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August 2008 Article

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Passing Thoughts

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in August. The U.S. Open Series is in full bloom, and the U.S. Open awaits us. Hopefully, each reader has had the opportunity to play outdoor tennis in warm weather. With really one month left to summer, it is probably time to start working on new facets of your game... presuming that you have been able to resurrect and/or solidify your "normal" game.

One question that frequently comes to me from readers deals with the "passing game." Not surprisingly, most of the questions deal with players who are being passed at the net when competing... not questions regarding how to pass opponents who are at the net.

I say that this is not surprising to me because the net game in tennis, save in doubles, has for the most part disappeared. Even at Wimbledon, it speaks volumes that Rafal Nadal (a genius with groundstrokes) could find his way to the Championship. In part, the changes that have been made to slow down the speed of Wimbledon's courts has enabled the typical modern groundstroke player to succeed on a surface that is usually his/her nemesis.

In truth, the great serve/volley players are become fewer. The modern game of tennis rewards the groundstroke-oriented player who has mobility. Add to this a big serve, and you have the archetype for the modern game.

Still, every tennis player will find herself/himself at the net... either by choice or out of necessity. Given the reality that so many of the modern players possess great groundies, it is no surprise to me that players are able to hit great passing shots.

The net consequence of all of this, in my mind, is that more and more players are less likely to be able to survive at the net. Prevailing at the net is not a likely scenario for many of the modern players... on all levels of the game.

It is really a viscous cycle. More and more players are groundstroke-oriented competitors. Thus, they have weaker volleys and little expertise with respect to playing this approach to the game. When these modern players come to the net, they find themselves frequently being passed by skilled groundstroke-oriented opponents. So, they lose confidence in themselves at the net and are less likely to move in its direction.

This trend and cycle is so pronounced that I have seen senior players who destroy much younger opponents by forcing these "youngins" to come to the net. How many younger competitors are truly comfortable being at the net? Hit drop shots and force these younger players to come in and to hit volleys, and these younger players are taken out of their comfort zone.

I am not suggesting that the pros on either tour are easily beaten simply by forcing them to the net. Pros have all the strokes in their arsenal of weapons. But, it is not surprising to see pros who are great at the baseline be comparatively helpless when at the net.

Now, the present groundstroke era is not new. One does not have to go far back to see a player like Stefan Edberg who literally made his career (which was impressive to say the least) based on serve/volley and chip/charge.

Edberg faced and beat many great groundstroke-oriented opponents as he rose to being number 1 in the world.

My point is simple. The serve/volley, net-oriented approach to tennis can and will be successful in today's game. But, it is not and is not likely to be the norm.

Most of my readers, however, are not inclined to be developing a solid serve/volley strategy. I can certainly understand this given racquet technology and the prominence of hard court surfaces. There are so many opponents who really love "having a target" at the net. Unless you are playing on grass, carpet or faster indoor hard courts; you are probably not a net-oriented competitor.

Still, you do need to have a basic proficiency at the net. Like it or not, you are going to find yourself at the net. On recreational and intermediate levels of play, an opponent's whole game plan can be based upon bring his/her opponent to the net.

So this month, I want to speak about how not to be so easily passed when at the net.

First, every player must spend time working on her/his volleys. I see lots of players who practice volleys. But, the manner in which they practice is frequently not really helpful and productive.

When practicing your volleys, do not stand close to the net. In real tennis competition, most players (particularly on the recreational and intermediate levels) are hitting their volleys from about a foot in front of the service line. This is reality! Granted, a player's second volley should be hit closer to the net. He/she should have moved closer after striking his/her first volley.

Standing two feet away from the net as you practice volleys does a player no good! Second volleys may be hit from this area of the court, but first volleys are not. If you can't hit a volley well when you are camped on top of the net, you need to revisit your volleying technique!

The second problem that I see with how many players practice volleys is that they are frequently standing in the center area of the court as they practice volleys. It would be nice if all volleys came to a player in this manner. The reality is that passing shots are hit toward anywhere but the center of the court 90% of the time.

It is far better to stand to one side or the other as you take your practice volleys. Generally if a player moves about 2 to 3 feet left or right of the center line, she/he will find that she/he is striking volleys from a much more realistic place on the court. Each player should learn to hit both forehand and backhand volleys from these two positions on the court. If you look at matches on television, you will note that in singles these two spots are where the vast majority of volleys are struck.

A third problem I see with how players practice volleys is that they are moving more side to side, if they are moving at all, rather than forward.

In singles tennis, it is rare that a player is able to camp out at the net. Rather, she/he is more likely to be moving toward the net as she/he is hitting a volley. If the player is skilled, he/she will pause all the forward movement while striking a volley, but resume moving forward immediately after hitting this stroke.

So, I recommend that in addition to "static" volley practice or "side-to-side" volley practice that players incorporate forward movement drills to their regimen.

A favorite drill of mine goes as follows.

Your hitting partner and you trade several groundstrokes. The hitting partner deliberately hits a short ball and/or you decide to hit an approach shot. As you move forward, your hitting partner should try to hit a reply to your approach that allows you to hit a volley at one of the two common volley points referenced above. You should hit your best volley. If your partner is able to hit a reply to your volley he/she should do so. If your volley has been struck in a manner that prevents your hitting partner from making a controlled reply, then he/she should let your shot go and "feed" you another ball which he/she has been holding in his/her hand.

This drill forces you to hit two volleys. In doing this drill you move forward to hit the first volley, and continue to move forward to hit the second volley. This forward motion is essential if one wants to survive at the net. Yet, we rarely practice our volleys in a manner that promotes forward movement.

Knowing how to move to the net is another matter that needs to be discussed, if a player does not want to be passed.

If you are hitting an approach shot, it is almost always best to hit a sliced approach down-the line, and a topspin approach crosscourt. For most of us, the backhand wing lends itself to hitting slice, while the forehand wing is conditioned to hitting topspin. So if you are approaching the net, hit your backhands with slice down-the-line and your forehand approach shots crosscourt with topspin.

Certainly, one can benefit from hitting a forehand slice down-the-line and a backhand topspin approach shot crosscourt. It is just that for most players these are not natural strokes. Once you have hit your approach shot, follow the path of the ball you have hit as you continue to move forward.

For example, let's say I hit a topspin approach shot off of my forehand and direct it crosscourt. As soon as I hit this shot, I should be moving to my left and moving forward (I play right handed). This movement will automatically follow the path of my shot, and automatically put me in the best possible court position to handle any reply from my opponent.

Using the opposite example, let's say that I hit a backhand slice shot down-the-line as an approach. I should be moving forward with very little, if any, movement to my right after I hit this approach. I should be looking for the crosscourt passing shot from my opponent, but unless this opponent is very fast and very skilled, I am probably in a position to handle this crosscourt reply with a second volley. As John McEnroe quotes his Davis Cup Captain, Arthur Ashe, it is best to cover the down-the-line reply with this type of approach.

When you are moving toward the net, it is imperative that you pick up your opponent's reply as soon as is possible. This type of anticipation separates the good from the bad net players. The best way to anticipate where your opponent is going with a shot is by really paying close attention to the ball as it makes contact with her/his strings.

Whether I have just hit an approach shot or a volley, I am always trying to be alert about seeing the ball come off my opponent's racquet as he/she makes a reply. Seeing in this manner is of critical importance when you are at the net.

My whole approach to the game of tennis is to minimize the amount of conscious thought going on in my mind during points. Rather, I want my conscious mind to focus on the ball.

By following the path of your approach shots and volleys, you will be moving in the best possible manner without having to think about anything other than where the ball is headed. By focusing your attention on your opponent's racquet face as he/she makes contact to hit a reply allows you to anticipate better without any conscious deliberation or thought.

Net play is generally fast and furious. The less you think and the more you react quickly, the better.

There is a conscious mindset, however, that does need to be put in place. Very simply, the player must condition herself/himself to play "longer" points at the net.

We all have been taught that whoever controls the net wins the point, and this is true. Generally however, players think that their first volley should be able to win the point outright. This is a fatally flawed mindset!

If you are approaching the net or find yourself at the net, you should be mentally expecting to hit two volleys to win the point. The first volley should be hit in a direction that forces your opponent to move. In other words, hit your first volley away from your opponent. The second volley should be the put away volley. It is more likely to be the volley that wins you the point. With second volleys, you simply want to hit a volley that will not be able to be touched by your opponent's racquet or hit a volley that is directed at your opponent's feet. Either of these is a winning volley, I assure you.

It may be that your first volley does in fact win you the point. But, the odds are against this.

With so many skilled groundstroke-oriented players in the game today, it is no wonder that we find ourselves being passed when at the net.

Still, the player who learns to practice volleys correctly... follows the path of his/her ball when striking approach shots or volleys.... continues to move forward at all times... focuses carefully on the ball coming off the opponent's strings... and expects to hit two volleys to win a point... will find himself/herself being passed less often.

When your opponent has a more difficult time passing you at the net, you are well on your way to 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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