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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 (or friend us on Facebook).

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


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. 


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. 


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. 


Steal This Drill: Wipe the Mark

If you're the type of player who needs to be more aggressive or play closer to the baseline, try the "wipe the mark" drill. In this drill, one player (practice partner or coach) moves his opponent around the court with medium-paced balls. The object is not to kill the opposing player but to move the ball around with controlled shots. The practicing player (principal) must wipe ten (or more) marks during the rally with his foot. So, wherever the ball bounces on his side, the principal hits the ball and then immediately wipes the mark that was left on his side by the previous ball; and so son until the principal has wiped ten marks. After the players improve at this game, the principal can try to wipe ten consecutive marks. 

This game teaches players to not only anticipate where the ball will land (so that the principal doesn't have to much court to cover between the contact point and the mark) but also builds confidence in standing closer to the bounce (so that the player is only a couple of steps from the ball bounce). Since the ball bounces inside of the baseline, the principal learns to become efficient with his strokes, footwork and balance. Lastly, the since the contact point is usually behind the mark and the principal must step forward in order to wipe it, the principal also learns how to move forward after every shot (thereby, perhaps, transitioning body-weight into the ball) before recovering back to the center. Therefore, this is not only a good drill for hand-to-eye coordination but also for developing aggressive footwork., 




Steal This Drill: Ping Pong Doubles 

Here's a fun way to practice your singles game with four (or more) people on the court: ping-pong doubles. In ping-pong, doubles players must alternate shots; so, after the first player on the team hits a ball, the other ball must be struck by her partner or the team loses a point. 

Players can follow the same rules on a tennis court. This game is not only fun but also hard-work (because players must hit and get out of the way - i.e., be constantly in motion). In addition, if the opposing team consists of players with unique qualities (e.g., lefty, touch player, good mover, etc.) one can practice playing points against various types of players without getting accustomed to any particular style. So, if one point is played against a right-handed player with a double-handed backhand, the next point can be played against his partner who may be a lefty with a one-handed backhand (and so on). This stresses the brain a lot more in that you will have to constantly adjust for the situation at hand. 

Another variation of this game allows a team to win 2 points (or more) for every point that the team wins inside of the service line. This is a great way to practice for doubles because the team learns how the two players think and construct points. That is, the team works on building doubles chemistry through singles play. This game also works with more than 4 players on the court and the rallies can be quite elaborate and lengthy.