It is early July as I write this, and I am enthralled by the play at Wimbledon. Grass court tennis (like most indoor tennis surfaces) favors those with big serves, more traditional groundstroke grips, one-handed backhands and good volleys. Having played on both grass and indoor carpet surfaces, I can assure you that one rule of play applies
whenever possible, never let the ball hit the ground.
It should be noted that I am not a natural serve and volley player. I am known for a somewhat big forehand, a good kick serve, and a weaker but fairly solid backhand. My grips for groundstrokes are more modern (semi-western forehand and two handed backhand). I serve first serves with the traditional, continental grip and second serves with an eastern backhand grip. With all this in mind, I am sure that you are not surprised that playing the net game is not my preferred place on the court. Yet, I have had quite a bit of success playing just this sort of game. My volleys are adequate, my footwork is okay, and my net closure is not in any way extra-ordinary.
Why am I successful playing a net game? Well, I believe that my net game came into being when I seriously improved my transition game.
What is the transition game? Very simply, it describes the opportunities, shots, movement, etc. necessary to take you from the backcourt to the net. It is my firm belief that even poor volleyers can play a winning net game, if they know how and when to approach the net.
So this month, I will present my thoughts on how to improve ones transition game.
Lets start with the serve and volley game. Now, I know what you are saying
there is no transition shot when serving and volleying. In a strict sense, this is true. But the serve that you hit ends up, in effect, becoming the transition shot. How and where you serve will make or break the volley you hit off of your opponents return.
Spin serves are generally more effective than flat serves when serving and volleying.Some players are blessed with really big, flat serves. They literally hit the cover off the ball when serving. For these players, the "heater" may be the best choice when attempting to serve and volley
especially if the surface is fast and does not allow for a high bouncing ball. Still, big serves usually become less intimidating as a match goes on. In addition, big serves frequently do not land in the box.
Slice serves are, in my opinion, the preferred serve on faster surfaces when one wants to serve and volley. They usually allow an extra fraction of a second (the spinning slows the ball down) for net closure. The closer you are to the net, the easier the volley will be and the greater your potential for hitting a sharp, angled volley. In addition, the slice serve bounces either into the opponents body or away from it (depending on whether you are right or left handed and whether you are directing the serve to the opponents forehand or backhand side). Consecutive slice serves will almost always bounce a little differently from each other. This makes the return a bit more difficult for the opponent. Frequently, the slice serve on a fast surface will elicit a high return
which makes the volley all the easier.
On slower surfaces, like gritty hard courts or clay courts, I think the kick serve is the preferred method of approaching the net. Its slower speed and high bounce will yield similar results as those experienced with the slice serves on faster surfaces.
Regardless of how you hit the serve, you must move to the net in a manner that follows the path of the ball. Literally, re-trace the path of the ball as you move forward. This will automatically put you in the right net position. Too frequently, I see players who serve and immediately move to the center of the net. This would be an appropriate net position if one serves down the "T." However, one should be positioned a bit closer to the sidelines when serving wide. The easiest way to always be positioned correctly is to follow the path of your serve.
After striking the serve, you must slow your forward motion down at the moment that your opponent makes contact with the ball. Why? Well, you need to be able to move in any direction that the opponent places her/his return. Pros use a split step at this moment of impact. However, simply slowing down your forward motion is sufficient to allow for lateral movement in either direction.
Another great way of getting to the net is by "chipping and charging" on the return of serve. In my opinion, Patrick Rafter is one of the best of the current pros in executing the chip and charge. Literally, the returner "chips" (slices) the return deep and follows her/his return to the net. It is important to chip rather than to hit a flat or topspin return. Why? Well, the chip travels slower
allowing more time for you to close the net. Second, the chip stays low and forces the opponent to hit up on the ball. This often times forces the opponent to hit a high reply
making for easier volleys. The keys to successful chipping and charging are:
- Decide to chip and charge before the serve is struck.
- Use a continental grip
this allows you to chip off of either the forehand or backhand.
- Make certain to chip deep. The ideal return is struck hard and low to the net. This makes for the most difficult reply from your opponent.
- Try to direct your chip to the opponents forehand. Usually, it is easier to slice off the backhand wing. If you successfully hit your chip low and deep, the slice reply is usually the easiest. Thus, by hitting to the forehand, you force the opponent to hit the more difficult reply.
Once you are into a rally, there can be opportunities for you to approach the net. You must be alert to them, and equally important, be willing to take advantage of them. It never ceases to amaze me, when watching club players, how often opportunities to approach the net go by. To simplify matters for you, here are the key situations in which you can and should approach the net:
- Whenever you force your opponent wide, be prepared to approach the net. By wide, I mean anytime your opponent is forced outside the doubles sidelines. As soon as you hit the shot that will force this court position, you should immediately move to the net. Again, follow the path of the ball you hit to secure proper net position. It should be noted that most players will hit down the line when forced outside the doubles sidelines. If you are going to favor one side or another, make sure to cover down the line.
- Anytime you hit a lob that forces your opponent to move back, make certain to get to the net quickly. If your opponent is forced back, he/she has limited options. He/she can lob back (you can hit the overhead smash if you are near the net), or he/she can try to pass you (this is very difficult to do if you are close to the net in that you can easily volley most shots). In either case, the opponents reply will be comparatively weak.
- Frequently, when you force an opponent who hits a two handed backhand to take one hand off the racquet, she/he will have a weak reply. This is a time to hit a half volley as you approach the net. Generally speaking, the two handed player does not hit a strong one-handed shot. This is why you are probably able to hit a reliable half volley off such a reply. As you move forward to hit the half volley, slow down your movement at the moment of contact. As soon as you have struck the ball, re-accelerate your forward motion and get to the net. Once again, if you follow the path of the ball that you hit when you half volleyed, you will be in proper net position.
- If you are playing an opponent who can only hit a one handed slice backhand, you are playing an opponent who is very easily attacked. Most passing shots need to be hit flat or with topspin in order to be clean winners. The slice shot travels too slowly, often times, slice shots will "float" high over the net. Whenever I see such a player, I try to hit hard to his backhand and immediately follow my shot to the net. Sure, sometimes I get passed. More often than not, I am able to hit a relatively easy volley into the open court for a winner. Believe me. This kind of attacking ploy can unsettle the slice backhand opponent!
- If you can hit moonballs, you are in a position to potentially approach the net. After one or two deeply hit moonballs, you can actually sneak into the net. If you are quiet with your feet, the opponent may not even know that you have approached the net. She/he will probably try to return your moonball with a moonball of her/his own. If you are into the net, you will be able to put this high lob away with an overhead smash. If the opponent attempts to hit a hard groundstroke off your moonball, you will be close enough to the net to volley it away. You cant make a career off of this strategy, but you can win a few "cheap" points off of your opponent. Equally important, you will have her/him fearful every time you strike a moonball. Believe me. This strategy in measured doses can be really effective.
If you have good forward motion, you may want to try to approach the net during a rally. Anytime your opponent hits a somewhat short ball (one that bounces near the service line) you can hit an approach shot. Here, my preferred approaches are as follows:
- When hitting a slice approach shot, direct it straight ahead or down the line.
- When hitting a flat or topspin approach, direct it crosscourt.
Simple as these two rules may seem, they are profoundly useful. The sliced down the line shot enables you to have a little more time to get to the net. Since its bounce is low, you will probably get a weaker reply from your opponent. A weaker reply means that your volley will in all probability be easier. The topspin or flat approach hit crosscourt forces your opponent to move
perhaps, out of court. In any event, the added pace of this crosscourt approach will often times force him/her to hit on the stretch. Again, this results in a weaker reply and an easier volley for you.
Whenever you hit an approach shot, be prepared to hit the volley. If your approach is very good, it may be an outright winner. However, the purpose of the approach shot is to set up the volley. In my opinion, each time you hit the approach shot, you should be prepared to hit two volleys. Given the speed and court awareness of some opponents, being prepared to hit two volleys is often times a necessity.
Just like every other facet of tennis, transitions need to be practiced. If you never serve and volley, never chip and charge, never follow a shot to the net, you will never be a net player.
The real key is knowing how and when to approach the net. We can all hit volleys when they come at us high and without much pace. Proper transitions can increase the likelihood of such replies.
With proper transition awareness and a little bit of practice, you will in no time become a tennis overdog.