CURE WHAT AILS YOU, PART 3
Fixes for Common Problems:
The Net Game

 

Besides his box of ghosts, the index cards that listed all his stroke problems, Coach Joe carried other unexpected items in his tennis bag.  He had a racquet that had no strings.  He'd yank it out and make me practice with it if he felt like I was hitting "at" rather than "through" the ball, punching or accelerating my ground stroke at contact, a distinction which became crystal clear when I was forced to thread tennis balls through an empty frame.  "Nice swing!" he'd cough, as the ball bounced into the fence behind me.  And he had a fishing net.  He used this to teach volleys.  In my first lesson, he took my racquet and gave me the fishing net.  "Just catch the ball with it," he said.  "Step in and catch the ball in front of you."  He hit and I caught the ball.  With a net in my hand, a passive object as compared to a racquet, I had zero inclination to swing at the ball.  I caught it, as I would with my hand.  Of course, when he gave me the racquet back, I tried to make a little swing at the volley.  He yelled at me.  Teaching pros yelled at students back in the day.  That's changed.  But swinging at volleys, running through approach shots, and shanking overheads into the net, that's pretty much stayed the same.

Following are some common problems I encounter in my students' net games, along with how we fix them.

THE OVERHEAD

The net game in general but the overhead in particular is susceptible to over hitting.  After all, we've stormed the net precisely to take control of the point and put the ball away.  Keyed up, just the slightest bit of drool forming in the corners of our mouths, here comes the lob, high, fat and slow--absolutely killable.  Our left arm is up, pointing at that wounded duck of a ball, the racquet poised down our back, and we reach up with glee to smash it over the fence.  But instead we do the impossible.  Five feet from the net, we hit right into the bottom of it, the error accented with a hideous clunk on the frame. 

Here are some cures for typical overhead problems.

Contact at the top of the frame usually coincides with the ball going into the net, described above.  Eyes, eyes, eyes.  The overhead is prone to offensive anxiety.  We think of the shot as a putaway and we try to kill the ball.  Naturally, we peek to see our imminent glory and, because the glance is downward, the racquet drops with our eyes and we hit the top of the frame, usually shanking the ball into the net.  So infuriating!

The offensive advantage we gain over an opponent by taking the net is the angles we secure in front of that player.  Of course, the overhead, the longest stroke we take at net, isn't designed for drop shots, but if you're trying to bounce the overhead over your opponent or knock him down with it, you're missing the point, usually literally.  Coach Joe believed that bouncing overheads over the fence was hot-dogging, and my reward was a bunch of push ups on a baking court.  Hit to a corner; make a placement.  Win the point with control.

Fix  Remove the word smash from the overhead's name.  It's just an overhead, the response to a high ball when you're at net.  You don't need that much pace to claim the point; your proximity to your opponent makes your shots faster to his side of the court.  Aim comfortably inside the sideline and make an angle.  Make sure you practice hitting inside out, to his backhand corner, the hardest placement to make.  And make sure you practice.  Overheads are the least practiced shots in the game, given that only one player gets to have any fun.  At some point, I make my students take an overhead vow:  Every time I'm on a court, I'll hit eight successful overheads.  You ask your opponent to feed lobs for overheads by pointing your finger to the sky.  Make sure it's your index finger.

Hitting long has a couple common causes.  In preparing for the overhead, many players never get their racquet elbows up and the racquet down their backs.  It isn't comfortable to run in the "backscratch position," and it's proper to move with the arm and racquet cocked above the shoulder.  But before the hit, the elbow has to lift and the racquet drop down your back.  If the elbow falls below the shoulder, it doesn't feel comfortable to reach on top of the ball.  The player lets the ball drop and pushes at it.  The ball is miss hit at the bottom of the frame and usually sails long.  The second reason for long overheads is misjudging the depth of the lob and hitting the shot behind you.  I've never had a student that consistently underestimated the depth of the lob, but most don't run back far enough.  The reason?  As you glance up to the blue, blue sky, you lose sight of the backdrop (fence, screen, lines, opponent, etc), against which you normally judge the ball's forward progress.  Without that backdrop, it's easy to perceive how high the lob is but it's more difficult to judge its depth.

Fix  If you're hitting at the bottom of the frame and pushing your overheads long, aim for the service boxes on your opponent's court.  Hitting short isn't always the right tactical choice, but it will absolutely get your racquet over the ball's top.  Make sure, prior to your swing, that you've felt your elbow lift above your shoulder and the racquet go down your back.  It's okay, a couple times, if you bang your back beneath your right shoulder blade to make sure the racquet's prepared.  If you bruise yourself doing this, however, don't tell your husband I had anything to do with it.  If you're prone to letting the lob get behind you, remember, God gave you a left hand for a reason.  That reaching up and pointing at the ball?  That's not an affectation; it's an integral part of the overhead.  If you can catch the ball with your left hand, in front of you, your overheads will be struck in front of you--toward a corner, right?

Stumbling, bumbling backwards comes from bad footwork.  Duh.  Overwhelmingly, this is a result of backpedaling for the lob, remaining facing the net, as we were in ready position, and attempting to move backwards.  Good luck with that.  You can't exert more effort for less progress than by backpedaling.  And your head bounces around like one of those bobble head dolls, no good for eye contact. 

Fix  Your first move toward the lob must be to get sideways to the net with a cross-over step of your left foot.  Do it quickly and make it large, putting your body in a position to run, if need be, or at least side step, if that's all that's required.  Get the racquet ready and that left hand up.  And, if possible, stop before contact!  Beat the ball to the spot so that your feet are quiet and your head isn't bouncing around like the aforementioned doll, endearing as that may make you look.  Your footwork and position for the hit determine whether you have an offensive shot or a defensive one.  In singles, if you're stopped and the ball's in front of you, go for that angled winner to the corner.  In doubles, the winner should go down-the-line, at the feet of the up player on the other side of the net, or from the deuce court, a spin overhead out wide.  In both singles and doubles, if you're still moving backward and not able to stop, hit a neutral placement deep toward the baseline and hope for another lob.  Practice, practice, practice.  Backward mobility for the lob is one of the least developed abilities of recreational tennis players

APPROACH SHOTS

Approach shots have to be right near the top of the list for the most commonly missed shots in the game.  They signal a turning point in the rally, the move from a defensive or neutral position to an offensive one, toward the net and sweet dominance.  Difficult not to get just a tad excitable in such moments, downright twitchy.  In and of itself, then, the occasion makes players tense and prone to over hitting.  As well, approach shots are transitional; we've got somewhere to go afterwards, and this fact leads players to rush the stroke and not finish it.  Smack, into the fence, just as we were about to claim glory.

Fix  The first part of the fix has to do with an appreciation of the offensive potential of the parts of the court:  baseline, mid-court, net.  I divide these areas into color zones, red, yellow and green, respectively.  If you're hitting behind the baseline, in the red zone, you have very little offensive potential.  You're just too far from your opponent.  Fogettaboutit.  Mid-court is the yellow zone.  Sometimes you have a putaway opportunity, sometimes not, depending on how close you are to the service line and, more importantly, how high above the net contact is.  Fully forward, at net in the green zone, there's no ambiguity; use an angle and put the ball away.  The approach shot is usually hit just inside the baseline, in the red zone.  That's why it's called an approach shot and not a kill shot or a putaway.  Overwhelmingly, its purpose is to deliver you forward and set up your first volley.  What accomplishes that?  Depth.  So, dial it back.  Try to inhibit your blood curdling war cry and just hit deep.  Typically, your earliest opportunity to angle the ball away will come at mid-court.  Wait until you you've got something high to hit and you're close enough to the net to make an angle before going for a winner.

Running through contact is the bane of approach shots, probably more so than any other ground stroke.  The player has the future on his mind, running to get to the T as if it were the end of the rainbow.  Getting there yesterday wouldn't be soon enough.  The result is that the player lifts as he hits, coming right out of his sneakers.  The eyes lead this upward lift and the follow through whips across the body, unfinished.  Bad, bad, bad.  Hurry your shot and, as Coach Joe said, "The only thing you're going to look up and see is a disaster," in this case, an approach shot missed into the net or fence, followed by a long, baleful moan.

Fix  See my tip From the Beginning to the End and its in-depth discussion of what a finished ground stroke requires.  After my students feel what a finished ground stroke is like, our next task is to test it in those contexts that tempt the player to rush, and the approach shot is just such a shot.  For both my singles and doubles players, we might do a drill that I call Terminal Approach; they move in on the short ball, hit a ground stroke, and freeze, and I mean freeze!  No eye contact with where the shot goes, no moving forward for the next shot: head down, knees bent, butt low--stopped.  The next step is me calling out to them when they should look up and move for their next shot.  It always feels like an eternity.  For my doubles players, the return of serve is the approach shot.  We might work on "tacking on the run, as if an afterthought."  Finish the return, dawdle at the baseline for that aforementioned eternity, and then run in.  Sometimes, the cure is in the back foot.  One of the signs of rushing the approach is having the back foot move forward during the swing, whereas it should be up on the toes, anchored behind you.  Just feeling that back foot hold still can work.  Heck, we're not proud.  We'll do anything--breathing out during the stroke, reducing pace, issuing prayers--until we find something that lets the player finish her approach shot.

VOLLEYS

Volleys are the shortest and, therefore, the simplest shots in the game.  But they are also unique in that there is very little movement of the racquet toward contact and none afterward.  That abbreviated stroke stopped at contact that would have Coach Joe sputtering and red in the face on a ground stroke?  It's proper here.  Volleys aren't little swings; they aren't swings at all.  In fact, you hit them with your feet more than your hand.  (Note:  The modern game has introduced swinging volleys, and they definitely have their place, but let's talk basic principles first.)

The reason for this punch, this stopped contact, is that the real offensive potential of volleys is to capture an angle in front of your opponent, in her service box.  Only proximity to the net allows that.  From the back court, you don't have a chance at such an angle; the net intervenes.  But that means that your offensive performance is measured by your ability to absorb pace with the volley.  After all, you're nearly twice as close to your opponent at net compared to being at the baseline, and her shot isn't bouncing, which significantly slows the ball down.  You've got to take this screaming missile coming at you and plunk it down to a target ten feet away.  Dicey.  Especially given the excitement of a putaway, your reward for your aggressive storming of the net.

Fix  Wipe the drool from the corner of your mouth.  Chill.  Sit in a yoga position if you can and consider this:  aggressive play doesn't always mean power play.  Good volleyers have the hands of angels.  You can't hit softly if you think of a kill shot always coming with pace.  For singles of doubles, place tennis ball targets about two feet toward the net on the singles sideline, up from its intersection with the service line.  I call these target balls the Islands of Happiness.  Position yourself at net and have someone feed you hard drives.  Relax your grip, step forward lightly and see if you can take that pleasant journey.  And here's where my comment that volleys are hit with the feet more than the hand comes in.  If you don't step, your only other resource is your hand, and you'll slap at the volley.  But intuitively, when trying to take pace off a shot, players want to pull away from it.  No, no, no.  Use your feet, just not assertively. (Note:  If you're an advanced player, facing difficult pace off your opponent's groud strokes, you need to learn how to cut your volleys with underspin to successfully reduce the pace of the ball and hit short angles.)

Hitting long on the volley or too high has a couple common causes.  The aforementioned hair-on-fire, big swing, over hitting is one.  But running through the shot is also a biggie.  The risk of coming to net is that we have to play one ball at mid-court with our poor feet so, so exposed.  When players get caught at their feet, they first conclude it's due to a lack of effort.  If they tried harder, ran faster, they wouldn't get caught with low balls.  Nope.  It's just going to happen.  Period.  Run through that shot, add momentum into an already tough equation, you're going to flunk the test and hit out.

Fix  As Coach Joe said, "Be desperate for poise not progress."  Actually, he said, "Be desperate for poise not penetration," but when I repeated that to some of my female students, their eyebrows rose into the visors, and the men just got distracted.  The point is, as mentioned in another tip, ready position is assumed right before your opponent hits, not only at the service line.  It's better to split step behind the service line than it is to run through the shot.  But here's the hard part.  We're actually talking about two stops, punctuated by a reach step.  The split step is the first stop, both feet on the court just before your opponent hits, allowing a reach step, left or right.  You take that reach step, playing the volley as far in front of your body as you can.  But, and this is a big one, right after contact, there's another stop where your eyes are still on the contact point--that moment of going blind that defines good eye contact.  This second stop is the hardest one for players to master.  Try Terminal Volley as a drill.  Hit an approach and one volley, but don't look to see where the ball's going after the volley, stay down, frozen, eye on the stopped racquet, the contact point.

Miss hit volleys.  C'mon, you know the answer:  eyes, eyes, eyes.  The clunky contact will be at the bottom of the frame from the peek upwards.  If the racquet is shaking in your hand at contact, it isn't because of your grip; it's your eyes.

Fix  Watch the ball!  That means into the strings but not off.

Volleys hit too far away from your body are, duh, a footwork problem, but an interesting one.  We should use the same reach steps that we use at the baseline, right foot for forehand, left for backhand.  But the baseline backswing involves a pivot on the foot closest to the ball, placing all the weight on that leg.  There's just one leg remaining to step with, across the body.  The volleys don't involve a pivot, just a quick movement of the hand in front of the body to prepare the racquet.  We don't want to turn sideways to a ball that's heading for our feet; we want to reach in front.  So, a proper preparation of the racquet on the volley finds our weight equally on both feet.  That tempts players to step toward the ball with the foot closest to it.  You won't accomplish much more than the splits with that technique.

Fix  Steps are across the body, like your ground strokes.  In fact, your head, your racquet head and your foot should all form a neat triangle pointing toward the ball.  The closer you get to the ball with your step, the less inclined you will be to swing at the volley.  Hit the ball with your foot!

Flustered, flummoxed, bent out of shape.  No doubt about it, the net game is fast, especially when it involves four-up play in doubles.  In fact, the one commodity that we don't have at net is time.  My student Marjorie said it best.  As she was making the transition from low B to A level doubles play, which involves getting good at net, she shook her finger at me, and sputtered,  "I'm just not comfortable up there!"  She was right.  As compared to the relative luxury and calm of a baseline exchange over the full length of the court, net play feels like you're on fast forward.  But that's another reason volleys should be compact punches, and have quick returns to ready position.

Fix  There isn't any.  Net play rarely is calm.  But it's fun!  Stick with it, and you'll be amazed what your hands can do.  Who hit that shot?  That was you, you quick thing, you.

Swinging volleys.  Coach Joe is spinning in his grave, but I love this new feature of the game!  I teach it, though, only to advanced players, after traditional volleys have been mastered.  It's especially cool in doubles where a swinging volley struck ten feet away from an opposing net player can put the fear of God into the opposition.  Very scary, indeed.  And it's also a great tool for a singles players hitting floated balls when they're at mid-court. The swinging volley can get the ball into an open space on your opponent's court in a hurry.  But, this stroke comes with a caution:  the longer the swing, typically the deeper your placement.  Volleys, remember, have as their primary virtue control of front of your opponent's court.  Don't swing at your volley to make a short, angled winner; use the traditional volley for that.  Remember also, no wrist!  Swinging volleys are topspin shots that require an upward finish.

Tennis teachers always introduce ground strokes and serves first.  That's proper:  beginning play is from the baseline.  But if you aren't learning the net game from the get go, an ever-widening gap is created between your relative comfort and competence at the baseline as compared to the net.  That's no good.  If your reward for becoming an advanced player from the baseline is to become a beginner at net, you'll decline and stay at the back of the court where you're good.  I teach my beginning students the net game in their very first lessons.  I tell them that they'll use their volleys and overheads much later in their development, but when they get there, they'll be ready.  Practice, practice, practice at net.  Be a full court player.

Keith Shein

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Charge The Net