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CAtennis is a passionate discussion for serious tennis players, parents and coaches looking for something different. No talk about technique, no talk about useless theory, no gimmicks; just practical advice from first-hand experience on how to improve your tennis. Kick back, drink the content, bounce ideas, and pitch articles, tips or suggestions to nott@usc.edu (or friend us on Facebook).

Unless otherwise noted, all articles are authored by the founders of CAtennis.  Enjoy!

TennisSlowMoGuy
Wednesday
Oct242012

Choosing Your Child's Group Workouts

Let's be honest here, unless you're in the "top 1%" the amount of disposable income that you will have allocated to tennis will be limited. Thus, most families will choose group lessons over private lessons in order to save some money. Below are some tips for choosing the best group environment for your child and making the most out of the situation. If you're thinking about signing up your kid for one of these workouts, I would suggest utilizing a scale of 1 (bad) - 5 (great) for each category. Look for environments offering a combined score of 42 and above: 

1. Substance over form. Whether it's called a "group workout", a "clinic", an "academy" or some other catchy name, look beyond the title. What does the activity offer? Stroke production? Fitness? Match play? Intellectual stimulation? Etc. You wouldn't buy a piece of tofu that's labeled "steak" so why would you rely on the name alone?! There are a lot of "tennis academies" out there that are glorified sports-themed babysitting clubs. If you want your child to not be a clown, don't sign him up for a circus. 

2. Number of balls. How do you know if the group lesson is a circus or something that is oriented on development. A rule of thumb is to count the number of balls that are being hit. Note: for younger kids, shadow swings can count as balls being struck. If you see a lot of standing and goofing around, sitting down or nose-picking, the group is probably not very high quality. Look for every kid hitting at least 250-300 balls per hour (twice or three times more for kids U14 and older). Learning tennis is no different that learning how to read and write: repetition is key. Of course, nothing compares to an individual lesson (same as private tutoring) in terms of number of balls being struck but there are aspects of a group environment (e.g. competition) which can serve as a trade-off in making the ractice a positive learning experience. 

3. Energy. Related to #2 is the concept of "energy." Look for an environment that is high on energy (from the pros as well as the kids). If the coaches aren't very motivated then the players will pick up on the low energy and run amok. Look for pros and players who want to be there. With respect to players, evaluate whether they are in fact interested in playing tennis or whether they are there simply because the parents are making them go. Also, determine whether the players push each other in a positive manner or whether they are undermining each others' development. 

4. Discipline. Look for environments that have a zero-tolerance approach to training. This is related to point #3. Compare the group workouts to school. Would the child's behavior - be it being loud, showing up late, not trying, distracting his peers, cheating, whining, crying, smashing rackets, etc. - be tolerated at school? If not, then it shouldn't be tolerated at the workout either. Furthermore, these policies should be applied equally across the board, regardless of whether the player is good or bad and without consideration to parental influence. 

5. Parental involvement. Look for environments where parents care about their child's tennis but, at the same time, are confident enough in the pros' abilities that they do not feel the need to become helicopter parents. Helicopter parents tend to cause too many distractions...they try to influence the group's direction to maximize the benefit derived by their child. If you see too many parents hanging around the fences - or worse, being on the court - understand that the pro's influence may be diminished by that of the parents. In the worst case scenario, the most pushy parents will run the practices indirectly (which means - the pro is unable to look for your child's best interest). 

6. Mix. Here, you are looking for a workout that offers a variety of training tools: feeding; rallying; match-play; fitness; video-analysis; studying; etc. In order to develop as players, kids need to be exposed to all of these things. Feeding drills are intended to teach concepts artificially. Rallying drills are intended to implement those concepts in a live-ball format. Match-play is intended to implement the concepts in a more realistic setting. Furthermore, watching video analysis (watching yourself as well as watching pros) is helpful in giving the players a 3rd person viewpoint of their games so that they see how their game matches up to that of their heros. Fitness is, obviously, a huge component in a running sport such as tennis. 

7. Training aids. Is the practice limited to baset drills or are the players exposed to training aids such as backboards, ball machines, various surfaces, gadgets, etc.? A good practice will not just teach players how to hit the ball but will also teach players how to teach themselves. It's good for players to know how to set up the ball machine in order to practice the skills on their own. It's also good for players to be exposed to backboards or walls so they know what drills they can do to sharpen their strokes. Very few players have had the benefit of having a support team around them 24/7/365. Players must be taught how to become self-reliant and it's the coach's job (private or group coach) to teach them how to do this. 

8. Ethics. Determine whether the environment focuses on ethics. Is cheating or gamesmanship tolerated? Cheating is a learned behavior and some coaches (and, without a doubt, parents) live by the motto that "if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." Besides being unethical, cheating is also bad for long-term development because kids who rely on cheating as a crutch to get them over the hump do not learn an invaluable lesson: tennis is hard work; there are no short cuts in the game (or in life). At some point, you will not be able to rely on cheating (being in an umpired match or in your professional life). Then what?! 

9. Progress. Does the practice offer an active and objective track for the player to progress from one level to another? Look for a system where the players who have started out "on the bottom court" have worked their way up to "the top court". Is the progress subjective (i.e., coach determines when and how the player deserves to move up) or objective (i.e., merit-based: wins; dedication; skill-based testing)? 

10. Pro's Knowledge. Last but not least, it's always good to have a pro "who's been there, done that." A pro who has gone through the development process him/herself - from juniors to college to pros - is more likely to understand what it takes at each stage. Look beyond the certifications (which are largely meaningless) and determine wheter the pro is good about communicating tennis concepts in a clear and concise manner. Furthermore, look for coaches who are passionate students of the game. Are they in shape? Do they still compete? Do they bring in outsiders to motivate the kids? Do they publish? Are they involved in organizing events? Are they interested in development or just earning a living? Etc. 

Do you know of a good group? Let us know in the comments below. 

Monday
Oct222012

Backboard Decathlon: Supplement to ROG initiative 

As a lot of you may already know, the USTA has instituted new rules for 10 and Under tennis competition. The R(ed) O(range) G(green) ("ROG") initiative is intended to make tennis more kid-friendly and assist with the long-term development process. You can read more about the new rules here. In the alternative, we recommend that you access the relevant information on the USTA's own website or check out websites such as Parentingaces.com which routinely discuss the changes in rules and their effects. 

Although CAtennis.com takes no position regarding the ROG initiative, we believe that the underlying philosophy is sound: kids + repetition = more, better players -> more Grand Slam contenders. In this regard, we believe that it would be appropriate for U10 tournament organizer to consider expanding their horizons a bit and going beyond the four corners of the tennis court to not only get kids hooked on the sport but also hooked on the process of mastering the game.

Here is what we have in mind: supplementing every U10 tennis event with a backboard "decathlon". A lot of tennis clubs have backboards within their facilities. Some of these backboards are purely for tennis players while others are in the form of racquetball or handball courts. Many of these backboards are underused - particularly by tennis players - for months at a time. Yet, they are one of the best and cheapest training tools available. Many great champions - from Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras - honed their strokes by practicing against backboards, walls or garage doors. Why is backboard training so effective? In one word: myelination. Briefly, myelin assists humans in our learning process. When people learn a new skill, myelin levels increase between the relevant neuron connection. This, in turn, allows signals to travel faster between the areas of the brain involved in the activity. So, for example, when you're first starting out with tennis you can find yourself a bit overwhelmed by all the concepts: 1. footwork; 2. grip; 3. preparation; 4. swing; 5. follow-through; etc. However, with practice, these movements become more and more ingrained (or "grooved"). The gross and fine motor skills associated with the stroke (as well as related muscles) become sharpened. Accordingly, some of the concepts may be internalized or become wholly unconscious. Your brain simply understands the various adjustments that have to be made with respect to each particular shot. 

This unconcious (or partially conscious) understanding allows the player to think about other things besides the the stroke itself such as where to hit the ball (and, perhaps, the following shot). In other words, a player who has achieved this level seems to have "more time" to hit the ball than a beginner. Of course, an expert and a beginner may have the same amount of time at their disposal although the beginner's brain is muddled with more basic concepts than an expert's brain ("paralysis by analysis"). Thus,  the beginner's brain has to fit more computations - speed, trajectory, spin, etc. - in the same finite amount of time - which often results in a mistake. An expert doesn't need to think about the basic concepts as much because, for him, these concepts have been automated. Accordingly, the expert can marshall her brain's assets towards other tasks (e.g., strategy).

Now, the foregoing is a round-about way of saying that repetition is good. The more kids repeat strokes, the more automatic the strokes become. The sooner kids master technique the earlier they can move on to the next level. The benefit of using the backboard in the development process is that the player has the opportunity to hit thousands of balls within 1 or 2 hours v. hundreds (lessons, clinic or match). It's not uncommon to see kids participating in clinics where they are simply standing around and not hitting any balls at all.

The wall doesn't miss, doesn't mishit and doesn't generate pace. Kids learn very early which strokes are good for getting the ball to go forward and which strokes send the balls all over the place. In addition, kids can push themselves to focus on keeping the rally going for longer and longer thereby improving their attention span (which is beneficial in tennis as well as in life). Furthermore, backboard practice is great for developing one's imagination; players can pretend that they are playing against their heros on TV. Isn't that what "playing" is all about?! So wouldn't it be productive if every U10 tournament included a backboard component?! Kids could not only play against each other in a tennis format but could also compete against each other in a more "artificial" setting (although one that's likely to pay more long-term dividends). For example, each tournament could have a main draw, a back draw and a backboard draw. Prizes could be awarded for each category and, knowing this, kids would be more inclned to practice against the backboard (making them better players and more mentally tough competitors). Several back-board games could be incorporated in a "Backboard Decathlon" where boys and girls could compete against each other. Here are some suggestions:

1. Most consecutive groundstrokes without a mistake. To count, the ball must bounce behind a 12' line (for younger kids) or 18' line (older kids). The depth rule ensures that the kids hit proper, penetrating shots. 

2. Most groundstrokes in a 5 minute period (same depth dimensions as above). Maximum of 3 mistakes allowed. This game is great for having the kids' shots are not only strong but also fast. 

3. Most volleys without a mistake. Kids can stay 4' (younger kids) or 6' (older kids) from backboard to ensure that they are "sticking" / punching the shot with power and precision. 

4. Point construction. Tournamen director dictates a point (e.g, serve, forehand, backhand topsin, backhand slice, forehand approach, forehand volley, backhand volley, overhead, etc.) that the competitors have to follow. The ones who do not follow it, are knocked out; the ones who follow the point move on to the next round (where a different, more complex point is constructed). 

5. Target practice. Targets are put on the wall and the players are given 5 minutes to hit the maximum number of targets with their groundstrokes. Maximum of 3 mistakes allowed. 

6. Knock-out. Groups of 4-5 kids are playing a point (hit and get out of the way). The player who misses or doesn't get to the ball is knocked out and the other kids continue on until only one player is remaining. We can attest that this game is a lot of fun. 

7. Most overheads in a 5 minute interval. 

8. Singles. Players compete against each other in a racquet ball-type format in a game up to 11. 

9. Doubles. Same as #8 above except that 2 teams consisting of 2 players each compete against each other. Players on each team must aternate shots. 

10. Most side-to-side volleys in a 3 minute period (i.e., "The Cara Black" drill)

We urge all junior tournament directors to inject some additional fun in their events and let us know how it works. If you are truly interested in growing the game, thinking outside the box is imperative. By incorporating a backboard component in your tournament you will be on the front lines of development. Your players will develop better strokes, better focus, better hand to eye coordination, more stamina, a better work ethic, greater imagination by competing against their imaginary heros ("All men who have achieved great things have been great dreamers" - O. S. Marden) as well as a better understanding of court geometry. Furthermore, they will associate not only tournaments but also practices (specifically on their own) with a fun experience. 

Friday
Oct192012

Steal This Drill: Does Anybody Know Any Good Net Chord Drills?

Here, at CAtennis.com, we believe that in order to become a great tennis player one must practice every shot and every scenario. Tennis is more than just about serves, forehands, backhands and a handfull of volleys. As you progress through the levels of the game you will be faced with many scenarios and strokes that you will have to, pretty much, make up "on the fly". If you know that you have done your homework, you will be better prepared to handle these situations with confidence and without losing your head. 

One situation that arises once in a while is when the opponent's shot hits the net chord and the ball barely bounces or dribbles over. How do you handle these shots? Do you freak out and either hit too strong or too soft? Do you under-run or over-run the shot? Or do you stay calm and composed and do exactly what's necessary to win the point? You see, running down net chords is tricky because handling the shot involves touch. And it's not just touch while you're static. It's usually touch while you're on a full sprint towards the net. Can one practice the touch that's necessary? Perhaps...Here are some suggestions.

1. Drill 1: Player is at baseline hitting side-to-side forehands and backhands. The coach is about 2-3 feet from the net feeding the balls with the racket. Every 10-12 shots or so, the coach, rather than feeding the ball, throws the ball directly at the net chord. The player has to race to get to the ball and either "counter-drop shot" the ball or lob the ball over the coach's head. 

2. Drill 2: Player and coach are both stationed about 2-3 feet from the net. The coach rolls the ball side-to-side right on top of the net chord. The player has to move fast, lunge towards the ball and use touch to drop the ball over the other side of the net. As in the above drill, the key is for the player to do no more nor less than is necessary. 

3. Drill 3: Sometimes, net chords come at strangest moments. Take, as an example, Boris Becker's net chord against Derrick Rostagno on match point in the R32 at the 1989 US Open (Note: Becker went on to win the tournament). Here, Rostagno was at the net ready to put away the volley (and the match). However, Becker's passing shot struck the net chord, changed direction and caught Rostagno completely by surprise. See video. How does one practice these types of situations? One way is to put the player 8-12 feet from the net and using a ball machine to rapid-fire (high frequency) feeds towards him/her (player hitting reflex volleys). The ball machine should be set at high speed and grazing the ball right over the net. Invariably, one of the balls will clip the top of the tape and the player will have to react and volley the ball back. 

Thursday
Oct182012

Break More Serves

You are not going to win many tennis matches unless you figure out a way to hold your serve and also break your opponent. Mentally, you should be prepared to break your opponent at least 4 times per match - one break per set to neutralize the effect of your own serve being broken (a loose point + a double fault + bad luck + good point played by opponent = easy to see how you can get broken at least once or twice a macth) and one break per set to gain an advantage over the opponent. 

So here are some Dos and Don'ts for getting more breaks in your favor:

1. DO pay attention to your opponent's motion. Most players have "tells" in their motion which indicate where they are going to serve. The movement of their hips and their ball toss are the most obvious points of focus for your eyes. But also see if you can pick up cues from the opponent's grip, his stance, and also serve positioning (closer to the center v. further away). 

2. DON'T be a hero. A lot of players want to make the highlight reel with their returns. Often, they try to hit a winner off their opponents' first serves or good second serves. If the opponent has a good serve doing so is a risky proposition. Yes, if the serve is a sitter than you can take some chances. However, if the opponent has a decent serve, the smarter play is to hit an aggressive return deep into the middle of the court. Doing so ensures that you're not fliting with the lines or changing the angle of the ball. If you hit a good return down the middle you have been successful at neutralizing the server's advantage. Now you can pressure him with your ground strokes. 

3. DO change your return positioning. A lot of players return serve from exactly the same spot. Just like servers should think about serving from various spots along the baseline in order to exploit different angles, returners should also seek to give the servers a different "look". Sometimes, stay more to the backhand, other times slide more to the forehand; stay further back and move in; stay further in and move back. The key is trick your opponent to server into your wheelhouse so that you can take control of the point. If you're just a stationary mannequin, the server will develop a blind spot with regard to your presence. At that point, it's just a serving practice for him. Make him think that unless he does something special you are there to put him on his toes.

4. DON'T assume that your opponent will just serve to your weak shot. A lot of returners become obsessed with protecting their weak wing (e.g. backhand) so much that they fail to register the times they are beaten to their strength (e.g. forehand). Especially on key points (e.g., 30-30; 30-40) look for the opponent to sneak a good serve to your strength and then swing the next shot to your weakness. It won't happen every time but if you stay clear-headed you will spot the times when the server will attempt to neutralize your strength. 

5. DO pressure the opponent's second serve. Once a game or, if you're comfortabe, even more try to come in on your opponent's second serve. Whether through a chip-and-charge play or topspin approach, force your opponent to pass you. Even if she does manage to get the ball by you, she will put more pressure on her second serve next time around which can result in more double faults. Passing shots are difficult to hit under pressure (if you move quickly and shut down the angles, the passer has very little room to work with) and the more you are willing to come in the more successful you will become at this play. 

6. DON'T approach the returns with a baseline mentality. It's helpful to think of returns are "topspin volleys" rather than ground-strokes. Groundstrokes are "swing-based" (power and control come mostly from the swing) where volleys are "movement-based" (power and control come mostly from your legs with controlled racket movement). Because of the nature of the situation (servers have an initial advantage), if you approach the returns with the mentality that you will swing at the ball, you will miss or mishit quite often. However, if you're thinking that you will utilize the server's pace against him (withough generating too much on your own), your movements will be quicker and more precision. Visualize smothering the bounce by moving forward and relying on shoulder turns rather than holding your ground and swinging "from your heels". With practice, your reaction will improve and you will give the server a shorter time to react. 

7. DO pay particular attention to critical games. In the first game of the set, it's easy to break a server who is not properly warmed up. Don't use this game as a "gimme"; seek to break the server right away. This is a golden opportunity that too many players do not take. Later in the set, it's easy to break a server who is fatigued. Pay attention to what is going on the other side of the net and see if the opponent is truggling physically. Make this server work for points. Don't give away points by going for wild returns. Stay disciplined. In the third-fourth game on your opponent's serve (i.e., when the opponent is warmed up but not tired), see if you can spot serving patterns. Humans are creatures of comfort...we practice in patterns and we play in patterns as well. Some players don't even know that they are starting every game with a serve down-the-T (or out wide). They do it without thinking because this is what comes naturally to them. If you think that you have a good read on your opponent's serving patterns, it's OK to take a guess once or twice by moving towards one corner or another (of course, don't "telegraph" your anticipation). 

8. DON'T overcomplicate the plays. Once the return is back in play, keep things simple. Some payers tend to think "ohmygod, ohmygod, I got the serve back now I have to do something special because she's going to hit a winner or blah-blah-blah." Realize that these thoughts are based on your body's adrenaline levels. Stay cool and work the point (not "pushing" but hitting comfortable yet pressing shots). Know that the pressure is on your opponent to do something to save her skin. Your job is to stay loose and in motion so that you are in optimal position to capitalize in the event the server trepidates on her second or third shot. Make the server work for her holds and you will not only get more break opportunities but you will relieve pressure off your own serve. 

Wednesday
Oct172012

Serve or Run!

Here at CAtennis.com we are huge proponents of developing a good serve. For generation, the serve has been regarded as the most important stroke in tennis yet very few players do what's necessary in order to get beyond the mere "get the ball back in play" level.

One of the least discussed effects of having a poor serve, however, is the fact that a bad server must be a great mover. Although serving and movement are not mutually exclusive - see, for example, Federer or Sampras - developing a good movement is even more important when a player is deficient in the serving concept. If your serve is less than what's necessary to be effective for your level, not only will you invest a lot of energy in trying to hold serve but you will have less reserves at your disposal to marshall toward breaking the opponent's serve - in other words, when it comes to breaking the opponent you may be mentally and physically exhausted. A decent returner will be able to utilize your mediocre serve against you. S/he will use your pace and be able to generate more angles than if you were able to put your opponent with a powerful, well placed serve. As a result, if you don't like to practice your serve - or cannot do so because of an upper body injury - you better be fast; real fast. In this regard, pay special attention to speed drill that are combined with the serve. 

Here are some suggestions for practicing serve-specific footwork:

1. Start every spider sprint drill with a serve. 

2. Hit a serve and immediately reply to a hand-tossed ball by your coach. At first the toss can be short but, as you progress, the feed can be more and more aggressive (into your feet).

3. Hit a serve and respond to a hand-fed drill by getting in a low, lunge position (that is, little footwork; just get down and half-volley the ball back).

4. Hit a SLOW serve that the coach will volley out of the air (or half-volley off the bounce). The quick response will force you to cover the court immediately. 

5. Perform combination drills of the drill above. In addition, remember to practice serves when you are exhausted in order to build up your stamina and strength. 

Lastly, when you go into the match remember that you're either the eagle (death from above) or the rabbit (runner). Even if you're a big server but are facing a deadly returner, put aside pride and remember to move like your life depends on it...because if you want to play pro, it more or less does.