Singles Clinic, Part 4

Practice???!!!  Please!  I know, I know.  You've got sixteen things demanding your time that are always tugging at the hem of your skirt, none of them related to tennis, so many that you're worried that the weight just might pull everything down and cause an indecency.  There's no time to practice.  You've barely got time to play.  I get it.  Yet, you need to practice.  Everyone does.  Without it, Betty Bloop Ball is going to continue to beat you, and you're going to stay frozen on the club ladder like some fossil trapped in stone.  Plus, competition can be so stressful, even when you're winning.  Wouldn't it be nice to spend time on the court where you don't have to worry about your win/loss record, your position on the team, your self-esteem, your status at the club--where you could laugh and have fun?  Wouldn't it be cool if practice could give you that jolt of competition but would free you from the stress of it and all that surrounds it?  Isn't the point of all this whacking of a tennis ball to see some progress in the quality of your whacks?  Read on; these drills are for you.

The following drills are all designed to improve your singles play.  As all drills, they should be approached with tenacity.  You can't lose, even if you score the drill.  Kick out the jambs.  Play your hardest.  Try things you only dreamed of.  Let if fly!

Deep Ball

This drill emphasizes the offensive effectiveness of hitting deep.  After the serve, the only legal part of the court to hit is the back court.  Any ball landing in the service courts, short, is out.  Score it any way you want.  You can play a whole set this way.  Or you could play to 21, changing serves every 4 points.  But beware, this drill is hard!

To succeed, likely you'll have to dial back your pace in order to clear the net higher and not worry about your shot sailing long.  This is a good thing, as this drill really has as its focus substituting depth over pace as the your primary offensive strategy from the baseline.  The idea is that your deep drives will force your opponent to retreat behind his baseline and hit high in his strike zone or above it.  The result should be an unforced error or a short ball in reply.  The unforced error wins the point outright; the short ball sets you up to take offensive control of the point.  If you can drive with pace and penetrate the back court of your opponent, great.  But if you have to loft or float the ball to accomplish that placement, it will still deliver nearly the same offensive results.  Don't worry that your groundies aren't sizzling over the net.  Focus on pinning your opponent back at his fence, however you can accomplish it.  And, conversely, if you're the victim of such a deep shot, this drill emphasizes depth as a defensive reply to get yourself off the hook.  A lob is a great response.  To execute a lob, you have to slow down your stroke, a good thing when panic has set in and you're likely to slap at the ball and hit one of those unseemly unforced errors.  Plus, the lob will land deep, and you just might turn the table and pin your opponent back at his fence.  Yea!

Variations on Deep Ball  If you've practiced this drill and feel comfortable with it, here are some variations that fit into its scope.  One variation is to play out the short balls.  The scoring gets complicated, but it's fun.  Play to 21, changing serves every 4 points.  You get 1 point if you force your opponent to hit short.  But if you take the net and win the point with a volley or overhead, you can earn 2 points.  As well, if you take the net and your opponent defends your attack and wins the point, you would each get 1 point (1 point for the short ball, 1 point for winning the exchange).  Once you're up at net, you don't lose a point if you hit short in attempting to angle the ball off the court.  And, similarly, if you're defending against someone at net, you wouldn't lose the point if you hit a short pass.  So, only 2 points are possible per point, one for the short ball, one for winning the point at net or from the baseline. 

Another variation on Deep Ball is to not count a short ball as a loss of point if it goes for a winner.  After all, not are short balls are weak.  If I rip a sharp cross-court for a winner off my return, for example, I should get that point even if it lands short.  However, it has to be a putaway or force an error.  So the defender has to be honest; if you get to the short shot and put your racquet on it but don't get it over, you should lose the point.

Deep Ball will make you a better singles player, guaranteed!

Approach Success

This drill rewards taking the net, a strategy that recreational players typically approach with just about the same optimism as eating three- day-old sushi.  In particular, if you're a grinder, accustomed to winning points by wearing down your opponents with your steadiness from the baseline, you may never venture to net the entire match, unless you're forced to.  Shame!  All players should be full-court players.  You add so much pressure on your opponents if you let them know that you'll attack any short ball and look to take control of the point at net.  You tiger, you!

Here's how you score.  Play to however many points you want, say lucky 13.  But the only way you can score a point is by approaching the net and winning the exchange.  If you do, you get to approach the net again to try and score another point.  If you lose the point, no one scores, and you have to invite your opponent in to net for a chance. 

After you've warmed up ground strokes, volleys and overheads, spin to see who gets to approach first.  If you win the spin, both players retreat to the baseline and your opponent has to feed a ball, underhanded into your service courts.  If the feed goes deep, you have the option of coming in to net, anyway, or you can have her feed the ball over again.  Once you've hit the approach, move in to net and win that point!  Remember to hit your approaches deep and, usually, down-the-line.  Remember to read your opponent to see if she's going drive or lob.  Position yourself accordingly.  Remember to split-step when your opponent is hitting her shots.  Remember that the whole point of approaching the net is to attack the space in front of your opponent, angling the volleys away, as opposed to trying and blast the ball by your opponent.  And if you're the defender, remember that your opponent is counting on your panic and a cheap, unforced error just by showing up at net.  Don't succumb!  Make sure you take advantage of her position at the T for her first volley.  You don't have to go for a pass right away, especially if the approach is deep.  If it is, hit to her feet and force her to put up a weak volley.  Then move in for the pass.  Or lob right away and test that overhead, especially if you can place the lob over her backhand shoulder.

Play this drill often enough and you'll get a taste for coming in, a taste that's remarkably like victory--sweet!

Cross-Court Kill

My juniors love this drill, particularly because I call it Kill the Pro when we practice.  It emphasizes the use of cross-court placements to open up the court and get your opponent on the run.  If you're in the kill position (lucky you), all your shots go cross-court; if you're defending, all your shots go down-the-line (poor, poor you).  The Killer will wind-up doing very little running, whereas the Defender, hitting down-the-line will soon be panting.

Some things to remember:  When you're hitting the cross-courts, think about hurting your opponent more than putting the ball away.  Just get him on the run, side-to-side.  Eventually, you'll get an unforced error or a short ball that will let you move in a hit a sharper cross-court that just may very well be a putaway.  Too often, recreational players, thinking that they're from Planet Tennis, go for too much--placements too near the lines, hitting with too much pace.  If you think you should be constantly making placements that can't be returned, likely you'll hit unforced errors.  Similarly, though this drill makes the Defender hit down-the-line, not the best strategy when you're stuck in a corner, make sure your placement is deep when you're in this role.  The worst shot you can hit is short down-the-line, allowing the Killer to move in early and rip a sharper cross-court.  And your down-the-lines don't have to hit the sideline.  Center the ball to minimize the cross-court angle.  After all, your lungs and life are at stake!

Play points or games.  The Defender gets to serve; the Killer returns.  This will make the Killer work on inside-out cross-courts off the return, and it will give the Defender the edge of starting the point with a good serve.  If you play games, remember your roles are going to reverse each time the serve changes hands.  If you play points, the same.  Each person serves an odd number of points (so that one can win the drill), say 7 points, then switch off.

This drill is a great way to get a good work-out, and, of course, if you're just the slightest bit sadistic, you'll love it when you get the cross-court placements.

Four Play

Pun intended.  This is a ground stroke drill that emphasizes point-building and steadiness.  No one can win a point until the ball has been rallied four times across the net.  After that, it's a go. But if the rally doesn't last four exchanges, you have to start over.  Both players begin at the baseline and take turns initiating the rally after each point is scored.  Or, you can serve out games.  But rotating will alternate the players being in a position to win the point on the fifth ball--only fair.

You'll be astonished how hard this is.  You'll be further astonished to know that, for recreational players, most points don't get close to lasting this long.  In fact, most points are decided before the ball has crossed the net three times!  Quite simply, if you're the gal getting three or more strokes back per point, you'll stack up a ton of wins.  But to do that, you have to be patient, for my money, the most important virtue of a recreational singles player.  You have to work your way into position to hit a really forcing placement or putaway, and that means, by definition, some of your shots are neutral or rally shots, just designed to keep the ball in play.  Get used to playing long rallies, to hanging around in every point.  Grinders do this, and it's why they win even if they don't have huge weapons off the forehand or backhand.  They don't miss; they make you play an extra ball, and then another and another.  Very tough to beat, especially if you think of your ground strokes as cannons, designed to blow your opponents away.  If so, typically, a grinder will beat you, and primarily as a result of you forcing your shots, going for the kill too early in the point.  The sad result?  Shameful, mortifying, shout-at-the-heavens unforced errors.

To score, play points or games.  If you play games, start the exchange with a serve.  If you play points, you can go to lucky 13 or more, but, as mentioned, trade off initiating the rally. 

Remember, especially the men out there, four play is an essential component of a good--conclusion of the point.

Serve To Die For

These service drills are designed to encourage offensive aggressiveness and defensive confidence in the serve. 

In the first version, there are no faults.  That means the server gets as many chances as she wants to get the ball in play, without fear of having to hit a second serve or the threat of a double fault.  The idea is to practice serving with an offensive purpose, not just to get the ball in play.  Particularly if you lack confidence in your serve, getting an unlimited amount of first serve opportunities can provide the practice you need to rid yourself of service yips and heebee jeebies.  Remember, though, that serving with purpose doesn't mean always serving with power or hitting an ace.  A placement can be offensive.  If your opponent has a weak backhand, the point of the drill would be to make her begin every point with that stroke.  Or, to mix it up, if you've planted that threat in her mind and you have a lead, say 30-0, it may be a great time to hit a slow or spin first serve wide to her forehand and tempt her to try and make up the two-point deficit with one swing of her starved forehand.  Attacking the returner's position can be serving with purpose.  Does she cheat a yard toward the center mark when receiving on the deuce court, trying to protect her backhand?  Great!  Now's the time to spin the serve out wide and get her on the run off the court.  Serving against your opponent's desires qualifies as serving with purpose.  Does she love pace?  Deprive her.  Slow that first serve down and make her supply her own.   Mix it up.  Remember what serve you laid on the table on the last point.  Can changing pace or spin get the receiver guessing wrong?  And, if you're the receiver in this drill, this is a great challenge to break, really hard to do.  Every serve is going to put pressure on you.  See if you can lift up your game and stay steady.

Because these games can go on for awhile, try playing just four games this way, each player serving two times.  Then finish out the practice set and see if you can carry over the feeling of serving offensively when you do have to face faults and double-faults.  As much as anything, you're trying to carry over the emotional quality of serving aggressively, feeling like you're in charge of the point, knowing you can do some damage with that first stroke.  You're the server, after all!

The second version of this drill gives you only one serve.  That's right; miss that serve and you've lost the point!  Play a whole set this way.  Do it enough, and I assure you that you'll start to feel confidence in your second serve, particularly when you start holding some service games with just one serve.  Could nine, baby!  The first measure of success is getting that second serve in, every point.  You'll need to find a pace or spin that can work, but remember, if you just bump that ball over the net, you can bet your opponent is going to go for the kill; he knows every serve is a second serve.  Go for your full swing, the one you use on first serve, with just as high a reach for the toss and just as far an extension forward, toward the net.  No pushing!  First and second serves should have the same motion; the pace may change but not the swing.  If you can hit spin on the second serve, you're half-way home.  You might even find that your slower-paced, spinny second serve causes more problems for the returner than your flat, hard one.  But after steadiness, placement is critical for second serve success.  Does your spin serve always go to the returner's forehand?  Ouch!  Get control to the backhand side if you have any hope of holding.  Make a placement.  You're still the server, and your primary offensive edge is forcing the receiver to begin the point with the stroke you dictate.  If you're the receiver in this drill, it's your chance to practice being aggressive, to make a placement off the return that will get the server on the defensive right off the bat.  But remember, don't try to make something out of nothing:  if the serve isn't in your strike zone, or comfortable, getting the ball in play is your primary goal.  That said, as the receiver, practice going for bigger shots, even chipping and charging.  Second serves every point?  It doesn't get any better than that.

Find a Partner and Keep It Fun!

All these drills will improve your play.  I use them in my everyday teaching.  But a large part of getting on the practice court on your own and actually committing your limited time to improvement has to do with finding a practice buddy.   Obviously, you have to be evenly matched.  But even more important, it should be someone that you can joke with.  Tease each other.  Encourage each other.  Shout praise when a great shot has been made.  Find someone who wants to get better and will trust you to help, and, in turn, will help you.  If you're laughing as much as you're wanting to smash your racquet on court, practicing will become a favorite tennis activity.  So much of it has to do with feeling comfortable baring your tennis soul.  Practice should let you go for the gold, and that's going to mean hitting balls way, way over the fence.  No problem!  Your practice buddy will feed you the next shot so you can launch another one.  That's how you get better.

c Keith Shein

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