FROM the BEGINNING to the END
Coach Joe got to Arizona where I grew up because he had asthma. He was old as well as ill. And skinny. My father found him a place to teach, and, in exchange, he gave me free tennis lessons. His disease didn't stop him from chain-smoking Camel cigarettes during my lessons, and as you might guess, he didn't move all that well. For the first six months, that didn't matter. All I saw were tossed balls. I wasn't allowed to rally or play. Coach Joe wanted my strokes perfect, "from beginning to end." I had to stutter-step until he shouted, "Hup!" and then bounce into a split step for ready position. He'd toss, and my racquet had to go back first before I moved to the ball. Finishing the follow through, I'd have to hold it until he said it was okay to side-step back to the center mark. I got the worst time slots because I was a kid and not paying, and in summer, it was always over one hundred degrees. He called our last drill Suicide, though I thought Homicide was more accurate. He'd chase me corner to corner, always so that I'd have to hit on the run. I got a decade of life for each ball I retrieved, trying to get to one hundred. Usually, I got winded before that, and I just slapped at the ball and made an error, which was when, as far as Coach Joe was concerned, I committed suicide. "Finish the shot!" he'd cough.
THE BEGINNING of the STROKE
Except for the serve, every stroke begins with the assumption of ready position, and I can usually separate A level players from C level players based on this simple aspect of form. If you're an inexperienced player, typically unsure of where you should be and what shot you should play, your ready position is reactive. We've seen the posture: heels on the court, bent at the waist, butt out, racquet forward. Not unlike a diver about to go into a pool, except there's no pool. If you're an experienced player, your posture and, therefore, attitude, is more proactive, eager to hit the shot. Your ready position is on your toes, not your heels. Your back is straight. You're set to move.
What's the Big Deal?
Foot speed has two elements: how fast you get going and how fast you run. Unless your ready position is right, you'll be slow getting started. On your heels, bent at the waist, (the inexperienced player) the first thing you have to do to move is get upright, and you've already lost a step. That step can be the difference between a good position and a bad one. The other issue is mental. Coach Joe used to say, "The heart is in the feet." What he meant was that a player who's still playing to win is moving her feet; a player that feels she's losing gets on her heels. Being on your toes, moving your feet, makes you feel engaged with the possibility of winning, and there's no other feeling you want to have on the court. By posture, if you're on your toes you want to move forward to hit the ball; you're not waiting for the ball to come to you. You're on the attack, not on the defensive.
Why Is This So Tough?
I don't know who figured out the dimensions of the court, but they seem exactly at the limit of our ability to run down the ball, and given the contemporary speed of the game, it's only getting harder. We learn ready position in our very first lesson; nothing is more fundamental. Yet, we fail to achieve it again and again because we're stretched to the limit trying to get to the ball. In singles, for example, if you get pulled to the corner, you want to turn and run toward the open space after you hit. But if your opponent sees that you're not set when he hits, he's going to wrong-foot you, putting the ball behind you, right where you just were. In doubles, where more of my students rush the net, players often don't assume ready position before their first volley. They think that if they keep running they can avoid having to hit a low ball at their feet. In short, we tend to run through our problems, and it just doesn't work. A singles player, stuck in the corner, will have a far easier time assuming a ready position that's not back to the center of the court and, from it, accelerating an open expanse than he will stopping and trying to reverse direction to a ball that's been put behind him only a couple feet. That doubles player, in ready position, on his toes, will be able to move left or right, forehand or backhand, one good reach step forward to play the low volley more in front of him. Running through his shot, he'll likely just stumble and miss.
When Do I Do It?
Ready position is temporal not spatial. It should be accomplished right before your opponent hits a shot, regardless of where you are on the court. Phyllis, who loves rushing the net in doubles, always wants to stop at the service line, a usual good measure of progress toward a first volley. But where you are changes, stroke by stroke. If Phyllis floats a return, she may get past the service line before her opponent hits; if the return and reply are brisk, she may not quite get to it. What's constant is that just prior to your opponent's contact, you should make a little jump, landing just as your opponent hits. The jump is important because players do not instinctively lands on their heels but on their toes. This is the split step, and it's another term for ready position. The only exception to this is if you've lobbed a return as an approach shot in doubles, or in singles, if you read that your first volley is going to force a lob in reply. In doubles, the hang time of your lob may let you get past the service line before your opponent hits. Defer and stop at the line or even behind it. If you've pinned your opponent's backhand above the shoulder, you've obligated a lob in reply. Get too tight to net, and you've given your opponent an escape with a lob over your head. It's the same in singles: once you read that your opponent is going to lob, don't advance past the service line even if there's time to keep moving forward.
What About In Between Strokes?
Move your feet! Watch any good tennis player and her heels never touch the ground during the point. Look at a tennis player's body. Roger Federer is skinny upstairs, but he's got sprinter's legs, big in the thighs. That's from running on the toes. Once you've finished your shot (the next thing we're going to talk about), start moving. That may mean side-stepping if you're a singles player trying to recover to the center of the court. That may mean doing stutter steps if you're a server in doubles and you've stayed back. It may mean running forward if you're rushing the net. In doubles, even if you're the server's or returner's partner, not involved in the first two strokes of the point, move with the ball; stay on your toes. Move! The only exception to this is in a four-up exchange in doubles. In that context, hit and hop--hit your volley and then, off your front foot, hop directly into ready position. There just isn't any time to do more. But don't be that player, on your heels, stuck on the court like a stop sign, watching the balls go by. Move! After our Suicide drill, Coach Joe would always grin. "Running's fun, isn't it?" Of course, I'd be the one coughing at that point, but he was right. Tennis is more fun when you move!
THE END of the STROKE
A finished ground stroke has two qualities: a downward gaze and and upward finish. Eye contact has already been talked about in a previous tip, though it affects the upward finish of the stroke that is my primary focus, here. By upward finish, I mean various follow throughs. For beginners, it's a racquet hand that's at eye-level and a racquet head above the player's head, with the racquet pointing toward the ball and staying perpendicular to the court. This is basic flat technique, finishing the low-to-high dynamic of the swing. For advanced players, the upward finish would find the racquet over the opposite shoulder of the stroke, imparting more topspin. But the racquet hand is still at eye-level, and the racquet face, though pointing behind the player, remains perpendicular to the court.
After poor eye contact, I correct low follow throughs more than any other technical issue during my lessons. Low finishes are recipes for unforced errors, either hedged, timid strokes that stop nearly at contact, or nervous, over-hit wristy finishes that the player uses to try and keep the ball in the court only to see it smack the fence.
But What About Topspin?
If I could change one thing about tennis, it would be the word topspin. It leads players to believe that hitting the top of the ball, which they can only do with a low, wristy stroke, will keep the ball from going out. Of course, topspin describes a ball's forward rotation, over its top, not where the ball is struck. It's opposed to backpsin, which is backward rotation. Both spins are imparted by hitting the ball's back, either by brushing up or down. My student, Henry, poor man, learned squash before coming to tennis. The result? You wouldn't wish Henry's wrist problems on your worst tennis nemesis. And what happens when Henry uses his wrist on his follow through? He hits long, as do most players, exactly the opposite of what his low finish is trying to avoid. Finishing a ground stroke high is absolutely counter-intuitive. It takes an act of faith to believe that swinging up will make the ball go down, but that's how topspin is imparted. Finish level and low, and no spin is imparted; the player hits flat, and they just don't make tennis courts long enough for that kind of stroke.
What About Nadal?
He's wristy, right? Wrong. Examination in high-speed photography of Nadal's (and others) across-the- body forehand finish reveals that there is no wrist at all during the stroke. The stroke is low-to-high, though certainly not the elevated low-to-high finish that Serena Williams, among others, employs. When you see Nadal drop the racquet head at the end, it's after the low-to-high brush of the ball has been completed, and it's designed to limit the length of stroke in front of his body and impart more topspin. If he did use his wrist and his stroke were level, he'd be hitting into the bleachers. Wrong sport. And keep in mind that he's using a full western grip which very few of my students do, a grip that encourages lower finishes and increased topspin. And he's hitting with an open stance, which only a few of my students do, as they're mostly doubles players, looking to come in toward net. He's falling backwards as he hits; a lower finish helps recover his balance. I've never, ever, had a student that could control a wristy, low finish. Ever. If you want to copy someone, copy Venus or Serena. Copy Andre Agassi. No low finishes, there.
So Why Is It So Hard to Finish High?
The intuition is that if you keep the racquet low, the ball will stay low. It makes sense, except when it comes to the physics of topspin that keeps a ball inside the lines.
Timid players feel that if they stop their racquet at contact, they'll keep the ball from going long. But not only does the lack of a high finish force a player to hit flat, without the topspin that creates downward control, but the act of arresting the stroke at contact causes the racquet head to accelerate. You hit into the fence, and the world seems a strange and unfair place. If you want to shorten your stroke to gain control, shorten your backswing, the power portion of the stroke. But keep your follow through high and consistent.
Defensive players are so concerned about contact that they forget to finish. The more compromised their position, the more concentration tends to short-circuit and focus only on the hit. They're on the run, barely going to get to the ball, and slap at it for an unforced error. It's an odd phenomenon because we rarely swing and whiff. Making contact with the ball isn't really the question; hitting it into the court, under pressure, that's what's tough to do. Our opponents can take away our good position, but they can't take away our follow throughs. Panic does that. Hit past contact to your high finish and you'll live to see another stroke. This is especially true when the ball is high, a location that tempts players to push their follow throughs down to get the ball to go down. It doesn't work. Even on high balls, start underneath contact and finish above.
Rushed players can't take the time to finish. Most often, this error is context specific. Players can have a great warm-up, feeling that they're watching the ball and finishing their strokes, but as soon as they cross the threshold into play, they get tight and their follow throughs shorten. Or players warm up great, but as soon as they return and volley, they run through contact in a hurry to get to net. There's no finish, so the return is usually missed. This is precisely where bad eye contact and bad follow throughs create their dark and twisted bond. If you look up too soon, it's almost a guarantee that you won't finish your follow through. As your body prematurely lifts, your racquet arm will want to stay down. Figure out those situations that cause you to take your eye off the ball and abort your finish. Take your time.
Footwork and Ready Position
If you're not used to playing on your toes and jumping into ready position, try it a game at a time. For one game, stay on your toes. At no time during the points should your heels touch the court. The only time you stop moving is when you hop into your split-step just prior to your opponent's contact. It takes effort in your legs and lungs to do this, but if you do it just one game, you'll never play on your heels again. You'll play so much better; you'll feel more physically active and quick, more keenly concentrated. Once you do it for one game, try two. The first goal is an entire set. The final goal is the entire match.
Note: There's a good chance that when you're learning to be more active with your feet, you'll become tense with your swings. There's a transition period. Finally, the great exertion required of good tennis players in their footwork doesn't undermine their touch or smoothness with their swings, but you have to get used to it.
Drop and Hit for Topspin
To rid yourself of the sense that you should wrist over the ball's top to create topspin, drop and hit a ball with your forehand. If, after the ball is on its way toward the net, you can see either the seams of the ball or its lettering, you're not imparting enough spin. Go ahead, use your wrist; follow through level and low. No spin. Now try brushing up the ball's back, elevating the finish. The more vertical the stroke, from below contact to above, the more topspin. You should see the seams and lettering disappear as the ball spins forward.
Have Your Backhand Teach Your Forehand
Forehands tend toward wristy finishes more so than backhands. If you use a two-handed backhand and hit it properly, your backhand can teach your forehand. Notice how as you swing the finish across your body over your right shoulder, the racquet remains perpendicular to the court. The racquet head points behind you; the butt of the racquet points toward the court. What accomplishes this? Your elbows break to finish the stroke, not your wrists. Your forehand should be the same, up and over your left shoulder, perpendicular to the court, with your elbow lifting the finish, not your wrist, which will take the racquet across your body, more parallel to the court.
Note: Two-handed backhands can be wristy, too. The culprit is always the top hand, pushing the racquet across your body, breaking at the wrist. No good. If you tend toward this, you'll see that your left elbow finishes higher than the right. Get them level. Then you'll know that you used your left hand to lift your finish rather than push it across your body. And make sure that you're really up and over that opposite shoulder; backhands tend to be more pushy than forehands, prone to stopping at the hit.
That Left Hand is Good for Something
Take a look at the forehands of Venus and Serena, and you'll see them commonly catch their racquet with their left hand, above their left shoulder. A left hand positioned by your left ear can serve both as a high target to hit toward and an impediment to using your wrist. Coach Joe taught me to do the same. My left hand is always at the ready. I catch my follow through if my opponent has put me in a tough, defensive position or I go for a really offensive shot, classic times when I'm inclined to get wristy.
Find a physical cue that lets you know the stroke is finished: pointing the racquet head at the fence behind you; pointing the butt of the racquet at the ball; touching chin to shoulder. Anything. Practice hitting inside out forehands, a placement that discourages your wrist from whipping across your body. Then practice sharp cross-court forehands, and see if you can feel your finish continue to brush up. My wife, Barbara? Incurable wrist--perhaps from shaking her finger overly much at me. But it could not be fixed. She asked, "What about a two-handed forehand?" Bingo--problem solved. My student, Sam, hits a two-handed forehand for the same cure. My student, Elaine, who has a killer forehand when she doesn't use her wrist, figured out that if she followed through directly over her head, her problems went away. It looks weird, but that rather suits Elaine. And it works! Of course, Elaine being Elaine, she claimed sole credit for the fix.
CURE WHAT AILS YOU
Fixes for Common Problems