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This Shot Is NOT Over Your Head

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

One of the most exciting shots in tennis has to be the overhead smash. When you see a pro execute this offensive shot, it seems that 99% of the time, the shot ends in a clear winner. However when we watch recreational and intermediate players attempt this winning shot, we see a much lower percentage of success.

In fairness, pros on the tour practice everyday with coaches to assure that they are not neglecting any aspect of their game. The overhead smash is one of those shots that cannot be neglected in anyone's practice regimen.

When I first took up this wonderful game of ours, I was completely baffled by the overhead. In fact, I feared that I would get a lob in a match and have to hit a smash. I tried to hide the fact that this was a weakness by not taking any overheads during the warm-up.

I remember practicing at Yale University's courts. Next to me was a player who had a clear Australian accent. When he saw me miss an overhead, he politely said: "Don't worry, mate. It's a confidence shot. It comes in time." Fortunately, he was right.

It took me some time, videotaping and certainly many practice overheads to develop the "confidence" that this smash deserves. Now, I long for the lob that allows me to hit the smash. I guess the Aussie was right…it is a confidence shot.

So this month, I want to explore with you the overhead. The mechanics can be broken down into manageable parts, and with the proper drills, you can certainly master this very aggressive and exciting shot.

As always, I like to begin with a discussion of grips. For overheads, there are only two grips that I would recommend: the continental grip and the eastern backhand grip. Not surprisingly, these are the two grips that are the best to use for serving. However, serves and overhead smashes are not the same shots.

To remind the reader of what these grips look like, I offer the following images.

Here is the continental grip. You will note that the palm of the hand is mostly on top of the racquet grip. You will also note that the base knuckle of the hand is located on the side of the racquet bevel. I have shown this grip from two different camera positions and used Photoshop to flip the image for lefties.



Here are views of the eastern backhand grip. Note that the base knuckle is on top of the racquet handle and that the palm is more toward the racquet bevel.



Now it is possible to hit overheads with an eastern forehand grip, but I do not advocate this. Why? Well, to hit overheads well, you need to be able to have a loose and relaxed arm. More important, you need to be able to break/bend your wrist. Forehand grips frequently encourage people to "muscle" the shot, and they certainly do not allow for an easy or complete wrist break.

Having selected the grip which feels most comfortable to you (don't be afraid to experiment with each), the next task is to learn to move correctly.

Overheads become difficult, if you allow the ball to "get behind you." Ideally, the overhead smash is hit with the ball descending from its lob in front of your body.

If you have ever played American baseball or softball, you will know that this is true when catching a pop fly, as well. Here is what the baseball player should look like when he/she catches such a fly ball.

In this shot, we see Jeremy Yorke, USPTR and number one singles player for Albertus Magnus College's Men's team waiting for a high ball to descend. His glove hand is in front of his body. Thus if he is in proper position, the ball will be caught in front of his body.

Of course, not every lob is going to fall in front of you without some movement on your part. Moving to get into the correct position to hit the smash is something that should be practiced.

When teaching the movement associated with overhead smashes, I have students catch a ball that I toss high with their non-racquet hand. I have them start at the net and move backward using crossover steps. This sideways movement is critical in setting up properly for hitting overheads. To make sure that they focus on keeping the ball in front of them and using crossover steps, I have them keep their racquets under their dominant arms against their bodies.

In this picture, you see Jeremy with the racquet under his arm. He is pointing at the ball with his fingers (like one would do with a baseball glove) and he is moving backwards in a sideways manner…using crossover steps. Eventually, he catches the ball with his up stretched arm's hand.

If your crossover steps are not perfect, do not dismay. The single most important thing to do in tennis is to keep your eye and concentration on the ball. This drill will go a long way toward making these essential components a natural part of your muscle memory.

The next step in the learning progression is to train yourself to get both the racquet and your non-racquet hand up as soon as is possible. Once your opponent hits the lob, you need to get both of these up and into "ready" position as you maneuver forward or backwards to hit the smash. If there is one single problem that I notice with recreational players, it is that they do not get "both hands up" immediately.

Here is a picture of Jeremy in proper "ready" position. His left hand is helping him track the lob. His racquet is up and ready to hit the ball at any time. This is the classic position for hitting the overhead and should be what you are looking to emulate.

Truth be known, Jeremy was having difficulty hitting solid overheads this past collegiate season. His form was good and his focus was good. What was off was his timing. In addition, Jeremy (like all of us) wanted to literally punish the ball when hitting the overhead. To provide a solution to his problem, I relied upon an observation I made some years back when watching many of the male qualifiers compete to enter the Pilot Pen.

In my photography, I noticed that many of the players used a somewhat non-traditional posture with their racquets as they moved into position to hit the overhead smash. I noticed that many of them had the racquet face pointing toward the ground and the racquet head's tip pointing at the ball. I suggested this change to Jeremy, and it was an immediate fix. Believe me. This kid has a world class forehand, and now, a world class overhead smash!!!

To illustrate what I mean, look at Jeremy's racquet position in the picture below. The racquet is still up, but it is positioned differently from the classic approach. Since using this tip with Jeremy, I have found that my own overhead smashes have improved in consistency and placement when I keep the racquet up and pointing forward, as I prepare to hit the smash.

Overhead smashes and serves have some things in common. One of the most important is that both benefit significantly from a wrist break/bend at and after contact. Again, this is why we use the continental and/or eastern backhand grips. They lend themselves to the wrist bend. This wrist bend provides for both power and control.

Here we see how much Jeremy's wrist has bent after hitting the overhead smash. Incidentally, this one was hit so hard it hit the top of the back fence.

Now if you do not try to muscle the ball, but break the wrist at impact, I assure you that your overhead smashes will have the power they deserve. As in most of tennis, being relaxed is key to success.

There is an important aspect of hitting overhead smashes that needs to be kept in mind. Lobs are balls that usually do not bounce before you hit them. In fact, whenever possible, you want to hit the lob before it bounces.

However, this means that the spin of the ball plays a very important role in how the ball comes off of your strings. If the lob was hit defensively with backspin, the ball will come off your strings at a lower trajectory. What does this mean? Well, it means that the overhead is more likely to be into the net than if the ball had no spin and was hit with an identical motion.

Offensive lobs have topspin, and they tend to move off your stings with a higher trajectory than lobs with no spin. This means that the overhead is more likely to land deeper than if the ball had no spin and was hit with an identical motion.

This is why focusing on the ball as it lobs over the net is critical. You need to know what spin it may have. If it has backspin, aim a little deeper than you normally would do. If it has topspin, try to hit your overhead smash a little closer to the net. These actions will normally compensate for the lob's spin.

Visibility of lobs can be difficult. There is sun, clouds, and sometimes even wind swirls that can make the focus on the lob difficult. So, you might want to try and determine what spin a lob may have by noticing how the player hit the lob. If her/his racquet moved downward when hitting the lob, the ball has backspin and needs to be hit deeper than you would normally think correct. If the opponent's racquet moved upward when hitting the lob, you can be assured that it has topspin. This is the time to aim your smash so that it bounces off the service line of your opponent's court.

You don't need a hitting partner, per se, to practice overheads. A partner who is willing to toss up balls will suffice. A high wall can allow you to send up lobs that bounce of the high wall. If you don't have a high wall, try bouncing the ball on the ground in front of the backboard or wall. When it bounces off the ball it will go up as a lob that has backspin.

Next month, I will address the second type of overhead smash…the backhand variety. This has been called the most difficult shot in tennis, and it may very well be.

However, until then, practice your normal overhead smash and I assure you that you will be progressing toward becoming 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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