Things to Look For in Evaluating Ability, Skill and Talent

Here are the 10 plus things I look for in evaluating playing ability and potential for development.

  1. Directional intent and control – Ability to hit specific crosscourt, down-the-line, angled and deep targets and target areas.
  2. Consistency and shot tolerance –Ability to sustain a rally (as long as necessary to win a point) and repeat shots, patterns and set sequences.
  3. Depth and control of depth –  Ability to control and vary depth of shots from different positions on the court and in response to shots hit with varying depth, spin, pace, etc.
  4. Trajectory, net clearance and bounce – Ability to control and vary net clearance and trajectory and ability to influence the bounce (by managing net clearance, trajectory and spin). Also, ability to control the bounce and point of contact in relation to the body (spacing) and court position in response to balls hit with varying spin, trajectory, depth and direction.
  5. Court presence –Racquet and footwork preparation and court positioning prior to the shot and in recovery after the shot.  Ability to anticipate and read shots and ability to make adjustments to maintain rally tempo, rhythm and flow.
  6. Use of spin – Ability to respond and manage a rally with spin (how you use spin to respond to low balls, high balls and balls hit with more and less spin, pace, etc.). Ability to change and match or mirror spin.
  7. Pace – Ability to both generate pace and take pace off the ball as necessary to maintain consistency and accomplish identified goals.
  8. Footwork and court coverage – Ability to cover the court (left, right, up and back) and ability to move with agility, balance and core stability both to the ball and in recovery after the shot. Also, ability to slide on clay composition courts, hit from an open stance, load and drive off anchor leg, etc.
  9. Technique – Ability to extend, maintain and control the racquet head through the hitting zone. Swing patterns and ability to generate racquet head speed. Kinetic incorporation and synchronization of the major body components and muscle groups. Stroke deficiencies that could hinder execution and performance.
  10. Serve and serve return –First-strike capabilities (the ability to dictate playa and finish the point with the serve and serve return). Ability to hit targets, vary spin and vary pace. Ritual in preparation to serve and receive and positioning adjustments prior to receiving the serve. Recovery after the serve and serve return and ability to execute specific “set” patterns with both the serve and serve return.
  11. Physical Condition – Complex coordination and movement, dynamic balance, linear/multi-directional speed, strength, endurance or stamina, flexibility, core and shoulder stability and explosive and reactive power. Ability to generate force production through the stretch-shortening cycle of eccentric and concentric contractions, loading and unloading of weight distribution, horizontal and vertical linear momentum, and angular momentum. Ability to stabilize the musculature of the trunk and lower extremities.
  12. Mental fortitude – Mental toughness (when ahead and when behind), concentration, focus, self-discipline, body language, routines, stress control, spirit and other attributes affecting mental and emotional control on the tennis court.
  13. Intangibles – Athletic ability, enthusiasm, energy, spirit, receptivity to learning, problem-solving skills and other factors influencing performance and performance potential.

Ten Ways to Successfully Finish the Point (Singles)

  1. Cross-court, down-the-line redirection. Work the cross court hitting lane until you get a shorter ball or a ball you can attack.  Then redirect the ball down-the-line. Flatten the ball out and drive the ball through the court to give your opponent less chance of recovery. Follow your ball into the net in the event your opponent does get to the ball (to finish with a “mop up” volley).
  2. Grind (extend the rally). Determine your opponent’s shot threshold and then work the point to get that one extra ball in play to force an error by your opponent.
  3. Draw your opponent in and then lob. Draw your opponent into the net with a chip, drop shot and/or angle and then hit a lob with your next shot over the extended reach of his/her racquet.
  4. Draw your opponent in and then pass. Similarly, draw your opponent into the net on your terms with a chip, drop shot and/or angle. Hit a cross-court angle or down-the-line pass with your next shot.
  5. Hit behind your opponent. Work the cross court hitting lane. Draw your opponent off court and then when your opponent scrambles to get back into the court hit behind your opponent preferably with a cross court angle.
  6. Serve and volley. Serve and close into the net with your serve. Follow the line of your serve and then volley deep to set up your next volley and/or volley to the open court.
  7. Approach and volley. Pounce and close on the short ball. Follow the line of your ball into the net (protecting the line and down-the-line pass) and volley to the open court. Hit most of your approach shots down-the-line for the best positioning coverage advantage.
  8. Drop shot. Hit a drop shot when your opponent is pinned back behind the baseline.
  9. Use your serve to open up the court. Serve out wide and then redirect your next shot to the open court (opposite side of the court). Serve down-the-middle drawing your opponent to middle of the court. Hit a cross-court angle with your next shot.
  10. Disrupt the rhythm of your opponent. Elicit an error by your opponent by varying pace, spin, net clearance, trajectory and where and how you hit the ball in relation to the bounce and court position. Take time away from your opponent by hitting the ball earlier on the bounce, mix heavy topspin with slice, change the trajectory of your shots, vary velocity and depth, etc. Make things uncomfortable for your opponent.

How to Solidify Your Volley

Here are 10 drills and exercises to solidify your volley.

  1. Volley holding your racquet at the racquet throat (or top of the racquet handle) to help shore up your wrist and head position on the volley.
  2. Hit an up tempo volley-to-volley exchange. Start up close midway between the service line and net.  Hit up on the ball to keep the ball in play and to maintain the rally without a bounce. For variation, establish a cross court, down-the-line and alternating cross court/down-the-line exchange, progressively work back, dynamically work up and back together, play a no bounce (hit only up) game using two service boxes for court boundaries, maintain a forehand (backhand) only rally and a low ball/high ball rally.
  3. Hit against a wall (backboard). Check out this Cara Black YouTube video (https://youtu.be/_cThQIhFSZk).
  4. Hit two touch volleys. Catch the ball with the first racquet contact (using backspin and soft hands) and then hit the ball over to your hitting partner with the second racquet contact. Use QuickStart red, orange or green dot balls if you experience difficulty initially with the two-touch technique.
  5. Hit for repetition and rhythm. Maintain a groundstroke to volley rally. Define a specific target area for the volley and establish progressive goals for the number of volleys hit in succession to this defined target area.
  6. Rehearse specific volley shot combination patterns with a hitting partner.  For example, practice hitting a pattern or sequence to include an approach shot followed by two volleys. Introduce more difficult variables with success such as a requirement in this example to hit both volleys past the service line.
  7. Play no bounce (or one bounce only) points. Start each point from the baseline or a designated deep court position to work on your ability to aggressively close the net.
  8. Set a three to four foot high obstacle on the service line. Practice hitting low and high volleys over the obstacle (and into the court).
  9. Work on move, hit and recover volley patterns with a partner willing to feed a series of balls in succession. Move up, left or right to hit each volley (preferably with the goal of hitting a specified target or target area) then fully recover back, right, or left after each shot. It is a great way to work on stretch volleys, digging out low volleys and footwork to the ball and in recovery after the shot. The pace, frequency and location of the feed and distance required for movement both to the ball and recovery after the shot can be manipulated to make the drill more or less difficult and/or complex.
  10. Respond with your volley to a series of alternating and rapid low/high feeds (like a hockey goalie four corner bean bag drill).

How to Avoid or Counter the Groundstroke Woes

(How to eliminate unforced errors and keep the ball in play with confidence.)

  1. To increase your margin for error, aim to hit each ball over the center strap (middle or low part of the net).
  2. Hit to the largest target areas or target areas with the most shot directional allowance (which translates to hitting predominantly cross court).
  3. Maintain high net clearance for high margin and consistency. Hit four to seven feet above the net on most rally balls.  Use net clearance to establish depth and to buy more time (particularly when pressured by the tempo or pace of the rally).
  4. Maintain rally direction when hitting from a neutral or defensive court position. Only hit for redirection when hitting from an advantageous court position (e.g., when hitting from inside the baseline).
  5. Set a goal to never make a mistake in the net or outside of the singles (doubles) sidelines. Make your opponent(s) hit more balls.
  6. Stay in the point. Develop a high shot threshold with patience to hit as many shots as necessary to win the point.
  7. Actively engage your feet. Take multiple adjustments to get into the best possible position to hit each shot. At the same time, maintain core balance and stability in moving to the ball to maximize groundstroke efficiency.
  8. Manage the pace and tempo of the rally. Learn to take pace off the ball and/or create more air under the ball when the pace of the rally is becoming too difficult to sustain.
  9. Use spin (particularly topspin) to increase your margin.
  10. Mirror or match trajectory and spin (i.e. hit high and loopy in response to a ball hit high and loopy).

10a Practice with a purpose. Continuously work on your ability to respond to varying pace, spin, depth, etc. Look for opportunities to hit whenever possible with whoever is willing to hit. Use this time on the court to learn how to keep rallies alive no matter the hitting style and ability of your hitting partners.

How to Avoid or Counter the Serving “Yips”

  1. The key to solidifying your serve is to hit a lot of balls. One of the best ways to establish range and directional control in practice is to start serving from a position close to the net. Start serving from inside the service line and then with repetitive success progressively work back to the baseline. Another option is to practice serves using a countdown sequence. Start at a count of X (e.g. 25) and countdown to zero, counting down by one every time you hit your service target and counting up by one every time you miss your service target.
  2. Give yourself only one serve when playing points in practice matches and in competition focus on getting the first serve in and maintaining a 70% or higher first-serve percentage. Develop confidence in a 3/4 pace serve that you can get in no matter the circumstances or conditions.
  3. Establish a ritual (consistent routine) prior to hitting your first and second serves. It could be as simple as bouncing the ball three or more times before hitting each serve. Use the time to settle your mind, clarify your purpose and plan your course of action.
  4. Manage the time and tempo of the match to your advantage (particularly on your service games). Never allow yourself to feel pressured or rushed to hit your serve.
  5. Focus on your toss and tossing arm. Focus particularly on extending and holding up your tossing arm as long as possible.
  6. Likewise, focus on your head position. Keep your chin up with your eyes focused up at the point of contact through the follow-through.
  7. Develop a high margin, topspin or hybrid spin serve. Use the spin for high net clearance and to create an accelerated dipping action on the ball.
  8. Focus on the process of hitting the serve (preferably no more than one or two specific areas of focus such as keeping the chin up and/or extending and holding up your tossing arm) rather than the result.
  9. Be positive. Use positive affirmations and “self-talk” for motivation and to acknowledge good serves and serve sequences.
  10. Stay in the present. Do not dwell on mistakes, missed opportunities or bad turn of events. Deal with the bad bounces, unlucky breaks, etc. by “moving forward and putting things behind you”.

Develop a Solid Foundation to Your Game

Here are ten areas of focus to develop a solid foundation to your game.

  1. Groundstroke technique – Ability to coordinate all body components with efficiency and to develop a complete, fluid, relaxed and adaptable swing pattern maximizing racquet head speed and control over the path and direction of the swing initially at a slow and controlled pace and then progressing to a higher tempo and pace
  2. Serve technique – Ability to coordinate all body components with efficiency and to develop a complete, fluid, relaxed and adaptable swing pattern maximizing racquet head speed and control over the path and direction of the swing initially with feet planted and use of just your upper body and then progressing to more dynamic use of your lower body (legs).
  3. Net play technique – Ability to coordinate all body components with efficiency with emphasis on balance, weight transfer and racquet head position for the volley and a complete, fluid, relaxed and adaptable swing pattern maximizing racquet head speed for the overhead
  4. Shot control – Ability to hit to all parts of the court with varying levels of spin, pace, net clearance and trajectory from all court positions and in response to balls hit with varying levels of spin, pace, net clearance and trajectory
  5. Mental and emotional skill – Includes stress and anxiety control, resolve and resilience, ability to relax and focus, desire to win with pride in performance and intrinsic motivation and ability to solve problems and make sound, quick decisions
  6. Physical fitness – Ability to control and coordinate the body through complex movement and hitting patterns with speed, agility, balance, strength, power, endurance, flexibility and core and shoulder stability
  7. Court coverage – Ability to move efficiently with agility, dynamic balance and control to the ball and in recovery after the shot.
  8. Consistency and shot tolerance – Ability and willingness to keep the ball in play from different court positions and in response to balls hit with varying pace, spin, trajectory and net clearance
  9. Shot recognition – Ability to judge in the process of hitting where your shot will land and how your shot will land in regard to angle of incidence, bounce and carry and the ability to judge (with quick reactions and response time) where and how your opponent’s shots will land in the court.
  10. Court presence – Spatial awareness of where you are in the court and where you need to be after each and every shot

Serving Practice

If you have a court, bucket of balls and some spare time, one of the best ways to work on your game is to hit serves.  Here are ten ways to make best use of your time in practicing your serve.

  1. Begin serving from the net and then progressively move back (with success) a couple of steps at a time until you are serving comfortably from the baseline.  (Helps to establish range and control of placement. Promotes a fluid, relaxed service motion.)
  2. Set up and practice hitting three established targets (angled out wide, at the body and middle T).  (Promotes accuracy and reinforces the importance of hitting your key targets.)
  3. See how many serves you can consecutively hit (with a full motion) into the service box. (Promotes accuracy and consistency.) If you’re really ambitious, log the number of serves you get in over the course of the summer or year to start your own 1,000, 2,000, 3,000… serve club.
  4. Serve with a countdown. Countdown by one with every serve that goes in or meets your defined target and count up with each mistake. Continue serving until you countdown to zero. (Promotes accuracy and consistency. Also helps in dealing with pressure.)
  5. Serve from fence to fence (or curtain to curtain).  Serve with your back pressed close to the fence and then aim to hit your serve into the far opposite side fence (in the air/without a bounce). (Helps to establish “pop” and racquet head speed versus hand speed. Reinforces the need to hit up and out on the serve with full extension and reach at the point of contact.)
  6. Alternatively hit first and second serves. Have a purpose and clearly distinguish each serve by pace, spin, etc. (More realistically simulates match play conditions and requirements.)
  7. Play an imaginary game with first and second serves and rotations. (Similar to number 6. above, more realistically simulates match play conditions and requirements.)
  8. Hit serves with no bend in the knees and your feet firmly planted on the court. (Develops angular rotation and a loose, upper body coil and motion.)
  9. Raise the net with a rope or barrier. Practice hitting up and over the raised net (or barrier). As an alternative, practice serving from a kneeling or sitting position. (Both techniques serve to improve your ability to hit with spin and to hit up and out on your serve.)
  10. Having grip issues? Practice hitting serves with your middle finger crossed over your index finger to secure and maintain the Continental grip. Practice hitting with the back of your hand/reverse side of your racquet to establish the Continental grip and to force your elbow up and out to an inverted “V” position.

Why Spin? (Two)

Here is the basic “take” on spin.

  1. Topspin creates drag on the ball bringing the ball down to the court earlier (and at a sharper angle). As a result, you can hit higher over the net (with greater net clearance, margin for error and safety).
  2. Spin is the best way to manage pace (both to take pace off the ball and to add pace to the ball). Managing pace provides better control, rhythm, and accuracy. Changing pace can also disrupt rhythm (particularly for an opponent whose tendency and preference is to hit hard and flat).
  3. Spin is the best way to control the angle of incidence, bounce and path (trajectory) of the ball both before and after the bounce. Spin (topspin, backspin, and sidespin) can be used to make the ball bounce higher or lower, “hang up/drop” or “carry” and veer right or left. Utilizing these options definitely expands your arsenal and repertoire.
  4. Spin is the best way to successfully hit angled targets (particularly with groundstrokes and serves). Sharp angles (hit with any kind of pace) require spin. Plus, spin accentuates the bite and kick on the ball to further open up the court with angles.
  5. For singles, working spin in conjunction with hitting the three basic service targets in starting the point and then the hitting the four basic targets following the serve is the best way to open up the court and make your opponent move. Spin creates more openings for doubles as well (particularly with volleys and the return of serve).
  6. Spin helps to buy time by lifting the ball with topspin. You can gain time with the high trajectory and loop of the ball in flight to your target and again with the high bounce off the court. Spin helps to buy time by cutting the ball with slice.
  7. Spin also helps to take time away by allowing you to take the ball earlier on the rise. The best way to take the ball early on the rise (while still maintaining control) is to hit with a relaxed and fluid low to high (topspin based) stroke pattern utilizing a quick hand and radial flexion of the wrist.
  8. Taking the ball earlier allows you to play closer to the baseline which in turns provides positional advantage particularly if you can push your opponent(s) back with heavy and deep balls.
  9. Spin is the best response in taking balls above, below and outside of your strike zone.  Dig low balls out with slice or exaggerated topspin. Kick back and take high balls with heavy topspin. Use slice in stretching out wide not only to hit the ball but also to assist in the recovery after the shot.
  10. Spin can help to disguise intention (particularly if you can effectively vary the type and degree of spin).

Why Spin?

Here are 10 reasons why you should incorporate more spin into your game.

  1. Keep more balls in play
  2. Hit with higher margin and net clearance
  3. Better manage pace
  4. Establish rhythm/disrupt rhythm
  5. Buy time/take time away
  6. Gain court positioning advantage/superiority
  7. Make opponent(s) move
  8. Expand arsenal and pattern options
  9. Disguise
  10. Hit targets

Intrigued?  Check out the next article for more detail.

Threshold Training for Tennis

Training at anaerobic or lactate threshold is one of the main components of training for endurance athletes. Very simply, anaerobic or lactate threshold is the highest level of intensity you can maintain for a sustained length of time (before blowing up and going into full muscle depletion or in the case of tennis, making mistakes). For tennis, threshold training is about pushing for a series of shots and/or patterns with intensity just prior to a point where things start to breakdown. It is about training at a level of discomfort in response to difficult situations. For tennis, threshold training is not just working to hit the ball harder but working to hit the ball harder for an extended length of time or through a multiple number of shots. There are a series of specific threshold training tennis drills to increase your ability to sustain a high level of performance, execute at a higher level of efficiency, handle more pressure, hit with higher tempo and pace, etc. Here are 10 examples.

  1. Reflex Volleys – Quick, up tempo volley exchanges from inside the service line are a great way to develop your hands for doubles and to clean up any flaws in your volley technique.  Keep the ball in play and have another ball ready in hand whenever there is a breakdown or mistake. Options include maintaining an exchange while moving up from mid-court, moving back and moving up and back.
  2. Rapid Fire – Hit a continuous series of groundstrokes (or swinging volleys) with quick feeds (very little recovery between shots).  This drill or exercise promotes active feet, relaxed and fluid swing patterns and intense focus.
  3. Overhead Count Down – Hit a series of overheads (touching the net with your racquet after each shot). Start at 20 (or a designated number) and count down every time you make the shot (and count up every time you miss) until reaching 0.  For difficulty, establish a requirement to hit to a specific target area or bounce the overhead to (or over) the back fence (after only one bounce).
  4. Play Inside the Baseline – Maintain a groundstroke rally standing just inside the baseline. Learn to maintain a rally regardless of the incoming shot without standing on or past the baseline.  The drill promotes active feet, quick hands, early ball recognition, etc.
  5. 7-Ball Drill – Start each point with a cooperative rally of seven (or designated number of shots). This drill promotes shot tolerance, consistency, patience, focus, hitting for rhythm and managing pace.
  6. Depth (Target) Count – Continue hitting (with a live-ball rally) until you and then your partner by turn hits a specific number of shots to a defined target area.
  7. Attack and Defend – Establish a live-ball rally pattern with defined target areas and two roles, one to attack and the other to defend.  In the attacking role, work to sustain a relentless series of offensive shots to the defined target area. In the defending role, work to neutralize the pace and get the ball back in play.
  8. Crosscourt/Down-the-Line – Maintain a continuous rally where one player hits crosscourt and the other hits down-the-line.
  9. Hit and Move – Maintain a live-ball rally with the requirement to hit and then move to touch a specific target (such as cone or sideline) with your feet or racquet. There are a number of different directional patterns (up and back, side-to-side, etc.) and a number of different shot combination options.
  10. Ten-Ball Volley – Hit 10 cross-court volleys (or designated number of volleys) in a row to a specific target area (with a live-ball volley to groundstroke exchange).  Alternate corners and roles (with your hitting partner). For difficulty, place a barrier to hit over and/or narrow the target requirement.