If you live north of the equator, you are probably beginning to think seriously about resuming your tennis passion with outdoor play. Soon enough, the spring will be here, and more people will be beginning the heart of their tennis season.
Hopefully, the holiday months of December and January have not taken too much of a toll on your conditioning and body weight. The first step in resuming any sport should involve gradual development of one's physical shape and a regimen of regular stretching.
I try to use December and January to build my strength, and to allow my aging body an opportunity to heal. Tennis is a sport that places lots of strain on joints and muscles. The older one gets, the more difficult the recovery from "active" periods become.
Well, we are into February, and the Australian Open has piqued our interest in playing our game, again. I like to think of February as my "form"-ative month. What I mean by this is that I attempt to work on the form of my strokes. I do my best to improve upon any imperfections that exist (and we all have them). By the end of the month my active coaching period as a NCAA collegiate, men's tennis coach begins in earnest. So, my quest for form is well timed. My players are in search of their form as well.
To really be able to take advantage of this month for improving one's form, some things are really necessary. A backboard that you can use is helpful. Indoor court time, if the weather does not permit outside play, is great. Hitting with a teaching pro during this time is definitely helpful. A ball machine is a major plus, as is a willing hitting partner.
In addition to any of these, I cannot begin to tell you how important it is to have a camcorder that can record video.
For me February is a time to rekindle and re-evaluate the form of my strokes. I am not competing at all in this month, and I try my best to use the time to develop "perfect" form in all my strokes. Now realistically, not every stroke is going to see major improvement. However, at least one stroke will get a somewhat major overhaul and upgrade. With the rest, I may simple make minor improvements. Although some of these adjustments are very minor, they can pay big dividends in terms of your game.
I am fortunate enough to have access to indoor tennis courts, a gym with a wall that makes for a perfect backboard, and several racquetball courts. In truth, I use all of these during February.
I take my camcorder and tripod with me, all the time. The generation of video camcorders that exist today are small, easy to use, need very little light and have incredible battery capacity. Literally, I can place the camcorder, tape, extra batteries and a lightweight tripod in my tennis bag
without sacrificing much space.
Video self-analysis is not always a comfortable experience. We all have imagined concepts of our strokes. However, when we look at ourselves on videotape, it can be a real epiphany.
In the Turbo Tennis Archives, you will find an article that I wrote about where to place your video camcorder when playing and other advice. It will be helpful to read this, if you have never videotaped yourself playing.
Let's assume that you decide to take my advice and dedicate time in February to perfecting your stroke form. Additionally, let's assume that every time you play or practice you are videotaping yourself. The logical question is: "Okay, what am I looking to change?"
Well, if you have watched lots of tennis on television, you are really much better prepared for this self-analysis than you might imagine. As far as strokes are concerned, I use a checklist to evaluate my form. I find that if I evaluate each stroke in terms of these variables, I can determine deficiencies and begin to formulate a plan for improvement.
Bob Litwin is a teaching pro who has developed what he calls "Focused Tennis." I think Bob's approach is well founded, and I encourage any reader to participate in any of his instructional seminars, or to buy his tapes. (No, I am not getting any compensation for this endorsement.) One of the principles of his approach to improving your game is to focus on one thing at a time. In fact, this is also a guiding principle of the USPTR.
I bring this up because it is easy to watch yourself on tape and have a laundry list of things to change. Work in increments. Improve each stroke, one stroke at a time. Some improvements will come without much effort. Others will be very difficult to burn into one's muscle memory bank. But over time and with patience, one's overall game can be made significantly better.
Without exception, every stroke is addressed in the Turbo Tennis Archives. In my past articles I have tried to communicate useful information regarding virtually every stroke in the game. One-handed backhands, two-handed backhands, western grip forehands, continental grip volleys, first and second serves. If you look at the listing of my past articles, I am sure that you will find a column or two that addresses the way you approach hitting a particular stroke. You can use this link to the archives.
So with all this being said, here is my checklist:
1. Seeing the ball?
You can't hit what you don't see. When viewing videotape of myself, I first look at how my eyes are tracking the ball. I know when I am "on," because my "look" is very distinctive. My eyes are wide and I track the ball with my eyes not my head.
2. How am I moving to the ball?
Watch the pros. They may take a big step or two when they first move to hit a ball. But, as they get near the contact area, they start to take very little steps. These little steps are necessary to allow you to get in perfect hitting position.
3. How am I moving to get the right grip?
In many ways, proper grip is the most important ingredient in a well struck ball. There is no one right way to hit any stroke. But, your grip dictates the rest of the stroke. If you are confused about your grip, read my past Article entitled "Picture Perfect." Is your grip change smooth and accomplished early? What role is your non-dominant hand playing in the grip change? You would be amazed at how many players do not get to their grips quickly and smoothly. Now, at times, we simply can't because we are stretched and/or on the run. If the stroke is a "rally" stroke, evaluate how you get to your grip.
4. Am I in the right stance when I hit the ball?
For every grip/stroke combination, there is an ideal stance. Open stances refer to those where the body is facing the net. In closed stances, we see that the body is sideways to the net. And, of course, there are intermediary stances known as 3/4 open, etc.
There are times when we simply cannot assume the ideal stance. In these emergency situations, we have to hit the best we can with whatever stance in which we find ourselves. If you are taking little steps as you approach making contact with the ball, you will probably be able to assume your ideal stance more often. In my past columns you can find abundant information on what is the best stance for a particular grip/stroke combination.
5. How do I take my racquet back?
There was a time when every teaching pro would tell students to take their racquet back as early as is possible and as far back as possible. These were the days of heavy, wooden racquets. Modern racquet technology enables players to hit with pace without much of a backswing. I will sometimes practice hitting tennis balls off a racquetball court wall. Why? Well, if I use a brand new ball, the bounce will be fairly close to what I would experience on a tennis court. Racquetball courts are really not all that long. If I am taking my racquet back too far, I will actually hit the wall behind me. The shorter length of the racquetball court makes the ball return to me very quickly. So, whenever I find myself hitting too hard on a tennis court, I spend some time practicing off the racquetball court wall. Soon, I find myself hitting with pace but not over hitting. Believe me. Racquetball courts can be helpful in these two areas.
6. Where is my contact point?
Every player has her/his favorite "strike zone" for each stroke. The grip that a player uses dictates the ideal contact point. If you refer to the "Picture Perfect" article that I mentioned in point 3 of this checklist, you will find illustrations that show proper contact points for various grip/stroke combinations. One of the things that we must also evaluate in this regard is how low or high is our body at the moment of impact. You would be amazed at how many times a player will not bend his/her knees to hit a low bouncing ball. Rather, he/she will bend at the waist. This is definitely not good form.
7. Do I freeze my head at the moment of impact with the ball?
I cannot stress how important it is to keep your head "quiet" at the moment of impact with the ball. The temptation is to see where our shots are landing. Pros know that they need to remain motionless with respect to their heads when hitting any stroke. In February, I spend lots of my time focusing on quieting my head during every shot.
8. How do I finish the stroke?
Every stroke, volley and serve has an ideal finish. If you spend more time on developing a proper and full finish on all your shots, you will find that the consistency in your game greatly improves. If you ever visit most of the Florida Tennis academies, you will hear pros constantly encouraging students to finish fully and properly. Again, you can find the proper finish for your grip/stroke combination by referring to the images in the previously mentions "Picture Perfect" article.
9. How do I recover?
It is imperative to get back to "ready" position as quickly and smoothly as is possible. I watch many recreational players who hit the shot, and then they simply stop and wait for the next shot to come. Often times, these players will let the racquet simply point towards the ground. Watch the pros. They recover quickly and have their racquet in the position that they would use while waiting to return a serve. They move back toward the center of the court to be able to cover the opponent's reply more easily. As they move back to the center of the court, they glide. Once they know where the reply is going, they move quickly. Again, they almost always approach the ball with little steps. If they are at the net, you will see them bouncing up and down on their toes. Why? Well, this enables them to move quickly to any passing shot, or move back to hit an overhead. With respect to the serve, there is also a proper recovery. Depending on whether you are moving toward the net or staying back, there is a proper way to end the serve and setup for the return. The point is that many of us never pay attention to our recovery. As a result, we almost always seem to be out of position and having to scramble to get to the next shot.
These nine points are, in my opinion, the most critical aspects to evaluate as you look at yourself on videotape. Tape some pro tennis and compare your stroke to the pro that, you believe, hits like you would like to hit. Assuming that you use the same grip/stroke combination as this pro, you will have an ideal to emulate as you adjust your form.
February is the shortest month. However, if you spend time working on your stroke form it can be the month that transforms your game. Better form yields better strokes. Better strokes yield more winning points. More winning points yield more games. More winning games yield more winning sets. More winning sets lead to more match wins. More match wins will make you a tennis overdog!