Feel The Tension

Simplifying strategies in technique for tennis is difficult.  There are so many variables that can influence the quality of a tennis stroke that the effort of trying to simplify an explanation often has the opposite effect.  After recently watching a lot of adults and juniors play in one of my drills, I tried to find something that everyone could benefit from.  This posed a difficult challenge as there was a variety of ages and levels on the courts.  After watching for a good half hour I found a common theme that the players all could benefit from.  As far as the degree of help it would provide depended not only on the level but also the situation.   Let me explain.

Racquet head speed is essential for players to hit the ball hard in any stroke from the baseline, including the serve.  Without racquet head speed you are unable to create a shot that your opponent will be challenged to hit.  High racquet head speed, if done correctly, can also be a way to prevent injuries as well.  It all boils down to tension.  How much you have and when you have it.

Tension While Learning

When learning gets difficult, we tend to try harder, making our muscles tighten.  You can even see that in someone’s face when they are focusing hard on something.  This is exactly what I see when players are learning a new stroke or trying to improve an old one.  To combat this, try to isolate the stroke and limit the variables.  This will allow you to focus on one thing in your swing; relaxing.  To do this, have someone feed (or use the ball machine) to the stroke you are working on with a consistent rhythm and pace.  This will help you relax more and get you to focus on one thing rather than multiple elements that can occur when you are hitting with someone. 

Tension In Crisis

For the more experienced players, tension happens more in situations rather than the average stroke that they use during their matches.  For example, I have a hard time relaxing when someone hits it hard to my forehand.  The natural response of gripping tight deters my ability to consistently hit a deep ball back to my opponent.  The only way to conquer this is exposure.  They say that “time heals everything.”  That may not be true for all things but for this situation it definitely is.  Expose yourself to whatever bothers you.  Put your hitting partner (or again, use the ball machine) in situations to expose your weaknesses.  When you feel the tension happening, try to work on relaxing while striking the ball.  Do not worry about where you hit the ball but rather how relaxed you are when hitting it.  If you stick with it, you should start seeing more fluid and relaxed strokes. 

Use Your Sense Of Feel

To get rid of tension in your swing, or at least to understand it, there must be a degree of understanding that you have with your body.  Use your sense of feel to get a better understanding of where you feel tension the most.  As you experiment with this, you can then narrow your focus to specific strokes and/or situations to try to relax more during that stroke.  This will help relieve pressure on your tendons and produce a more fluid and reliable shot.  Repetition is the king of acquiring new skills.  There will be a learning curve when exposing your weaknesses but with consistent focus and practice, you will see a much better stroke for you to rely on in times of stress during your matches. 

Need More Help With This?

Try this video on creating a “C” swing in your groundstrokes that will help keep momentum going and allow a more relaxed swing to give you effortless power. 

Improve Your Court Positioning!

Often times I see recreational players with good solid strokes but unable to win matches. After watching them compete it is clear that it has nothing to do with their strokes but more about their position on the court and how it relates to where they hit the ball.   Let's look into some common mistakes to avoid. 

Sit Where You Hit

This is a classic mistake where players are more concerned about their stroke then competing. I see a player hit a ball and stand where they hit it to watch where it goes before reacting to the next shot. To combat this, practice hitting a ball and while watching it go across the net, move back to the middle of the court to be in position to hit the next shot. If you are already at the middle of the court, work on shuffling your feet as you prepare for the next shot.  This constant movement is essential to get to more balls and feel faster on the court. 

Lose To a Short Ball

Another mistake I see in court positioning is when a player hits a great shot against an opponent that creates a weak reply, giving the player a short ball.  The player either fails to hit the next shot as they are unprepared and they rush the shot or they give their opponent a weak ball that they can easily be beaten on.  This is a problem beyond missing the opportunity to capitalize on a weak ball. This also gives your opponent less pressure to hit deep balls.  They now feel that they can win on a weak ball, giving them a much easier time getting balls over the net.  Work on moving forward more often than usual to start creating pressure on your opponents.  You will start seeing a  dip in their game when they know that they cannot get away with hitting a short ball. 

No Defense

 f you see a professional tennis match it is quite obvious who is in control and who is on defense during a rally  just by looking at the court positioning of the players. The player on defense is many feet behind the baseline, giving them an opportunity to retrieve the next ball as their opponent is hitting hard and to corners of the court.  Try to see a strong shot coming from your opponent so that you are able to defend it better by backing up and allowing yourself more time to react to the ball.  This will give your more time to get to the ball and keep you in the point. 

Being Reactive Rather Than Proactive

There are some common places that a recreational tennis player will hit to in certain situations.  If you can guess correctly in the place where the ball is hit, you are able to be in position much faster and most likely have an open court to hit into. Due to technique that I will dive into and a video for the future, players will hit crosscourt on their short ball groundstrokes and high volleys.  See if your opponent does this often and then try to move to that spot on the court before they hit it.  Even if the player you are facing does not do this type of pattern, most players have a tendency to hit to certain parts of the court when facing specific shots (short, deep, left or right side of the court).  This also relates to the serve.  Not only will this get your opponent to question the direction of their shots but also make them hit balls to parts of the court they are not as comfortable doing. 

Watching Rather Than Moving

This applies mainly to doubles.  There is a strong urge to stop moving and watch as your partner is hitting a ball.  This mistake keeps you from being in the right position to hit the next shot.  For example, if you know your partner has a strong forehand and he or she is about to hit it, you need to be moving forward and towards the middle of the court to be ready for the weak reply.  This is the same for when your partner hits a lob.  There should be a quick reaction to where you need to go before your partner is striking the ball.  I recommend players to not only have signals for where your partner is going to go on your serve but also for the second serve return.  Let your partner know if you are going to lob, hit crosscourt or down the line.  This allows both players to be in the right position before the ball is hit.  This takes practice but it will make you faster on the court without improving your overall speed.  ‘

Know Your Role

In doubles, there are too many times players go for balls they have no business of going for. When you know your roles as a doubles team, the movement and court position becomes much easier.  The best rule I can give a doubles team regarding this is related to the two holes in tennis.  The first hole is down the line.  If the ball is in front of you on the other side of the net, your job is to cover the line.  If the ball is crosscourt of you on the other side of the net you have the middle of the court.  The sharp cross court angle is very difficult to hit into with any pace, allowing you to cover that too by moving there once the ball is hit.  This shot is difficult and rarely hit at so ensure the middle is your main priority when you are in this crosscourt position.  This is hard at first as the person at the net with the ball in front of them wants to jump and take the middle but this is something that should only happen if the ball is a “sitter” that can be put away.  Practice this by having someone hit groundstrokes on the deuce or crosscourt side with you and your partner at the net.  If you are in front of the baseline player, let the ball go by if it’s going down the middle.  This takes some trust for your partner to be able to hit that ball but once you have that trust, your court positioning will be much stronger and allow you to win more matches.

Conclusion:  Think! 

I remember subbing in for a 3.5 men’s doubles match and after the first set the guys were saying how fast I was.  Although I wouldn’t call myself slow, I’m definitely not known for my speed.  The reason they said this is I anticipated the next shot and focused on my court positioning rather than my strokes.  This allows me to move and be in position ore often than not which gives me more options for what type of shot I will hit and where I will hit it.  Start thinking about your positioning and watch your speed increase too!

How Sociology Can Help Your Tennis Game

My favorite books to read often relate to human behavior and interactions with our environment.  Books like “Social Animal,”  “Your Are Now Less Dumb” and “Bounce” all have great components to how we think and react to situations.  I recently read a blog by James Clear that depicts some great info on some behaviors we often do that can keep us from improving our mental state and outlook in situations.  I found some similarities in tennis that I would like to share.  I hope they are useful for you.  Enjoy! 

Survivorship Bias

This is one of the most common means of bias we see as recreational players trying to improve our tennis game.  We see a professional player or instructor give advice about training and never think about how many other people that did that same training but fail.  I often warn players that are using some sort of diet or exercise regimen they got from a high level player that the player might have gotten to that level despite their training, not because of it. 

Although this can be inspiring to think there is a magic bullet out there that can get you to the next level, consider thinking of being more critical with your praise towards someone’s methods of accomplishments.  Experiment and see what works for you.  Consider finding patterns in training that multiple players share to ensure you are using the right methods for your own improvements.

Loss Aversion

This way of thinking is probably the biggest obstacle to improving ones tennis game.  Loss Aversion in tennis relates to avoiding things in practice that you’re uncomfortable with.  This happens because we are much more comfortable with the feeling of gaining something rather than losing something.  For example, research has shown that someone who gets $10 does not feel as much of a high from gaining that money compared to the low feeling when losing $10.  Although the amount is the same the mentality is not.  This keeps us from wanting to improve our game since it will mean we will be losing points and even matches for awhile until we get good at the changes that will overall improve our game.

Avoid this tendency by finding hitting partners that are willing to train for the long term.  This means you may want to avoid the players that only play matches or hit for fun.  Find the ones willing to think outside of the box and train with a purpose to expose potential weaknesses for the future improvement you will get from it.  

The Availability Heuristic

This refers to the focusing on the examples that are easy to notice that will help solidify your stand on something.  This relates to tennis when players will be selective with what they notice in a match to confirm their bias.  For example, I was running an adult drill recently and it involved the players to move forward on one side with the feed going to their opponents on the other side at the baseline.  The player coming to the net refused to do it after getting lobbed once.  She claimed that happened all the time and after four more points that were played, she pointed out again that it happened.  She didn’t mention the four points between the two lobs that would have given her a great position to hit a winning volley.   Not only does this happen in match play situations but also with our own self-criticism.  I’ve seen it too many times when a player will self implode as they focus their attention on any bad shots they are hitting.  They will literally wait until a point ends on their mistake to then criticize themselves on a poor performance. 

Tennis isn’t won by being perfect.  The ability to see the big picture in a match can help keep a positive outlook and mindset that can help with your chances of winning.   

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is similar to the previous flawed mindset in that they both look for confirmation on what they saw previously without being critical about it.  In a tennis scenario, confirmation bias refers to a player seeing a pattern and ignores anything but the examples that confirm that pattern.  A great example of this happened two years ago during regionals. My #1 girls high school doubles team was playing regionals.  As their coach we were talking after the first three games to see what was going on as they were down 0-3.  They immediately told me they were getting beat down the line and that is why they were losing.  I was watching the match from a distance and I counted two times out of three games that this happened.  Once we think a pattern is occurring it is hard to notice anything BUT the points that prove that pattern which keeps you away from seeing anything else that is going on in the match that could be useful for strategy purposes.

Try to have an open mind to what is going on throughout the match so you can see anything that might help benefit you.  A great example is in Brad Gilbert’s book, “Winning Ugly.”  He mentioned that an opponent he was playing was crushing him but noticed in the middle of the match that the guy didn’t hit very strong approach shots that allowed him to beat his opponent when the guy came to the net.  Brad intentionally led the player to the net to do this and ended up winning the match.  He didn’t let the other possible patterns impact his outlook on the match to find a weakness he could exploit.

Be A Better Thinker

All of these examples help show how we can be pretty irrational thinkers, especially as tennis players.  Overcome this by first being aware of it and then having an open mind to think “outside of the box.”  You may surprise yourself with what you can notice and change during a match to help swing the outcome your way!

Want to see how the pros turn during a match?  Check out this video and help unleash some potential power you have in your groundstrokes!  

Your Volley Rule Book

After I successfully won my last match on a winning volley, I paused to reflect how a miss could have turned the match the other way, giving my opponent confidence while lowering mine.  It's evident how important the volley can be yet many of us tend to shy away from it due to many factors.  This blog will cover all the important elements of a volley that include mentality, court positioning, and technique.  Let's get started!

Part I:  Mentality

Check out the picture below.  The sheet on the net is supposed to represent your view point at the baseline, meaning you cannot see the court (unless you are 6'7").  That means if the ball is struck for a groundstroke at the baseline, the player must hit UP on the ball, making it hard to be aggressive due to some of the force of the ball going in the opposite direction you want it to go; down.  As the player walks closer to the net, one can see more of the court and therefore be able to hit down on the ball to a larger portion of the court.  So as one gets closer the more aggressive he or she can get and vice versa as you get further away.  In other words win at the net and don't lose at the baseline. 

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As you can see from the picture below Nadal understands this as he is very close to the net while making a play on the ball in a recent doubles match with Roger Federer in the Laver Cup.  

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Part 2: Court Positioning 

Doubles and Singles positioning vary slightly but have a common purpose in where to be at the net; which is to cover both the line and the middle of the court.  In doubles (as you can see below) the cross court player is slightly further back to cover the lob and middle shots.  This is because the lob is best hit cross court as the court is longer diagonally.  The middle is a much easier shot to hit rather than an angled crosscourt shot near the ally, which is something you can afford to give to your opponent.  

Bryan Brothers (Bottom) defending a ball to the right.  Notice the staggered position.  

Bryan Brothers (Bottom) defending a ball to the right.  Notice the staggered position.  

This applies towards singles too.  When coming to the net, the majority of your approach shots should be down the line so you can cover (just like doubles) the line AND the middle of the court.  This limits your opponent to hitting a sharp angle to get it by you.  See blow for an example: 

Notice the ball is in front of Federer on the approach, covering the middle and the line for potential passing shots. 

Notice the ball is in front of Federer on the approach, covering the middle and the line for potential passing shots. 

Part III: Technique

This is the most important part of the volley.  No form no volley.  I'll break it down to the three essential elements that make a good volley.  All are described in the picture below.

1. Wrist Back:  This includes having a continental grip (V of your hand goes down the middle of the handle).  Many rec players will use a forehand grip to get the strings of the racquet to face forward rather than bringing the wrist back.  Doing this correctly will allow you to have the capability to hit balls on both sides in front of you and allow for the strings to face up on low volleys.  

2. Racquet Head Above The Handle:  This is important to create a solid impact with the ball.  Hitting a volley requires hitting a ball that is about twice as fast as it would be after it bounces at the baseline.  By having your racquet head above the handle, you can absorb the impact of the ball and keep impact off of your arm.  

3.  Racquet Head Back:  This is very important for creating spin.  If you lay the racquet head back and move forward on impact with the ball, the ball will go forward but also come off your racquet with spin as the head of the racquet is not perpendicular to the path of the ball.  This natural spin can keep the ball low without taking swings at the ball to create spin.  Think of a baseball or softball player catching a ball.  They don't take their glove and swing at the ball to catch it, they simply let the ball come to the glove.  This is the same idea with the volley but to get spin, you have to bring the racquet head back to get that without sacrificing control and timing of making good impact with the volley.  

Increase Your Chances Of Winning

I'm in the middle of my varsity boys high school tennis season and it has occurred to me that during a close match that is not coached, the probability of winning the match is based a lot on luck, not strategy.  I want to give you some tips to move the probability in your favor.  Other than the video at the end of this blog that gives some tips to improve your chances of winning, I have a few that I would like to write about as well.  Hopefully the two sources of information can give you enough to change the outcome of your close loses to victories!  

Tip 1:  Notice Your Opponents Strengths and Weaknesses

Last week I watched my 1 doubles team during the first set and after just 3 games I noticed the trend that was pretty apparent to why their opponents were winning the match.  As we talked during a changeover it was obvious that they had no idea what was going on.  I mentioned that the other players haven't hit one backhand in the set yet.  That wouldn't be a problem if that wasn't their weakness but it was, making it a very difficult match to win when hitting to their opponent's strengths.  It's one thing to not be able to hit it to their weakness and another thing to not notice.  This trend seems to occur throughout my experience of watching and coaching matches.  Whether it be singles or doubles; it seems to be a 10 to 1 ratio of forehand winners to backhand winners that I witness.  To combat this, try to work on serving to corners of the box so that you can hit to your opponents weaknesses.  This is the same during groundstrokes.  The ability to hit targets is essential to increasing your chances of winning.  This is also important in double.s  For example, knowing were the forehand volley is on the return is important.  If you are returning on the deuce side and the player at the net on the other side is a righty, you need to be careful of putting a ball down the middle where their forehand volley is.  It's a much easier volley for your opponent when hitting forehand volleys vs. backhand volleys.  

Tip 2:  What To Pick If You Win The Spin

When you spin the racquet to decide how the beginning of the match will start, consider something I've told my teams in the past.  First, check the conditions.  If the wind or sun is a huge factor, chose the side that benefits you the most.  The sun's factor is obvious but the wind can be a bit different than you think.  If you are nervous or have a hard time moving forward, choose hitting into the wind.  It will keep the ball in and make it harder for your to hit long.  If you have a lot of spin on the other hand, I would recommend the wind to your back so you can use the spin to dip the ball into the court with the wind pushing the ball forward even more.  If the weather isn't a factor and you win the toss, choose return.  Most matches I've seen have a double fault happen in the first game.  Also, most recreational servers are not that strong so you are getting an opportunity to hit a short ball on their serve which is even more of an advantage during second serves.  Also consider the fact that you are "supposed" to hold serve.  There is added pressure in the beginning of the game to do this and if you're not firing on all cylinders I would think that returning would put the pressure off of you.  

Tip 3:  Changing It Up After A Set

If "Plan A" isn't working, consider a different approach.  For example, a singles player on my team lost the first set rather quickly to his opponent so he serve and volleyed as well as came in on second serve returns in the beginning of the first set.  He ended up winning 3 games in a row.  For doubles, think about changing sides on the return.  A switch gives a different look and possibly allows a better chance of breaking your opponents serve.  Also make sure the player that is holding serve the easiest is serving the second set.  This is entirely legal and should be done no matter what happens after the second set!

Want A Few More Tips?  

Try these tips found in a video I made that follows the same kind of theme but with some other ideas that might help you improve your game!  Good luck! 

Learn From Roger Federer's 3 Pillars Of Success

Recently Roger Federer shed some light on his foundation for playing great tennis during an interview after his loss to Juan Del Potro in the US Open Quarter Finals this year. Roger said throughout the tournament he didn't feel right with different aspects of what makes his game click.  The interview continued with some insight with what he considers the three "pillars" that are fundamental to playing great tennis.  Let's dive into each one and see how you are doing with these three pillars. 

Pillar #1:  Physical Well-Being

The first pillar is probably the most important in a two week tournament. The physicality of pro tennis nowadays is extremely tough on the body and having the ability to play long matches over the course of a two week span is very difficult to do.  This also relates to recreational players as we want to perform well during our weekend tournaments, adult league matches, and our every day practice matches. 

To do this, your body needs to be able to sustain long periods of  interval training where you will play points of high intensity followed by moments of rest.  It is also important that injuries do not come about during your matches. The preparation to get your body physically ready for tennis matches seems to be often forgotten.  We tend to worry about our forehand rather than our ability to play back-to-back matches or how to sustain high levels of play.  Let's look at some important training tips to keep you fit on the court. 

Play with correct form:  Ensuring that your technique is correct will keep your body from breaking down during matches. This involves using the stronger parts of your body such as your shoulders, stomach and legs rather than your arm. If you are having trouble with  this, check out this video that deals with technic to keep you injury free. 

Strengthening the right body parts:  It is only been a couple years since I started to specifically train for tennis. A lot of my workouts were strenuous but did little for my tennis game.  I've learned that my workout should leave me stronger and more capable of playing better tennis rather than just running my body through a strenuous workout. This is why it is important to isolate body parts that will be used for tennis.  This includes your stomach, lower back, calves, hip, shoulders and rotator cuffs.  Workouts should also focus on balancing the body with the opposite movements you are doing for tennis. For example tennis is a forward motion so doing  back exercises can help strengthen the muscles and keep you strong on both sides of the body. Pushups is something to avoid for the most part as this is working the same muscles that your tennis strokes use.  Other aspects of your body include your hamstrings and lower back.  To summarize, consider your workouts a preparation for the real workout; your tennis match.  

Pillar #2:  Your Tennis Game

Another pillar of Roger's success is his actual striking of the ball/feel of the ball.  It is crucial to have  confidence in your ability to compete on the tennis court. What many recreational players fail to do though is prepare for their matches. This leads to matches of great performances and matches of poor performances. The pros do not take that risk as they work on their game during practice to feel confident in their matches. Try to practice one to two times a week where you're focusing on the patterns that you see in your matches. For example if you are in a 3.0 league, you more than likely get weak second serve hit at you so work on hitting returns mostly on your strong side (forehand or backhand).  I have my varsity players move over to their stronger side on second serves and a few steps forward so that they have more opportunities to hit the second serve return with their better side in an offensive position. This pillar also relates to how you prepare right before your match. Some people need a long warm up while others need to mentally prepare themselves. Whatever the case is, it is important to have a ritual that is consistent before you step on the court against your opponent. 

Pillar #3:  Your Mental Game

The mental game is left for last as it is the hardest and most neglected aspect of one's game.  Practicing positive energy and attitude is important because it is so hard to do that when you're not playing well or in a tight match. Consider practicing your attitude during matches more often so that you are more prepared to be 100% focused during your matches.  For example, consider preparing yourself mentally before your match with all your misses.  There are too many players that have a negative response to their misses, making it almost impossible to stay focused and play good tennis.  Knowing you will not be perfect on the court but also envisioning you overcoming these mistakes will make you in the right state of mind for your match.  

Take Away

Although Roger Federer's 3 pillars work for him, maybe yours will be a bit different.  Consider reflecting on this and find out what are the aspects of your life that will make the most impact to your game.  By looking a bit deeper into this you may find some areas to focus more on to get you in your peak state to compete at your highest level!  

 

Serving 101: Selecting The Best Serve For Your Game

It has been awhile since I have tackled a specific stroke to analyze and give tips to improve.  When deciding which stroke to fixate on, it was an obvious decision.  Imagine playing a professional like Venus Williams or Rafael Nadal.  Many of us would love the opportunity to do this but with the understanding that we have a slight chance to win…a point.  JIf I had to personally prepare for such a match, my first focus would be on what Williams or Nadal couldn’t impact.  There is only one stroke that this happens on and that’s the serve.  Neither Williams nor Nadal can touch the ball until I have tossed and hit the ball over the net.  If they hit a huge forehand return back at me; well, that’s a different story!  The serve is also a stroke that you can practice on your own.  So much time is focused on hitting during a rally but we often forget about what starts the point in the first place. 

I’m going to take a different outlook on the serve in this blog.  Instead of focusing on the technique of the serve, I am going to focus more on the serve types and serve placement so that the best decision is made before every serve you do. 

A Lesson From The 4.5 Men’s Doubles National Champions

There is a club I teach part time outside of school hours.  One day, I was filling in for a double partner to play some guys training for nationals.  They were playing in the 4.5 level 55+ age division.  While playing them I learned a lot about how to manage one’s serve.  They realized their capabilities and negated any unnecessary risk when it was not needed but also was cognitive of the fact that risk was needed at different occasions.   The main pattern of serving was simple for them.   They served down the “T” about 85% of the time.  We knew it was coming but they didn’t care as it put them in a position to give us the least amount of angles to hit at while covering as much of the court as possible.  They also did this because their serve was not like it was in their 20s, meaning they couldn’t just win on pace alone.  They knew this and played accordingly.   During the match I was returning quite well.  Instead of constantly being beaten by their approach of serving down the T, they gave me different looks.  They did Australian positioning, I formation and served at different places in the service box.  They knew that risk was needed to win more points against my return.  What you can get out of this is to focus on MANAGING your serve and understanding what will give you the best possible results from your serve.  In essence, THINK more when you’re playing. 

A Lesson From A Division 1 Tennis Player

 I was fortunate to find a very solid college tennis player who was in Denver for a summer internship before going back to school in August.  He played for Yale and had exceptional skills that made it fun for me to learn and train with.  He played a local ITF tournament and won the doubles and got to the semis in the singles.  He obviously was pretty happy with the results.  After we did a serving drill, he mentioned that my spin serves as a first serve was much more difficult to handle due to the fact that it was much more accurate and consistent.  He didn’t have as many looks on my second serve which is where he does the most damage on the return.  He also mentioned that the spin serve to the backhand side of his opponent got him out of some tough jams in the tournament.  The lesson learned from this is that serving big (even when you can) isn’t always the best method.  If you track pro matches closely, players get broken when they hit a high number of second serves during that game.  Put the pressure off of you and onto your opponent to come up with something risky.  Hit a serve you can get in more consistently and accurately. 

A Lesson Learned From My Friend Who Played #1 At A Division 1 College

I’ve been fortunate to have a good friend who played for the division 1 school I attended.  While most of the players on the team were over 5’8” with big serves and forehands, my friend Caroline was able to outcompete them to the #1 spot.  I’ll have to ask her but I’m pretty sure she stands no taller than 5’1” yet don’t let her size fool you.  Her game was incredibly tough to beat.  One thing I really appreciated in her strategy is how she managed her serve.  Caroline knew better to try to hit flat serves, as her window to hit the ball in was too small to hit consistently.  She also knew that giving her opponent to many looks at a second serve would prove disastrous.  So what did she do?  Her main goal in serving was to get a return that was either neutral or weak so that she could put pressure on her opponent on the next shot.  After watching many of her matches, it was clear that this worked well.  Try it with your next match.  Put spin and placement high on your priority list while serving.  Think what would give you the weakest reply with the least risk.  You will start seeing the pressure melt away on your serve trying this out.

So What Is The Best Serve For You?

There are plenty of strategies to the serve but few people I’ve met have exhausted them all.  Try to play a match with different mindsets on the serve and see which one is best for you.  There is a good chance you will get an “Ah Ha!” moment while doing this.  Also, check out this video on more details with selecting the best serve for your game. 

The Deciding Factor: The 1 Critical Skill That Separates Every Level

With over 10 years of experience teaching adult tennis groups, coaching 2.5 to 4.5 teams and teaching myself to a 5.0 tennis player, I feel that I have the inside scoop on what you need to have to get to the next level for your adult leagues.  Regardless if you are a 2.5 or a 4.5 player I have you covered!  With the sake of simplicity I wanted to challenge myself to putting what I think is the most important skill needed to reach each level of adult tennis.  While this won’t be your guide to all the checklists needed (maybe another blog?) to reach the next level, it may help guide you to more efficient and effective practices.  Any comments are welcome to provide more insight on this topic! 

Moving Up From a 2.5 to a 3.0 Level

Skill:  Movement/Tracking

Reasoning: Most beginner adults can understand the technique of hitting the ball but struggle with having the ability to move to hitting a ball.  This involves “tracking” which is being aware of where to be to hit the ball that is coming to you.  For example, too many times players will see a high ball and see it bounce over their heads without having a shot at hitting it.  This is why athletes who pick up tennis move straight to the 3.0 level as they can make consistent contact with the ball with their expert tracking skills.

Help:  Try throwing a tennis ball across the net with your partner.  The other person then catches the ball when the ball bounces.  Wherever the ball is caught the ball can be thrown.  This will help players learn to move and track a ball without worrying about the technique of hitting the ball too.  Videos on this coming soon!

Moving Up From a 3.0 to a 3.5 Level

Skill:  Ability to hit all shots on the court with consistency

Reasoning: This is where your weak backhand can only take you so far.  There are too many players at a 3.5 level that can expose your weaker side so having an ability to be consistent on all strokes (serve, return, forehand, backhand, volleys, overheads) is essential for this level.  Rarely will matches be “won.”  Rather the player who makes the most mistakes will lose the match.  This is because it will be difficult to hit balls by someone at a 3.0/3.5 level. 

Help:  Hitting the center of the ball consistently can help with your focus on hitting the ball correctly. 

 Moving Up From a 3.5 to a 4.0 Level

Skill:  Hitting with Pace/Spin

Reasoning: Although pace and spin are separate entities, I am treating them like a horse and carriage.  Can’t have one with out the other.  Power means nothing without controlling it with spin that is the next step to improve your game from a 3.5 level.  There will be very few players that can get past this level hitting flat balls.   This includes hitting spin on serves, groundstrokes and even volleys.  This takes the correct grips and possibly a whole new swing for you to get to this level.  Consider getting a lesson from a certified pro to help you with this! 

Help:  Try watching this tutorial on topspin so that you can then hit the ball harder and keep it in the court. 

 Moving Up From a 4.0 to a 4.5 Level

Skill:  Having Weapons

Reasoning: This is the most frustrating move for many adult players I know.  Many have maxed out with their strokes because of the fact that they don’t have a weapon.  This means a big serve, forehand, backhand, etc. that can put pressure on your opponent to force an error.  This also connects well with the ability to hit a punishing short ball.  Moving forward and seeing opportunities to attack is important to keep pressure on your opponent.  This often takes a change in one of the following categories:  fitness, mindset or technique.  All are hard to change but to play at a 4.5 level, it may be worth the struggle! 

Help:  Understanding centripetal force to hit harder balls, increasing racquet head speed on your serve or on your forehand, inside out forehand drill, Exercises to help you get fit: band exercises for the knee, back and stomach exercises, electric chair drill.

Moving Up From a 4.5 to a 5.0 Level

Skill:  Hitting with pace consistently with correct footwork.

Reasoning: This was a big change for me.  I played in a 4.5 league a few years ago while also teaching tennis, teaching chemistry and varsity coaching.  Basically I had no time to train and I struggled just to make the match on time.  I had no choice but to play with caution and hit far from the lines while relying on my speed and fitness to get to balls.  I was surprised where I was so successful that I was bumped up to 5.0.  I didn’t even try for it but with the right mentality on the court I was able to separate myself from them with having a gritty mentality.  Instead of hitting a winner every 4 or 5 points, I rarely hit a winner and instead kept consistent pressure on my opponent to make them go for low percentage shots.  This leads to the next part to getting to a 5.0 level is the footwork needed to be quick to the ball so you can set up and hit the ball hard and consistent.  Without quick feet, it will be very difficult to get to the next level!

Help:  Having the right mindset might change your game completely.  Try these videos to help:  How The Pros HitHaving The Right Mentality, Split stepping, proper footwork of the return of serve, taking the ball on the rise.

 Moving Up From a 5.0 to a 5.5 (D1 College) Level

Skill:  Experience

Reasoning:  I met some really good D1 college players this past summer to hit with.  I found myself over my head with handling their pace and pressure the were able to consistently do.  At a 5.0 level, it’s not that you don’t have the strokes to improve; it’s more about the time to train with players that can get you there.  By the end of the summer I was feeling more confident and hitting the ball with much more consistency and pace.

Help:  Try making your practices a bit more difficult.  Drills like these might help:  Offense Defense, doubles tutorial, high intensity feeding, singles patterns practice.

 

 

Increase Your Tennis IQ Regarding Your Court Position

Non-Winning Ways

I still remember from a few years back a lesson I was giving a middle school kid that wanted to start learning the game (now plays varsity for a local high school).  During our first lesson, there was a 3.5 adult match a few courts down.  I stopped our lesson and had him watch the match.  I asked him to keep track of how many winners the players hit from the baseline.  As you can imagine, none happened for a while until finally someone did hit a winner from the baseline.  I asked him how many errors did it take to make that winner?  He said “a lot.” 

Playing With Margin

I made a blog post about how much margin the pros play with on their ground strokes.  If you focus on their rallies, you will mostly see a lot of safe shots.  Once a player hits a shorter and/or weaker ball the other player is now able to be more aggressive and hit the ball at different parts of the court that they would otherwise not hit at if the ball were deep.  In essence, tennis is a game of short balls.  Low-level players win by hitting short balls while high-level players lose when they hit short balls.  As you improve your game and play more difficult players, your ability to keep the ball deep is crucial.  The other part of this is having the right mentality based on where you are on the court. 

Changing Your Mentality

Court positioning is directly related to shot selection.  No matter how pretty your ground strokes are, they are not going to win matches for you if you are staying at the baseline.  Now, you can not lose from the baseline, meaning keep the ball deep and wait for your opponent to make a mistake, but rarely are you going to hit a winner from behind the baseline during a rally.  What you want your ground strokes to do is to create a short ball from your opponent.  This means keeping the ball deep, with pace and velocity to make it difficult for them to do the same back to you.  Once you get a short ball, it will be crucial for you to step into the ball and create pressure on your opponent.  Let’s take a look at two pros you’ve heard of that do both parts of this very well.

Baseline Mentality

What makes Novak Djokovic so tough to beat is his incredible ability to keep the ball deep during rallies and not fall for the trap of going for too much.  He will wait for his opponent to do this instead.  By allowing his opponent to be more aggressive, angles tend to open up for him to put pressure on his opponent to go for even more risky shots, often leading to a mistake.  Having this approach at the baseline is a great way to give you the best opportunity to winning your matches.  Try watching some of his matches to get an idea of what this looks like.  You will come away with describing him as “disciplined” and “mentally tough” which are great indicators of a solid baseline player. 

Aggressive Mentality

Once you do get a short ball, you need to be able to create pressure on your opponent.  By doing this, you are sending a message to your opponent that they cannot get away with hitting short balls.  This means moving forward and hitting balls to your opponents weaker side with pace.  If done correctly, your opponent will start missing more shots as they know that if they do hit it short they will most likely lose the point.  There is no one that does this better than Roger Federer.  Watch some of his matches to see how he is able to come to the net for a lot of his points to create that pressure and force those errors or create easy volleys for himself.  This is a difficult thing to do but once you commit to this in practice you should be able to transfer this into match play. 

Watch This

To recap the ideas of this blog, check out this video that will give you a great visual on what this all means.  Happy hitting! 

KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid

Tennis can get very complicated with the correct technique and footwork to make the ball go where it should.  If you've had a lesson before, I'm sure there was a time of being overwhelmed with the concepts that were being taught to you.   Although this can be important with specific elements to your game, trying a more broad approach may help you achieve more with your form.   Let's take a look at some examples of this. 

Narrow Your Vision.

When I started teaching myself tennis, I didn't know what the word "technique" really was.  I just looked at the results of when I hit the ball and proceeded from there.  For example, if I was hitting the ball in the net, I would try to get so low that I could see the bottom of the ball before I would swing.  This was the only thing I focused on until I saw improvement.  By adjusting your mindset to one thing when working on your game, you may find it easier to get the results you are looking for.  Another example of this is toover correct your shots.  When I'm teaching a lesson and want the player to step into the ball and follow through with an aggressive swing, I don't tell them this.  That's a lot of moving parts to put into play.  Rather I will say "aim for the back fence" and they proceed to hit a nice, deep ball into the court.  Sometimes it just takes you to overcompensate to find your sweet spot of your swing. 

Point of Contact

To make things even more simple when you go out hitting, think about the most important part of the swing: point of contact.  No matter how "pretty" your strokes are, if you are not hitting the middle of the ball with your racquet at an angle that is perpendicular to the ground, you most likely will miss your target.  How you get to that point of contact creates the spin (if any) that will be placed on the ball.  Although you can't see it from the picture below from Nadal's forehand, his racquet head was below the plane of the ball, allowing him to hit with a lot of spin.  The next time you go out hitting with a friend, pay attention to the spin and trajectory of your ball.  The trajectory of the ball will give you plenty of feedback on whether you are hitting the center of the ball with the correct angle and the spin of the ball will give you feedback on where your racquet was right before contact. 

I want to take a moment to mention that it isn't quite this simple for high level hitting.  There are many other factors in play here, including how hard you hit the ball and the grip you use.  I hit a lot of spin so my racquet head on contact is slightly closed most of the time but this is a great start for you to have that conversation with yourself on how well you're hitting the ball. 

This idea will hopefully narrow your focus to help you improve your game without all the surplus of information that can often undermine your goal of improving your technique.  For more information on this topic, check out the video below: