How to “Stick” Your Volleys

  1. Be active with your feet. Time the split step to properly “unweight” your body and get a maximum jump on the ball.
  2. Make early contact (in relation to your body) and drive your hand and racquet face through the ball out toward the target (leading with the butt end and bottom edge of the racquet).
  3. Maintain the racquet head above your wrist and maintain a consistent angle between your forearm and racquet. Keep the racquet head up at the finish as well to ensure you are hitting through the ball and to assist your “quick” recovery for the next shot. Keeping the racquet head up at the finish will give you more “pop” on your volley.
  4. Coil and uncoil. Set your hand and racquet in line with the ball out in front of your body (with no backswing) and then coil with your hips and shoulders to set the racquet back in a strong hitting position. For the one-handed backhand volley, this coiling action will position the butt end of the racquet in line with the ball and the racquet frame back to almost a parallel alignment with the court. Uncoil by stepping forward (opposite foot) and then opening in succession first the hips and then the shoulders to drive the racquet forward through the ball.  For the one-handed backhand volley, the resulting stroke gives the appearance of a knifing action with the racquet path and angle.
  5. Maintain core stability and balance. Establish a centered, balanced position with a low center of gravity. Avoid overextending (and drawing your body out of alignment) by reaching with your racquet for the ball.
  6. Use your non-hitting hand and arm to generate momentum. For the backhand, swing the non-hitting hand (or non-hitting elbow) back as you bring your hitting hand and racquet forward to contact the ball. For the forehand, drive the elbow of your non-hitting arm into your rib cage (into a tuck position) to lock the hips and allow the shoulders and racquet head to transfer force to the ball.
  7. Get into the net. Close your distance to get as tight as possible to the net.
  8. Close into the net and move through the shot for balls up in your strike zone (shoulder height).
  9. Hit hard for angles when taking the ball close to the net. Hit for depth when taking the ball from a deeper court position.
  10. For doubles, hit at the feet of the opposing player who is positioned closest to the net and has the least amount of time to respond (when in a court position to attack the volley).

Dynamic Balance

Here are ten areas of focus and tips to improve dynamic balance and athletic, centered movement on the tennis court.

  1. Practice hitting from a lower center of gravity with a wide base of support. Maintain a low center of gravity with the position of your head approximately one foot lower in height when in the ready (or ideal athletic) position.
  2. Bend with your knees and hinge with your hips to load and get down as necessary for each shot. Maintain an alignment with you shins and torso. Approach each shot with your legs and core muscles as if you are preparing (or bracing) to strike (or resist) a heavy object.
  3. Keep your head as still as possible and centered over your hips (belly button). At the same time, maintain a level, horizontal position with the shoulders. Minimize any bobbing and side to side rotation of your head. Maintain your eyes on the point of contact through the follow through and completion of your stroke.
  4. Use your non-dominant hand and arm to maintain balance and coordination in tracking and moving to the ball and to facilitate proper weight transfer and trunk (or hip) rotation.
  5. Be active with your feet. Use short adjustment steps to establish an ideal centered hitting position. Be careful not to compensate for poor footwork (lazy feet) by overextending and reaching out with your hands and racquet.
  6. Be fluid and relaxed with your stroke patterns particularly with the follow through.  Hit with “soft” hands.
  7. Include core stability exercises to strengthen your abdominal and lower back muscles in your training regime. Core strength is critical to maintaining proper balance and posture.
  8. Secure your balance by holding the finish of each shot for a “one thousand”, “two thousand” count.
  9. As the first step in a progression to establish proper balance and weight distribution for the serve), hit serves with both feet planted on the ground (without lifting the heel of either foot off the court).
  10. There are many other on-court hitting exercises to improve balance.  Examples include hitting while balancing an object such as a towel on your head, hitting open-stance forehand and backhand groundstrokes (in response to balls fed to your strike zone) without lifting your heels off the court (similar to the serve example above), hitting forehand and backhand groundstrokes and volleys while balancing on one foot, and running around your forehand (backhand) groundstroke to hit a backhand (forehand) groundstroke.

How to Effectively Poach in Doubles

  1. Set the racquet in line with the oncoming ball (with your hitting hand or hands out in front of your body), coil with your hips and shoulders, drive the racquet head (leading with the butt end of the racquet) out towards the target and forcefully step in with your opposite foot to maximize the effectiveness of your volley. Close the net on a diagonal angle.  Get as close to the net as possible to hit the volley.
  2. Hit your volley at the feet of the opponent positioned at the net. When in a position to finish the point with an aggressive volley hit to an opening or at the opponent who has less time to respond.
  3. Poach or cross early in the match to get rid of early jitters and to immediately establish your presence at the net.
  4. Disguise your move (or cross). Time your move to leave just as your opponent gets into the set position and commits to hit cross court.
  5. Disguise your intention to move. Either go or fake a move and stay to disrupt the rhythm of your opponents and to keep them guessing as to your intention to move. Avoid predictable patterns. Aggressively move with your forehand and backhand (not just your strongest side).
  6. Communicate with your partner. When your partner is serving, use signals to direct the location of the serve.  It’s much easier to move in response to a serve hit down the middle. Use signals to also let your partner know when you’re planning to go or not go.
  7. Don’t worry if you get passed down-the-line by your opponents. Aggressive play at the net is all about percentages and managing your risks.  Challenge your opponents to beat you down-the-line. Redirecting a return or shot down-the-line is a difficult shot to make (particularly under pressure).
  8. Play the score and situation and look for every opportunity to help your partner. Strategically poach to help salvage a hold when your partner is struggling with his/her serve. Strategically poach when up in the score to decisively close out a game (and demoralize your opponents).
  9. If you cross the center service line in moving to hit your volley continue to the other side of the court for coverage after the shot and advise your partner to cover your vacated side (switch).
  10. Have fun. It’s much more fun to be actively engaged in each and every point rather than being a passive observer when not serving or receiving serve.

How to Prepare for Tournament Play

Here is an on-court game plan I follow to get my game tournament ready (particularly after I’ve taken some time off from competitive play). Hopefully this plan has application for your game as well.

  1. Hit for rhythm (baseline focus). Take the time to hit a lot of balls in repetition. Adjust your pace, spin, depth, net clearance, trajectory and direction to keep the ball in play and extend the rally.  Establish a good foundation of consistency and depth.
  2. Hit for rhythm (net play focus). Follow the same kind of focus with your volleys and overheads.
  3. Hit with intensity.  Maintain active and lively feet and go for every ball (particularly important in your early season hitting sessions).  Go for everything.  Do your best to run down every shot.
  4. Establish and hit for patterns (or shot combination sequences). Examples include cross court/down-the-line baseline patterns and closing approach and volley patterns.
  5. Hit a lot of serves. Get a cart of bucket of balls and hit serves.  Hit for targets.  Work and differentiate between It’s much easier to control and dictate play following a first serve versus a second serve. Getting your first serve consistently in play applies real and imagined pressure on your opponent.
  6. Play points with the goal of extending the rally. Work to hit more shots and make your opponent hit more shots. Learn how to successfully “grind out” a point. Establish a requirement for the point to only count after hitting x number of shots in succession. Another option is to not allow winners for the first two or more shots.
  7. Play points with the requirement of only one serve (not two) to start out each point. This requirement improves intensity and focus and helps to develop a reliable and dependable second serve.
  8. Play points with a penalty for unforced errors or any mistake hit into the net.
  9. Manipulate the score and scoring format to accomplish specific goals and to recreate playing pressure situations. Examples include starting each game up 30 – love or down love – 30, serving consecutive games until broken, allowing only one or x number of bounces per point, etc.
  10. Play meaningful matches with consequences in which the results are important to you (such as ladder or tournament matches).

Dealing with Windy and Cold Playing Conditions

Here are some tips to deal with less than ideal playing conditions.

For extremely windy playing conditions,

  1. Dig in and fight through it.  Be lively and active with your feet to put yourself in the best possible position to hit each shot.  This is particularly important in the wind based on the unpredictable nature of the ball flight and bounce.  Remind yourself that your opponent is experiencing the same conditions and potentially the same difficulties.
  2. Hit with a higher margin of error.  Hit predominantly cross court. Be particularly leery of hitting down-the-line “tightrope” passes.  Hit with more spin.
  3. Determine the direction of the wind and adjust your tactics accordingly. Take balls earlier on the bounce (on the rise) with a shorter backswing and close into the net when the wind is at your back.  Drive through the ball with an extended and full swing pattern and aim higher over the net when the wind is in your face (when you’re hitting into the wind).

On cold, frigid days (or when the mercury dips on the thermometer), recognize that everything tends to get slower and heavier. Heavy and dense cold air creates drag and slows down the flight of the ball making it more difficult to hit with pace. Racquets strings are also less resilient and responsive adding to the difficulties of generating pace on the ball. Ideas (tactics and strategies) to deal with the difficulties of cold weather include:

  1. Be positive and maintain a positive frame of mind. Recognize your opponent has to deal with the same difficult conditions.
  2. String your racquet with a lower tension and a higher gauge string to make your racquet more responsive.
  3. Hit your groundstrokes with slice (underspin and sidespin). Slice grabs the court and makes the ball bounce even lower in colder conditions which is particularly effective against opponents with more extreme grips.
  4. Use the drop shot. A well-hit drop shot in cold weather will not bounce as high or carry into the court.
  5. Get into the net. Lower bouncing balls will make it more difficult for your opponent to get underneath the ball to generate topspin and pass you with low, dropping shots. In colder conditions, you will generally see more passing shot attempts hit higher over the net and up into strike zone.
  6. In rally situations, relax and hit through the ball with a complete swing to generate more racquet head speed.  Hit high over the net to get depth and penetration with your shots. Players with more compact strokes (and slower swing speeds) tend to lack depth on colder days.
  7. Be patient and work the point with longer, more extended rallies and point patterns. Be prepared to hit more shots to earn each point.

Court Dimensions and Physics

Here are ten situations and responses to better manage your court position and take advantage of court dimensions and physics.

  1. If playing a shot maker with more power and weapons, hit down the middle (preferably with depth) to eliminate angles and opportunities for your opponent to open up the court.
  2. If you’re having difficulty covering the court (either because of a prior or match-induced condition), play close to the baseline or just inside the baseline and work your way in to the service line. Playing on or inside the baseline reduces your court coverage requirements and the court area for your opponent to hit to.
  3. If forced out wide (particularly if required to hit on the run), respond by hitting cross court preferably with height and depth to buy time for recovery. Hitting cross court better positions you for the next shot and eliminates the opportunity for your opponent to hurt you with an angled redirection.
  4. Hit drop shots from inside the baseline (not from behind the baseline) for the best chance for success. Think of the time it takes to execute the shot and the time your opponent has to respond.  Hitting a drop shot from a deeper court position is more difficult to execute, gives your opponent more time to run down the shot and makes your job more difficult to defend if your opponent gets to the shot (particularly if the response is another drop shot).
  5. When hitting from behind the baseline, hit high and deep (either down the middle or cross court).  Don’t force a mistake by trying to go for too much.
  6. When hitting inside the baseline (particularly in response to a weaker shot), respond with a down-the-line redirection or cross-court angle. Hitting from a court position inside the baseline gives you the best opportunity to open up the court and put pressure on your opponent and in a risk-reward analysis, gives you the best chance for success.
  7. Hit hard for angles (and/or to the open court) when volleying close to the net. Hit for depth and location (to set up your next shot) when volleying from a deeper court position.
  8. Recognize what you have to work with in relation to the net. As an example, when volleying in response to a low ball dipping below the net (particularly if hit at your body), open and drag your racquet head across your body in an outside-in direction and aim for a down-the-line directed angle.  Keep the ball low (low net clearance) and use under and side spin to get the ball to stay down and bounce to the outside of the court. If you get a ball up in your strike zone, close with the shot and hit a drive volley (cross court or down-the-line) to the open court.
  9. When hitting overheads from inside the service line, flatten out your overhead and hit with “pop” and velocity. Aim for your opponent’s service line and look to hit the ball off the court in an angle.  When hitting overheads from deeper in the court, aim to a deeper court target and progressively use more spin as you are progressively forced back to hit from a deeper court position.
  10. Want to keep things simple? Aim every shot to clear the middle of the court (or the center strap as reference).  This simple focused tactic guarantees a high percentage response to every shot.

What You Can Learn by Watching the Pros

Here are 10 things to look for in analyzing play.

  1. What is the player’s shot tolerance? How many shots is the player comfortable hitting in a rally before pulling the trigger and/or attempting something different to conclude the point?
  2. How does the player best neutralize a point when on defense?
  3. How does the player best successfully conclude a point when on offense?
  4. What patterns does the player use to create openings and expose an opponent’s weakness?
  5. How early or late on average does the player take the ball after the bounce? Is the preference to play tight to the baseline and take the ball on the rise or is the preference to play from a deeper court position?
  6. What are the service target tendencies for the player for first and second serves and how are decisions influenced by the opponent and score?
  7. How does the player play the big points? Is the tendency to be more or less aggressive?
  8. How agile and fluid is the player in covering the court? What footwork patterns does the player utilize in moving to the ball and in recovery after the shot?
  9. How does the player win most of his/her points and conversely, how does the player lose most of his/her points? What is the ratio between winners and unforced errors?
  10. How well does the player manage emotions particularly during critical stages of the match?  What rituals and techniques does the player exhibit to maintain intensity and focus?

Rally Games® is a fun team, games and instructional based program I developed to improve rallying and playing skills. The program uses a competitive team approach to teach players the importance of keeping the ball in play and utilizes a series of progressions to develop in players the ability to execute extended rallies, shot combinations and point sequences. Rally Games® can be used as the main basis or component for a group lesson series, for a social/competitive stand-alone event and/or for practice sessions to hone skills.

It works with two or more teams of players competing against each other to be the first to accomplish a series of cooperative rally and rally-based exchange and sequence objectives.  Players collaborate (interact and work together) as a team to accomplish the rally objectives of the game prior to their opposing team (which is also simultaneously trying to be the first to accomplish the same rally objectives).

Want to get started on your own with a partner or partners?  Here are 10 basic Rally Games® patterns and progressions.

  1. Hit X number of shots in a row.  With more than two players, have players come in and out in a tag-team rotation in the middle of the rally after each shot or after a prescribed number of shots.
  2. Establish and maintain specific down-the-line and cross-court hitting lanes and targets.  Hit X number of shots in a row (as above) maintaining a specific down-the-line or cross-court direction.
  3. Establish and maintain a more dynamic cross-court/down-the-line pattern with one player (or side of players) hitting down-the-line and one player (or side of players) hitting cross-court.
  4. Hit X number of shots in a row for depth. Establish and maintain a rally with each ball required to land past the service line
  5. Manipulate the basic rally by changing the bounce requirement. Establish and maintain a rally where the requirement is to hit each shot after two bounces or where the requirement is to have one or both sides hit the ball in the air before the bounce.
  6. Demarcate a target area for one side (or both sides). Establish (in the middle of a live-ball rally) a goal (or timed goal) to hit X number of shots into the target area.
  7. Adjust the hitting position by requiring one or both sides to hit from an assigned area of the court (e.g. inside the baseline). Another option is to establish and maintain a rally where both sides move up and back together (starting from the forecourt and then progressing back to the baseline and then up again to the forecourt).
  8. Incorporate different shots with shot combination patterns. There are an unlimited number of creative rally options incorporating groundstrokes, volleys and/or overheads. The goal is to maintain the rally through each shot and step in the sequence at a manageable pace and tempo for every member of the group.
  9. Designate and execute specific point patterns with serves and returns. For variety, play out the point after executing the designated pattern.
  10. With success and improvement in skill, the process becomes more of a role playing/problem solving exercise and the patterns can become more intricate and challenging.  Fun patterns include drop shots and lobs and other specialty shots, specific footwork patterns, etc.

Make Footwork “Your Thing”

Here are ten areas of focus and suggestions to improve your footwork and your ability to cover the court.

  1. Learn how to walk before you run. Focus on hitting with balance starting with hand feeds (which requires a cooperative partner) and manageable, slower-pace rallies. Work on developing a quiet upper body, a clean line with your head centered above your hips (fulcrum) and a still head position.
  2. Start from the short court (forecourt) with mini-tennis patterns where the requirement is to take quick, short, and multiple adjustment steps. It is one of the best ways to establish active feet.
  3. With the intent of developing more active feet and to emulate the footwork patterns of the pros (who on average take 12 steps per shot versus the average club player who takes an average two steps per shot), establish a requirement to move around a cone (or marker) after (and prior) to hitting each shot.
  4. Practice with a hitting partner (or tennis professional) live-ball rally sequences that require specific and predictable footwork patterns. An example would be a cross-court/down-the-line pattern in which your partner hits cross court and you hit down-the-line (or you hit cross court and your partner hits down-the-line).
  5. Identify and isolate with practice the basic patterns of movement or court coverage (up, back, left and right with vertical, horizontal and diagonal cross reference). Most players work predominantly on lateral coverage and not as much on moving up and back or cutting across the court in a diagonal pattern. The “Yo Yo” drill (a four-corner, X pattern, short and deep coverage drill) is a great way to establish confidence and skill in multi-directional coverage of the entire court.
  6. Practice deceleration as well as acceleration. Tennis is not just a matter of getting to the ball. Proper execution for most shots requires deceleration to the ball to get in an ideal position to hit the ball. Deceleration is accomplished with adjustments steps (including at times adjustment skip steps), a low center of gravity and a centered, balanced posture.
  7. Master the gravity step. The gravity step (or “sprinters start”) is a process in which you drop back and “unweight” your lead foot to allow gravity to propel your first motion toward your intended target.
  8. Learn how to hit from with open stance particularly in going wide to hit a forehand groundstroke. To learn how to hit from an open stance, start by hitting from a wider stance with no step (which emphasis on a low center of gravity, trunk rotation and coil). Next take one big step out wide with the lead foot and a full transfer of weight back across your body to the back foot. As you gain confidence, take two or more steps to the ball again emphasizing a wide stance, low center of gravity and full transfer of weigh back across your body to the back foot. Finally, complete the pattern with full recovery after the shot. Take two or more steps to the ball, hit from an open stance, and transfer your weight back across your body in recovery with two or more cross-over or shuffle steps back into the court.
  9. If playing on clay, learn how to slide. Use an open stance when sliding to the ball with your forehand groundstroke. Use an open or closed stance when sliding to the ball with your backhand groundstroke. Plant your lead (or front) foot earlier than you would on a hard court, so you slide into and not past the shot. Set the toes of your lead (or front) foot in the direction of your path to the ball.  It is easy to catch your foot and fall if your toes are turned inward or not leading into the slide. Apply equal pressure on the ball and heel of your lead (or front) foot. Be careful not to dig in with your toes or heel. Approach the slide with a lower center of gravity and wider stance. Make sure your lead (or front) foot is bent in starting the slide. Flex and relax your back leg and drag the toes of your back leg with the slide. Apply pressure and load your weight onto your lead (or front) foot to bring your body to a stop. Remember to turn and coil with your upper body and set your racquet in preparation to hit the ball with the slide. In executing the shot, transfer your weight back across your body from your lead (or front) foot to your secondary (or back) foot to complete the stroke and better recover for the next shot.
  10. Get in great playing shape.  Establish a tennis-specific fitness conditioning program focusing on developing complex coordination and movement, liner/multi-directional speed, strength, flexibility, core and shoulder stability and power.

Exercise Your Right of Free Choice and Will (on the Tennis Court)

Here a ten ways to take control of your life on the tennis court and to never again succumb to the whims and dictates of an unrelenting opponent.

  1. Establish an overall game plan (strategic vision) with contingency options for each match.
  2. Have a purpose (a specific plan) for the start of each point.  Map out the first two shots for each point and you gain much better control over the process and outcome (successful or not with your execution).  Without a plan, the tendency is to be more reactive and defensive.
  3. Maintain your composure and never let your opponent(s) get into your head or cause you to veer from your purpose and objectives.
  4. Control the tempo and timing between points (particularly with your service games).  Do not allow your opponent(s) to pressure you to play at a pace of play not to your advantage.
  5. Get in the best possible playing shape (physical condition) to do the things you want to do on the court for the full duration of every match.
  6. Control the pace and rhythm of the rally to your playing advantage for each point sequence.  Shorten or extend the length of the rally and give yourself and your opponent(s) less or more time between shots by taking off or adding pace to the ball, raising or lowering your net clearance, adding or taking away spin (both backspin and topspin), adjusting your position on the court (particularly as it relates to your position to the baseline), varying your direction/redirection patterns and adjusting your trajectory and
  7. Systematically work on your game to better manage the control variables of pace, spin, direction, depth, net clearance and trajectory particularly if you’re not able to effectively and consistently control the tempo of the rally (as noted above).
  8. Maintain a minimum level of consistency to create opportunities to execute your game plan (and to put yourself in a position to exercise free choice and will).  You need to minimize unforced errors and get into the point to make things happen.  The focus should be on the first serve and return.  Then look to end the point on a set number of shots as established by your risk/reward style of play and game plan.
  9. Don’t panic and never give up.  No matter what the score, you still maintain control of the process by working hard to the bitter end.  Give up or resign yourself to a negative outcome and you relinquish any kind of choice or control of the process.
  10. Have fun and enjoy the process of play and competition.