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Entries in Groundstrokes (33)


Is Deeper Always Better?

Recently I had the opportunity to witness some high level junior tennis played in my area. There really is no better way to come up with great writing topics than by witnessing junior tennis at its best (or not its best). So, with this in mind, I headed out to watch one of my friends play his first match. Before making it to the back row of the main site, I passed by a parent/coach giving his student (PLAYER X) some last minute advice before stepping on the court. This is what I overheard: "no matter what you do, HIT-THE-BALL-DEEP. If you want to win [argh!!!], you must hit the ball deep." I knew the name of the player (and coach/parent) because I had watched the player play against one of my students. I continued on my way and made a mental note to look at the result of that particular match for amusement purposes only. On the way back from my friend's match I stopped by and watched a couple of points - nay, make it a couple of games - of PLAYER X's match.  Here's what was going on: PLAYER X was hitting the ball deep alright (3 ft from the baseline) but the score was lopsided - not in PLAYER X's favor. Later on, I learned that PLAYER X had indeed lost the match (not close). 

So I thought to myself regarding the coach's advice to PLAYER X: is hitting the ball deep always the best strategy? I seem to hear it all the time (maybe it's something that gets passed around from player to coach, from coach to parent, from paren to player and so on - like seasonal flu) and I've been known to give this advice myself (with a twist). With respect to hitting the ball deep, here are the benefits: hitting the ball deep is, usually, a good initial strategy because it pins the opponent deep (forcing him/her to hit shots from further back) and tends to elicit more mistakes from the other side. In addition, a ball that spends more time in the air gives the "striker" more time to recover and get in position for her next shot (since shots slow down and tend to be hit back relatively quickly after the bounce). However, unless you're playing a very limited player, hitting the ball deep - by itself - is only a rudimentary tactic.

Often times, the opponent will back up 10-12-15ft and continue sending the balls back in your direction. If you don't do anything else at this point, you're nothing more than a general who orders an artillery attack (oh brother! here come the war references again) but doesn't send the ground-troops in order to envelop the opposing army. You keep battering the opposition with every missile under the sun but it has shifted its defense backwards. So the initial shock and damage is ameliorated by your opponent;s adjustment in a defensive posture. Furthermore, there's a chance that you will, at some point, "run out of cannonballs" - that is, get tired (since you are generating all the pace and the opponent is only adding a little bit of hers/his to yours). At crunch time, your opponent may have just enough gas in her tank to cruise to a victory. You'll be left wondering "what happened?!" 

In addition, there are some players who, rather than backing up, will "hug the baseline" their entire match. If you hit the ball deep to them, they move in position quickly (take 3-4 steps to the left or 3-4 steps to the right), get in balance and take your shot on the rise (i.e., "off the ping-pong table") - again using most of your energy and little of theirs. Again, more deep shots will probably not have an effect on this type of opponent since they are not forced out of their comfort zone and not forced to generate their own pace (to hit the ball and recover to the middle).

As a result, it is important that you develop some dimensions in order to understand HOW to use a deep ball when playing against a player who either (a) backs up and absorbs your pace; or (b) steps in and uses your pace. If you find yourself playing against a player who backs up, figure out the point in the rally when the player has in fact gone as far back as you can push him (10-12ft) with your normal strokes. At that point (i.e., once her shirt is green from the windscreen rubbing up against her back), you've done your job with respect to the initial prong of the attack. Start yanking the player side to side with angles and make her cover as much ground as possible. In the first diagram above, a player will run more if you hit shorter angles (red lines) than if you continue to aim for the deep corners (blue lines). Again, it helps a great deal to develop this dimension of your game. To summarize: push back; yank side-to-side. 

If, on the other hand, you find yourself playing against a player who holds his ground (i.e., stays on top of the baseline), it is important to have developed a good, heavy, high topspin that lands a couple of feet past the service line (diagram two; blue line). This ball will explode upwards forcing the player to move either (i) to the side and in (diagonally forward) or (ii) to the side and back (diagonally backwards). In other words, in order to take the ball "on the rise" (as is this opponent's gamestyle) he will really have to move (not just take one or two steps to the side). Initially, he might be able to manage it a few times. Eventually, however, he will run out of gas himself (and, perhaps, so will you). If you manage to tire your opponent, he will either step back (waiting for the ball to come to him) - diagram 1 - or he will change his game (be it going for winners, pushing or coming to the net). Either way, you will have a much better chance to win against a tired opponent who has been taken out of his comfort zone. To summarize: move your opponent diagonally (with high, heavy topspin). 


One Bounce To The Fence


The great coach Harry Hopman was a firm believer in telling you where he wanted the ball to land and how it should travel there. (Harry was also a firm believer in putting 50 boys at the top of the building and the first one down was your "man"). He strayed away from technique whenever possible because he understood there were many different ways to hit the ball. Throughout tennis history, players have consistently demonstrated slight variations in their technique, but what always remains true is where the ball lands and how it travels there for the type of shot you are trying to execute.

If Andre Agassi asked you to practice tomorrow, would you be able to give him a solid practice? Any top level junior, college player, or minor league professional would give him a great practice. In the warmup, Andre shouldn't be moving too far too the right or left, or front or back. A common issue that arises with aspiring players is the lack of control. Often times, the ball you hit will bounce twice before it reaches the opposing baseline. If Andre were hitting with you, he would have to move into no-man's land and scoop this ball at his ankles.

A good habit to get into is to be aware of this issue and try to get the ball in one bounce to your practice partner (If you are hitting the ball short on purpose, that's another story). One way to develop a deeper, heavier rally ball is to try to get the ball in one bounce to the fence. It takes more height and/or power to have the ball travel in one bounce to the fence.

Another simple equation to consider:

HEIGHT (over the net) + SPIN = DEPTH

There is nothing more frustrating to a good player than having to run into no-man's land to scoop balls from his ankles in the warmup. A ball should never bounce twice before the baseline in the warmup. In addition, there is nothing more frustrating than working on your volleys from the baseline. Although good players should be able to handle ankle scrapers in no-man's land, on the run forehands, and volleys at shoulder height from the baseline- but this isn't an "ideal" practice for a world class player in warmup, let alone anyone at the local club.

Go practice your control, Harry Hopman style, and get the ball to the fence after one bounce.


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

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