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November 2006 Article

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Rising to the Occasion

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in November. The Grand Slam events are behind us. We eagerly await the arrival of the Australian Open in January. However, one person who will not be competing next year is Andre Agassi. Truly, Andre is one of the very best to have ever played this wonderful game.

Those who have followed the career of Andre from his teens to his final match at this year’s U.S. Open will have noticed one thing very consistent in his game…Andre likes to take the ball on the rise!!!

Having watched Andre play in person and being fortunate enough to have photographed him at the events he played in New Haven, CT., I can tell you that he amazed me with his ability to hit groundstrokes before the ball reached its peak from the court bounce. Clearly, Andre could literally see the ball better than we mortals. Early on in his career he developed this unique skill at taking the ball on the rise. This single talent, in my opinion, enabled Andre to play top ten level tennis well beyond his contemporaries.

Well, this month’s column is, in a sense, a tribute to Andre Agassi. I hope to provide the reader with the reasons why taking the ball on the rise is so important, and I hope to provide practical ways in which each player can develop this skill. I realize that some of you may say, "I’ve tried to do this in the past, and I just can’t hit balls as they rise from their bounce."

I would argue that we all can add this dimension to our games...albeit with less ability than Andre. As is the case with any change in tennis, patience and perseverance are needed. Learning this skill takes some time and effort. But, it can be learned! I hope to convince you that it is well worth the time and effort.

Let’s begin by listing the reasons why one would want to take the ball on the rise.

First, taking the ball on the rise means that the ball’s spin and pace are less likely to have a negative impact on a player’s reply. Why? Well, when one takes the ball on the rise, the path of the ball after the bounce is minimized. Thus, the effects of top, slice or side spin are not as dramatic or pronounced. In addition, every ball taken on the rise has some significant pace…or at least perceptually appears to have significant pace. By taking all your groundstrokes on the rise, you automatically become accustomed to an opponent’s pace. "Heavy" balls don’t seem quite as severe when one is hitting the ball on the rise.

Allied to the concept of minimizing the opponent’s pace, taking the ball on the rise automatically puts you in the position of being able to hit with greater pace. Actually, the opponent’s pace becomes a positive component in generating your own pace. I have seen relatively weak players hit screaming groundstrokes when they take their opponent’s shots on the rise.

Even though you will generate more pace, you are probably going to experience a great degree of control on your shots. Taking the ball on the rise will automatically force you to hit with topspin. In face, hitting flat or with slice is difficult when taking the ball in this manner. Topspin brings the ball down into your opponent’s court more quickly. Thus, there is a greater likelihood that the ball will fall within the white lines.

Pace and control…if each of us could add these to our groundstrokes, how many more matches would we win?

To take the ball on the rise, you cannot use a big backswing. The timing needed to hit balls on the rise prevents "big swings." Now, I have a firm belief. The more economical any stroke is, in terms of preparation and movement, the better. Shortening the backswing is a desirable component to adopt. Simply put, there is less probability that something will go wrong with the stroke when things are economical. (I should add that economical strokes do not mean that the player should not finish the stroke fully…a complete to the stroke finish is extremely important).

As you begin to take balls on the rise, you will notice that you are closer to the baseline (if not inside it) when you make contact. This position of closeness to the net decreases the reaction time of your opponent to your shots. Why? Well, they are simply coming back at a fraction of a second faster. Some say tennis is a game of inches. I believe tennis is a game of fractions of seconds. People who take their opponent’s balls on the rise automatically put the opponent back on her/his heels. The opponent feels rushed and pressed.

Additionally, by being closer to the net when you hit groundstrokes, you increase the possibility of hitting more angles. To illustrate my point, let’s look at a few diagrams.

Here is a court diagram that shows the possible range of replies when a player is behind the baseline (where most of us hit our groundstrokes):

Now, let’s take a look at the range of possible replies when one is inside the baseline, as he/she hits a groundstroke that has taken the opponent’s ball on the rise:

Let’s assume that you get a shorter ball and still take it on the rise. Then the range of possible replies available to you might look like this:

I think you see the idea. The closer you are to the net when you hit your groundstrokes the more angles available to you. Taking the ball on the rise enables you to take your opponent’s groundstrokes and hit replies from a position that can be significantly closer to the net.

If one really looks at tapes of Andre’s matches, you will see that after each groundstroke, he has moved ever so closer to the net. This advance may only be a couple of inches, but over a three stroke rally, this can amount to a significant repositioning. In part, this is why Andre could hit so many wonderfully severe angles…forcing his opponents to be way out of court.

Once a player becomes accustomed to taking the ball on the rise, she/he will begin to see that her/his returns of serve improve dramatically. Why? Well, without consciously trying, the returner will be closer to the net as she or he makes the return of serve.

I doubt that there is anyone who would not believe that Andre had one of the best returns of serve ever to be seen in the game. I have seen matches were his feet were actually on the baseline when returning serve. I once noticed this phenomenon when he was playing a match against Goran Ivanisevic. Goran not only had a huge serve, he was a lefty. By taking the ball on the rise, Andre truly negated the biggest weapon in Goran’s arsenal…his serve.

So, this leads to the question, "Okay, how do I develop this type of groundstroke?" My answer is simple: "One needs to practice in a particularly progressive manner."

First, you need to practice using some sort of backboard. During the winter months, I literally use one of the racquet ball courts at the college where I coach to hone my skills. Take a ball that is somewhat dead. In fact, the deader the ball, the better.

Try hitting groundstrokes while being fairly close to the wall or backboard. Do not begin hitting with much pace. Rather, focus on the timing necessary to hit the ball before it reaches its maximum peak after its bounce. Be certain to finish each groundstroke fully and completely. The dead ball will make this process a bit easier…but at first, do not be surprised if you find yourself hitting too hard. In a short while, you will begin to see that you are able to take the ball on the rise and "roll" it with topspin back against the backboard.

When this seems to be comfortable and relatively reliable, introduce a slightly more lively ball. Don’t use a new ball, just one that bounces with a little more action. You will find that initially you are, again, having difficulty taking the ball on the rise (before its peak from bouncing). Additionally, you will find that you are hitting the ball back against the wall or backboard with too much pace. Once again, you will develop a sort of "rolling" motion that imparts topspin that allows you to rally against the backboard.

Lastly, repeat the same process using a new ball. By this time, you will see that the timing process needs to be readjusted, but by now, you will find yourself moving into the proper position for taking the ball on the rise more easily. When this occurs, you are well on your way to translating these strokes onto a real tennis court.

When you do feel comfortable trying this type of groundstroke on a real tennis court, make certain that your hitting partner begins by hitting balls that are not full of excessive spin or hit with lots of pace. Make certain that you do not allow yourself to hit any groundstroke with your toes not touching the baseline (or closer, if possible). Believe me, you are going to make some errors and hit some errant shots that will come off your frame. This is normal and is part of the learning curve.

Repeat the entire process from dead balls on the backboard to tennis court groundstrokes as often as your schedule will permit. Usually, I will spend one day in the racquetball court, and the following day on the tennis court. Then, I repeat the whole procedure.

Learning to return serve effectively using the "on the rise" technique involves two drills.

First, have your hitting partner serve to you while she/he stands at her/his own service line. It will take a little time for him or her to be able to serve in this manner, but it won’t take long. In having your partner serve from the service line, you are minimizing the amount of time you have to react to each serve. You will find that you automatically begin to hit the ball on the rise…really out of necessity.

Here is a diagram that shows where your opponent (Y) should stand when serving to you using this technique.

The second drill is similar but is designed to help you control your returns while taking the ball on the rise.

In this drill, your hitting partner stands at the baseline to serve (as would normally be the case). However, you are standing well inside the baseline to receive these serves. You will find that initially you will hit your returns deep, wide or into the net. This is normal. But, as the drill becomes more familiar to you, you will find that your returns begin to land within the white lines…usually with pace and lots of topspin. Eventually, you can make the drill more demanding by placing empty tennis cans as targets on your partner’s side of the court. Once you can start knocking these over with some consistency, you will have become a much more formidable serve returner.

Here is a diagram that shows the area where you (X) should be standing for this particular return of serve drill.

If you are a typical player, you are going to need three to six months of fairly regular practice to learn and solidify these "on the rise" skills. But, I assure you that once they are in place, you will find yourself pressing opponents in matches. In addition, you will be using the opponent’s pace to generate the pace in your groundstrokes. This invariably results in less fatigue on your part because you don’t have to "muscle" the ball.

Lastly, you are going to find that when you take balls on the rise, you will actually not have to cover as much court. This means that you will run less than if you were standing the normal two to three feet behind the baseline. Again, this reduces the fatigue you experience in match play.

Andre Agassi is a genius. His game is not simply remarkable, it is awesome. He literally changed the face of tennis strategy with his unshakable groundies. Though he is no longer on the tour, his legacy can live on in each of us.

I assure you that, if you learn to hit your groundstrokes while the ball is rising, you will in a very short time 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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