Fixes for Common Problems:


Once, when we were eating lunch after a lesson, Coach Joe asked, "You want to see my ghosts?"  The question spooked me. The guy was old and he looked like he wasn't long for the world. "Okay," I lied.  He hauled an index card box out of his tennis bag and, sure enough, he'd written My Ghosts on top of the box.  He opened it and pushed it toward me.  Inside, there were dividers labeled Forehand, Backhand, Serve, Volley, Overhead.  "What is it?" I asked.  He said, "The ghosts that haunt my strokes.  I've had some of these problems from the get go.  They just don't seem to go away.  I work at them.  Beneath each problem are notes on how to fix it.  If you're smart, you'll start taking notes after our lessons.  Get yourself a little box or binder.  Keep your ghosts where they won't get out of line."

I have a list like Coach Joe's.  Sadly, he was right:  our problems tend to hang around.  But that doesn't mean they can't be controlled and repaired, even in the midst of a heated tennis match.  Following are some of the common problems I encounter with students, and suggestions as to how you can fix them.  In this tip, I'll cover ground strokes.  Next tip, I'll address serves, and finally, in the last of the series, the net game.


I've never had a student who on a regular basis misjudged the ball and got too far away from it.  But almost all my students crowd their ground strokes.  Crowding accounts for those miss hits at the throat of the racquet and that uncomfortable sense that the ball is trying to insert itself in your navel.  You fall away from the shot.  You can't hit down-the-line to save your soul.

Crowding comes from looking at the ball head-on, the way our vision focuses on objects in front of us.  If you move to the ball while facing it, without an adequate shoulder turn, you can run thirty yards to the side, and by the time you get there, you'll be crowded.  Ready position obligates this head-on first look at the ball coming to us; we have to be square to the net to be prepared to move to either side.  This means we have to defeat a very strong impulse to keep looking at the ball head-on as we move to it, otherwise, we're inevitably crowded.

Fixes   Coach Joe used to pin paper eyes on the backs of my shoulders.  If he couldn't see those eyes after my backswing, he knew I was going to be crowded.  This means a big shoulder turn first thing, so that every step you take to the ball is from a perspective that sees it at your side, not coming directly toward you.  If you can't touch your front shoulder with your chin on your backswing, you're likely not turned enough.  You can use other physical cues.  Point the butt of your racquet at the ball; you can't do that unless you're fully turned.  On your backhand, touch your left hip with your right thumb to expedite and measure the completion of the backswing.  On my forehand (the side that I crowd), I point my left hand at the right sideline when I take the racquet back, reminding me how far to the side I want to contact the ball.  Also, try warming up down-the-line.  Crowding causes premature, early contact, but the resultant cross-courts won't necessarily feel bad.  They can be cleanly struck and find a good placement.  Down-the-lines don't lie.  Unless you're adequately turned to see the ball at your side, you can't comfortably hit them.  Make sure you can keep your balance as you hit down-the-line.  If you're falling away and can't follow through toward the ball, you're still crowded.

Eyes, eyes, eyes.  If you're hitting the bottom of the frame and the racquet feels like it wants to rattle out of your grip, you aren't watching the ball long enough.  On a ground stroke, this miss hit is always at the bottom of the frame because the peeking glance is upward.  As your head lifts, so does the racquet, but imperceptibly, until that nasty shaking.

Fix  See my tip about eye contact.  Remember, bad eye contact is a peek into the future.  Right before you hit, you look up to see the success of your shot.  That means to cure bad eye contact and stop that nasty miss hit, you've got to keep your eyes on the contact point until after the ball's on its way toward your opponent.  As Coach Joe said, "Peer at the past, don't peek at the future."

The most common control problem is hitting long, not into the net.  In fact, if the game were baseball, we'd all be stars!  Sometimes it comes from being too amped up; we hit at a pace that we can't control.  Competition will do that to people.  Thinking that we come from Planet Tennis, like Roger Federer and Serena Williams, as opposed to Planet Earth, will do that to people.  It feels great to hit hard--really great.  But if we're choosing a pace that results in unforced errors more often than winners, we're not helping the home team. Most often, depth is far more aggressive than pace.  Find a pace that lets you hit high over the net and toward the baseline.  Unless your opponent is coming to net (in which case you want to keep the ball low), these deep placements will do far more offensive damage than trying to hit the ball so hard that you take your opponent's racquet out of his hand.  Coach Joe used to string up two nets, one on top of the other.  Imagine clearing the real net by at least three feet.

There are also technical reasons that cause us to hit long, typically either low follow throughs or unfinished ones that stop at contact.  Forehand finishes tend to be low.  The intuition is that if we keep the racquet down, the ball will stay down.  Oh, so wrong.  That low finish usually produces flat contact, without any topspin, and the ball sails.  Backhand finishes tend to stop at contact and, again, the ball sails.  The intuition is that we shorten the stroke, we gain control.  That's half right.  Shorten your backswing if you're over hitting, but stopping your follow through is a recipe for smacking the ball into the fence.  If you have a one-handed backhand, hitting long may also be caused by opening your shoulders on your finish.  As your racquet travels across your body, the face opens, and out it goes.

Fix  See my tip From the Beginning to the End for an in-depth discussion of high, completed follow throughs.  If you're hitting long, this is usually your problem:  you aren't finishing your stroke.  If you're Big Betty from the Baseline or Louis the Slugger, trying to knock down the fences with power, get a grip.  At the recreational level, most matches are won by the player that makes the least amount of mistakes not the most winners.  Steady Betty and Steady Eddie take home the trophies.  That doesn't mean you should play frightened of making mistakes, but that you should find a pace that you can control.  And it's fickle, day to day.  Play your warm-up as if it's the beginning of the match, not a free period.  Find the pace that you'll use when you cross the threshold into play, a pace that feels comfortable, that allows you to make the placements you know how to do.  And, if you're that one-handed backhand player with your shoulders opening on your finish, let your arm hand travel back toward the fence as your right arms swings the racquet forward.  This will keep you sideways to the net during the swing and is a really graceful solution to this problem.

Less common than shots going long but all too frequent are shots that go into the net.  So sad!  It's such a lamentable sound and sight.  Sometimes this happens because a player has lowered her target to control her pace.  If she's hitting beyond her comfort zone, fearful of the ball sailing long, she may try and avoid that error by making another one, not giving the net enough clearance.  But often, hitting the net is the result of pulling off your shot, lifting up or falling backward during the follow through.  Looking up too soon can cause this.  Being in a hurry to move after your shot is another culprit.  In these instances, as a player lifts up and pulls away from contact, the inevitable result is an abbreviated follow through.  The racquet doesn't travel through the shot and toward the net far enough to propel it over the net.  But flat-out fear also accounts for this error.  The player is so frightened of missing that he chokes the racquet in a death grip.  His arm feels like a steel rod.  He just can't step into his stroke or extend his swing.  He pulls away, right at contact.  Ouch. 

Fix  Coach Joe would have probably recommended a martini or two before play to calm a player down.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Coach Joe played some matches with a few under his belt.  But times have changed.  So, short of popping a pill or chugging a cocktail, try this.  During your warm-up, there are always three choices regarding pace:  hitting the ball back at the same speed it comes to you, slower, or faster.  Take the last alternative off the table.  During the warm-up, don't allow yourself to accelerate your opponent's shots, just use what he offers and return at the same speed or slower.  You're looking for a pace that lets you keep your eyes on the contact and finish your follow through.  If you need to, hit slower and slower until you can do this.  If you cross the threshold into play knowing that you can hit three or four balls in a row into the court, you'll address and satisfy our most fundamental anxiety:  if I hit the ball, will it go in?  Remember, a steady, composed player is ten times more intimidating than a player that in his warm-up hits one blistering ground stroke and hits the next five into the net and fence.  Your grip should feel relaxed on the racquet.  Your arm should feel relaxed hitting fully through your stroke.  Stay down a little longer than you feel you need to at the end of the shot, knees bent, follow through extending out toward the net and up over your shoulder.  Take the term warm-up literally:  if we're warming up, by definition our pace should start slowly.

Keith Shein

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Fixes for Common Problems:
The Serve