The Half Volley Drive - Maria Sharapova - and No Man's Land
Sharpova used the whole court and knew when to move forward.
After the Wimbledon ladies final where Maria Sharapova snatched the title (and headlines) from the star struck Serena Williams, I dug up an old copy of Tennis magazine (May, 2004) that had featured an article about Sharapova. In the article, her coach, Robert Lansdorp, described her training regimen. But let me digress. Sharapova trains in Florida with Nick Bollitieri and in California with Robert Lansdorp. But for me, the California training has much more to do with using the court, and knowing how and when to move forward, whereas the Florida training has more to do with the hammering hitting skills of the renown players from that neck of the woods.
Lansdorp's training includes extreme target practice, stroke penetration by holding the finish, racquet speed training on the swinging volley, change of pace with slice short angles and heavy topspin, the transition game featuring the blind and most importantly for me - driving half volleys from the baseline.
To return to the Wimbledon final, Williams (and the same is true of Sharapova) hits with excellent length and pace, often one to two feet from the baseline, even when scrambling on defense. In most cases William's opponents will not necessarily miss the half volley on the baseline, but more to the point they may under hit the shot and or not have the ability or courage to aim this half volley to the corners of Serena's court. Not so with Sharapova. She held her ground, did not equivocate, and drove the ball with confidence and offensive intent when playing the ball on the short hop at the baseline. This was the essence of the drill Lansdorp described, and to my mind the singular skill used to disassemble the Williams game.
So what are there secrets to this shot? Half volley might be more aptly called a half stroke. For the volley is generally played with the slightest open face of the racquet and hit with subtle backspin. In contrast, the half volley drive is played with a vertical or slightly closed racquet face and is hit either flat or with subtle topspin using a short stroking motion where the racquet finishes at the level of contact.
The art is not in swinging up but rather hitting forward and through and letting the upward rebound give the shot lift. And of equal importance, the skill is in the timing of this short but forceful pickup. Too early with the racquet and you are pushing at the ball, too late and the swing is way to fast. At the club level, the half volley appears rushed, overplayed, with a "picking up" motion that only lifts the ball more than the rebound would have. Tom Stow, the legendary coach whom I was lucky enough to have as a teacher, did many a half volley drill, hoping (so I believed) that this timed stroke would ultimately lend itself to a similar movement when returning serve.
Now, as to "No Man's Land."
This term describes some area between the baseline and the service line where most of the balls supposedly land.
Further, the term lends to a self directed causative analysis when errors occur, that is, "Dummy, move either forward or back to get out of "No Man's Land" (note in most instances Dummy is the pejorative used in monologue form, i.e. self criticism).
Yet, there is another way to look at this, that is to say, there is no area on the court that is no man's land. The balls land everywhere, short, deep, angled, lobbed and so forth. If you remain behind the baseline you will not retrieve the shorties, if you are inside the baseline you may stumble volleying the deep shots.
The Half Volley Drive
I believe, on the contrary, that we must be able to play anywhere on the court, using a wide array of shots. And by extension, when playing with this attitude one is then able and willing to improvise, and to play the shot that suits the situation rather than just a simple groundstroke (from behind the baseline) or the simple volley (when well inside the service line). And finally, as you move forward through my pieces on the "All Court Forcing Game" as well as the "Serve and Volley," (see TennisOne Lesson Library) you may learn to view the half volley as a necessity, if not a weapon, used when the opponent has played the ball at your feet, no matter where you happen to be positioned.
Tomorrow, set up the ball machine as usual, but position yourself to take the ball on the short hop. Brief preparation and follow through, subtle topspin, letting the "up" rebound lift the ball, all about timing. And then work to perfect this shot until you can make the difficult look easy.
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