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Entries in Returns (14)


Where Coaches and Parents Get It Wrong

Have you ever wondered what makes a good player great? If so, you are following in the footsteps of numerous people who have sought to bottle the answer and sell it to the masses via clever articles or neatly packaged tennis lessons. Often times, the answer is a combination of "talent" and "practice." While not entirely wrong, the concepts are not mutually exclusive. Research shows that talent supports practice and practice nurtures talent. 

Take for example the occlusion studies initiated by Janet Starkes, a former Canadian women's basketball team member. She wanted to know why elite athletes - despite possessing similar objective reaction times as "regular" people - possessed a much better skill-set in specific environments (e.g., hitting a baseball or returning a serve). As a result, Ms. Starkes devised an "occlusion" test. As part of the test, she collected hundreds of photographs of women volleyball players in action. She then made slides of these photographs where, in some instances, the ball was still in frame and others where the ball was out of the frame (being already struck). "In many photos, the orientation and movement of players' bodies were nearly identical regardless of whether the ball was in the frame, since little had changed in the instant after the ball exited the picture. Starkes then connected a scope to a slide projector and asked elite and novice volleyball players to look at the slides for a fraction of a second apiece and decide whether the ball was or was not in the frame. The glance was too quick for the viewers actually to see the ball, so the idea was to determine whether some of the athletes were seeing the entire court and the body language of players in a way that allowed them to figure out whether the ball was present. The results of the first occlusion tests astounded Starkes. Unlike in reaction-time tests, the difference between top volleyball players and novices was enormous. For the elite players, a fraction-of-a-second glance was all they needed to determine whether the ball was present. And the better the player, the more quickly she could extract pertinent information from each slide.

How does the foregoing relate to tennis? The occlusion test can explain why players like Djokovic, Federer or Nadal are more successful in returning high-level serves (or groundstrokes) than average country club players. Because in many instances the ball travels at speeds that exceed the brain's ability to compute the information gathered from the eyes, the best players in the world pick up cues from other sources - such as body language. In effect, the best tennis players (or baseball sluggers) don't see the ball that much better than the rest of the people - so "keeping your eye on the ball" advice is largely meaningless in the context of a 145mph serve - but they do see other things (e.g. toss, preparation, hips, foot positioning, etc.). Some of these concepts can certainly be taught but in order for them to be mastered, the player must learn how to read body language through hours and hours of first-hand observation. So when parents or coaches say "oh, an hour a day of high quality tennis is enough", that message is only partially right. The player may be able to learn decent strokes in one hour - focusing on the artistry of his/her own movement - but it might not be enough to develop the observation skills necessary to pick up on the subtle body cues of the opponent. As a result, it is important for the player to not only perform drills where the ball is fed by the coach (be it by hand or racket) but to also play a lot of "live ball" tennis - rallying and points. 


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. 


Steal This Drill: Catch the Return

Are you the type of player who can serve his way out of trouble but have some difficulties when it comes to breaking your opponent's serve?! If so, this drill may be helpful. One of the keys to successful returns is to rely on the feet more than the racket. The return should be attacked and, yet, too many players rely on the racket rather than the shoes to get them to the ball. They are reactive as opposed to being proactive. The problem with this attitude is that the further back you intend to make contact the greater the distance that you have to cover. This distance is not only measured left-to-right but also up-and-down (since a good server's ball can really bounce high if you let it). 

To assist you with the concept of attacking the ball with your feet, put the racket down and grab a baseball glove (or two - one for each hand). Have your coach or practice partner mix up serves keeping them as far away from you as possible. Have her slide serves out wide; kick them to your backhand or hammer them into your belly button. Your goal is to move forward and catch as many balls around your waist as possible. By moving forward (like a team handball goalie: video below), you will learn to cut off angles and to do less with the racket and more with the feet. In the process, you will learn how to adjust your positioning by being light but quick and explosive.

When you master 10-15 good catches in a row, switch things up by alternating regular returns with catches. Transfer the skills from the catching to the returning and learn to use more of your opponent's pace and angles against her. By being a proactive returner, you will put yourself in a better position for break opportunities. 


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.


Best 2nd Serve Returners of All-Time

Most coaches will make you feel inferior if you don't step into your returns, as if you don't understand the essence of hitting a great second serve return.  Maybe you are always feeling awkward being in "no-mans land" after making contact with a big kicker well inside the baseline, leaving you vulnerable on your next shot.  Or maybe you are making too many errors trying to play aggressive tennis.  Maybe you aren't wired to take risks, so you are fighting internally with yourself.   

There is nothing wrong with "cutting off the angle" or "taking the ball earlier."  All great advice.  By all means, if you can do it, I highly recommend stepping into the return.  However, judging from the stats taken straight off the ATP website, I notice a different breed of players.  Atleast half of these players are risk-averse players who like to hang back well behind the baseline and give the forehand a heavy ride (granted these stats could be inflated from claycourt play).  With servers generating massive kick and height after the bounce, taking the ball early isn't as easy as it sounds.  For starters, you need to be well inside the court, potentially leaving you in a weird part of the court if you don't do enough with the return.  Secondly, you might give away too many free points doing something that isn't comfortable for you under pressure. 

Judge for yourself, but the proof is in the pudding.  One can never underestimate the value of putting one more ball into the court.  See what works better for you.  It might not be pretty or efficient, but atleast you increased your odds of winning!  That's the only thing that matters at the end of the day, stop being so dogmatic and perfect!  Most coaches can't hit a heavy kicker inside the court, it's not that easy!  Take some pressure of yourself and let the shot develop and give the ball a ride.  One possibility is using a hybrid of staying back and picking opportune times to step in.  Plant the seed inside the servers mind for those moments deep in the set or match at 4-4 deuce or 5-5 30-all.  Those are the little chinks in the armor that change matches and tip a rookie player over the cliff.