How to Get Every Ball Back Into Play

Here are a series of pointers on how to be more consistent in competitive match play (or how to execute an error-free, ultra-consistent game plan).

  1. Adopt the right frame of mind.  Be positive and expect the ball to go over (and in) whenever you get a racquet on the ball.
  2. Work the dimensions of the court and the net in your favor by hitting crosscourt, over the low part of the net and to the middle two-thirds of the court. Hit to established big target areas (hitting windows and targets providing the highest likelihood for success).
  3. Take pace off the ball with spin whenever the pace of the rally exceeds your comfort zone.
  4. Be patient, persistent and relentless. Be prepared to “grind” and increase your rally shot tolerance (the number of shots you can hit in a rally before “bugging out”).
  5. Never ever, ever, ever make a mistake in the net (or for that matter, hit the ball wide left or right of the sidelines).
  6. Get air under the ball and raise your net clearance to four to seven feet above the net with your basic rally shots.
  7. Don’t force it (by trying to make the spectacular shot or perfect pass). Make your opponent hit that one extra shot (even if it is a sitter). You may get pummeled early in a match with a few shots but rarely late in a match (particularly if the score is close).
  8. Learn how to stretch and reach (with flexibility, balance, strength and core stability), hit from an open stance and slide (on clay) to get a racquet on each and every ball.
  9. Establish a strong bond between your hand(s) and the racquet face. Think of the racquet as an extension of your hand.  Establish the feel and control to be able to adjust the angle of your racquet face as required to get the ball back in play.  Very often (particularly in “scramble mode”), it is the ability to open the face in response to the ball to be able to get the ball back in play (and extend the rally).
  10. Pay attention to your mechanics. Maintain fluidity with your stroke patterns.  Establish an extended swing and weight transfer in bringing the racquet through the hitting zone.

Team Survival 101

How to be the “ultimate” team player (when playing on a professional, high school, college or recreational league tennis team)

  1. Win Matches – Your number one and most important responsibility is to win matches. Your commitment to the team is to do everything possible to put yourself in a position to win matches or to be at your highest level of performance each match.
  2. Help teammates win matches – Your number two and second most important responsibility is to support your teammates in their efforts to win matches.  To do everything possible to put yourself and your teammates in a position to win matches should be your main overriding focus for everything you do for and with the team.
  3. Be positive.  Be positive not only to benefit your game but also to benefit the conviction and attitude of the other players on your team.
  4. Never give up.  It’s extremely important for the psyche, morale and spirit of your team to know that every player is committed to giving 100% each and every match no matter the score or circumstance.
  5. Continuously try to improve.  Establish a goal to incrementally get better each and every time you go on the court and to help your teammates incrementally improve their skills as well.
  6. Offer no excuses or cast blame.  If every player is positive in attitude, gives 100%, is trying to get better and is truly committed to doing everything possible to win matches, then it really doesn’t matter if you or one or more other players has a bad day or loses a match.  You’re all in it together good or bad.
  7. Communicate – A shared vision requires a shared dialogue and open (constructive) communication.
  8. Support your coach.  Respect the judgment and decisions of your coach.  Take advantage of his/her expertise and perspective (particularly as it relates to recognizing your strengths, weaknesses, best match-ups and partner combinations).
  9. Take nothing personally.  In any team situation, there will disappointments and things said and done that may hurt your feelings.  Team dynamics are not always clean and easy.  Assume the best intentions and stay true to your main objective to win matches and support your teammates in their efforts to win matches.
  10. Have fun.  Choose to have fun and to make things fun for your teammates.  Of course, being actively engaged on the court working hard and trying to get better (collectively as a team) is fun.

My Tennis Teaching Philosophy

Listed below are the practices and commitments I have followed to guide my teaching career as a tennis professional.

  1. Make a commitment to ensure all players learn something new, have fun and get a good workout each lesson.
  2. Teach players how to have the most possible fun on the court. Tennis is more fun with the development of skills (the ability to do more with the ball, cover and incorporate more of the court, sustain a rally, execute specific stroke patterns and combinations, etc.).
  3. Actively engage players in the process of learning and acquiring new skills. Encourage dialogue, questions, and input, particularly in defining direction and goals.
  4. Believe anyone can be a great player regardless of prior athletic training or ability. Do everything possible to help players reach their potential.
  5. Maintain versatility in my approach to teaching and learning. Be prepared to vary my teaching style based on the personality, temperament and needs of the player and the goals of the lesson plan.
  6. Do not believe there is one way to hit a tennis ball but acknowledge there are better (more efficient and productive) ways to execute each stroke and stroke pattern.
  7. Appreciate and teach different playing styles and strategies.
  8. Be results-oriented. Believe in the importance of setting and reaching specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (S.M.A.R.T) goals.
  9. Do not cut corners or look for short-term fixes to problems. Do the first things first, build foundations, follow progressions and work towards long-term solutions. Value the importance of repetition and staying with something until you get it right.
  10. Be passionate in introducing new players to the game of tennis. Commit to getting beginning players excited and having fun on the court rallying, playing, and developing new skills.
  11. Value the importance of hard work and dedication. Do not be afraid to place demands on my players.
  12. Value patience, positive reinforcement, and encouragement. Recognize the importance of building relationships, trust, and confidence with your players.
  13. Commit to developing and upgrading my skills by observing play at all levels, researching the newest techniques, communicating with your professional peers, etc. Make it a goal to expand my base of knowledge and understanding of the game. Become a resource for all things to do with tennis.
  14. Exude my love for tennis and the lifestyle benefits of tennis. Recognize my role to promote the game and keep players enthused and having fun on the court.

Effortless Hitting

Here are ten simple ways to make your time on the tennis court more productive, energy efficient and effortless.

  1. Relax your grip on the racquet between points, during changeovers and even between shots (using your non-dominant hand for more support).
  2. Breathe and exhale as you hit each shot.
  3. Hit with soft hands using your little finger as the main support of the racquet and focal point for the grip on the groundstrokes. Create a gap between your racquet handle and the heel of your hand in the serve power position.
  4. For effortless serving footwork, focus on hopping up and out into the court with your lead foot and kicking back with your back foot.
  5. Absorb pace with spin (particularly with underspin when hitting the ball outside of your strike zone).
  6. Learn how to slide from an open stance when going wide to hit your groundstrokes.
  7. Use a cartwheel action to generate racquet head speed (not hand speed) in hitting your serve.
  8. Use the weight of your racquet head to generate momentum and flow with your groundstrokes. Keep the tip of your racquet head up as you turn and prepare to the set position. Then use a looping action to generate racquet speed as you drop into the hitting position.
  9. Relax your arm (breaking with the elbow) as you complete your swing.
  10. Maintain active feet, staying off the balls of your feet as you prepare with adjustment steps for each shot. Stay light on your feet with a dynamic split step (which essentially directs your feet in the line with the ball) as a first reaction to the oncoming ball and a gravity step (which requires a bend and relaxation of the lead feet) to get a good first jump to the ball.

Make Footwork “Your Thing” Part Two

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 hitting (with a 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 hitting position. Deceleration is accomplished with adjustments steps (including at times adjustment skip steps), a low center of gravity and a centered, balanced posture.
  7. Identify, isolate, practice and master the key step patterns. Examples of key step patterns include the gravity step (which facilitates your first movement to the ball), skip step (a process to align your feet in coordination with the bounce), double-skip step (a pattern used when attacking a short ball), carioca step (a pattern utilized when hitting a backhand, slice/sidespin approach), corkscrew step (a pattern used when kicking back to hit a heavy and high shot from deep in the court), crossover step, shuffle step, split step, and scissor kick (a pattern used to jump up and back to hit an overhead).
  8. Learn how to hit from with open stance particularly in going wide to hit a forehand groundstroke. My suggested progression to learn how to hit from an open stance is as follows. First, start 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. With time, progress by taking 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, 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 crossover or shuffle steps back into the court.
  9. Learn how to slide on clay and hard (advanced players only) playing surfaces. 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.

Make Footwork “Your Thing”

In keeping it simple, here are ten reasons to work on your footwork.

  1. Improve your ability to get to the ball to make each shot.
  2. Improve your positioning and spacing to hit each shot.
  3. Maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your shots.
  4. Better control to your advantage the position on the court where you hit each shot (e.g. inside the baseline).
  5. Better control to your advantage where you’re able to hit the ball in relation to the bounce (e.g. on the rise)
  6. Improve your ability to recover after hitting the shot.
  7. Minimize your risk of injury with better balance, core stability and weight distribution.
  8. Improve your ability to transition from defense to offense (and from offense to defense) and from one court position to another.
  9. Minimize your vulnerability to bad bounces and errant spins.
  10. Improve your ability to sustain intensity and focus through the length of an entire match.

In my next article, I will outline a plan to improve footwork and the steps necessary to successfully execute a number of key footwork patterns of play.

Preparation for the Upcoming Season of Competition

Here are 10 ways to prepare for the outdoor playing season and upcoming team and/or tournament competition.

  1. Hit a lot of balls. Hit for repetition (with an emphasis on cross-court patterns) to establish consistency, rhythm and confidence in your ability to execute shot sequences. Hitting balls is the “groundwork” necessary to build a solid foundation for the season.
  2. Work on your technique. Take advantage of your off-season to work on improving your stroke techniques. Take an inventory of your game and work specifically on improving your identified weaknesses.
  3. Get in great playing shape. Establish a tennis-specific fitness conditioning program focusing on developing complex coordination and movement, linear/multi-directional speed, strength, flexibility, core and shoulder stability and power.
  4. Restring your racquet(s). The general rule is to restring your racquet every six months whether used or not and to restring your racquet three times per year if you play on average three times per week, four times if you play on average four times per week, etc. Check for fraying strings and cut marks. Protect your racquet and strings by using a thermal bag with a clear plastic bag wrap (if really serious about maintaining the integrity of your strings) and keep your racquet out of your car on cold (and hot) days.
  5. Work with your partner and teammates. The off-season is a good time to work with your partner (or teammates) to improve communication, dynamic positioning, coverage patterns and styles of play.
  6. Set goals for the upcoming season. The best practice is to establish process versus outcome goals.  An example of a process goal would be a goal to improve your first-serve percentage.
  7. Focus on your mind game. Examples of tools to improve mental toughness are imagery and role playing. Use imagery to improve focus and concentration and to establish a module or construct to govern your actions on the court.  Use role playing to improve your ability to respond to different situations and conditions (both positive and negative).
  8. Set and prioritize your schedule. Identify the team matches and tournaments you are earmarking for the season particularly your key events and matches.
  9. Establish a “periodized” training schedule (both on and off court) focusing on peaking for your identified key events and matches.
  10. Get your life in order. Complete outstanding projects. Get a jump on pending work or school assignments. Learn how to better manage your time. Do your best to ensure competing interests and outside pressures do not disrupt your ability to focus on your competitive playing season.

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 to gain 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.

Components of the Serve

Ten areas of focus for your serve

  1. Ritual/preparation prior to start of serve. Develop a consistent ritual (routine) prior to the start of each and every serve to establish intensity and focus.
  2. Stance. The choices are to hit from a more open or closed stance (as defined by the line connecting the toes of your right and left feet). The stance should promote balance and stability and enable the body to transfer weight up and into the court.
  3. Grip. The preferred grip for spin, disguise, incorporation of all body components and racquet head speed is the Continental grip (which places the base of the knuckle and palm of the hand on the second bevel of the racquet).
  4. Footwork (positioning and movement of feet with start of service motion). The choices are to hit from a platform stance (where the back foot stays back in the set position) or a pinpoint stance (where the back foot comes together with the front foot in the set position).
  5. Arm action – Phase One (motion of the arm and racquet to the set position). The importance is to get the hitting arm and elbow up with the toss to a cocked and ready-to-hit set position. The path of the arm to the set position can take a down, back and up, down and then up, out and up or straight up path.
  6. Toss and coiling/sinking action in conjunction with tossing motion. The first goal with the toss is to get the ball into the ideal location for the point of contact. The second goal is to use the toss to sink and coil your body (by bending your knees and extending your hips and chest out and up).
  7. Arm action – Phase Two (motion of the arm to the power position). The tossing arm drops to a tuck position (with the elbow positioned at your rib cage) and the elbow of the hitting arm bends to allow the racquet head to drop and loop down to the power position.
  8. Arm Action – Phase Three (motion of the arm to the point of contact). The racquet (leading with the butt end of the racquet) and the hitting arm (with a pronation of the foreman) then extend in a continuous motion up and out to the point of contact. The goal is to develop racquet head speed (versus hand speed) by cart wheeling or snapping the racquet head up and out to the point of contact.  At the same time, the body uncoils and propels up and into the court.
  9. Follow-Through.  The racquet ideally first extends out and then down (leading with the tip) to create an inverted V with the arm and racquet. The racquet and hitting hand then continue down and across the body with the weight landing on the front foot (or transferring to the front foot if not elevated at the point of contact). Balance is maintained on the finish by kicking back with the back foot (or coming through with the back foot).
  10. Recovery. The goal is to quickly recover for the next shot by aligning the feet and repositioning for the next shot or sequence of shots.

How to Find the “Right” Doubles Partner

Here are 10 considerations to finding the “right” fit for you and your game.

  1. Complimentary skills.  It’s good to find a partner who can compensate for your weaknesses and augment your strengths. For example, if your weakness is your court mobility then it would be wise to find a partner with good foot speed to run down lobs, angles, etc. If you have a powerful serve, it would be in your best interest to have a partner who has a strong net game and can attack the return and decisively finish the point with a volley or overhead.
  2. Lefty/righty. There are a number of advantages to left-handed/right-handed partnership. When playing with a lefty (if you’re right-handed) or a righty (if you’re left handed), you can position your forehands (or strength) down the middle on the return of serve (hopefully taking away the middle of the court from your opponents). Positioning your forehands down the middle also encourages your opponents to serve out wide which makes it more difficult for your opponents to poach off the serve. Lefty/righty combinations can also be disruptive with different looks off the serve, varying spins, etc.
  3. Return of Serve compatibility. It’s a plus if you can find a partner who is confident returning serve on your least comfortable return side. Although it’s valid to have a preference, it’s important not to be too adamant or predisposed to return on only one side of the court. A predisposition to only return on one side makes it difficult to make mid-match and next match adjustments. Plus it reduces your pool of potential doubles partners.
  4. Communication. For starters, it’s important to find a partner who can communicate coherently in a language you understand. Your multilingual friend who speaks twenty languages (but unfortunately not English) may be difficult to communicate with on the court (particularly given the time constraints between points and changeovers). Other important communication skills with a partner are his/her ability to administer and receive signals, offer feedback constructively and without judgment and effectively read and respond to your body language and cues.
  5. Offense/defense. Opposites do attract with effective team partnerships. One example is a team consisting of one player who is consistent and can set up the point combined with a partner who is aggressive and can finish the point. So, if you’re aggressive by nature and have first-strike capabilities look to partner with a player who is defensive and can keep the ball in play.
  6. Jerk factor. Playing with a “jerk” can lead to good (and hopefully entertaining) results. Let your “jerk” loose to do his/her thing to drive your opponents crazy with disruptions in play, disputes and other “noodge” type stuff and you may be surprised at the results that follow. The important thing to remember throughout your on-court encounters and ordeals (and your off-court encounters and ordeals that spill over after the conclusions of your matches) is that your partner may be a “jerk” but he is your “jerk”.
  7. Fun factor. Tennis should be fun and you should play with a partner that makes it more fun (not raucous out-of-control fun but fun in the context and process of competition).
  8. Winning formula. I would “stick” with someone you are able to garner success and positive results. But this does not necessarily mean you should “give up” on a partner when you do not initially experience positive results (particularly in the middle of a match which by all accounts is considered “bad form”).
  9. Like Mind… It’s ideal to enter into a partnership with a shared vision and sense of purpose whether it’s a style of play, strategic game plan (e.g. attack on everything) and/or how you support and complement each in your established roles.
  10. Intangibles. Sometimes things just click for no apparent reason. Some of my best results in the juniors were with a left-handed partner who preferred to play the ad court, stay back on the return and have me stay back on the return (none of which would have been my first preference). But it turned out to be fun sitting back on the ball and “crunching” groundstrokes and surprisingly disruptive to our opponents who were conditioned (almost by rote) to come in on everything and not as conditioned to seeing and having to handle pace from groundstrokes hit from the baseline.