So you want “amazing” groundstrokes? Here is what you “gotta” do…

First in the Here is What You “Gotta” Do series.

  1. You “gotta” hit it hard (and sometimes not so hard) – You will need to hit hard to hit to get balls past your opponent and/or force your opponent into making errors. On the men’s ATP tour, you will need to average forehand speeds at or around 80 miles per hour (mph) and backhand speeds at or around 75 mph and be able to crank groundstrokes over 100 mph when necessary. The numbers are not that far off on the women’s WTA tour. Female players on the tour average 75 mph with the forehand and 70 mph with the backhand. Of course, there is more to just hitting hard. The effectiveness of your groundstrokes is more of a function of pace combined with spin (rpm’s, revolutions per minute). A groundstroke hit hard and flat (with relatively little spin) is going to have a entirely different impression on your opponent than a ball hit hard with excessive spin (rpm’s) whether hit with topspin or slice. Other equally important factors to be discussed later include the depth, direction, location, and trajectory of your shots. You will also need to hit softly (take pace off the ball) to disrupt the rhythm of your opponent, vary the pace of your shots and if you really want to be effective, vary your pace (and the other factors mentioned above) with disguise and in combination so that your opponent has difficulty reading or anticipating your shots and intentions.
  2. You “gotta” hit with spin – To become an accomplished player, you need to manipulate (or control) the bounce, net clearance, and depth with spin. You need to be able to hit topspin to get the ball up and outside the strike zone of your opponent, to hit sharper angles, to hit with consistency and higher margin (high net clearance) when hitting with pace (and racquet head acceleration) and to dip the ball at the feet of an opponent positioned at the net. You need to be able to hit underspin with and without sidespin to get a ball to sit up and not project or carry into the court. You will need to hit slice (with a low angle of incidence) to get the ball to stay down. You need to be able to take pace off the ball with slice and use slice in conjunction with sidespin to get the ball to spin away or in at the body of your opponent. To compete at the highest level, you will also need to strategically vary and interchange the type and level of spin during each point and over the course of a match to expose weaknesses and disrupt the rhythm of your opponent. How much spin do you need at the highest level? As mentioned earlier, it is not just a matter of how much spin but how much spin in conjunction with pace (or lack of pace). The top ATP players regularly hit forehand groundstrokes at 80 mph combined with spins averaging 3,300 revolutions per minute (rpm) and backhand groundstrokes at 75 mph combined with spins averaging 2,700 rpm. It creates a heavy, penetrating ball (that is tough to respond to particularly if you are not used to or exposed to this kind of sustained pace, spin, and pressure). Watch a professional men’s or women’s match on TV or in person from a north-south alignment and you may be misguided to thinking the pace is manageable but look at the rallies from courtside in an east-west alignment and you will get a true sense of how big and heavy the players are hitting the ball.
  3. You “gotta” hit it in. Sounds simple and can be simple if you maintain direction (versus change or redirect the shot you are receiving), hit over the low part of the net, hit cross-court (particularly to start the point), hit to big target areas, maintain high net clearance, accelerate with spin to get the ball to clear the net with high margin and still drop in, actively move your feet not only to the ball but in recovery after the shot, prepare early and create proper spacing with adjustments steps, maintain balance and stability, establish and maintain an efficient stroke pattern effectively incorporating all body segments in the kinetic chain and elastic energy in the stretch-shortening cycle, hit with length (extension and control of the racquet face through the hitting zone), establish rhythm and timing of the swing in relation to the bounce, take pace off the ball when the rally is at a pace too hard to manage, maintain focus and concentration with no lapses no matter how long the rally, and are physically fit enough to be able to consistently execute at a high level through the duration of a long match. Consistency, the ability to keep the ball in play is the first cornerstone of development for any aspiring high-performance player. The top players have a high shot tolerance (the ability and willingness to hit as many balls in play as necessary to win a point). Getting the ball back in play is not easy as you progress in level. At a high-performance level, you will need to defend in response to balls hit heavy, hard, and deep, to balls hit low and above your strike zone, to balls hit wide right and left and directly at your body and to balls hit short with little bounce requiring you to run up and to balls hit deep with a high bounce requiring you to run back. Good things happen when you work to extend the rally making your opponent hit one more shot. You draw errors through attrition. You draw errors by forcing your opponent to impatiently go for too much too soon. You draw errors by physically wearing down your opponent. All of which can be demoralizing to your opponent. Small caveat though, you may not always want to extend the rally and play out long rallies. You may face an opponent better skilled at staying in the point and prolonging the rally. If this is case, you need the skills to be more aggressive and opportunistic in transition from defense to offense.
  4. You “gotta” hit it where you want to hit it (or better stated, hit it where your opponent does not want you to hit it). In singles, the best players work or set up the point by hitting to one of four target zones (to the outside of the court either deep just inside the baseline or short (and angled) just short of the service line. You will need to hit progressively smaller and more narrowly defined targets in competition particularly in the later stages of matches to be successful at the highest level. For example, a passing shot requires almost pinpoint accuracy (with little margin of error) to get past a skilled player at the net. Execution requires hitting targets in response to shots hit with varying pace, spins, depth, trajectories, angles of incidence, directional angles, and bounce heights. You will need to be accurate hitting from different positions on the court and be accurate under the pressure of competition.
  5. You “gotta” hit it the right way. There is no one way to hit groundstrokes with different grip and spin options, one or two hands on the backhand, straight arm versus bent arm orientation for the forehand, compact versus long take backs and swing patterns, etc. There are important commonalties with the best players. The top players fully incorporate and coordinate all body segments through the kinetic chain and stretch-shortening cycle with neuromuscular synchronization, show tremendous balance and controlled weight distribution, consistently drop the hand(s) to an optimum loaded and leveraged hitting slot position, exhibit ultimate control of the racquet face through the hitting window to direct the ball to their intended target, achieve maximum racquet head acceleration, maintain their fundamental swing pattern when taking the ball outside of their normal strike zone, and in general, have sound, efficient biomechanics. The top ATP and WTA players consistently sustain and repeat their swing patterns and stroke components through extended rallies and through the course of long and intense matches. You seldom see the elite players experience a breakdown in mechanics. The top players also exhibit good hand skills to be able to adjust the angle and direction of the racquet face to get balls back in play when hitting from a disadvantaged court position or a disadvantaged position in relation to the ball and bounce.
  6. You “gotta” be able to finish. Very often you can win points by getting one more ball back in play. More likely as you progress in level, you will need to do more to conclude the point in your favor. When establishing a positional advantage and/or opening, you will need to drive through the court, hit with redirection, hit sharper angles, etc. (essentially do more with the ball) to win the point. It may also not be enough to finish an attacking sequence with just your groundstrokes. When pressuring your opponent off the court, often the most effective and perhaps only way to finish the point and ensure your opponent is not able to get back into the court to neutralize the point is to move in to take the ball out of the air with a volley or overhead.
  7. You “gotta” get to the ball. To be technical, the game of tennis requires a considerable amount of dynamic court coverage with explosive starting and stopping, linear and multi-directional footwork patterns, acceleration, deceleration, and repeated short sprints up to an extreme distance of approximately 80 feet. Tennis includes an average of three to five changes of direction per point. With an average of 60 points per set, that amounts to 360 to 600 changes of direction per two-set match. On average, 70% of court movement is in a lateral direction, 20% in a forward direction and 10% in a backward direction. In an analysis of 2016 ATP singles playing data, the average court distance covered per point was 65 feet. The average court distance covered for points with rallies of five or more shots was 138 feet and the average court distance covered per match was 2.8 miles. On average the serve returner had to cover 10% more court distance per point (12% more if the first serve was put in play and 7% more for second-serve points). Efficient movement in tennis requires hitting from open and closed positions and technical mastery of many different footwork patterns and steps including split, adjustment, shuffle, crossover, skip, gravity, drop, scissors kick, carioca, and backpedal steps.
  8. You “gotta” be physically fit. Tennis requires complex coordination and movement, dynamic balance, linear/multi-directional speed, strength, endurance, stamina, flexibility, core and shoulder stability and explosive and reactive power. Force production begins in the legs and is transferred throughout the body to the finer control muscles of the hand and wrist. Force is transferred through a kinetic chain involving many different body segments. Power is transferred in sequence from the feet in pushing off the ground to the lower legs, upper legs, hips, trunk, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, and hand(s). More body segments are engaged in an extended kinetic chain for the groundstrokes where the requirement is to generate high racquet head acceleration at the point of impact. A reduced number of body segments operate more as a unit where more precision (and less racquet head acceleration) is required for strokes such as the volley. All tennis strokes and movement patterns follow a strength curve with descent (eccentric), amortization and ascent (concentric) phases of energy distribution. Tennis force production includes a stretch-shortening cycle of eccentric and concentric contractions, loading and unloading of weight distribution, horizontal and vertical linear momentum, and angular momentum. Footwork requires an explosive first step and an efficient, quick, and agile step pattern to the ball to facilitate the shot and in recovery after execution of the shot. It requires dynamic balance with a quiet upper body, head positioned within the shoulder triangle and centered over the hips, controlled center of gravity and a wide and low base of support. Multidirectional movement in tennis requires concentric strength (particularly in the propulsion or push-off phase), eccentric strength (most exemplified in deceleration) and stabilization strength (strength to stabilize the musculature of the trunk and lower extremities). Tennis operates in multiple anatomical planes. In the sagittal plan, actions include flexion, extension and foot dorsiflexion and plantarflexion. Actions in the frontal plane include abduction, adduction, scapula elevation and depression and foot inversion and eversion. In the transverse plane, actions include rotation, hand pronation and supination and horizontal flexion and extension. Other multiplane actions include hand ulnar and radial deviation, thumb opposition and reposition and circumduction. Tennis requires execution of all five movement patterns – bending and lifting (e.g., squatting), single-leg movements (e.g., single-leg stance and lunging), pushing movements, pulling movement and rotational (spiral) movements. The top professionals and the players with the most dynamic, powerful, and versatile groundstrokes train with strength and conditioning coaches in tennis-specific periodized training blocks to develop maximize strength and fitness. There are no shortcuts. You need to put in the time one and off the court to be successful at a high-performance level.
  9. You “gotta” be intense. You need to stay focused and purposeful with your shot selection, movement to the ball, preparation, execution, and recovery each shot and point. You need to control your emotions, be confident in your ability to execute and compete and embrace the challenge of competition. You need to be resilient, particularly when things are not going so well and not overly exuberant when things are going well.
  10. You “gotta” do your homework and have a plan. You need to assess your strengths and weaknesses and put yourself in a position to hit your strongest shots in the most favorable court positions and situations. You also need to assess what your opponents do well, what they do not do well and their tendencies when hitting in different court positions and situations and when ahead and when behind in the score (which requires some advance research). As a consistent theme, the approach should be comprehensive and thorough.

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