The modern game of tennis has evolved into a game of big serves and powerful groundstrokes. On both pro tours and on the junior level, you do not see many players who are comfortable with the serve/volley game. In fact, groundstrokes are so powerful and well crafted on the professional level, that serve and volley players are often times passed on anything but the fastest of surfaces.
This is not to say that the serve/volley approach to tennis is no longer useful. It simply means that it is a tougher strategy to exercise on todays hard courts. Racquet technology has made a major impact upon how fast groundstrokes can be hit. It is very difficult for the serve and volley player to make it to the net before a clean passing shot can be hit by her/his opponent.
So, the reality of the modern game of tennis is that a competitive player needs to have solid groundstrokes as part of his/her game.
In the 1990s, Andre Agassi revolutionized the game of tennis with his blistering groundstrokes and service returns. The first time that I saw Andre play in person, I was stunned by the power and control he brought to his groundies. His return of serves were frequently winners, and when not a clean winner, they set up the opponent to hit a weak reply.
I spent a lot of time at the U.S. Open watching carefully how Andre produced these strokes. What became evident to me is that Andre was actually on the baseline or inside the baseline when he would hit his groundstrokes. To be able to do this with effectiveness, Andre would be hitting all of his groundstrokes "on the rise."
Most of us wait for a ball to reach its maximum height after bouncing before we attempt to make contact with it. Some of us actually wait for the ball to begin its downward descent before we make contact. Not so with Andre.
Andre would literally hit his groundstrokes while the ball was still on its way upward, after bouncing on the court. Needless to say, this takes some very precise timing. But the benefits to taking balls "on the rise" are significant. I would like to review some of these with you in this column.
First, taking balls on the rise puts you in a very advantageous court position. Most balls land somewhere near the service lines when they bounce. In fact, we often times think we are hitting the ball deep into the opponents court, when in fact, we are not. When Andre hits his groundstrokes, he is usually on the baseline or inside of it. This court position means that he has a wide series of angles available to him.
Take a look at the figure below:
From this diagram, you can see that the closer you are to the net when you make contact with a ball, the wider your shot angles can be. Now you can understand why opponents are almost always fatigued when competing against Andre. They are literally forced outside the sidelines by the shots that Andre can produce. They find themselves running "coast to coast" as Andre moves the ball from side to side.
What people dont always notice about Andres game is that he takes a little half step forward after each groundstroke. By doing this, he is increasing the width of his shot angles.
The second benefit to taking balls on the rise is that you are shortening the time your opponent has to react to your shot. If you are closer to the net when you hit your groundstrokes, the ball gets back to your opponent a fraction of a second more quickly. This miniscule amount of time translates into a major disadvantage for the opponent.
In addition, when you take balls on the rise, you are likely to hit with more topspin. As you move closer to the net, it effectively becomes higher. Thus, to get your balls to land in bounds, you almost necessarily need to hit up and impart lots of topspin. Topspin groundstrokes are "heavy" strokes. Balls hit in this manner seem to hit the opponents racquet with greater than expected force. Again, this makes your opponent more likely to hit in a weak or defensive manner.
If you are taking balls on the rise, the spin that they may possess is less likely to influence your reply. Balls hit with topspin like to "jump up." Balls hit with slice want to "stay low." However, if you are taking balls on the rise the effect of spin is minimized. This becomes particularly significant when you are returning serve. Kick serves and slice serves (especially from lefties) do not seem to be as bothersome if you can take the ball early
on the rise.
Lastly, taking balls on the rise can help increase the power of your groundstrokes. When you take a ball on the rise, you are really using your opponents pace to generate power. You will find that hitting groundstrokes in this manner means you will have a shorter backswing, and that you are almost blocking the ball as it comes off the court. If your timing is good, you will find that you will not have to hit these balls with much pace to generate lots of power in your shots.
Still, learning to hit groundstrokes like Andre takes some time, patience, and of course, practice.
When I am training players to hit balls in this manner, I have a little practice trick that seems to make the learning process easier. I literally take some white, masking tape and tape a line parallel to the baseline. This taped line is placed about one and a half feet inside the baseline.
The diagram below illustrates this taping.
I tell my student that he/she is to assume that the taped line is the baseline and to position himself/herself as if this was the baseline. Then, we exchange groundstrokes. I am the opponent and position myself in a normal manner on the opposite court. However, the student is automatically forced to position himself/herself closer to the net.
At first, the student has difficulty hitting anything but weak, short balls that I send her/his way. But soon, she/he is able to take balls with greater pace. Without any conscious effort on her/his part, she/he will begin to take balls on the rise.
I find that students will begin to gain control of placement fairly quickly and they often times start hitting shots at angles. Invariably, I find myself running from side to side, as they see that these angles potential is great.
Usually, it takes about 3 or 4 one hour sessions before the student begins to really integrate hitting groundstrokes in this manner. But, once they do, they become much more formidable opponents.
So, if you want to hit like the pros, try to learn to take balls on the rise, when hitting your groundstrokes. I assure you that if you do, you will become a tennis overdog!