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Entries in Forehand (10)


Practice Aikido For Better Returning

From a purely theoretical point of view, the role of aggressor is saddled upon the server and the defender is on the returner. This, of course, is not always the case. Some players would certainly rather choose to return than serve. However, these players are few and far between. For the most part, moderate level to advanced players would like their chances if they were to serve the entire set rather than receive. Therefore, when it's your turn to receive, you will be better served by shifting the emphasis away from low percentage shots or focusing too much on your opponent's strengths to exploiting angles and creating a physical imbalance in your opponent's positioning.

In this regard, learn and implement the rules of Aikido or Jiu Jitsu. Aikido is a martial art that has been synthesized from various fighting techniques and which is focused on using the opponent's energy and movement to gain control of them. So, for example, rather than blocking a punch or merely dodging a kick, the Aikido master uses the aggressor's movement to dynamically throwing or spinning him out of control. These same lessons can be applied when returning a serve. Often times, the returner is so obsessed with avoiding the opponent's groundstroke weapon that she either tries to overhit the return or block the serve back towards the "weaker" wing of the server. However, this plays right into the server's hand. By overhitting - and presumably missing - you will have handed the opponent an easy point. By blocking the ball towards the opponent's weakness you are giving him a chance to execute an easy shot and, thereby, gain some confidence (something that will end up costing you in a crucial point down the road). In other words, avoid giving the opponent too much belief in herself by playing low-percentage shots.

From a practical point of view, take for example your "standard", right handed player. Her forehand groundstroke may be lights out. For this reason, you may be tempted - on the deuce side - to return towards her backhand. This could be a smart play if the serve comes to your backhand (I.e., down the T) where your return would be somewhat cross-court and, following the return, you will find yourself on the baseline T. However, if the serve comes to your forehand, a safer bet would be to aim cross-court (I.e., to her "weapon"). Hitting cross court will not only provide you with more court to hit (distance is longer) but the net is also lower. Furthermore, the opponent's momentum (which usually follows the trajectory of the ball, may prevent her from effectively stopping, loading up and unleashing off her weapon. Execute it correctly, and now you have her weaker side exposed. Conversely, if she serves down the T, her momentum usually goes forward and a backhand return down the line (I.e., to her backhand) may also prevent her from changing direction in time and hitting a pressing shot.

So, when in a tight spot while returning, think "balance and angles"; don't get obsessed by weapons. Weapons require time to set up. Take your opponent off-balance and knock him out with his own movement.


Go Forth and Let The Children Be Your Guide

Great movement, intensity, passion and focus (eyes) coupled with clean strokes for her age. You don't have to watch pros to learn proper fundamentals; watch this girl. Awesome! Keep up the good work and good luck, Solana. 


Steal This Drill: The Federer Dump

As you're watching the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, see if you can spot this play (or variation) by Roger Federer: (1) deep inside-out forehand (pushing their opponent deep behind the line - red circle); (2) deep cross-court forehand (blue circle indicates positioning of the opponent); and (3) a soft and short down the line or sharp-angle cross-court. 

According to John Yandell, who uses high-speed footage to capture the top players' strokes, Federer has around 27 different forehands. If you ask us, he has 26 variations of the same forehand stroke which depend on (a) the opponent's shot and (b) his respective target. Nevertheless, the basic concept stands: neither Roger nor the other top pros hit the same shot over-and-over again. They vary their shots so as to get the opponent's off-balance and expose as much of their opponent's side of the court as possible. 

Too many juniors (and lesser-skilled players) fail to see the court in a three-dimensional format. Since they, presumably, have a hammer on their forehand side, every ball looks like a nail. By crushing every forehand you're only managing to make your opponent move side-to-side (i.e. parallel to the baseline). And what's the basic practice-pattern? You guessed it: side-to-side; so this is something that's not likely to faze them. Sometimes, it helps to push the opponent diagonally as well and use the momentum of her movement (off the court) to create an opening. 

To practice this "dump" forehand, it helps to have touch. This, however, is not a shot that requires a change of grips - as in a slice or drop shot. It is simply a topspin forehand that is "massaged" rather than thumped. For all practical purposes, the shot looks - from your opponent's point of view - like any regular forehand: from grip, to preparation and path of the racket. If you manage to deceive her with your looks, she will dig in her weight in the midfoot (for lateral movement) rather than forefoot (for forward movement). This will make her reaction to the ball a lot more labored and a split-second slower (may be sufficient for you to create a slight opening). 

Creating this touch takes practice, but this practice can be integrated into your basic cross-court rally drill. Try drilling 4-5 shots cross-court (or inside-out) followed by a "touch" topspin shot to the opposite side of the court or to the same side as your practice partner. In both situations, the ball should land around the service line. If executed correctly, the ball should bounce again one more time before reaching the baseline [KEY!!!]. Practice partners can alternate this play until they feel comfortable executing the play from any situation and irrespective of the pace/spin/placement of practice partner's shot. 


Practice Makes...Imperfect?

Let's study these two pictures of the GOAT in action. Besides his impeccable preparation and picture perfect timing can someone tell me if they notice something that stands out?! I'll give you a hint...the head. Still not enough? OK, how about this - the eyes. Specifically, which eye is in front on the backhand and which eye is in front on the forehand?


After studying the picture for a few seconds, you will notice that the right eye is in front on the backhand while the left eye is in front on the forehand. Immediately before the contact point, let's try to guess which eye "sees" the ball first? I think that we can all agree that, under most circumstances, the eye that's in front (linearly speaking) of the other picks up the moving object first. Ocular dominance, sometimes called eye dominance, is the tendency to prefer visual input from one eye to the other. According to the article from Science Daily, "[i]n normal binocular vision there is an effect of parallax, and therefore the dominant eye is the one that is primarily relied on for precise positional information. This may be especially important in sports which require aim, such as archery, darts or shooting sports."

Why is this important for tennis players? Well, for one thing, much like baseball players, tennis players are engaged in a hitting activity. As suggested in the psyched.com article, a study of several University of Florida baseball players suggested that the best players were cross-eye dominant (i.e., batted right; but had a dominant left eye - the eye that saw the ball first): "College varsity level baseball players are twice as likely as the general population to have crossed dominance. The incidence of central eye dominance is considerably higher than the general population. The best hitters were centrally eye dominant or crossed eye-hand dominant." See also this abstract.

Much like hand-dominance, eye dominance is both innate but can also be trained. For example, Nadal is a natural righty but he has learned to play tennis left-handed. With respect to eyes, a player may very well be naturally right-eye dominant but by practicing a certain way - for example, hitting thousands of forehands (on one side of the body) and only a couple of hundred backhands (on the other side of the body) - it is possible that the player will train the left eye to take over. This could be detrimental to the backhand since, on the other side of the body, the left eye may be "further back".

As a result, it's possible that the player may be seeing the ball - and striking it - early on the forehand but late on the backhand (i.e.,  hitting it only when the ball has entered the field of vision for the left eye). If you suspect that this may be the case - for example, if you find yourself striking certain shots "off the front foot" and others "off the backfoot" - then, perhaps, your stroke is not to blame... maybe you've practiced a certain shot so much that it has had an effect on the eyes which, in turn, have affected when and how you hit another shot. I mention this because, often times, I see juniors hitting forehands in a 4:1 ratio to backhands (backhands are, sometimes, a mere "afterthought" if the forehand doesn't work out). There is at least some risk that disproportionate training - intentionally or inadvertently - on one side of the body may lead to an imbalance in perception which can have a detrimental effect on your strokes (and what you can do with the ball - i.e., someone who sees the ball late and hits it late might be unable to go down the line very well). The good news is that it seems that occular dominance (or balance) can be restored. Some baseball players use eye patches when doing their batting-cage practice (see The Baseball Coaching Bible by Jerry Kindall and John Winkin, p. 138) so there's no reason why a tennis player with a similar issue can't do the same (i.e. put an eye patch over one eye in order to train the non-dominant eye to see the ball sooner) on the ball machine or backboard. 


Why Are You Not Doing This?

The hand to eye coordination needed to play baseball is one of the most demanding in any sport. Players, whether juniors, college or MLB pros, spend hundreds of hours per year in the batting cages to groove their swing and improve their hand to eye coordination in order to find the sweet spot when it matters. Working on the fundamentals - even for players who have mastered the game - is a continuing process. Hitches and kinks in the stroke appear all the time so it's important for the players to go back to the basics in order to correct the motion. 
For some reason, however, American juniors have an aversion to a similar training tool that is available to tennis players: the ball machine. Why is that?! Do you think that because you have a bigger racket head that somehow the ball is easier to hit?! Let's put it this way, the average strike zone for baseball is a mere 500 square inches (basically, that's the width of the home-plate x distance between chest and knees) [yeah, yeah, some baseball players will probably want to debate this...not interested]. In addition, the baseball bat sweet spot is not bigger or smaller than the sweet spot of the tennis racket. In tennis, however, the opponent does not have to hit the ball TO you. The tennis "strike zone" is a whole lot greater: width of tennis court (27 FEET) x length (39 FEET) x height at which contact can be made (e.g., high backhands/forehands, overheads, low slices and drop shots, etc.) (let's say 7 FEET). That's an area of SEVEN THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-ONE CUBIC FEET (7,371ft3). As tennis player, you have to become proficient at hitting the ball FROM anywhere (in your court) TO anywhere (in the opponent's court). Furthermore, the skill necessary to accomplish this task resembles hunting with a spear (or bow and arrow): you have to hit a moving target (prey) with a moving object (weapon) while you yourself are on the run. Same concept applies to tennis: you have to hit a moving object (the ball) with a moving object (racket) while you yourself are in motion (sometimes more, sometimes less)....and you have to hit the court... and maybe keep it away from the opponent. This is not just hand-to-eye coordination - it's hand-to-eye-feet corrdination (and you have to do it over and over again throughout the match). And yet, not many players deem it worthwhile to groove their strokes on the ball machine. Then, they wonder why the shots aren't going in during a match. There's simply no better way hit 2-3000 balls per day than on the ball machine. Done right, this  becomes purposeful practice. So try this:

In the diagrams above, the white "X" represents the placement of the ball machine and the yellow circle represents the contact point (more or less). The blue line is the path of the ball FROM the ball machine; the red lines are the paths of the ball FROM you. Instead of setting up the ball machine in the MIDDLE of the court, place it off-center (WAY off-center) and practice changing the direction of the ball. Rather than doing side-to-sides for 7 minutes and then quitting (because you're not used to hitting 300 balls in a row), practice hitting from a set location while keeping "light" feet...learn the "dance" steps immediately preceding the contact; hit and recover (or, like boxing, "stick and move"). Changing the direction of the ball is usually where all the unforced errors in tennis take place. So reduce the likelihood of mistakes by learning how to adjust for every angle. That is, how to hit a cross-court from a down-the-line; down- the-line from a cross-court; or a sharper cross-court from a cross-court. Again, keep your feet moving and groove your strokes (to the point where they're "in your blood"; AUTOMATIC) so that they don't break down under pressure. Supplement your lessons with ball machine training since, it's not only important to learn a good shot (something that lessons are intended to accomplish) but also to FORGET the bad strokes. To use an analogy, tennis is a lot like sculpting a statue: you have to do the hard chiseling and hammering work; the master (tennis pro) is the one who helps you bring out the details with the fine sandpaper...but then it's back to the chiseling and hammering work. This is YOUR project, not your coach's, so make sure that you take ownership of it