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Turbo Tennis
March 2007 Article

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"Unspinning" Spin!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

For the last few months in my articles, I have been sharing with you the fruits of my video analysis efforts from last summer. I have written about racquet head speed and the balance involved in "centering" the body when making contact with the ball. Judging by the e-mail responses that I have received, many of you have found these articles useful. This is most gratifying.

This month, I want to focus upon another area of the game with which my video analysis from the warmer months has provided me. Specifically, I wish to speak to the realities associated with ball spin.

First, it is essential that a couple points be made. To begin with, there is no such thing as a completely "flat" or ball hit without some spin. Although the spin may be minor and inconsequential, there is always some spin on the ball after making contact. Next, it is important to realize that every ball after it bounces comes at you with forward spin, more commonly known as topspin.

After looking at hours of slow motion video, I can assure the reader that both of these principles are true.

Having said this, I must confess that these two insights may not be of tremendous use to the player who is reading this column.

In comparison, there are those balls that are struck which are "comparatively" flat or without spin. Usually, these flat strokes are hit low to the net and can be struck with lots of power. In looking at video of James Blake, it seems to me that he has literally attempted to make his forehand a weapon by being able to strike flat shots that land in bounds. For most of us, this is not an advisable goal. Flat strokes are usually risky with respect to control. It speaks to James Blake’s expertise that he can consistently hit flat forehands with such accuracy.

Granted, every ball has some topspin associated with it after bouncing, but in fact, the height of the bounce can vary greatly by the spin imparted to the ball before the bounce.

Balls that come at you with slice/backspin are not likely to bounce as high after making contact with the court. However, this backspin does keep the ball traveling in the air before bouncing for a bit longer than it would if struck as a flat shot. These slice shots can sometimes, if hit too high, become "floaters." They literally seem to float long or wide. When hit with authority, these slice shots can really "bite" the court and force you to get very low to hit in your ideal "strike zone."

Conversely, topspin shots tend to bounce higher than a flat ball. In a sense, they seem to gain pace after the bounce in comparison to a flat ball. In addition, topspin balls tend to drop more quickly than flat balls. Thus, one can hit a topspin shot with lots of pace and height…and the ball may likely drop within the court boundaries.

Both of these spins are tremendously important in the game of tennis! Historically, the traditional player would use slice more so than topspin. That all seemed to change when Bjorn Borg entered the tour. Even on grass, Borg would hit groundstrokes with tremendous topspin. This amazes me, in that, grass does not normally allow for a high bounce. Borg ushered in an era of "modern tennis." He used grips that were out of the ordinary for the times. He hit the two handed backhand. His use of topspin was extraordinary for the day.

Serves can be hit with or without spin. The flat serve is one that has relatively little spin (but some). The slice serve is really a side spin serve. The ball when bouncing will literally move more to one side than if it were a flat serve. (The direction of the bounce is determined by whether the server is right or left handed.)

The topspin serve imparts forward spin to the ball. Thus, like groundstrokes, the ball bounces higher than would normally be expected.

The "kick" serve is really a topspin serve that also has side spin. This is the preferred second serve on both tours. The ball will bounce higher and more to one side than normally expected.

One can actually hit a backspin serve. Here, the backspin keeps the serve from coming up after bouncing. Frequently, the backspin serve seems to "skip" and stay low.

The techniques associated with executing all of these serves can be found in the Turbo Tennis Archives.

Whenever one strikes a tennis ball properly (regardless of spin) the racquet face is usually perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Expressing this another way, the face will be parallel to the tennis net.

What really dictates spin is how one approaches and finishes the ball as one hits the stroke/serve.

For groundstrokes, the slice or backspin is achieved by moving the racquet from high to low as you stroke. It should be noted, however, that well executed slice shots have a finish where the racquet goes forward and not across the body. For most players, the one handed backhand slice is the easiest to execute.

Topspin groundstrokes require a low to high motion. Generally these topspin groundstrokes result in an over-the-shoulder finish when using the forehand and two handed backhand. With the one handed backhand, the topspin finish is in front of the body and above the head.

Flat shots really have a bit of upward motion to them when we are talking about groundstrokes. What differentiates them from topspin shots is the amount of low to high motion in the stroke.

In my analysis this summer of the pros, I discovered that about 50% of their groundstrokes were moderate to heavy topspin…about 30% were flat…and about 20% were hit with slice. Now, these are just averages, and of course, the percentage breakdown will differ from player to player. My numbers are not completely accurate; I am sure, because in high speed analysis it is somewhat difficult to distinguish moderate topspin from flat groundstrokes. But, I am confident that the breakdown is fairly close to reality.

This breakdown can be very useful in evaluating your own game. Obviously, pros are more gifted players than we mere mortals. I would imagine that most of us are not capable of hitting 30% of our groundstrokes as flat shots, and still be able to control placement/depth. Depending on our natural shot strengths, we are more likely to benefit from shots with hit with spin.

I try to keep my flat groundstrokes to an absolute minimum. In fact, I deliberately will only go for a flat shot when I am hitting a passing shot or when I have a clear winner opportunity.

In looking at serves, my study showed that about 90% of the time, pros would hit a flat, first serve. The second serve was almost always a topspin or kick serve. No surprises, here.

Still, these are pros who train year round, have coaches, and make their livelihood off of the game by competing. I would suggest to the less skilled player that she/he reduce the percentage with respect to flat, first serves. Introducing the slice serve, backspin serve or even a kick as the first serve, can go a long way toward helping a player to win points.

The first goal should always be to get the first serve in!!! Next, we should place emphasis upon placement of the first serve. Serving to a weak wing, serving to "jam" the opponent’s return, and simply mixing up the placement, can help win points!

Without a doubt, all second serves need some sort of spin. If possible, the kick serve is most desirable on many surfaces. Topspin serves are usually the next best option. On fast surfaces, however, the slice serve can be a real weapon.

The last insight from my "summer study" regarding spin, deals with where we actually hit the ball on our strings.

We rarely, if ever, hit a tennis ball in the exact center of our racquet’s string bed. In reality, most of our balls are hit a little off center in the direction of the racquet head’s tip. You can verify this by having your strings stenciled. You will note, if you do, that the center area of the string bed is not where the stencil wears thin.

My team’s players and others who have played with me will always remark that I have an outstanding "moonball" off of both wings, and an excellent topspin serve. (I really don’t have much side action on my second serve).

With this in mind, I spend some hours with my ball machine and camera hitting balls with spin…groundstrokes and serves. Although this may be peculiar to my strokes, I found that if I made a deliberate effort to hit balls more toward the tip of my racquet head, my spin greatly increased. Truthfully, in my video analysis, I could not really distinguish much, if any of a difference with respect to where on the strings the ball made contact. However to some degree, I can attribute this to the limitations of my video gear. My camcorder is high speed, but not capable of 500 frames per second.

In my teaching and coaching I have encouraged players to try this "tip hitting" technique. The results have been most positive.

So, as I end this article, I hope that I have shed some light on spin and the need for incorporating spin into your game. I also hope that my "tip hitting" technique will help you to increase the amount of spin that you can put on serves and groundstrokes.

In my mind, percentage tennis relies upon spin. I am most confident that if you incorporate more spin into your game this season, you will 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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