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Why Can’t I Volley?!

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Well, here we are in July. The grass court season is upon us. Echoes of Wimbledon will linger throughout the month. Even here in the States, we’ll have the enjoyment of watching the Hall of Fame tournament being played on grass.

It is important to remember that this game was first known as "lawn tennis."

The modern game is built primarily upon big serves and powerful groundstrokes. Changes in surfaces and racquet technology have made the traditional game of tennis seemingly obsolete. Still, it is not completely buried. Nor should it be!!!

Every June/July, we are reminded of a form of the game that still has its place…even in the modern game of tennis. Rumors of the death of serve/volley tennis are greatly exaggerated.

Certainly, we all learn to serve. However, volleys present difficulties for many players. I assure you that sooner or later, you will win or lose because of your ability or inability to volley effectively.

So this month, I want to address the question: Why can’t I volley? Getting an answer to this question is critical, if one wants to play her/his best tennis on any surface.

Let’s start with what I believe to be the most important reason we have difficulty volleying…we are programmed to hit groundstrokes exclusively!!! Big forehands usually involve western or semi-western grips. Many, if not most, players are hitting two handed backhands. Both of these are antithetical in nature to volleying.

Big groundstrokes require different movement to the ball (usually side to side), different stances (more open), and most importantly, big groundstrokes involve "swinging" the racquet.

Volleys require an entirely different set of software. Volleys, by their nature, involve forward movement. When volleying well, the player is, more often than not, in a closed or semi-closed stance. Lastly, volleys are not "strokes!" They are blocks and pushes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know that hard courts and slow clay surfaces do not encourage serve/volley play. But even on these surfaces, a volley can be your only option or an advantageous option. So, like it or not, we need to know how to volley. Pushers exploit ignorance with respect to volleying. They will bring the big groundstroke player close to the net…or better yet…they will have the big swinging player in "no man’s land."

Okay, let’s assume you buy my arguments. Many of you are saying to yourself: "I’ve tried volleying. It works in practice but I get killed with it in matches." Have faith. I think there is a way to make this important option a solid part of your arsenal.

The traditional volley is taught using a continental grip. Using this single grip, one can hit either forehand or backhand volleys without any grip change.

Here is a picture of what a continental grip looks like. Notice that the knuckle marked with an X is positioned on the top bevel of the racquet handle (marked with a line).

Here is a picture of Jeremy Yorke, USPTR adopting the normal stance for the continental grip being used to hit a forehand volley.

Notice that his stance is closed, the racquet face is well above his wrist and that the racquet is in front of his body. From this position, Jeremy does not have to swing at the ball at all. He merely blocks the oncoming ball, if he is stretched, or he pushes through the ball (some like to call it a punch), if contact can be made near the body.

I would never discourage anyone from adopting this traditional form of volleying.

Whether it is a forehand or backhand volley, the grip remains the same. Stances should be as closed as is viable, given the opponent’s shot. Keeping the head of the racquet above the wrist (even if only by a few centimeters) will greatly enhance the power and control of your volley. Lastly, you never want to swing at a ball when volleying. It is better to simply block the ball. If possible, "frame up" the oncoming ball and push through its path.

I would imagine that many of you have heard or read all of this before. Still, you are saying: "My volleys aren’t reliable." Well, how you practice volleys and how much time you dedicate to practicing them, may be the source of your dilemma.

Here is a typical scenario. I watch a player taking volley practice. He/she stands at the center of the net, usually only three feet from the center strap. Guess what? This is not reality. Most volleys are hit closer to the service line than the net. Second, most volleys are not struck from the center of the court. Your coach or hitting partner keeps feeding to your forehand and backhand wing. You volley well. Your confidence grows. You get in a match and try it, and your volleys hit the net or sail out.

Here is a diagram that shows, what I believe, is the normal position for players when they practice volleys.

Here is a diagram where I would encourage players to stand when practicing volleys. Notice that the X’s are deeper from the net and away from the center of the court. These positions are much closer to reality when it comes to volleying in matches.

A player who wants to learn how to volley in matches should learn to hit both forehand and backhand volleys from both of these positions.

Here are two images of Jeremy in the proper practice locations. Although he is hitting a forehand volley in the first image and a backhand volley in the second, you should practice hitting both volleys from each position.

Okay, let’s say that you try all of the above and you still can’t volley well. Guess what? You are not alone. But, there is an alternative way to volley.

When watching the great player Roy Emerson give a clinic to executives some years back, I watched carefully how he volleyed. Even at his somewhat advanced age, no one could get a passing shot by him.

Being a tennis photographer, I naturally took some images. I discovered later that, in fact, "Emmo" used two different grips to volley. He would adopt an eastern forehand grip for all his forehand volleys and an eastern backhand grip for all his backhand volleys. The amazing part for me was that he could switch grips without using his other hand to assist him.

I don’t suspect that many of us will become this proficient at switching grips when volleying, but I would not rule out using these two different grips to improve you ability to volley.

To make certain that these two grips are clear, I offer the following images:

Here is the eastern forehand grip. Notice that the knuckle with the X is on the side of the racquet handle (identified with line).

This grip allows for forehand volleys where the wrist will not weaken upon impact with the ball. This wrist "bending" is a major cause of inadequate volleys.

Here is an image showing the eastern backhand grip. Notice that the knuckle with the X is on top of the racquet handle, which again, is indicated by the line.

Roy Emerson used this grip for his backhand volleys. He used his thumb to provide the strength to withstand the impact of the ball. Again, no "wrist bending" occurs when adopting this grip for backhand volleys.

Assuming that you can find a way to volley that works, given the above approaches, the next question concerns serve/volley.

Serve/volley is best utilized on fast surfaces like grass, indoor carpet, slick indoor courts or very worn outdoor hard courts. Slow surfaces, like clay courts or newly surfaced/gritty hard courts are not the best choices for serve/volley. However, slipping a serve/volley every now and then is always a good tactic, regardless of surface.

On fast surfaces, two serves work best for the would-be volleyer…the big flat serve down the T and the slice serve sent out wide. Why? Well, on faster surfaces, these are serves that are very difficult to return with authority. Thus, the server, often times, finds herself/himself presented with a weak return that is high and easily put away.

On most surfaces, however, I would recommend a kick serve to the opponent’s weaker side. The kick serve’s spin will provide a fraction of a second longer for you to get closer to the net. The closer to the net that you are…the easier the volleys become. Stefan Edberg (one of the game’s greatest serve/volleyers) used the kick serve exclusively. With his quick steps, he was all over the net!

In addition, the kick serve bounces high on slower to medium paced surfaces. This high bounce makes it tough for an opponent to hit a ball that will land at your feet as you approach the net. Don’t get me wrong--it can and will happen. However, the high bouncing serve makes it a bit more difficult.

The golden rule of moving once you have served is to follow the path of the serve as it heads toward your opponent’s court. By doing this, you will automatically be in the best position to hit any reply from your opponent.

Here is a diagram that shows the path of serves that one should follow when serve/volleying from the deuce court.

The X’s represent where you hope to be when making your first volley.

Now, let’s look at the ad court.

Please note that these diagrams are for right handed players. When serving from the ad side, righties normally are farther from the center hash mark than when serving to the deuce side. Thus, the X’s do not show as much court depth, as the server has a little farther to travel when following the path of his/her serve.

For this reason, if you are right handed and reluctant to try a serve/volley…I recommend that you use this tactic more on the deuce side. The opposite would be true for you lefties.

It you are serving well and/or playing on a fast surface, you can reasonably expect to win a point by hitting only one volley. Here is a typical scenario.

In this diagram, the server (X) serves to the opponent’s (Y) forehand with a slice serve (Line #1). Since the serve has pace and is sliced, opponent Y hits a weak return that is a bit late (Line #2). Server X has followed the path of his serve and easily maneuvers to hit a winning volley to the open court (Line #3).

Oh, if the game were only so simple.

Many, if not most times, a server must expect to hit two volleys to win the point. Here is a diagram of such a situation.

Server X serves directly at opponent Y (Line #1). This time, opponent Y is capable of hitting a better return which lands near the feet of server X (Line #2). Server x has, again, followed the path of her/his serve and is capable of hitting a low volley to the open court (Line #3). Since the server X had to hit up on the volley, opponent Y gets to the ball and hits a reply down the line (Line #4). Server X has moved in the direction of his first volley (a very important rule). As such, server X can attack the down the line reply from opponent Y and put away a volley to the open court (Line #5).

As with serving, once you volley, always move in the direction that your volley is headed. This automatically will put you in the best position for your opponent’s response. Will it prevent you from being passed? No. But, it goes a long way toward helping you in this regard.

If you really want to become a serve/volley player, you are going to have to truly focus on seeing the ball…especially, as it comes off your opponent’s strings. David Ranney’s new book, Tennis: Play the Mental Game, is an excellent work. In it, he spends considerable time discussing the importance of truly seeing the ball. It is a modest book in length, but significant with respect to information that is useful.

Well, this month’s column has been a bit longer than is normally the case. But, I believe that too little attention is given to the importance of volleying. Even in a groundstroke dominated era, the volley is a requisite to have in your quiver. I am certain that John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer would agree.

Learn to volley (and maybe serve/volley) and you will more rapidly 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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