Feeding in tennis is an art and skill that only gets better with practice and time. It has applications primarily to teaching pros and coaches but also has applications for hitting partners looking to work on their skills. It is ideal for getting players to hit a lot of balls in a short amount of time, working on specific hitting skills and patterns and for setting up different competitive point situations (the subject of my last article). Outlined below is a review of considerations and applications for feeding tennis balls for training.
- Feeding begins with underhand feeds and drop feeds at close range without use of the racquet. Both are great tools for getting players to hit a lot of balls in repetition (which is the key to improvement) and working on technique. Having players on a team pair up to drop feed or underhand feed balls to each other can be a more productive use of time than to have players line up in a group to receive balls from a single feeder. Hand feeds can work for most all shots including overheads. For overheads, players can team up in pairs with one player sitting right at the net to toss balls up with an overhand throwing motion to a second player to hit overheads. Hand feeding can also be quite dynamic with multi-directional and multi-shot patterns (such as footwork navigational patterns using cones).
- All players (particularly playing members on a team) should learn how to initiate a rally or point with a drop-hit self-feed. This means the ability to hit targets and vary trajectory, depth, spin and pace. With this ability to control the ball with a drop-hit self feed, hitting partners and team players can work together to set up different point situations and drills.
- The traditional feeding technique using the racquet in most teaching and coaching settings is to hit the ball out of the air with a volley stroke using the continental grip. The stroke pattern is short, concise, and easy to replicate leading to better accuracy in hitting targets. With a cart or raised hopper of balls at hip level (for quick and easy access), it is possible with this stroke pattern to feed balls in rapid succession (for up tempo drills and to move larger numbers of players quickly through lines).
- One of the limitations of feeding with a continental grip is the difficulty in hitting topspin. To generate topspin with the feed, one alternative is to change the grip to an eastern or semi-western grip. The feed is easier hitting off the bounce with more of a full swing but can be accomplished with an abbreviated swing and no bounce. Feeding topspin with an abbreviated swing (to dispense balls more quickly) requires a relaxed grip, soft hands, and a windshield wiper brushing or swiping action with ulnar and radial deviation of the wrist.
- A novel way to generate topspin with the feed is to hit the ball down onto your side of the court. How sharply and hard you hit the ball onto the court influences the trajectory, depth and height of the bounce of the feed. It is possible to generate some pretty heavy balls with this feed.
- It can be argued that the traditional feed makes it more difficult to replicate the standard trajectory of most groundstrokes. One option for a different look is to feed with overhead tap service motion. The feed creates a natural loop and is easy to hit fairly rapidly from both a standing and half/kneeling position.
- There are times where it is advisable to feed the ball off the bounce either with an abbreviated or complete swing. The bounce can help with timing for the player receiving the feed. A full swing with the feed helps players receiving the feed mirror the proper stroke technique.
- Perhaps the best application is to use a feed to start a live ball point situation or a shot combination collaboration between two or more players. A feed can be used to simply to put the ball in play for a neutral start to the point, get players in motion, set up a specific pattern or sequence, challenge players to defend in response to a difficult shot or defend from a disadvantaged court position or create opportunities for players to attack and go on the offensive. Examples include a short feed to initiate a closing pattern, a feed requiring a player to run down and retrieve a lob and a high bouncing feed requiring a decision to fade back or move in to take the ball on the rise.
- The ability to feed two or more balls at roughly the same time is a more advanced skill that can be utilized for larger groups where there is a need to quickly move players through a specific pattern. A double feed can be used for a two shot running drill where players in turn hit an inside-out forehand from the add court followed by a running forehand hit from the deuce court. As one player receives the second feed the next player in line receives his/her first feed at roughly the same time. It requires quick, easy and seamless access to a supply of balls, two or more balls readily in hand and the ability to replenish balls in hand without diverting attention and focus away from the players in line. It requires a repeatable pattern of two quick, crisp feeds, a pause or gap (to allow time for the second player time to run down the next shot) followed by two more quick, crisp feeds (pop, pop….pop, pop). The pause or gap between the two double feeds can be shortened or lengthened depending on how much you want to push the player hitting the running forehand.
- If you want to be “monster” clever (if that is a thing) with a larger group of players, you can set up a drill or point situation feeding to two courts. One option is to set up a running drill with the feeder stationed between two courts. Players line up in the alley of each respective court. Players on the court positioned to the left of the feeder move with the feed to hit a running forehand (if right-handed). Players on the court positioned to the right of the feeder move with the feed to hit a running backhand (if right-handed). After receiving the feed players then play out the point versus a defender on the far side of the court. If a player loses the point, he/she moves to the end of the opposite court line. If the player wins the point, he/she moves to replace the defender on the far side of the court. For doubles, the first player in line runs wide in response to the feed. The next player in line moves to fill the gap. The two then play out the point together as a team. There are many possible alternatives and progressions as there are for every drill and point situation mentioned in this article. Variations include positioning players at the net to run down lobs with their forehands on one court and backhands on the other and positioning players at the baseline to hit forehand approach shots on one court and backhand approach shots on the other.
The trick to feeding is to be creative with the understanding of the role of feeding to get players hitting more balls in different and varied hitting situations. As mentioned at the beginning, it is a skill not just applicable to teaching pros and coaches but to all players who have the opportunity to cooperatively work with other players to improve racquet skills and court awareness.