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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!


Entries in Preparation (7)


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: Grab a Bench for Better Depth

Again, much gratitude is due to Roy Coopersmith for suggesting the following drill. The purpose of this drill is to improve the depth of one's groundstrokes. One way to do this would be to place a broomstick or PVC pipe through, or, conversely, an Airzone Training System over the net. This forces the player to aim considerably higher than the net thereby increasing the player's margin for error in a match.

However, one problem with relying strictly on an above-the-net device is that players tend to limit their shots to height while not improving their depth. In other words, there's a risk that the player will develop high, loopy shots that bounce mid-court (and can be easy sitters for the opponent). The goal for a tennis player is to hit high over the net but to also have deep, penetrating shots that put the opponent in a defensive position (or, at least, a position from which they are unable to hurt you). As previously discussed, one of the main strategies in tennis is to hit the ball deep in order to (a) put the opponent in a defensive position and force him to expend his own energy to give pace to the ball; (b) cut down on the angles that he may be able to hit; and (c) put yurself in the best position to control time and space. In order to develop depth, it's not enough to hit the ball high or hard; it's finding the middle ground where you're staying away from the net but also hitting just inside the baseline.

You can develop this comfort zone my placing a plastic bench (chair or pee-wee tennis net) on or around the practice partner's service line (or on both sides of the court - for both players to practice). The players will then rally (baseline points) OVER the net as well as the bench. This simple exercise forces the players to hit not only high, but penetrating shots that explode off the court. Once the players master this drill, they can alternate rallies where one player hits 5-10 deep shots and then a short angle. Doing so would teach the players how to be flexible with their thinking: push the opponent deep; then yank her side-to-side with sharp angles. 


Training the Body's 3 Energy Systems

I would like to thank Ray Brown (Director of EASI Academy, Houston, TX; contributor to MidAtlantic Match Point, TennisONE, Procompare tennis and Tennis World USA) for piquing our interest in this topic. On an unrelated forum, Mr. Brown challenged contributors to (1) identify the three energy systems of the human body; (2) determine how each system is best suited for a particular tennis strategy; and (3) outline how to efficiently develop each system.

From our research - and bearing in mind that we discarded our lab coats, protractors and test tubes exactly 0.34 seconds after receiving our respective college diplomas - it appears that the three types of energy systems are as follows: ATP-PC; Glycolytic; and Oxidative.

1. ATP-PC: anaerobic energy system that utilizes ATP (as in Adenosine Triphosphate - a nucleotide that performs many essential roles in the cell including providing energy for cellular activities) to create energy. When this process takes place, ATP is broken down into ADP (Adenosine Diphosphate). The body then has to add phosphocreatine (PC) to the ADP in order to form ATP. This chemical energy source is used by living things almost like a battery - for short bursts of high-intensity work lasting approximately 10 seconds or less; think "maxing" in the weight room. In terms of tennis, this is the system that would support your body's energy needs in high intensity points of short duration: e.g., serve and volleys.

2. Glycolytic (Lactic Acid System): this system utilizes glucose (or carbohydrates stored in the muscle) to create ATP for energy. In this system, six-carbon sugars are split to three-carbon compounds with subsequent release of energy. Glycolysis can happen under anaerobic and aerobic conditions. However, because of the duration needed to break down glucose to form lactic or pyruvic acid (10 separate reactions), it is the system used for relatively short periods of high-intensity work lasting only a few minutes - think a set of circuit training. After a few minutes of work, the body accumulates lactic acid to the point where pain and fatigue (accumulation of acid breaks down the muscle) will begin to affect performance. For tennis players, this is the main source of eneregy. Most points are won and lost in bursts lasting anywhere between 30 seconds to 1 minute (more than ATP-PC but less than Oxidative). With a short rest break, the work will have to be repeated.

3. Oxidative (Aerobic System): this is an aerobic energy system where the body utilizes carbohydrates, fats and proteins to generate ATP for energy. This a complex system which relies on the circulatory system to supply oxygen. Although slow to kick in, it is the primary system used for long-term, low-to-moderate-intensity work lasting more than just a few minutes - think marathon runners. Although it's unlikely that tennis players will be called to rely on this system as a primary source of energy, it is foreseeable that under some circumstances - extremely long matches which rely mostly on endurance (extremely long points) rather than power - it may be a factor. However, we are "endurance animals" and, therefore, we should focus more on things at which we do not excel than building up the support system that we already master, The limits of endurance exercise, Basic Res. Cardiol. 2006 Sep. ("A skeletal design which favours running and walking, including the greatest ratio of leg length to body weight of any mammal; the ability to sweat and so to exercise vigorously in the heat; and greater endurance than all land mammals other than the Alaskan Husky, indicates that humans evolved as endurance animals").

A good training system will focus on developing each energy system. The first system is trained by including lots of short but high intensity drills into the practice. Think, for example, serving at 95%-100% of your speed and bolting towards the net in a quick sprint. Or, alternatively, perform 2-3 shot combos at maximum power and intensity. The player performs a lot of these sets but is given adequate time to recover. Some nutritionists would advise the post-workout ingestion of creatine (natural or supplement) along with simple sugars to rebuild the body's PC storages. The second system would be trained by performing repetitive, medium-intensity drills, lasting anywhere from 1 minute to 3 minutes. Utilize figure-8s, corners or side-to-sides (now you know why pros favor this drill). Again, adequate rest is given between sets in order to allow the body to recover. You rebuild this system by ingesting protein (amino acid leucine), glutamine, Vitamin C and water. To train the third system, you want to include drills that last anywhere from 20-40 minutes (depending on the level of the player). Although these drills would be of relatively low physical intensity (e.g. cross-courts, down-the-lines), the players should "suck in" sufficient oxygen in order for the oxidative process to commence. Players should look for slightly elevated but rhythmic breathing to ensure that enough oxygen is being ingested. If possible, coaches should develop training regimens where the boundaries of all three systems are being pushed beyond the player's comfort zones.

Nevertheless, since most points are played within the ATP-PC and Glycolytic range, a competitive player who has mastered the basics of the various strokes should spend the majority of his practices trying to improve those 2 systems. Unfortunately, a lot of players spend an inordinate amount of time working on stationary drills (which may kickstart the aerobic energy system) that have no effect on increasing the threshold of the two main energy systems for this type of an activity.


Watch the Ball!!!

"Watch the ball" along with "move your feet" are two staple pieces of advice that a player is bound to hear throughout his/her career. Obviously, since one of the centerpieces of our sport is to hit a moving object, both components must be mastered in order to succeed. Although movement has been covered ad nauseum by tennis writers, less ink has been devoted to the concept of watching the ball. Here are CAtennis.com's thoughts on the subject:

1. Watch the ball so that you can pick up the speed of the ball. Remember that light travels faster than sound. Don't rely on the cracking sound of the ball to inform you that the opponent has hit a hard and heavy shot (or, conversely, a soft ball). Pick up the necessary information from your opponent's preparation and the velocity at which the ball is leaving your opponent's string bed. This will enable you to prepare early and adequately. The ball will slow down somewhat after touching the ground - due to friction - but your best guess at anticipating the speed is to analyze the trajectory prior to the bounce. 

2. Watch the ball so that you can pick up the spin of the ball. In addition to hitting fabulous shots, great players are also known for doing the simple things really, really well. They don't overthink or overcomplicate the basics. If the ball comes with underspin, they know how to get (and stay) under and adjust the face of the racket accordingly. If the ball comes with topspin, they know that the speed of the ball prior to the bounce is deceptive - that the ball will bounce and, due to forward rotation, will "explode" forward. Therefore, the high-level players will prepare a smidgeon sooner in order to avoid being jammed by the oncoming ball. As mentioned in a prior article, the ball (whether struck with top- or under-spin) may also come with a slight side-spin which further alters the trajectory of the ball and forces the player to take an extra couple of small adjustment steps. 

3. Watch the ball so that you can anticipate the angle of reflection. The basic physics concept is that when a ray of light strikes a flat surface at a certain angle (angle of incidence) it will reflect at the same angle (angle of reflection or refraction) in the opposit direction (see image to the right). For example, if sunlight hits a mirror at 45degrees, the light will bounce off at 45degrees in the opposite direction. Substitute ball for sunlight and the application is that when the ball arcs and then drops at a certain angle it will bounce, more or less, at the same angle (give or take a couple of degrees due to pace, spin, smootheness of the court, wind, etc). As a player, if you can anticipate the angle of the ball's "reflection", you can adjust - whether with your feet, balance, core and/or racket - your shot. A lot of developing players wait for the ball to bounce in order to prepare. Unless you're playing Criss Angel, there is no magic! The ball will not change trajectory in mid-air (and may only change very slightly after the bounce). Accordingly, if the opponent sends the ball your way in a certain manner (horizontal angle as well as vertical angle), you should be able to determine where and how the ball will bounce even before the ball crosses the net. If you truly watch the ball (as well as the opponent's biomechanics), you will shave precious time off your preparation. 

To assist yourself with watching the ball, try doing the following: right after the opponent (pr practice partner) has contacted the ball, tell yourself (in your mind) "Back" (i.e. racket back). Do you have to take the racket back as you're doing it? Depending on your strokes and the particular circumstances - maybe, maybe not. However, giving yourself this verbal cue will put you - mentally - in the position to prepare a split second sooner. In other words, you will trick your brain (and your eyes) to start watching the ball sooner and with a purpose. 


Steal This Drill: Handicap Tennis

Here are some good drills to try when you're either trying to mix things up or are practicing against a player who is not as good as you. Often times, playing against a weaker player might cause a better player to lose his concentration turning the practice into a hit and giggle session. In an ideal world, you should be able to have a focused practice against anyone but we realize that that's not always the case. Furthermore, there are some nutty parents out there who think that their kid is so much better than his peers that playing against them would be a waste of time. While that may very well be the case, competitive practices can still be arranged by playing against someone who is one or two levels below you if you put ego aside and your creative hat on.

In the first drill, set up the court (with athletic tape - yes, I go through quite a few rolls) so that the corners are marked off, more or less, as shown. If the weaker player hits the corner(s), s/he wins the point automatically. The stronger player's objective is to hit the types of shots (pace, depth, spin, placement) that cause the weaker player to have difficulty controlling. In addition, the stronger player would have to scramble to defend the corners - even taking balls out of the air. Play either regular sets or games up to 11, 15 and 21. Against players who are not quite that weak, you can set up only 1 or 2 "target areas". 

In the second drill, the court is set up so that the weaker player automatically wins the point if he hits it deep (blue) and the stronger player automatically loses if he hits the ball short (red). Again, these are great drill for evening the odds, for ensuring that both players practice with a purpose and for ensuring that both players stay focused throughout the practice. As we stated in the past, as long as you are motivated and focused, you can play against anybody and still have a very good and beneficial practice. You don't always have to play with someone who is better than you in order to get better. By handicapping yourself (whether by setting up targets, playing "down 0-30", playing in ankle weights, playing with one serve, playing with a wooden racket, etc.) you can still improve a great deal. You will learn to see the court in a different light and develop the necessary insticts to be a great tennis player.