wrist, open stance, closed stance. There are more theories about hitting a tennis ball than there are flavors at Ben and Jerry’s.
Hitting a tennis ball is just not that complicated. In fact, I can sum it up for you with what I like to call the four R’s:
Read the ball
Ready your racquet
Run to the ball
Rotate your body
Now wait! Stop rolling your eyes and hear me out.
You’re undoubtedly thinking, “It can’t be this simple. Well, it is this simple. Tennis legend, Vic Braden says “cut out the fancy thinking and just concentrate on mastering the fundamentals and you’ll beat most of the players that beat you now. Tennis is a game of basics, and by focusing on these basics, you’ll jump to the next level faster than you can say Maria Sharapova.
Read the Ball
It’s tough to hit a moving object so your first task is to figure out where the ball is going once it leaves your opponent’s strings. You do this by both watching and listening as the ball is struck.
Click photo: In super slow motion you can see how well Federer tracks the ball into the strings.
Though “watch the ball” is the first tip most of us ever received, it will forever be the game’s most important piece of advice. It’s also the most difficult to do on a consistent basis, because there’s a lot going on around us. The wind and sun, not to mention the pretty girl or guy on the next court, are all competing for our attention.
I want you to develop “ball vision” which means that once the point begins, you look at nothing other than the ball. Don’t worry about watching your opponent or their racquet. If you’re focusing on the ball, both will eventually come into the picture.
Watch it from the moment the server holds it in his hand. As he tosses the ball, keep your head still and follow it with your eyes. As he makes contact, see which direction the ball leaves his strings and immediately say to yourself “forehand” or “backhand.”
Notice the height of the ball as it crosses the net. Watch the seams of the ball as it bounces and travels that last 2-3 feet into your strings. Follow it as it flies back over to your opponent’s side of the court.
Bill Mountford, the former director of tennis at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, suggests the following exercise to help improve your ball watching technique. “Find a target that is close to you and then one off in the distance,” says Bill. “Stare at the near target, and then switch your gaze to the target further away. It will take a moment to readjust your vision. The more that you practice this, the less time it takes to readjust.”
Here are three of my favorite ball-watching exercises:
Stand at the baseline and have a friend (or ball machine) randomly feed you balls from the baseline on the opposite side of the court. As soon as you can, yell out “forehand” or “backhand.” Try to identify the shot before the ball crosses the net. After 40-50 balls switch sides and become the feeder as your partner tries to pickup your shots.
Take some old tennis balls and a red magic marker. Write numbers on each ball and have a friend feed the balls to you. As the ball approaches, don’t try to hit it but rather call out the number on the ball as soon as you can.
Run this two ball drill from the serviceline and the baseline, it will force your eyes to be alert and constantly adjust. It's tougher than it looks.
You and a partner start off on each the service line and begin softly rallying back and forth within the service lines. After a few shots, put a second ball in play and try to keep both going. This will force your eyes to be alert and constantly adjust. After a while, move back to the baseline and continue the drill.
Don’t Forget to Listen to the Ball
The importance of listening to the ball is seldom discussed but is a vital part of reading your opponent’s shot. By paying attention to the sound as the ball strike’s your opponent’s racquet, you can pick up how hard or soft it’s been hit, if it’s been hit with excessive spin or if it’s been mis-hit. Each has its own distinctive sound.
A hard hit ball sounds like a big “boom” while a ball hit softly sounds more like a “tap.” A ball that’s been hit with excessive spin makes a “hissing” sound” and a mis-hit shot bears that unmistakable, ear-cringing, noise that I often compare to fingernails running down a blackboard.
By watching and listening to the ball you’ll pick up cues as to where your opponent’s shot is going to bounce and what it’s going to do after it lands. You can then respond accordingly. For example, if you see that the ball is three feet or higher above the net and sounds as if it’s been hit hard (boom) you need to immediately begin backing up. Conversely, if the ball comes off your opponent’s racquet less than three feet over the net and the sound is softer (tap), you need to quickly start moving forward.
If you hear the sound of spin (hiss) and see that you opponent has swung with a low to high motion, they’ve hit with topspin which means that when the ball bounces it will quickly jump towards you. If you hear the “hiss” and the swing was a high to low motion that means slice which will cause the ball to stay low or even die as it hits the court.
If you’re opponent has mis-hit their shot (fingernails on the blackboard) it’s very difficult to determine which way the ball will dance after it bounces. If at all possible, try to move forward and take it in the air so you won’t have to deal with the unpredictable spin that the mis-hit has placed on the ball.
If you can’t reach the ball in time and must let it bounce, get to the spot where you anticipate it will land as quickly as possible and be prepared for it to jump one way or the other. Most of the time, you’ll be able to react quickly enough to get the ball back in play.
The next time you play, put on a pair of earmuffs or stuff some cotton in your ears. You’ll be amazed at how important hearing the ball is for your preparation.
Click photo: Serena uses a straight take back ( very little loop) but note how quickly she turns her shoulders and prepares the racquet
for the hit.
Ready Your Racquet
Once you’ve determined which shot you’ll need to play, ready your racquet with a lightning-fast shoulder turn.
A major mistake among many recreational players is late racquet preparation. To avoid this, I tell my students to get their racquet positioned as quickly as they possibly can. As a goal, try to have your racquet in position before your opponent’s shot crosses the net.
Initially, it may feel a bit awkward to get your racquet moving this quickly. Players will sometimes complain that "it messes up my timing." It does NOT "mess up" your timing, it changes it. Believe me, you’ll be able to adjust your timing, and when you do, you’ll find that you’re going to have far more time to execute your shot. There is no such thing as "too soon" in racquet preparation and if you’re racquet is prepared, you’ll always be able to take a good swing at the ball.
The next time you get a chance to watch Venus or Serena Williams play, pay special attention to how fast they prepare their racquet. The moment their opponent strikes the ball, it looks as if their racquet has been shot out of a cannon.
How you bring your racquet back is up to you. Most of today’s stars use some type of a circular or “loop” backswing, feeling that it’s more rhythmic and conducive to topspin and power. Legends such as Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert preferred more of a straight back motion. I suggest you use both, depending upon how much time you have to prepare.
Far more important than the style of your backswing is the size of your backswing. How high and far you take your racquet back is determined by two factors: where you are in the court and how fast the ball is coming towards you. On shots where you’re not rushed follow these three general rules:
Click photo: James Blake uses almost no backswing on this forehand volley.
Take a full backswing at the baseline
Take a half backswing at the service line
Use no backswing at the net
Be sure to also factor in the speed of your opponent’s shot. If you’re at the baseline and your opponent has hit a hard shot toward you, you may not have time for a full backswing. Just get the racquet out in front of your body as quickly as possible. Point your strings towards your target and squeeze your grip tightly so that the pace of the oncoming ball won’t cause it to shift in your hands.
If you’re faced with a slow-moving ball at the service line, you can use a larger backswing in preparation for a bigger swing. At the net, don’t use any backswing. Simply move forward and push your racquet towards the ball.
Run to the Ball
As you prepare your racquet, you need to simultaneously get your feet moving for the obvious reason that if you don’t get to the ball you won’t be able to hit it. We’ve all heard the term “happy feet” to describe footwork. “Happy” to me means relaxed and mellow. I want my students to have “angry” feet because anger conveys intensity and that’s what you need to have good footwork.
Take a strong split-step just before your opponent strikes the ball. Time your hop so that you are in the air as the ball is struck. When you land, immediately explode off in the direction of the oncoming shot. As you move closer to the ball, make your steps smaller so that you can fine tune your positioning and balance yourself.
Find Your Strike Zone
The most important element of hitting a tennis ball is preparation with the goal being to hit the ball in your “strike zone.” For most players hitting groundstrokes, this means in front of your body and between your waist and knees. When hitting volleys, the “strike zone” is around shoulder height for most players.
Click photo: Pros position themselves so they almost always hit the ball in their optimal strike zone, in front of the body, between the waist and the knees.
This is considered your "strike zone" because in this area your shoulders, hips, trunk, and legs can move your racquet and provide power while your arm and wrist control your racquet face and therefore, your shot.
When you’re able to hit the ball inside your strike zone it’s much easier to execute a controlled stroke. If you get caught having to hit outside of this area, either due to a strong shot by your opponent or poor preparation, your arm then has to work harder to move the racquet and generate power. This makes it far more difficult to control your racquet head and also puts additional stress on your joints.
Footwork is vital to hitting the ball in your strike zone because, unfortunately, our opponent’s seldom hit the ball right where we want it. On particularly high balls, move well behind the bounce (5-6 feet), and wait for the ball to drop into your “strike zone.” On low shots, again position yourself behind the ball and bend your knees so that you can make contact as close to your “strike zone” as possible.
Rotate Your Body
Once you’re in position, watch the ball bounce and rise. As it moves into your strike zone, step forward and rotate your shoulders and hips towards the ball. Let that rotation move your racquet and, just before you strike the ball, squeeze the bottom three fingers of your racquet hand. This will keep your grip strong, your wrist firm, and racquet head stable.
Click photo: As the ball moves into your strike zone, step forward and rotate your shoulders and hips towards the ball. Let that rotation move your racquet into the hit.
The key to controlling your shots lies in controlling the face of your racquet. When all is said and done, the ball will go where your strings are pointing at impact. Its pace will be determined by the speed of your racquet head and spin will be imparted by the path of your swing. So, as you make contact with the ball, be sure to position your racquet face so that your strings are pointing toward your target.
The next time you take the court, try this little timing exercise: When you see the ball land on your side of the court, say "bounce" to yourself. Watch it rise toward its peak and move into your strike zone. Now rotate your body and, as you feel your strings make contact with the ball, say "hit." This is a great technique for developing both your ball watching skills and timing.
When a photographer takes a picture, he holds the camera still for a split second after he’s snapped the shot. Do the same every time you hit the tennis ball. Keep your head focused on your contact point for a brief moment after you’ve struck the ball. This will help ensure that your body stays balanced and in turn your racquet head under control.
The Stroke Doesn’t End at Contact
After you’ve struck the ball, continue rotating forward until you’re racquet’s pointing at your target. Some players make the mistake of stopping their swing as soon as they make contact with the ball or immediately wrapping their racquet around their necks. Both can lead to mis-hits, loss of control as well as put a tremendous amount of stress on their arms.
A long follow-through provides your racquet with a path to follow and encourages you to hit completely through the ball. Plus, your racquet head stays in a fixed position for an extended period of time which means that if you mis-time your shot or get a bad bounce, you’ll still have a pretty good chance of making solid contact and maintaining your control.
To help develop a long follow-through, imagine swinging through three balls, one right after the other. After you make contact with the ball, keep rotating forward as if you had to hit another ball and yet another one on the same path. Keep your racquet moving forward until it is pointing towards you target.
Another famous Vic Braden quotes tells us that “the better a player gets, the simpler their approach to the game becomes.” Keep your strokes simple. Focus on the four R’s and you’ll immediately hit the ball better. I guarantee it!
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