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Entries in Serving (19)


Backboard Decathlon: Supplement to ROG initiative 

As a lot of you may already know, the USTA has instituted new rules for 10 and Under tennis competition. The R(ed) O(range) G(green) ("ROG") initiative is intended to make tennis more kid-friendly and assist with the long-term development process. You can read more about the new rules here. In the alternative, we recommend that you access the relevant information on the USTA's own website or check out websites such as Parentingaces.com which routinely discuss the changes in rules and their effects. 

Although CAtennis.com takes no position regarding the ROG initiative, we believe that the underlying philosophy is sound: kids + repetition = more, better players -> more Grand Slam contenders. In this regard, we believe that it would be appropriate for U10 tournament organizer to consider expanding their horizons a bit and going beyond the four corners of the tennis court to not only get kids hooked on the sport but also hooked on the process of mastering the game.

Here is what we have in mind: supplementing every U10 tennis event with a backboard "decathlon". A lot of tennis clubs have backboards within their facilities. Some of these backboards are purely for tennis players while others are in the form of racquetball or handball courts. Many of these backboards are underused - particularly by tennis players - for months at a time. Yet, they are one of the best and cheapest training tools available. Many great champions - from Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras - honed their strokes by practicing against backboards, walls or garage doors. Why is backboard training so effective? In one word: myelination. Briefly, myelin assists humans in our learning process. When people learn a new skill, myelin levels increase between the relevant neuron connection. This, in turn, allows signals to travel faster between the areas of the brain involved in the activity. So, for example, when you're first starting out with tennis you can find yourself a bit overwhelmed by all the concepts: 1. footwork; 2. grip; 3. preparation; 4. swing; 5. follow-through; etc. However, with practice, these movements become more and more ingrained (or "grooved"). The gross and fine motor skills associated with the stroke (as well as related muscles) become sharpened. Accordingly, some of the concepts may be internalized or become wholly unconscious. Your brain simply understands the various adjustments that have to be made with respect to each particular shot. 

This unconcious (or partially conscious) understanding allows the player to think about other things besides the the stroke itself such as where to hit the ball (and, perhaps, the following shot). In other words, a player who has achieved this level seems to have "more time" to hit the ball than a beginner. Of course, an expert and a beginner may have the same amount of time at their disposal although the beginner's brain is muddled with more basic concepts than an expert's brain ("paralysis by analysis"). Thus,  the beginner's brain has to fit more computations - speed, trajectory, spin, etc. - in the same finite amount of time - which often results in a mistake. An expert doesn't need to think about the basic concepts as much because, for him, these concepts have been automated. Accordingly, the expert can marshall her brain's assets towards other tasks (e.g., strategy).

Now, the foregoing is a round-about way of saying that repetition is good. The more kids repeat strokes, the more automatic the strokes become. The sooner kids master technique the earlier they can move on to the next level. The benefit of using the backboard in the development process is that the player has the opportunity to hit thousands of balls within 1 or 2 hours v. hundreds (lessons, clinic or match). It's not uncommon to see kids participating in clinics where they are simply standing around and not hitting any balls at all.

The wall doesn't miss, doesn't mishit and doesn't generate pace. Kids learn very early which strokes are good for getting the ball to go forward and which strokes send the balls all over the place. In addition, kids can push themselves to focus on keeping the rally going for longer and longer thereby improving their attention span (which is beneficial in tennis as well as in life). Furthermore, backboard practice is great for developing one's imagination; players can pretend that they are playing against their heros on TV. Isn't that what "playing" is all about?! So wouldn't it be productive if every U10 tournament included a backboard component?! Kids could not only play against each other in a tennis format but could also compete against each other in a more "artificial" setting (although one that's likely to pay more long-term dividends). For example, each tournament could have a main draw, a back draw and a backboard draw. Prizes could be awarded for each category and, knowing this, kids would be more inclned to practice against the backboard (making them better players and more mentally tough competitors). Several back-board games could be incorporated in a "Backboard Decathlon" where boys and girls could compete against each other. Here are some suggestions:

1. Most consecutive groundstrokes without a mistake. To count, the ball must bounce behind a 12' line (for younger kids) or 18' line (older kids). The depth rule ensures that the kids hit proper, penetrating shots. 

2. Most groundstrokes in a 5 minute period (same depth dimensions as above). Maximum of 3 mistakes allowed. This game is great for having the kids' shots are not only strong but also fast. 

3. Most volleys without a mistake. Kids can stay 4' (younger kids) or 6' (older kids) from backboard to ensure that they are "sticking" / punching the shot with power and precision. 

4. Point construction. Tournamen director dictates a point (e.g, serve, forehand, backhand topsin, backhand slice, forehand approach, forehand volley, backhand volley, overhead, etc.) that the competitors have to follow. The ones who do not follow it, are knocked out; the ones who follow the point move on to the next round (where a different, more complex point is constructed). 

5. Target practice. Targets are put on the wall and the players are given 5 minutes to hit the maximum number of targets with their groundstrokes. Maximum of 3 mistakes allowed. 

6. Knock-out. Groups of 4-5 kids are playing a point (hit and get out of the way). The player who misses or doesn't get to the ball is knocked out and the other kids continue on until only one player is remaining. We can attest that this game is a lot of fun. 

7. Most overheads in a 5 minute interval. 

8. Singles. Players compete against each other in a racquet ball-type format in a game up to 11. 

9. Doubles. Same as #8 above except that 2 teams consisting of 2 players each compete against each other. Players on each team must aternate shots. 

10. Most side-to-side volleys in a 3 minute period (i.e., "The Cara Black" drill)

We urge all junior tournament directors to inject some additional fun in their events and let us know how it works. If you are truly interested in growing the game, thinking outside the box is imperative. By incorporating a backboard component in your tournament you will be on the front lines of development. Your players will develop better strokes, better focus, better hand to eye coordination, more stamina, a better work ethic, greater imagination by competing against their imaginary heros ("All men who have achieved great things have been great dreamers" - O. S. Marden) as well as a better understanding of court geometry. Furthermore, they will associate not only tournaments but also practices (specifically on their own) with a fun experience. 


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. 


4 Practice Tricks For A Better Serve

Although the serve has many moving parts leading to a breakdown of the serve during the match, the mistake can usually be attributed to one of three components: (a) TOSS; (b) BALANCE; and (c) LEG DRIVE. Besides practicing inordinate amounts of serve, here are four tricks that you can use to solidify your grasp of these concepts.

1. Use a half-filled water bottle to practice tosses. Unless you have a calm toss, the water inside the bottle will cause it to wobble and move around. Instead of "tossing" the ball/bottle, practice putting it up in the air so that you can catch it in the same spot where you release it. 

2. Toss the ball against the fence and "catch" it between the racket and the fence. For training the proper contact point and proper arm extension, stand facing the back fence (about 2 feet away) and toss the ball slightly forward into the fence. Swing the racket towards the ball and see if you can trap the ball between the string bed and fence at full arm extension. 


3. Use "leg-cuffs" for teaching your hind foot to lock in position alongside the front foot. A lot of players who bring their back-foot forward (as opposed to serving off both feet - e.g. Federer) tend to overshoot the stopping point causing their hind foot to go in front of the front foot. This causes the hips (and, consequently, the chest) to rotate prematurely. Train your hind foot to "lock" into the proper position by using elastic/rubber leg-cuffs (generally used for speed work) which pull the feet close together without allowing the hind foot to swing forward out of control. 

EXAMPLE: Elena Bovina demonstrates the bottle toss and leg-cuff practice. 

4. Use a 2" x 4" piece of wood to train leg power. Place the piece of wood on top of the baseline and try jumping over it as ou serve. Proper knee bend and explosiveness will cause you to propel over the obstacle and land into the court. If you clip the obstacle with your toes it means your serve is lacking leg drive and, most likely, that you are "arming" the serve. Distribute power along all muscle groups from the ground up and your serve will maintain "pop" throughout the match. A lot of players start out the match ripping the serve with only their shoulder muscles. However, these muscles are normally very small and tire easily. Accordingly, the serve will invariably start breaking down as the match progresses. By recruiting more muscle groups for this stroke, you will be able to maintain a proper stroke for a longer period of time


Steal This Drill: Aggressive Movement Following Serve

Have you ever hit a decent serve just to be caught flat-footed by an even better return from your opponent? If so, here is a simple drill to help you with your post-serving movement. One of the reasons why we are often caught unprepared following a serve is due to the way we practice serves: out of context. We move and work on our groundstrokes but serving is often done in a vacuum - that is, hitting basket(s) (plural - when the student is motivated) of serves at the end of the workout. This type of practice does not prepare us for the ball coming back to us after the delivery of the serve. 

One way to practice is by playing points - however, merely playing points will not focus the workout for what we need most - quick, explosive steps. In the drill we are proposing, a line is marked 1-2ft inside of the baseline. After each serve, the player must step in, touch the line and immediately retreat behind the baseline. After warming up, the players play points where one person serves and must touch the line and the other returns. This drill forces the serving player to be aggressive with his serve (i.e. follow the ball in) and then immediately retract behind the baseline and rally. The returner is encouraged to hit aggressive returns deep into the middle of the court in order to jam the server. The players can then play out the point. This drill is also a good way to practice "faking" the serve-and-volley play (i.e. pretending to come in and tricking the opponent to hit a short ball which is then used as an approach shot). 



Steal This Drill: Disguised Serves

Learning how to disguise your serve in order to catch your opponent by surprise can be a tricky proposition. It is often difficult for us, as players, to practice an efficient disguise because, prior to striking the ball, we know exactly where we intend the ball to go. As a result, we often give the serve away by adjusting the toss and preparation just slightly in order to hit the target. 

One way to practice the disguise - that is, having the preparation be exactly the same for every serve - is to practice the serve while the coach is behind you calling out the target in the air. For example, set up three different targets: wide; middle; and T. When the ball reaches the apex of your toss, the coach calls out "wide" or "jam" or "T". S/he tries to mix up the signals so that no pattern is established. Once you get the hang of it, the player can practice the slice, top-spin, flat or kick-serve in the same fashion. 

Practice disguising your serve and you will have the element of surprise on your side. After mastering the basic drills, do it under pressure. For example, put something on the line where if you are within 3 feet of the target you run a brief sprint or do some kangaroo jumps. This will not only get the heart racing but will make serving practice competitive and exciting.