Practice Makes Almost Perfect
So, you love your teaching pro. He's lifted your game like a helium balloon. Now, you walk on the court feeling like a player, whereas before your lessons, you were just some guy with a tennis bag stuffed with racquets and other pricey gear, none of which seemed to make a difference when it came to keeping a ball in play. You're transformed, and grateful. Of course, you've paid for your lessons, but you want to show your gratitude, let your pro know how much your forged success means to you. You're thinking: a nice bottle of wine, a massage that's legal, a gift certificate at a swank restaurant, or, for this pro, an all-expense paid trip to New Zealand to fly fish for humongous trout. All good thoughts, and certainly they'd be appreciated. But save them for the holiday season. You want to make your pro happy? You want to show him how grateful you are for your success? Get on the damn practice court, will ya!
I get it. No one's got any time. In and around work, volunteering, domestic duties, and the hurricane of every day life, you're lucky to get in a couple of matches per week. Who's got time to practice? And, really, what's the point? None of us is scheduled for a mug shot on the cover of Tennis magazine. Practice? Yuk! You've got a point. Practice isn't going to make you perfect. But here's a really big tennis tip: practice is where the fun is at. Practice is where you get to be all that you can be. And practice is also where you can try to be all that you can't seem to be but believe you could be. Practice is where the magic happens, where you can push your game, your mind and your body into places where your dreams live. At its best, the practice court is where you can set your game free. Come on down!
Unless we're in the zone, and if we're lucky, we'll only visit that magic place a handful of times in our competitive careers, play is nearly always conservative. We're afraid of losing, of being embarrassed in front of our team mates, of letting down our partners. And whenever you play with fear, you really aren't playing the game. The goals are almost always negative: playing so as not to be embarrassed, not to be seen as a loser, etc. Even if you play a "social match," among friends, fear hangs over you. These are your team mates, members of your club. Lose and the word gets around. Can't risk that, can you? So if all your play is either in leagues, tournaments, or in social matches with team mates, every time you get on the court, fear follows you. That's what makes the practice court the true field of dreams. When you practice, leave fear where it belongs, in the gutter. Go for your shots. Don't worry about the consequences; there are no negative ones. Don't worry about losing; you can't lose when you're trying to stretch your game to the fullest. The practice court should be free, the place where you train yourself to be competitively successful by letting it all hang out, by playing through your errors until you feel what it's like to hit the ball without fear, with passion, because that's what competition is really about: risking a possible loss without fear of the consequences, playing with all your heart. If you really want to get better, you've got to practice. Only on the practice court will you let your strokes grow and your heart fly.
Following are some doubles drills that can be done with two, three or four people. Feel free to tinker with them any way you please. Keep them fun.
All one-on-one drills take place half-court, including the alleys, on a cross-court basis, simulating a court where there are shadow opponents straight ahead of you. Don't hit to those ghosts! You and your partner can get better through these drills.
Terminal Volley This drill is a serve-and-volley drill. The server should always play from her non-return side, as part of the difficulty of serving and volleying is hitting from a side of the court where your instincts aren't honed and you're likely not to be as comfortable as on your normal return side. Only three balls are struck: the serve, return and first volley. The idea is for the receiver to practice hitting down at the server's feet near the service line, using chips, drives or both. The server should be making a service placement that safeguards her journey in, usually to the T, but not always. Most importantly, the server should split step just prior to the receiver's contact and then stay absolutely still after the first volley, eyes on the contact point, not the flight of her shot, not moving in for the next shot, because there is none. It's super hard to do! But if you can master stopping just prior to your opponent's contact and stopping again just after your own, you can play those nasty balls at your feet. Don't peek to see where your shot goes!
Score it to make it more interesting. The receiver gets a point for getting the return back cross-court. The server gets a point for getting the volley back cross-court. First side to lucky seven wins it, then trade places. Or make it harder. If the receiver hits high and the server can angle the ball short for a winner, the server gets two points. If the receiver makes a pass cross-court, she gets two points.
Rush and Crush This is a baseline rally drill, with both players starting at the back of the court. Either player begins the rally by feeding underhand into her opponent's service box, cross-court. That's the only ball that doesn't get penalized for landing short. Once the rally begins, each player tries to use the depth of her placements to cause an unforced error or a short ball to her side. If she does earn a short ball, she gets to rush the net, looking to put the ball away. The idea is to think about depth as offensive leverage into the point, rather, or more important, than pace. And to begin to see when the depth of your placement causes the short ball, so that the weak shot you provoke doesn't surprise you. Make sure you practice from both sides of the court; one player is always going to be on her non-return side. Hit out! Don't be careful. Use your groundies to pound your partner with depth.
Score to make it more interesting. If you make your practice partner hit short to your side, you get a point, automatically. If you come into net behind that short ball and win the point at net, you get two points. Some points, then, will have each player possibly earning a point, one of a short ball, and one for whoever wins the point. First player to 11 wins the trophy. Make it harder. No lobs in defense of a player coming in against you. Drive low and to the middle; make her hit short to you. And if you're the player coming in, get tight to net. You don't have to worry about being lobbed. Make it harder another way. Allow lobs, but only cross-court. If you've rushed the net, read the baseliner; see if you can discern when she's going to lob or drive. If you think she's going to lob, don't advance pass the service line. If you see a drive coming, charge in!
One-Up, One-Back One player is at the service line, one at the baseline. The player at the baseline should be on his non-return side, simulating a server who's chosen to stay back. The player at the service line can't advance toward net. Play out rallies or points, first without lobs. The baseliner is training to make quick decisions as to whether his drives or chips will find the net rusher's feet. Keep the ball down; make that volleyer hit short so that you can move in for a more aggressive ground stroke or take the net, yourself. The volleyer is training to keep volleys deep, and, as soon as his deep shots deliver an up ball, to volley the ball away, short and sharp, cross-court. Advanced volleyers should practice using flat technique to keep the volleys deep and cut technique to angle the volley away. Score to keep it more interesting: first to five points, best out of twelve points, etc. Make is more interesting: the baseliner is allowed to lob down-the-line. If that happens, and the volleyer runs down the lob, the play continues down-the-line. In this scenario, the volleyer is looking to read if he can see the lob coming--by his damaging shot placements or changes of posture or racquet preparation by the baseliner.
Serve and Volley v Return and Volley Yeah, baby, nothing will keep you off the net! The server should always come in from her non-return side, where her volleying skills may not be as instinctive. The returner is practicing downward control off drives or chips, with a target at the service line, where the server's feet are going to be. If you get a passing shot, terrific, but remember, the usual winning gambit involves two strokes: a groundstroke low to the server's feet, forcing an up ball, and then a hard volley again to the server's feet. The server is trying to make service placements that compromise the returner's downward control--with depth, pace, to the T or into the body. Initially, hit only first serves, without faults. Practice going for the best serve you can. Later, practice hitting second serves, as well. Play games or a certain number of points. Advanced players should be using cut volleys for added downward control. All levels of play should visualize the service line as the back boundary of the court: hit down at the opposing net player, not past them. If you want to make it more interesting, allow the returner to lob down-the-line. If the server is able to run it down, play continues down-the-line.
Serve and Return This is a dead ball drill, one serve, one return. The server is working on placements and practicing both flat and spin serves. The returner is working on all the return placements: deep cross-court, short and angled cross-court court, passes down the alleys and lobs down-the-line. Servers should concentrate on their weakest placements, as should the receivers. Do this drill as a warm-up to Serve and Volley v Return and Volley.
Service for Eight This is a serve placement drill, covering all the respective server/returner positions. The server plays four points to each side, and play doesn't begin until the prescribed placement is made. At the end of the rotations, servers should have a good sense of which placements can be counted on and which need work. All play is cross-court; no lobs off the return. To the deuce side, first. 1) Server stays back, returner comes in. To minimize the returner's angles, first serve must go to the T. 2) Server comes in, returner stays back. Returner cheats toward the center mark, trying to hit a forehand. Server attacks the singles sideline with a spin serve, punishing the returner's position. 3) Both server and returner come in. Serve should be at the T or into the body, but toward the receiver's left hip. 4) Both server and receiver come in. Second serve, and it must be to the receiver's backhand, even if spun. Now move to the ad court. 1) Same as to the deuce court; however, if the server feels that the receiver's backhand is weak, the serve can go either to the forehand or backhand. 2) Same as to the deuce court, except the receiver cheats by crowding the service line. Serve goes into the body. 3) Same as to the deuce court. 4) Same as to the deuce court.
Your fourth didn't show! No problem! Don't leave for the donut shop, even if it's called a Cafe Paris. You don't need a bear claw or a scone. You've already had five cups of coffee. Practice!
Return and Volley The server stays at the baseline and guards just her half of the court, including the alley, but he can hit to the entire court on the other side. The returner must rush the net directly behind the return, but with no lobs down-the-line. Play out the points and the game with regular scoring. The server is working on defense, seeing which player on the other side, if any, closes to net and is vulnerable to a lob, trying to keep the ball low to the feet of any player hanging at the service line, trying to fight her way forward to net if she gets a lob successfully over someone's head or gets the volleyers to hit short. The returning team is practicing offense, seeing if a lob is imminent because of depth of the return or volley, making sure any up ball is put away on an angle in front of the receiver, agreeing on either Terminator or Close and Fade to deal with the opposing baseliner. There are two catches. If the server tries a pass or lob down-the-line or the player straight ahead of the server can poach, that player can put the ball away cross-court to the server's open side. And, second, you can only win a game if you hold serve. Rotate positions after each game. First player to three games wins. Advanced players should be working on flat and cut volleys, depending on defense or offense, respectively. Advanced baseliners (the server in this drill) should be working on drives and chips kept low.
Serve and Volley This drill can be done with the server by herself or with the serving team against a solitary receiver. And it can be played with the receiver(s) obligated to stay back or come in behind return and volley. Score regular games, but only the player that's solitary can win a game. Rotate positions. First player to three games wins. If you're serving and volleying against a pair and the receiver has stayed back, lobs can only go the server's side. The server should try to close, using defensive volleys when the ball is at her feet, offensive volleys if she gets something high to angle away. However, if she attacks the player straight ahead of her, she's allowed to volley cross-court to the server's open side. The receiver is working on keeping her first ground stroke low to the net rusher's feet, and, if she's stayed back, to keep the ball low to the middle or to lob over the server's head if the server closes tight to net. The receiver's partner is looking to poach, to pick off anything she can. Same goals if the receiver is rushing the net. Play it both ways, with the receiver obligated to hold at the baseline and with the receiver obligated to come in. See instructions above for advanced players.
Rush and Crush All three players begin at the baseline. You can either have the player by himself defend only half the court, including the alley, as in doubles, or, for a better work-out, have him defend the singles court on his side but, in either scenario, be able to attack the entire court on the other side. Everyone is looking to keep their ground strokes deep. Players earn a point of the opposition hits short, ahead of the service line on their side, and can earn a second point by moving in an winning the exchange up at net. First side to lucky seven wins. The points are begun by having a ball fed underhand into the opponent's short court. No rushing the net on that feed, however, only on a successive short ball. Sides alternate who feeds the first ball after each point. Besides working on ground stroke depth, all players should be working on vision, seeing when their ground strokes have hurt the opposing baseliner and are likely to cause a short ball; you don't want to be surprised by your own creation.
Drills for Four Players
C'mon, just once use the opportunity for all of you to practice. Here are some fun games. Fun! It won't hurt, swear.
First Serve Only That's right, no faults--ever! That doesn't mean, necessarily, that you go for an ace each time. Your choice will depend on the score and the receiver. Maybe Big Bob loves your pace. Why please Big Bob? Spin that first serve in and consternate him. Big Bob looks best when befuddled. Or, you've been pounding the T on the deuce court, really working over Betty's backhand. At 40-15, spin it out wide to her forehand and let Betty have a chance to make up a two-point deficit with one swing of her racquet. Or, Fearful Francine on the ad court is standing in the alley trying to protect her dismal backhand. Spin her to the T and stretch her out of her shoes. The point is, go for placements and paces aggressively; you can't miss. Practice being the best server you can be. This is also a great way for you partnership to practice poaching; every point is going to begin with your best serve! Play games. Vary the drill by having one side stay back or both sides come in. All servers should come away with a clear sense of which placements and paces, on each court, work and need work. Who knows? Maybe you'll be inspired to bring out a bucket of balls and, you know, practice.
One Serve Only That's right, miss that serve and you've double-faulted! Servers are working on defense, obviously. Consider your opponents. You need to make placements to weaker strokes and to hit a deep serve to have any chance of holding. Build your second serve strength and confidence, and you'll walk on to the court like a different player. Receivers, it doesn't get any better than this! Depending on the score, you'll have ample chances to make something happen. Drive down the alley; finesse that drop shot; lob; chip--whatever needs work. Play games. Vary the drill by having the server stay back or come in. Receivers should always attack the net. Advanced players should be working on spin serves, with depth and placement
Four Up, No Lobs You and your partner discouraged from coming in to net because of those high floaty lobs that chase you back to the baseline? This drill's for you. Server and receiver both come in but at no point is a lob allowed, not off the return, not during the point. Rather, the point is to get everyone geared toward closing toward net; the team that gets tightest to net should find itself winning the points. Play out games. Include First Serve Only as part of the game or One Serve Only. But haul your timid butt up to net where you can take control of the point. Servers should work on placements that help minimize their exposure low to their feet on the first volley: into the body, toward a receiver's weaker stroke, to the T. Receivers should be focused on downward control off the return, chip or drive. Hit hard but only if you can control the downward trajectory of your drive. Remember, the court and tactics change in four-up scenarios. The service line should be visualized as the baseline; hit down to your opponents not through them. And, there usually aren't going to be any sharp cross-court angles available for your winners; your opponents' proximity to net guards against these angles. Instead of trying to hit the ball where no one can reply, let your opponents hit but at their feet--down, downer and downest. If you get them to pop the ball up, do the same, but harder.
Alternative Formations Scared to go into "I" Formation or play The Wall? Is that because you never try it when you play a match? Well, there you go. That's why you need to practice! Each team needs to play at least two points per game from an alternative formation. The serving team could go into "I" Formation, or use Auto Switch, Bait and Trap (see previous Tips on doubles poaching), or, God forbid, Australian. Have a reason for it: the ad court player can't hit a backhand down-the-line. Go into "I" and have the server's partner move away from the receiver, cutting off her predictable cross-court reply. Or the deuce court receiver only chips her return. Go into "I" or use Auto-Switch to cut off her slower shots. Or one receiver is just killing you with low balls to your feet when you serve and volley. See if you can get into her head by going into "I" Formation; make your movement unpredictable. If you're the receivers, think about The Wall if you've got sun or wind in your favor--sun in the eyes of the serving team, wind coming to you. Your lobs will kill in those conditions. Go into The Wall if you go down 30-Love. Switch things up; slow things down. Play a practice set using an alternative formations; when it's match time, you'll be ready and willing to take a risk that may win a close one.
Any Score But Normal Have trouble concentrating point by point? Switch up the scores. For example, start each game at 15-30 second serve. That's a game the receivers should win, though after that point, the server gets two serves, which means the serving team needs one point to make things even. Or, start the game 30-Love, first serve. That's a game the serving team should take, though maybe the receiving team will go into The Wall and steal two points. Either way, put one team at an advantage and play a set. The games will go faster this way and challenge each player on the court to pay attention to the score.
Use your imagination; make up your own games. You don't have to score. Or, you can score any way you want. But the bottom line is that you should enter the practice court with an agenda: practice through current problems and practice toward getting better. If you're missing too many first serves, practice that. If you've been beaten in a match with players that you thought were just a step ahead of you, what step are you talking about? Were there returns better, their overheads, their first volleys, their angles, their downward control? If it felt like you could play at that level, practice those aspects of your game that will allow you to improve and earn it. Stretch out! Try different things! What do you have to lose?
c Keith Shein
Mental Toughness Issues, Part 1
Playing the Warm Up