Part Two:
Slice and Dice


There were public courts right across the street from where I grew up, and, man, did I get an eyeful when it came to different styles of play.  After Coach Joe set me free to play matches, I was like a kid in a candy store, wanting a taste of everyone.  Of course, the better players brushed me off, but I found some takers, including Marion, an elderly woman who I figured to be about one-hundred years old and easy pickings.  Marion had more wrinkles than a topo map.  But she just about lived down at those courts.  And she beat most everybody.  For one, she was a lefty, and we normal people know what it's like to play those folks whose backhands are on the wrong side of their bodies.  As well, like many lefties, Marion couldn't hit a ball flat if she tried.  She cut everything, sliced and diced the ball until it went every which way but straight.  Playing her was like being sent to a geometry class where all the rules about left, right, up and down were changed.

The modern game is all about big bangers, and it's too bad, because watching a player that can change pace is a thing of beauty.  And there are some exceptions.  Federer often slices off his one-handed backhand, and he hits a drop shot like a magician.  Roddick moves nicely between a one-handed slice backhand and a two-hander.  Graf hit a slice backhand about 99.9% of the time.  Murray changes pace beautifully.  Laver was an artist.  But these are pros, from Planet Tennis.  Why would a recreational player want to slice the ball?  To be a star.

Underspin:  A Primer

To slice a ball is to hit with underspin, which means coming down the ball's back.  Backswings are elevated above the contact point; the racquet face is slightly opened; and, we finish below the contact point to follow through.  The high-to-low dynamic of the swing tends to make the ball dive downward, though by opening the face, a lob can be hit with this tenchnique, too.  But with all placements, backward rotation is imparted, meaning the ball is spinning backward as it moves forward.  Because of this rotation, when it lands, the ball stays low or dies.  And because these shots tend to be hit with shorter backswings or none at all, sliced strokes usually are hit slower than topspin strokes.  Chip returns to a serve-and-vollyer's feet?  Underspin.  Drop shots?  Ditto.  Drop volleys?  Ditto the ditto.  Moon balls?  You bet.

We learn to hit with topspin first because hitting deep is the most fundamental skill to acquire, and the low-to-high dynamic of topspin swings is tailor-made for deep placements.  But we also want control over the front of our opponent's court for all kinds of reasons.  Though it's possible to hit short by adding topspin, an easier and more reliable way is to learn to slice the ball with underspin.  Most importantly, by learning to hit with underspin, you learn a different way of hitting the ball, and if you're looking to move your game up a level, that difference can go a long way.  Plus, and there's no other way to say this, hitting junk is way fun.

Underspin:  Some Do's and Dont's

Watch your finish!  It's your elevated backswing that imparts underspin, not your low finish.  If there's one mistake that my students make when learning this skill, it's using too long of a follow through, low toward the court or across their bodies.  Added length to the finish tends to add depth to the placement, and we're usually trying to make a placement in the front of our opponent's court.  If you're chipping a ground stroke, begin with your hand at eye-level, and the typical finish shouldn't fall lower than your chest. And it helps if you can finish on the same side as the contact; this prevents coming across your body too much.  If you're cutting a volley, stop at contact, just like the flat volley.

Open your racquet face.  The risk of hitting an underspin shot is that the racquet is prepared above the ball.  Should we hit the ball's top, it's going into the net.  Not good.  To mitigate this risk, all underspin shots should have the racquet slightly open, making sure that we hit the ball's back, not its top.  This open face means that we can impart underspin even on balls hit only two inches from the court, critical, for example, in a four-up scenario in doubles where we want to keep our shots low.  However, beginners often open the racquet face too much, causing balls to lift not dive, and imparting too much spin.  Your first test of this skill is to make your shots angle downward, and, of course, to clear the net!

Take it early and high.  Topspin shots are most comfortable waist-high.  Underspin shots are comfortable at the waist, too, but they also feel comfortable up around the shoulders.  Because of this comfort and the short backswing of underspin preparation, one of the virtues of this technique is hitting the ball early, at the top of the bounce or on the rise.  As such, hitting with underspin will find you more aggresive with your feet than with the power of your swing.  Move in.  Learn to take the ball early.  You'll be surprised what damage you can do.

Learn to loop.  We don't want to telegraph our strokes and our dastardly intentions.  If our chips are begun with elevated backswings and our drives are begun with low backswings, we've tipped our hand.  Advanced players, for this and other reasons, learn to loop their backswings, always starting high as if they are going to chip and simply dropping the racquet down beneath the ball if they choose to drive.  It's a longer and therefore more complicated preparation than a straight back, low backswing, but it's smooth, more powerful and affords the player both discretion and disguise.  You want to hit a drop shot?  You need to sell it as a drive, which means all of your ground stroke backswings need to start high.

Get soft, baby.  Underspin is used for both offensive and defensive reasons, but what's common to both motives is that the skill is used to take pace off the ball.  It's hard to associate offense with reduced pace, especially if you're of the male persuasion, but, Big Bob, listen to me.  Lighten up!  Relax your grip.  Imagine trying to absorb all the pace of a ball coming at you so that you could bounce it gently into your free hand.  Just suck the air right out of the ball and dump it at that serve-and-volleyer's feet.  Feather that drop shot over the net.  See, there's a whole different, softer side of you that you didn't know, and, trust me, it can be as aggresive as your big, bold drives.

Don't get hooked.  When I teach underspin, I tell my students that as soon as they get good at it, I'm taking it away to make sure they haven't forgotten how to drive the ball!  The shortened backswings, the lighter touch--it's so easy to get the ball back by chipping it.  You feel like you can't miss.  True.  But you also aren't driving the ball, and you don't want friends and foes to think you've got lazy, pushy or tentative.  Not at all.  The star has both capabilities, hitting with depth and pace, and hitting short and soft.  It's the whole package we're after.

A-Level Slice and Dice

Following are some playing situations where being able to slice a ball separates the Big Babes and Big Boys from, well, Lesser Babes and Boys.

Putaway Volleys.  Are you the player that pouts, "Whenever I come to net I hit right back to my stupid opponents!  I need to put the ball away!"  Slice and dice.  At the C level, balls come so slowly that simply by relaxing the grip and stepping lightly, the volley can be angled for a winner in the front of the opponent's court.  Try that when Big Bob is firing his cannon of a forehand at you, it's a different story.  The ball comes so fast that a light touch with flat technique does no good.  We hit wide when we try to angle the ball, and then we get scared to try it again, so we aim for a bigger piece of the court and hit right back to our opponents, only to get lobbed or passed.  Damn!  The more experienced player cuts her volleys.  By hitting down toward the court rather than directly behind the ball, and by imparting backward spin, you can take pace off the hardest shots, and when your volley hits the court, it dies.  At the star level, there's no other way to get this job done.

Prying a Lobber Off the Baseline.  Are you the sort of doubles player that tries to hit harder and harder against an opponent who lobs and lobs, only to find your drives hitting the fence behind her and your racquet between your teeth as you gnaw it in frustration?  Slice and dice that Libby Lobber.  Chances are she has no desire to be up at net; she just wants to bore you to death from the baseline.  Take any short ball, including her serves, chip it back short and force Libby Lobber in.  Then you can give her a taste of her own medicine and lob, or, just for fun, bang some drives at her and see how she volleys.

This tactic works in singles, too.  If you're playing well but up against an opponent who's one stroke steadier than you are, don't take the bait and try to hit harder and harder.  You'll just make unforced errors more quickly.  What about seeing how that guy plays the net?  Chip or drop shot, and force him in.  See if he's as comforable at net as he is at the baseline.

Attacking Weak Serves With Timing, Not Pace.  Has this happened to you?  Some guy is serving up a puff ball second serve about thirty-five miles an hour, and you think, "Kill, Kill," but you hit it over the fence?  Again and again?  And you leave the court wanting a prescription for tranquilizers?  No need.  Slice and dice.  You're correct that the soft second serve does offer an offensive opportunity, but, usually, accelerating the ball isn't it.  What about taking it early and chipping a sharp angle for a winner?  Now we're talking! Chips are happily hit on the rise or at the top of the bounce.  I can teach most students to play weak second serves from two feet behind the service line.  Contact that close to net makes hitting a short, sharp angle with your chip an easy placement.  Be aggresive with your feet, not your hands.  Take the ball early and put it away.

You can use this same technique to chip and charge in singles or to return and volley in doubles.  You're taking advantage of the chip's comfort with early contact.  As a singles player, this mitigates the risk of coming to net from the very corner of the court, getting you to the T in a hurry.  As a doubles player, by taking the ball early, from just behind the service line, you can get in so quickly that you eliminate the mid-court volley.  You'll make the server feel that you're sitting on her lap by the time she hits your return.  Pressure, pressure, pressure.

Defending Against Big Serves.  Are you a female who'd like to play mixed doubles because, well, one guy at the club is pretty cute, but you're afraid of those "guy serves?"  Not to worry.  Slice and dice.  How does Federer handle Roddick's cannon of a serve?  He just slices it back, as if to say, "Gee, Andy, great serve.  Now let's play the point."  If, theoretically, you divide a ground stroke in half, the movement from your full backswing up to contact is the power portion of the swing, and the motion after contact is the control portion.  When Big Bob is serving hard, he's providing all the power for you.  The chip begins with a shortened backswing or none at all.  Just step in and chip the serve back.  And, if you're really wanting to upset that bundle of male hormones on the other side of the net, float the ball back with underspin.  Take Big Bob's pace away and make him supply his own.  See Big Bob climb the fence in frustration.

This same principal holds true in a ground stroke exchange.  If you've drawn your six gun but you keep getting blown away in the fire fight, try using your head, the one on your shoulders.  Take pace away from your opponent by chipping the ball.  Ashe did this to Connors at Wimbledon in the early 70's and beat him in the finals, years after every guy in the world tried beating Connors with pace, even when it was patently clear that no one could beat him at that game.  Ashe just chipped the ball low and slow to the middle of the court, and said, "Here, Jimmy, hit this hard."  Game, set and match.

Defending Against Serve and Volleyers.  Have you tried to meet the challenge of a serve and volleyer with a power return only to find that guy at mid-court, with a little grin on his face, putting away your high drive?  Make him suffer.  Slice and dice.  The very fact that a player elects to serve and volley is a statement that he isn't daunted by pace.  If he were, he wouldn't show up and make himself vulnerable.  Instead of meeting fire with fire, dump that return at his feet.  In so doing, you're playing a smarter point.  The chip return doesn't try to pass him or take the racquet out of his hand.  It says, "Okay, Big Bob, you can hit my return.  But it's on your shoe laces.  Good luck with that."  Make him hit up to you, and then you can lob or go for a pass.  Mix it up, to be sure, but the high percentage return against a serve and volleyer is with a chip.

Lob, Drop Shot, Lob, Drop Shot.  Have you played doubles against a returner that hits lobs and drop shots with the same looking stroke?  Well, you've played against someone who can slice and dice.  I teach advanced students to loop their backswings and to hit lobs with underspin, especially off the return in doubles.  If your lob has kept the server back and you can drop shot from the same high backswing, you've got her between a rock and a hard place.  If she cheats in for your drop shot, lob.  If she stays back for your lob, drop shot.  Because the chip is hit with such a short backswing, you can actually wait and see where the server goes before choosing your poison.  Lob, drop shot, lob, drop shot.  A little sadism is a good thing.

As I mentioned earlier, there aren't a lot of players on the tour that mix up their pace, using slice to slow things down or hit a neutral shot, forcing opponents to hit low to the court, or to feather over a drop shot against a defender who's well behind the baseline and has hit short.  If you can bear his pouting, watch Murray.  He's particularly brilliant at changing speeds.  The new phenom, Melody Oudin, is great at it, too.  Recreational players can learn a great deal from players that slice and dice.

Keith Shein

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So You Want To Be A Star?
Part Three:
Learn To Read