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TURBOSTROKES: The Backhand Volley

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Last month, I dedicated the column to helping you with the forehand volley.  This month, it makes sense to follow-up with some advice regarding the backhand volley.  Before we move on to the backhand volley, you may want to check out last month’s column because many of the same principles mentioned in May’s edition apply to the backhand volley. 

As always, I will begin by making reference to the proper grips.  When hitting the backhand volley, three grips can be used: The Continental Grip, The Hammer Grip (really a closed fisted continental grip) or the Eastern backhand grip.

The Continental Grip


The Hammer Grip


The Eastern Backhand Grip


NOTE: In viewing the above images, remember that the black areas on the racquet handle are the bevels while the blue areas represent the top and sides of the racquet grip.

When first learning to volley, many people use the Eastern Forehand Grip for forehand volleys and the Eastern Backhand Grip for backhand volleys.  Using these grips is not wrong and puts the wrist in a solid position for volleying.  I suspect that many players opt to switch back and forth from these two grips because they feel more comfortable regarding the wrist.

However, the Continental and Hammer Grips offer distinct advantages.  First, you do not have to switch grips from forehand to backhand volleys.  Second, when serving, a player can use these two grips effectively.  Thus, when a player serves and volleys with either of these grips, she/he does not have to make a grip change when approaching the net.  Most pros will use the Continental Grip or the Hammer Grip.  Learning to volley with either of these grips can really help a player, especially during quick exchanges at the net…as is often the case when playing doubles.

Still, if you believe that your wrist and forearm are weak when volleying with the Continental of the Hammer Grip, you may want to avoid using them or try strengthening the arm.

Actually, most players who do use the Continental Grip or the Hammer Grip will change the grip slightly when moving from forehand to backhand volley without being aware of this change.  I find that when I volley best, I am making slight movements toward the Eastern Forehand Grip and the Eastern Backhand Grip without really being conscious of these changes.

Between the forehand volley and the backhand volley, I find that most players prefer the backhand wing.  Why?  Well, the movement on the backhand volley involves different muscle groups that those used in the forehand volley.  The motion involved in the backhand volley is not significantly different from the motion involved in the one handed, backhand sliced groundstroke.  Thus, many players already “know” the motion.  The forehand volley is a completely different motion than the forehand groundstroke…regardless of grip.  This necessitates learning a whole new and very contradictory “software” for the forehand volley. 

In addition, backhand volleys can actually have more “swing” in them than is the case for forehand volleys.  These latter volleys must involve more of a blocking motion than a swing.  Since most of us learn to swing at groundstrokes before we learn to block volleys, the backhand volley is often times the easier stroke to learn.

Finally, all volleys should be hit in front of the body if at all possible.  This is much easier to achieve with the backhand volley than on the forehand side.

Let’s review the attributes of a good volley (much of this was presented in last month’s column):

  1. Hit the volley with a firm racquet…use whatever grip will allow this to occur.  Having to switch grips from forehand to backhand volley is better than having a floppy racquet when using a Continental Grip or Hammer Grip.
  1. Try to really focus on the ball as it makes contact with your opponent’s racquet.This will greatly help you anticipate where the ball is going to go.  The closer you get to the net (as you will be when volleying) the less reaction time you have.  Any anticipation benefits will help you immeasurably when volleying.
  1. Try to hit the volley before it falls below the net.  If the ball is high when you make contact, it is much easier to volley.  Balls that fall below the height of the net force you to “volley up.”  This makes clearing the net more difficult and usually results in a volley that sits up for the opponent.  To assure that you “volley high,” you need to keep moving forward as you volley.
  1. Try to, whenever possible, hit the volley in front of your body.  This is usually an easier task on the backhand side.
  1. Try to keep the racquet head above your wrist when volleying.  Even if the racquet head is just a little bet higher than your wrist, it will make for better, crisper volleys.
  1. Get low for low volleys!  You must bend your knees and get low to volley well when the ball is below net height.  Don’t bend at the waist or allow the racquet head to get below your wrist.
  1. As is the case with all strokes in tennis, try to “quiet” or “freeze” your head at the moment of impact.  Just like the golfer, you do not want to move your head when making contact.  Not to worry.  You will have time to see the ball come off your opponent’s racquet if you do momentarily freeze your head at impact.

In last month’s column, I relayed a tip given to me by Oscar Wegner…one that I find very valuable.  Instead of worrying about complicated split steps, triangles and other footwork-related cues, simply move your head toward the ball when volleying.  I know that you are probably saying…”Gee, won’t the ball hit me in the head?”  Believe me.  I have never known anyone who was hit trying this technique. 

However, by moving your head to the ball, two things will happen.  First, you will automatically, put your body in the best possible position to hit an effective volley…without having to think about it!  You will then be free to concentrate on the ball.

Second, you will automatically slow down the forward movement at the moment of impact, if you are moving forward to the net.  Many of you may have drilled a pause at the moment of contact into your memory bank by hitting many volleys with a coaching yelling: “Stop/Hit.”  If you simply, move your head to the ball when volleying, you will notice that you take that pause at impact naturally without any conscious effort.  Why?

Well, if you don’t pause at impact, your head (and body) will continue to move forward and get hit by the ball.  Thanks Oscar!

Lastly, the backhand volley is different from the forehand volley with respect to follow through or “finish.”  With forehand volleys, you want to stop the forward movement of the racquet immediately after the moment of impact.  This will prevent you from “swinging” at the volley.  However, when hitting the backhand volley, follow through is permitted…albeit, somewhat abbreviated.  A backhand volley finish is very similar to the finish associated with the one handed, backhand slice.  It is just a bit less severe.

The key to learning to volley is to practice it with drills, but more importantly, to volley during sets, and matches.  That’s why playing doubles can be a great way to learn to volley.  Part of the reason John McEnroe was such a good singles player is that he was a good doubles player.  He could serve and volley in singles because he had to serve and volley in doubles.  Simply standing near the net and taking volleys is not the same as volleying in a match.  You need to force yourself to serve and volley, and to “chip and charge.” 

To illustrate some of the points I have mention above, I have included some photos of the pros as they hit backhand volleys.

Here Alexandra Stevenson keeps the racquet head above her wrist. However, I would like to see less bending from the waist and more bending at the knees.

In this pic, notice that even when he is “jammed,” Alex O’Brien keeps the racquet head above his wrist.

In this photo, you can see that Ellis Ferreira moves his Continental Grip a little more toward the Eastern Backhand Grip to firm his racquet when hitting the backhand volley.

Here, we see Richard Krajcek trying to get low for the volley.  Granted he is very tall, but he is bending more at the waist than at the knees.  As a result, his racquet head gets below his wrist.  By the way, he is using the Hammer Grip.


Despite being a bit older when this shot was taken, Pat Cash makes every effort to get low for the low volleys…even when he is on the run.  This guy has great volleys!!!

Again, we see a player on the run and fully stretched out.  Still, Patrick Rafter manages to hit the volley in front of his body.  Usually, the Australian players have superb volleys. Clearly, this is the case with Patrick.

American players can have great volleys, as well.  Here, Pete Sampras shows good form.  Though it may not be clear from the angle, Pete is hitting the volley in front of his shoulder as he should.

Sebastien Lareau shows good form (racquet head above wrist, making contact in front of body) when hitting the high volley.  Notice that he has “frozen” his head at the moment of impact.  By attacking the net, he is able to hit the volley at a high point relative to the net.  This makes the volley easier and allows for a crisp, difficult to return volley.

Although we don’t see him around on TV anymore, David Wheaton had great volleys and form.  Despite being tall, he knows how important it is to get down low for the low volley.  My knees are hurting just looking at this picture.

So, there you are…my best advice on how to hit the backhand volley.  Now, there is a two handed backhand volley that can be hit effectively…but that is another column entirely.

Just follow the basics principles for good volleying, practice and use the volley in your matches and recreational sets and in no time, you will become a tennis overdog

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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