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October 2001 Article

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TURBOSTROKES: The Overhead

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

When one watches a tennis match, one of the most exciting and decisive strokes is the overhead smash…and when done properly, it is indeed a smash. A player cannot expect to advance in singles, nor play competitive doubles without a reliable and winning overhead. Still, as I observe club players, recreational players, and even many high school and collegiate players, I see far too many errors off of this stroke, which should be a clear winner!

So, this month’s column is dedicated to helping you get this essential stroke in order.

First, the overhead smash or "O" as it is often called, is truly a confidence shot. By this, I mean that the player must believe that she/ he can execute the smash for a winner, at every opportunity. Proper form, and deliberate practice will provide this necessary confidence.

Second, though the overhead has similarities to the serve, they are by no means the same shot. The serve has a toss, which the server can control…not the case with the lobs that are the feeding stroke for overheads. Wind and sun elements usually have a more profound effect upon the difficulty of hitting an overhead when compared to their effect upon serving. With serving, we are relatively motionless and moving forward. When hitting O’s, we are often times moving--and backwards, at that. When we hit overheads, we are usually much closer to the net than when we serve. In effect, this makes the net "higher" when we hit O’s. Finally, the overhead offers the advantage of allowing the shot to be placed anywhere within the court. Serves require more controlled placement. Thus, not every player who has a great serve will also have a great smash as well.

Let’s begin with grip. Effective overheads can be hit with any one of several grips: the eastern forehand grip, the continental grip, the hammer grip, or the eastern backhand grip. However, I recommend using either the hammer or eastern backhand grips for this shot. Why? Well, good overhead smashes require the player to be able to bend the wrist (often referred to as breaking the wrist) at impact. The hammer grip and eastern backhand grip greatly facilitate this wrist action.

Here is the eastern forehand grip:

Eastern Forehand Grip, LeftEastern Forehand Grip, Right

Here is the continental grip:

Continental Forehand Grip, LeftContinental Forehand Grip, Right

These are pictures of the hammer grip, which is really a tight fisted continental grip:

    

Lastly, these are photos of the eastern backhand grip. This is the grip that I prefer to use when hitting the overhead smash.

    

Please note that the black areas on the racquet handle are the top and sides.

Once you have secured the proper grip for the overhead smash, the very first motion should be to get the racquet up!!! I cannot stress how important this action is. By getting the racquet up, I mean that you immediately move the racquet into a ready position…where the racquet is above and behind you head.

Reading the lob, getting the proper grip and getting the racquet up…do all of these quickly, and you will go a long way to improve your smashes without any practice!

Next, we need to think about movement. Lobs can force you to move forward or backwards, or not at all. This latter lob is really a "sitter." There should be very few of these that you do not put away.

If the lob is short and you are moving forward, do not let the ball get too low. Rather, attack the lob by moving to it as fast as is possible. This is similar to what I encourage you to do when volleying.

If the lob forces you to move backwards, do not let the ball get behind you. With these lobs, you want to move as if you were going to try to catch it with your non-racquet hand. For those of you who have played American baseball, this is the same motion that you would use to catch a high fly ball. You would always try to keep the ball in front of you when catching these "flies." To make sure that you move properly for these "backward" lobs, I strongly encourage you to actually point at the ball with your non-racquet hand. In addition to helping your motion, this pointing will actually help you focus on the ball and its spin. As a last piece of advice about backward movement, I suggest that you always try to move sideways as you move to the back of the court. This can easily be done if you take what are called "crossover" steps. There is no mystery to these steps. If you stand up and move to either side putting one foot in front of the other as you do, you will automatically be taking crossover steps.

Spin on the ball makes a huge impact upon how you have to hit the overhead. Why? Well, these lobs rarely are allowed to bounce before we hit them. Thus, there is no minimizing of the spin. If the lob has been hit with backspin, the ball will come off your racquet at a more severe downward angle. This is why many players hit their lobs into the net. When this happens, they always seem surprised and confused. Obviously, they did not pay attention to the backspin on the ball. Always try to hit defensive lobs (those hit with backspin) deep and crosscourt. This targeting will greatly improve the consistency of your smashes.

Topspin lobs come off the racquet at a more forward and upward angle. Frequently, smashes hit off of these lobs will land too deep, and thus, be out. Hit offensive lobs (those hit with topspin) at the "T" that is formed by the service boxes’ lines. This target allows for the greatest margin of error.

So, you can see that keeping your eye on the lob’s spins is critical as you plan where you are going to hit your overhead. If the lob is very high, or if it is particularly windy, I would suggest letting the lob bounce before hitting it. Why? Well, very high lobs can be very deceptive with respect to focus as they drop. We tend to lose our perspective on how fast they are falling and what spin they may have. On windy days, lobs can really move around from side to side. Again, allowing these balls to bounce gives the player a more perceptually accurate target to hit…albeit these smashes may be less of a sure put away. So, be prepared for smashes off bouncing balls to come back at you.

If you ever watch Pete Sampras hit his overheads, you will note that he likes to jump up at the ball. Commentators like John McEnroe will almost always say that this is a risky method and should not be tried by recreational players. I disagree.

Jumping up at the ball actually increases the downward angle at which you can hit smashes. Thus, you have more target area to work with. In addition, when you jump up at the ball, your body must be moving somewhat forward. This means that your positioning and motion are aggressive, and that you are likely to hit a put away smash. Try it! You’ll like it! And, it really isn’t as difficult to do as it may look, particularly if you have ever played basketball.

Finally, I would encourage you to hit your overhead smashes at about three quarter pace. Too often, I see an errant overhead that has gone out or into the net because the player has over hit the shot.

So, let’s review:

  1. Try to see the lob early. Read your opponent’s body motion and see the lob coming as early as is possible.
  2. Immediately get your racquet in the proper grip and raised up.
  3. If the lob permits you the opportunity to move forward, do not let it get too low before you make contact with it.
  4. If the lob forces you to move backward, move with sidesteps and do not let the ball get behind you.
  5. Always point at the ball with your non-racquet hand when hitting overheads. This will help with body positioning and force you to pay attention to the spin on the lob.
  6. Hit defensive lobs (those with backspin) deeper and crosscourt.
  7. Hit offensive lobs (those with topspin) at the service line "T."
  8. On windy days or with very high hit lobs, let the ball bounce before you smash it. Be prepared to get a reply from your opponent off of these O’s.
  9. Don’t be afraid to jump up to hit overhead smashes. It isn’t as hard and as risky as you might think.
  10. Do not try to hit overhead smashes too hard.

If you follow these guidelines and practice hitting overheads on a regular basis, I am certain that in a very short 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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