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Physics and the Flat Volley
David Smith, Senior Editor TennisOne
How many times have you seen a tennis player positioned close to the net hit a high volley into the bottom of the net? It seems nearly impossible to hit a ball head-high from only a few feet from the net into the net, let alone the bottom of the net! Yet it happens all the time on tennis courts everywhere.
While there are fluke situations that can cause that kind of outcome, (such as framing the ball, or a ball having a lot of backspin on it prior to the player hitting the volley), there is a logical and plausible reason for this outcome - a reason, that when understood, can help players prevent it from occurring in the future.
The first thing to understand is that any ball will reflect off a flat surface in a similar, but opposite angle in which the ball was received. The physics phrase is ‘the angle of incidence' (incoming angle of a ball) is equal to the 'angle of reflection' (the angle that the ball will reflect off a flat surface). While the angle of incidence is actually used to describe the reflective qualities of a beam of light, it has application on the tennis court as well.
Note Agassi adds slice to his high backhand volley. Note his early preparation also.
Since most balls are on their way down when we volley them, (there are many exceptions to this statement, I would agree), these dropping balls will have a reflective angle downward off the racquet face. Even if we held the racquet flat with no downward angle of the racquet face, the ball will rebound at a downward angle.
Try this; hit a ball into a flat wall so that the ball is on its way down prior to hitting the wall. Hit it about 4 to 8 feet high on the wall and stand about 40 feet away from the wall when you hit it. Measure how far away the ball will land from the wall when it hits the ground. Depending on how hard and how much arch the ball is dropping prior to hitting the wall, the ball will rebound and hit the ground anywhere between 2 and 8 feet from the wall.
Consider where you are at the net in a typical singles or doubles match. If you are a full step and racquet length away from the net, you are roughly 6 to 8 feet from the net. If a ball is hit to you at shoulder height (around 4 to 5 feet for most players) and you stick your racquet out flat to intercept the ball that is dropping at this height, your volley will hit the ground anywhere between 2 and 8 feet in front of you! (There can be a great deal of discrepancy in these numbers due to any slight deviation of the racquet face, any swing aspect, the actual angle at which the ball is dropping, as well as the kind of spin and amount that the ball may have on it.) Yet, it is not unfathomable to now understand that such a ball may indeed land in the bottom of the net from this position.
If the incoming ball has under-spin, this aspect will cause the ball to reflect downward even more! Add the element of the net player swinging down on such a ball, (as is often perceived as the ball is above the net, thus players feel the need to hit down on such volleys!), you now have a near certainty of a ball being hit into the net.
Agassi uses under-spin on this low volley to control the pace and depth. Note also his ‘set and hold’ of the volley at the start and end of his volley stroke.
Always add some element of slice to your volley. While some people over-slice or ‘chop’ at their volleys, the idea of opening the racquet face up while moving forward at a downward angle helps decrease the likelihood of a player hitting a high volley into the net.
Most skilled players hit with under-spin on their low volleys (to maintain a firm volley without the ball sailing into the back fence as is often the case with a low, flat volley). Using slice on a higher volley, one that is dropping at contact, can also help players hit a firm, controlling volley from this position as well.
Set and Hold
If you watch many top players volley, you will see them integrate a slight ‘hold’ at the end of their volley. This helps maintain the racquet face integrity so as to not ‘roll’ the racquet over the ball or to over chop the ball as well. Set and hold refers to the idea of ‘setting’ the racquet face towards the target early, followed by the ‘hold’ after contact. This practice not only helps prevent a player from over hitting balls into the net or back fence, it helps a player learn to aim better since his racquet is doing the same thing each time he hits.
So, next time you have that ‘sitting duck’ of a volley, remember to drive this volley with a slight cut so you don’t risk hitting it into the bottom of the net. And remember too, that using the phrase ‘set and hold’ can improve the consistency, confidence, and control of all your volleys.
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