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February 2008 Article

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Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

At one time or another, virtually every tennis player practices by hitting against a wall or a backboard. This is true for recreational players and even for pros.

I can recall a comment made by Mary Carillo as she was acting as an announcer some years back. As many of you may know, Mary and John McEnroe played at the same tennis club while growing up. Mary remarked about the fact that John would spend hours practicing his volleys against a backboard. Well, we all know how well John McEnroe can volley!

There are those who would argue that practicing by hitting against a wall or backboard is counterproductive. Frankly, I would strongly disagree. What may be the problem with backboard practice is that the player simply hits aimless balls without purpose.

There is no substitute for actually playing the game of tennis!!! No drills, no ball machine practice or backboard work can accomplish what playing competitively will do. Still, there are places for each of these forms of practice.

Well, here we are and it’s February. Those of us who live north of the Equator will soon find ourselves out on the courts playing this wonderful game in earnest. We are dusting off our racquets, getting them restrung, and beginning to put into place a plan for resurrecting our games. Certainly, some of us have not taken a hiatus from playing our sport. However, quite a few of us are seasonal players.

If you are such a seasonal player, this month’s column will clearly be of use to you. If you have been fortunate enough to have playing throughout these colder months, I assure you that this month’s column can help improve your game as well.

This month, I want to explain to the reader how one can effectively use the wall and/or backboard.

Before I get into any specifics, let’s be clear about some of the benefits to wall work.

First, appropriate walls and/or backboards are fairly easy to find. If you are a high school or collegiate player, you probably have access to a gymnasium wall that will permit this kind of practice. Racquetball courts can be an extremely effective location for wall practice. I have actually known tennis players who have used their basement wall for practicing.

Looking to exterior environments, there is usually a building that has an adjacent parking lot which can serve as a backboard. At some public parks, I have seen the high walls that are usually associated with handball play. Private clubs will frequently have one or more courts where a tennis backboard is attached to a fence for practice purposes.

My point is that, if the ambitious player searches, she/he can usually find a wall or formal backboard for practice purposes.

A second benefit to wall work is that it requires no additional player. This kind of practice is best done in a solitary manner.

Third, a player can hit lots of balls in a very short period of time when using a wall or backboard. When I practice in such a manner, I can usually hit somewhere around 1000 balls in about 40 minutes or so. Those who are on a tight schedule can find wall practice very convenient..

Of course, there are some disadvantages to this kind of practice. Generally, a player is not required to move as much when using a wall or backboard to hit. But, there are ways in which the amount of movement can be increased.

When practicing with a wall, the player knows where each "reply" off the wall is headed. Some backboard manufacturers have added uneven surfaces to their products to make the anticipation of these "replies" less likely. Of course, if one hits against a brick wall, the grooves in between the bricks can often times make for uncertain bounces off the wall.

Despite these potential disadvantages, I find that proper use of the backboard and/or wall can pay huge dividends.

Muscle memory can be refreshed in a very short period of time when using the wall. The timing of strokes can be honed to precision as a result of wall work. Finally, every single stroke in the game can be practiced when using a wall or backboard.

Hopefully, I have piqued the reader’s interest in utilizing this wonderful tool.

So, let’s get started.

GROUNDSTROKES

Most commonly, people use a wall or backboard to practice groundstrokes. I usually begin my wall routine with groundstrokes. But, I make certain that the first 100 to 200 balls I hit are hit on the second bounce. That’s right, the second bounce.

By letting the ball bounce twice, the player is not so close to the wall or backboard. In many ways, the distance that is required for two bounces is closer to the distance one would find in actually hitting balls on a tennis court. Additionally, this double bounce allows for the player to really fully finish each stroke.

Since the ball is coming back off the wall with plenty of time for a player to setup for a shot, the player can concentrate on his/her form. When I begin my wall work, I always start with the double bounce, and I concentrate on an early setup, a quiet head at the moment of impact and a full stroke finish. All of these are the key elements in a good groundstroke.

Allowing the ball to bounce twice will probably require the player to hit a higher shot. Balls that clear a net with lots of clearance land deep in the opponent’s court. So, this double bounce practice is perfect for getting in the habit of hitting high, deep groundstrokes.

During this phase of my practice, I generally try to hit my shots so that I am alternating between forehand to backhand groundstrokes. If I hit 100 of these type of groundstrokes, 50 will be forehands, and 50 will be backhands. This is the only pattern I use at this phase.

Next, I will move closer to the wall or backboard and begin to hit my groundstrokes allowing the ball to take only one bounce. This forces me to take a shorter backswing, which is almost always desirable. I hit about 200 to 300 balls in this manner. The temptation is to hit these shots with lots of pace. However, I try to temper my shots and to still hit them in a manner that would replicate high net clearance.

The pattern of how I hit these groundstrokes is different from the pattern used previously. Below, is a diagram that illustrates this new pattern.

I start by hitting a forehand straight ahead (Arrow 1). The result is that the ball will come straight off the wall as seen in Arrow 2. Next, you hit a forehand following the path indicated by Arrow 3. I have exaggerated the angle of this shot for illustrative purposes. Arrow 4 indicates the ball coming off the wall (In reality, there would be an angle to its path, but to keep the diagram simple I have drawn a straight line. Again, you hit a straight ahead shot. This time, however, you are hitting a backhand. The ball will come back to you off the wall as illustrated by line 6. Line 7 represents your next shot, which is angled (again, this is greatly exaggerated). Lastly, the ball comes off the wall as illustrated by Arrow 8 which is really the reverse path of Arrow 1. The player now repeats the entire pattern.

Although this may seem confusing, at first, it is really quite simple. You are hitting a forehand down the line, followed by a forehand hit crosscourt. Then, you hit a backhand down the line followed by a backhand hit crosscourt. The entire cycle is repeated over and over.

This pattern is extremely effective when practicing groundstrokes off of a wall or backboard. It forces the player to hit with direction and control. In addition, the crosscourt shots will force movement on the part of the player.

Whenever I find that my groundstrokes are a bit suspect, I always return to this wall drill. It is that effective.

Keeping this X pattern in mind, I will move a bit closer to the wall and hit all of my shots using forehand and backhand slice. I normally will hit about a hundred of these always trying to use the pattern seen in the diagram above.

I grant the reader that normally a player may want to move to the net when hitting these slice shots. Still, this drill can help the player focus on hitting an effective slice before moving forward. I have seen many recreational players who have missed an approach shot because she/he did not pause for a fraction of a second while executing the shot.

VOLLEYS

My next series of wall shots focus upon volleys. I will stand about 7 to 9 feet from the wall and start hitting volleys, where the ball does not bounce. Of course, every so often, the ball will be hit without much pace and force me to allow it to bounce. However, this is not a problem, as it replicates what can happen on the court in match play.

I usually just try to keep the volleys moving without any specific pattern. I assure the reader that this is not an easy drill. If you find that you are having difficulty, at first, don’t despair. With practice, you will find that you can truly keep the volleys moving with control. I have actually hit over a 1000 volleys in such a manner without missing a shot.

I should caution the reader that attempting to do too many volleys off the wall or backboard may cause trouble with the fore arm. So, be judicious until you know what the effects of these repetitive volleys will be. I generally try to do about 300 or so.

Some years back, Oscar Wegner taught me a way to practice volleys that is very effective. In essence, one places a board at a 45 degree angle. The player hits his/her volleys downward with backspin, and the ball bounces off the board at an upward angle.

This is a great way to practice stop volleys and to make certain that your volleys have backspin.

To help you understand how this board would be placed, I offer the following diagram.

OVERHEADS

If you are hitting against a high wall or the side of a building, you can easily hit a high feed that will bounce off the wall like a lob. Then, it is simply a matter of hitting the smash. Of course, be prepared to chase a few balls if you are hitting your smashes in an angled manner.

I will hit about 20 forehand overhead smashes, and then, about 20 backhand overhead smashes (arguably the most difficult shot in tennis).

If you are not able to find such a high wall, you can still use the traditional backboard or low wall to practice your overhead smashes. To do this, you need to hit your feed down at the floor in such a manner that it will bounce upward and off the wall. I realize that words make it very difficult to understand this. So, I am offering the following diagram in the hope that the process will be made more clear.

SERVES

Take about 10 to 13 strides from the wall. Try to approximate as closely as you can the distance from the baseline to the net on a tennis court.

Now, simply serve against the wall as if you were serving on a tennis court. It is really helpful if you have a line that represents the net. I use tape for this purpose. Of course, it is important to remember that a tennis net is 36 inches at the center strap and 42 inches at the posts. So, try to angle your line accordingly.

You may not be able to practice serve depth with great certainty, but net clearance should not be a problem. In addition, you can focus on the rhythm of your serve motion and its form. Both of these elements are essential when serving.

I like to do about 50 serves with about 20 of these being first serves.

SERVE/VOLLEY

Crazy as it may seem, I have even played points out using a wall. Frequently, I will attempt to serve/volley. I will hit a second serve and move forward as I serve. Invariably, I am forced to hit a half volley as I move forward. I will try to direct my half volley in such a manner as to allow me to continue to move forward and hit a volley. I will force myself to hit at least two volleys before I angle the final volley for a put away.

Truthfully, this is an excellent way to practice for doubles using a wall.

All in all, I will hit anywhere from 800 to 1000 balls during a practice session. I would not recommend that you begin with such a high number of balls. However, it is important to keep count of the number of balls you are hitting. You can increase in reasonable increments until you reach 1000.

1000 balls hit against the wall is a great workout.

I assure you that I regularly include wall work into my practice regimen throughout the year. I find it that useful!!! Of course, when time is at a limit, a wall practice session may be the only viable way to hit.

As a means of comparison, I have counted the number of balls that are typically hit in a two set match. Generally, the count ranges from 300 to 500 depending on the surface. As you can see, the aggregate number of balls hit in a match is far lower than we typically imagine.

So, I strongly recommend that this spring you incorporate backboard practice into your routine. If you do, I assure you that you will become a tennis overdog!!!

A FINAL IMPORTANT NOTE

I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many, many readers who have purchased my Perfect Tennis e-book. The feedback has been absolutely fantastic.

For those of you who follow my column and/or have purchased my book, I wish to mention another book that I believe you will find absolutely invaluable.

My good friend, David Ranney, has written a book "Tennis: Play the Mental Game" that is, in my mind, the single best work on the mental performance in tennis. More information about David, along with his book, is available on his web site, www.maxtennis.com.

I am so convinced that this book will help your tennis game, that I have written a supplementary chapter to my Perfect Tennis that is only available through David’s site.

This supplementary chapter is available free when you purchase David’s book. In fact, this supplementary chapter serves as a "bridge" for Perfect Tennis and Tennis: Play the Mental Game.

I firmly believe that, if one incorporates the "process" in Perfect Tennis with the practical, on-court ideas in Tennis: Play the Mental Game, amazing results will ensue.

I am receiving no compensation from David for promoting his work. It simply is one of those tools that will truly help make you 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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