Charge The Net

Despite my strict tennis upbringing, disallowed as a junior from play and even rallying for the first six months of lessons, at some point, Coach Joe had to get me in matches.  My release from the lesson court was a local tennis camp.  There, I met kids who were older, stronger, and were already playing tournaments.  They hit the ball a ton!  Seeing them, hitting against them, I was wide-eyed.  I figured, to be as good as those guys, I had to start blasting the ball, too.  Of course, the result was predictable.  In the span of a short week, I arrived back on Coach Joe's court with my strokes in tatters.  The old guy was mortified.  He glowered and lit a smoke.  That was the first time I took a lesson with his racquet that had no strings.  To add power, I'd started slapping at the ball like a crazy person, and it was the best way for him to get my stokes smooth again.  And I thought he'd be so proud of me!

Pace is the big seducer of tennis.  We're all hot for it, like teenage boys for horsepower.  But it makes sense.  Play someone who's a notch better than you, and the first thing you observe is that the ball is getting to you in one big, unsettling hurry.  You want to hit like that, too.  In fact, you want to cream the ball!  Though it's natural to conclude that if you were to compete at the higher level, you'd have to hit the ball harder, it's a specious comparison, apples to oranges, as they say.  The A player is hitting at A player speed, under control, no big deal.  You think it's big because you're not used to it, but when you try to pick up the pace all you gather are unforced errors.  Not to worry!  Over the years, I've worked with some A-1 students who couldn't hit the ball hard if they tried.  Pace is way sexy, but not exclusively what separates the good players from the bad.  If you're really looking to take your game up a level, here are some tactics and strokes that you need in your arsenal.

The Net Game

Any generalization is somewhat dicey, but as I look at different levels of tennis in league play, C players are planted at the baseline after their serves and returns, A players are looking to come in after those strokes, and B players are in between, literally in transition.  I know, I know: getting up to net is scary!  But it's where the big babes and big boys go.  Especially if you're a doubles player, moving upward in the ranks means moving forward, to net.

Rushing the net behind a ground stroke is the safest way to learn how to come in to net.  And why in hell would we want to leave the safety of the baseline to do this?  Pressure, pressure, pressure.  Coach Joe assured me that if I just showed up at net behind a decent approach shot, I'd win one-third of the points without having to hit another ball.  I'd pressure my opponent into making a hurried decision and a big passing shot; I'd create his unforced error.  I think my coach made up that statistic, but it did the trick.  I started coming in on every short ball.  Scary, yes, but way fun!

Return and volley for doubles or coming in behind an approach shot in singles is the easiest way to learn this skill because wherever your opponent is, you can place your ground stroke deep, at her feet.  The risk of coming to net is that we have to play one ball from a bastard position, at the T.  Your feet are exposed, and it's tough getting those balls back in play let alone hitting them authoritatively.  But if you can make your opponent hit a ball at her feet, or one that bounces high and pushes her back, you'll compromise her downward control and minimize or even eliminate the risk of those low balls at your feet.  In men's doubles, if the serves are big, you may have to wait for a slower second serve to come in.  In women's doubles, with comparatively weaker serves, returners should be coming in all the time!  Admittedly, coming in to net in singles is a more difficult proposition; there's more court to cover.  However, if you're letting your opponents get away with hitting short balls, you're not helping your cause.  Approach deep and pressure that guy!  Even consider the chip-and-charge off the return if he's offering puff balls for his second serve. 

Serving and volleying is, by far, a greater risk than coming in behind a ground stroke.  The rules obligate serves to land short, in the box, and without the leverage of a deep placement, it's hard to compromise your opponent's downward control.  Come in to net behind your serve, and you should regularly expect to hit a low, first volley.  Nasty.  And why would you want to expose yourself to this?  Pressure, pressure, pressure.  In doubles, your partner is covering half the court; there's less chance of getting passed.  Force your opponent not only to hit cross-court away from your partner, but take away the back of your court, too.  Be at the service line, a wicked gleam in your eye.  That makes her hit low, hard, and cross-court.  See if she can!  Serving and volleying in singles is a far more difficult proposition.  But try!  Maybe it only means coming in behind well-placed first serves (typically to the T or at the body), or against opponents that have pushy returns, or when you have the score in your favor, but go north, toward net!  In singles or doubles, pick your spots.  Make sure you can make accurate, deep placements with your serve, but come in.

Some Tips for Success:  Doubles

Think deep.  When we return and volley, we take an aggresive stance toward the point, and it's not easy separating aggresiveness from pace.  But if we think that the return should be hit hard as we charge the net, most often we're just a little bit scared to death that our return will go long, so we hit low over the net.  Bad, very bad.  A low ball arriving right in your opponent's strike zone gives him downward control to your feet for your first volley.  A much happier sight is your opponent backing up and hitting above his shoulder or caught with a half-volley at his feet.  That ball usually comes up to us at mid-court.  The measure of your return's success is how often you arrive at mid-court and have something high to hit.  Depth, far more often than pace, accomplishes that.  As well, your return's depth has good a chance of setting up your partner for a poach.  He'll think you're swell.

Deuce court players need to lob, lob, lob.  If the measure of your return's success is getting high balls at mid-court, what better reward could there be than getting a lob to hit at mid-court?  Ooh-la-la!  Assuming a typical right-handed server, the server's backhand is behind her net player.  Get a lob over that net player, force the server to hit a high-bouncing shot over her shoulder on her backhand, and that girl's going to lob in reply, just about every darn time.  That means, teeth barred, you and your partner are waiting at mid-court for an overhead, not a ball at your shoe laces.  Forget about the lob and its C-level connotations of pushing the ball!  Return and volley behind the lob is an aggresive act, creating a high ball in reply, allowing you to charge the net and hit something decisive.  And, the lob opens other possibilities.  Even A players make the mistake of keeping the server back to defend against the lob.  Perfect.  That means your lob has split the opposing team, forcing them to play one-up, one-back, the weakest doubles formation.  Or teams move the server's partner to the service line to stop the lob.  Lovely.  That stops the poach from the most offensively situated player when the point begins.  And it opens up the middle of the court for the return, which minimizes the angle of the ground stroke coming back to you and lets you attack the server's backhand up the middle of her court.  Yes, yes, yes.  If you don't like to lob, don't play the deuce court. 

Ad court players need to test the middle of the court and develop a sharply angled cross-court return.  Assuming right-handed play, the ad court receiver faces a backhand from the server's partner up the middle of the court, and the server's backhand out wide in the court.  Happy days!  Well, maybe.  Probe the middle with your return.  If the server's partner at net is disinclinded to poach off her backhand, you've just discovered gold.  The server, at the baseline or coming in to the service line, will reach your return up the middle, but she'll leave an open space the size of Rhode Island toward her alley.  If you've come in, you've got an easy volley putaway!  The other placement to probe is out wide toward the server's alley.  Deuce court receivers hit out-wide with a big risk; the placement invites the server's forehand right up her partner's alley.  But most players, even at the A level, have a very hard time making backhand passes down-the-line, especially off a cross-court angle coming to them.  That means that if you push the server wide of her court and she replies predictably cross-court back to you, you can volley right behind her, deep for a winner.  Yes!  Of course, both these propositions might not work.  You may find a net player happy to poach off his backhand, and a server that's capable of passing down-the-line on her backhand, but it's rare to have one of these weapons against you, let alone both.  Proble the middle; probe out-wide.  And come in!

Some Tips for Success:  Singles

Singles players should wait for a short ball to approach the net, one that lands inside your service line.  If you get to the short ball in a timely fashion, you'll hit your ground stroke from well inside your baseline.  That gives you a pretty good chance of making it at least to the T for the first volley.  Don't cheat and come in arbitrarily, just to mix things up.  Typically, if you don't get to the T or inside it for the first volley, you're going to get burned with a pass.  That hurts, especially because you'll get shy of coming in again.  (Note:  Doubles players should also wait for short balls to come in, but with half the court covered by a partner, there's room to fudge.)

The approach shot should usually go down-the-line.  When we're at the baseline in singles, we move away from our opponents to guard against sharp cross-court angles.  But at the net, we move with our opponents to guard against the down-the-line pass, which is longer, and therefore a higher percentage placement than the cross-court pass.  We should begin this strategy right off the approach shot, keeping in mind that though the point has turned in our favor with our sad opponent's offering of a short ball, the approach is just the beginning of our assault of the net, as we're way back in the court, not yet in a truly offensive position to put the ball away.  If our approach is deep and down-the-line, we move our sad and now panicked opponent right in front of us, cutting off his easiest pass.  But if we get just a bit greedy and go for the cross-court angle, take-the-trophy-home-right-now-winner, we push our now smiling opponent away from us and open up the entirety of our sideline for the pass.  It doesn't mean you should never go cross-court with the approach, but if you do, you better jerk that guy out of his shoes trying to run down your angle.  The higher percentage play is to approach straight ahead and wait until you get closer to net to angle the ball away with your volley.

Be bold!  Chip and charge!  It's hard to imagine a riskier proposition than coming in to net behind a return from singles, starting from the very corner of the court.  But I have to say, precisely because of that risk, it's way fun!  And it can go a long way toward unraveling your opponent's serve, especially if you apply the pressure early in the set and keep at it.  Interestingly, though you would typically chip and charge on your opponent's weaker, second serve, if you're successful with the gambit, you actually pressure the first serve.  You'll get that guy thinking that if he doesn't get his first serve in, you'll be all over the net, and at that point, you're dictating the terms of his service.   Under my thumb, baby!  It's best to try this approach with an underspin return, one that lets you hit at the apex of the serve's bounce or on-the-rise.  Taking the return higher means taking it earlier, giving you quicker access to the T and overcoming the risk of starting from the corner of your court.  As well, if you can keep your chips low to her court, you'll make her try to pass from underneath the net, making you appear like the Jolly Green Giant, even if you're the tiniest thing.  Not attractive, perhaps, but good.  Wait for a score in your favor and a second serve.  That way, even if you botch the attempt, you haven't limited your chances of breaking serve, and you've still communicated something aggresive and nasty to that cool customer across the net, who is just now breaking into a sweat--or, perspiring.  Sorry. 

Some Tricks for Getting In To Net

Don't be afraid to slow things down.  Coming in behind an approach shot or a serve usually makes us want to crank up our pace and cream the ball.  That doesn't always work, of course.  Overhit, and we launch unforced errors as approaches and bang first serves into the fence, not the box.  As well, and this is the point, the harder we hit, the quicker the ball can come back to us.  If we're trying to get to the service line or beyond, what about slowing things down?  Float that approach shot.  You can saunter in to net.  Hit a slow, spin serve for serve and volley.  It takes some guts, but it deprives the returner of pace, making him supply his own, and it will give you a step or two more progress.  Another bonus is that if we hit slower on our approach shot or serve, we tend to arrive at mid-court with just a tad more composure, not at all a bad thing in a situation that usually makes our hair, if we have any, stand on end.

Vary your progress.  If you've tried everything, slowing your serve down, speeding it up, hitting to the backhand, the forehand, at the body, and you still find the ball at your feet when you hit your first volley, try to vary how far you come in.  When the receiver sees your serve-and-volley gambit, what he really sees is your serve and your first two steps in.  At that point, the ball's on his strings, and he's blind.  He assumes you'll be at the T for the first volley, but he doesn't actually see that.  Try stopping when he's hitting the ball.  His placement to the T will be well in front of you, and you'll have a comfortable approach off a ground stroke.  Of course, you can't do this all the time, as a savvy returner will start to hit deep and trap your feet in dreaded no man's land.  But you can certainly keep him guessing by changing things up.

Experiment in practice matches.  It's tough to pull out a risky, new gambit in a match that counts for your team or your tournament success.  But too often, players don't take advantage of social matches to take chances.  Here's what you say.  "Archibald, you know and I know that if I stay back at the baseline, I'm going to kick your butt.  Same old, same old.  Today, I'm trying something new.  I'm coming into net!  Maybe it's your lucky day.  Maybe."  And then do it, I mean, as much as possible.  If you don't gather experience on the practice court, you'll be like way too many players today, in need of a guide to show them where the net is.

Keith Shein

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Slice and Dice!