Well, here we are in February. The Australian Open is behind us, and the outdoor season (for those of us north of the equator) is really just around the corner.
Collegiate teams are beginning to train in earnest. High school competitors are probably beginning to refurbish their tennis skills. Recreational players are hopefully engaged in USTA sponsored league competition.
Some of us will just be beginning to think about resuming playing this wonderful game of ours on a more frequent basis.
On the pro level, the clay court tournaments are looming in the future. Apropos to this clay court series, I want to discuss with the reader what I believe is the single most underutilized stroke in the game of tennis... the infamous "moonball."
A moonball is a groundstroke that is hit with massive topspin, passes over the net a very high "altitude," and lands usually close to the opponent's baseline. In a very real sense, the moonball is a topspin lob, but when hit properly, the moonball has more spin and more pace.
For those who have played me, my signature stroke is the moonball. I can hit this shot all day long. I can hit it off of low bouncing balls. I can hit it off of high bouncing balls. I can hit it off either wing, and I am capable of hitting this shot well when on the run. It has taken me some time to master this stroke, but it is truly my "bread and butter," particularly when I am in trouble.
Most junior, high school and collegiate players focus upon hitting groundstrokes with as much pace as is possible. I have witnessed many matches where both players are trying to out power the other. I often times shake my head at this approach. This approach to the game is high risk to say the least.
There are some clear benefits to hitting moonballs.
First, many opponents cannot handle the high bounce that these shots produce. Even if the opponent is not having much trouble with the bounce, he/she is likely to be quite a distance behind the baseline when making his/her reply. Any time that you can put your opponent deep behind his/her baseline, you are in a strategically advantageous situation. Because moonballs are bouncing outside the normal "strike zone," many players have great difficulty hitting the high bouncing moonball with authority.
Second, moonballs generally slow down the overall pace of a match. Players that seek to hit with power usually are not eager to engage in long rallies. Power players generally seek to end points as quickly as is possible. They seek to dominate the opponent with the force of their groundstrokes.
This phenomenon is true with the pros, as well. Having photographed players on both pro tours, I can honestly say that the power game is no longer limited to the ATP half. Women on the WTA tour are truly hitting with greater pace each year. With the exception of matches on slower surfaces like clay, most pro matches do not have very long rallies.
Third, moonballs generally prevent the power hitter from teeing off on the ball. The deep court position from where replies to the moonball are struck and the high bounce associated with the moonball make it difficult to hit winners. More often, the reply is either a moonball, or a medium paced groundstroke.
Fourth, moonballs generally prevent a player from having to exert much energy. The high arch of the moonball usually provides ample time to recover to the center without scrambling. Most of the time, a player hitting a moonball is not hitting with maximum pace. So, the amount of energy expended in actually producing the moonball is less.
Both of these factors can be critically beneficial in long matches and/or when a player finds that she/he is fatigued. Allied with this if a player is injured or for whatever reason has limited mobility, the moonball can keep her/him in the match.
As many of you who read my column regularly already know, I suffer knee problems. Without the moonball, I would not be able to compete at all. By hitting the moonballs, I need to run less, and run at slower pace when I must run. These result in conserving my overall energy. I can rally with moonballs seemingly forever without burning out.
Fifth, it requires patience to play an opponent who hits moonballs. Because groundstroke rallies last longer, an opponent's patience can be strained. I have had opponents who increasingly became impatient and frustrated with my tactic of hitting moonballs. In a very real sense, the moonball rally has a similar effect upon opponents as the "pusher" does. On more than one occasion, I have had an opponent self-destruct as I continued to hit moonball after moonball.
The tennis great, Harold Solomon, was the consummate moonballer. Harold was diminutive with respect to size. He really did not have any big weapons. He was blessed with great "wheels," and he was a great "retriever."
Harold would rally with moonballs until his opponent would hit something that would land short in the court. Harold's speed would enable him to get to this short reply quickly, and he would often times hit an incredibly sharp crosscourt shot for an outright winner. When you were playing Harold, you needed to be prepared to be on the court for quite some time. His matches were rarely quick.
The moonball player should bide her/his time as Harold did. Sooner or later, the opponent will invariably hit a reply that will land short in the court. If you are truly aware, you may be able to charge the net, take this short ball before it bounces, and volley it away for a winner. However, simply moving in on the short ball after it bounces provides a player with lots of angles. Frequently, the wide shot will be an outright winner, particularly because the opponent is frequently behind her/his baseline.
There are several defenses that can work well against the moonballer. Serve/volley and chip/charge tactics can be effective against the moonball. Why? Well, each of these prevents the moonball rally from materializing. If the opponent is charging the net, he/she can volley or hit an overhead smash.
Hitting every reply to the moonball with as much backspin as possible is often times a useful counter play. It is normally more difficult to hit moonballs off of a sliced shot that bounces low. Allied with this, hitting a chip that lands short in the moonballer's court (almost like a drop shot) can unsettle the moonball rallies. Sometimes, the moonballer is not comfortable at the net. In addition, she/he may have mobility problems that prevent her/him from being able to scramble well.
So, how does one learn to hit effective moonballs? Well, I would suggest that hitting against a high backboard or wall is a great starting point. Essentially, you hit off both wings trying to hit the ball so that it bounces off the wall at a very high point. As you hit these high shots, try to impart as much topspin as is possible. Really try to get under the ball. As you become more comfortable with this high ball and the necessary topspin, increase the pace associated with these shots. You will probably find that as you increase the pace, you will automatically increase the topspin.
Below, is a diagram that illustrates how high these balls should be struck when hitting with a wall or backboard. I have indicated about where the net would be, if this were an actual tennis court.
When hitting against a wall or backboard, you can identify how effective your spin may be. Backspin or slice comes off the wall with a very downward oriented trajectory. Conversely, topspin seems to move slightly upward as it comes off the wall (This is a subtle upward movement, as gravity prevents true upward movement.) Balls that are hit relatively flatly come off the wall following the exact path they took approaching the wall.
In that moonballs require lots of topspin to be truly effective, the wall and or backboard can be a very effective way of learning to hit with the necessary topspin.
The best moonballs travel very high over the net, land very deep in the opponent's court, have significant pace and topspin, and bounce extremely high.
On the forehand wing, you will find that the western or semi-western grip is the best choice for hitting moonballs.
On the backhand wing, two-handers are at an advantage. Dipping the racquet head on the backswing and wrist the ball to impart topspin will usually result in ideal moonballs.
One handed back-handers can hit moonballs. But necessarily, you will need to be hitting with a full, eastern backhand grip. Usually, a more open stance assists in imparting the desired topspin.
Tomas Muster was an absolute master of hitting high, loopy groundstrokes off his backhand. But, not many one-handed players are as capable of hitting the moonball. On clay, it is my firm opinion that Roger Federer and Pete Sampras were at a disadvantage. The high bouncing balls to their backhand side (even the kick serves) present a difficulty.
Particularly when playing a one-handed player, I will frequently pound the backhand wing with moonballs. I know that this is an effective strategy when I begin to see my opponent running around his backhand.
When you are practicing on a tennis court, a simple way to perfect the moonball is to mark off an area that is about 2 to 3 feet inside your opponent's baseline. The idea is to learn to hit your groundstrokes so that they land within this area. Presuming they have high net clearance and topspin, these shots will be perfect moonballs.
You can actually practice this by playing a groundstroke game. After serving the ball, each player must hit her/his groundstroke within this area. If the ball lands short of this new line, the player who struck the shot loses the point.
You can make the point determinations easier by placing red yarn across the court. Anchor each end of the yarn with a weight. Yarn is desirable because it does no damage to the court, and does not present a hazard when a player needs to move forward (rope would cause tripping).
If you are playing on a clay court, simply "draw" this line in the clay with the head of your racquet.
Start this game with the line being 6 feet inside the baseline. As you become more comfortable hitting moonballs, you can move the line closer to the baseline.
Believe me, this drill/game is difficult! It will take some time to learn how to hit shots that land inside the "live" area. If you find this game too difficult, simply begin by making the forward line be the horizontal service line. The problem will be that you may not hit high arching shots (moonballs) if the "live" area is too broad.
Here is a diagram that illustrates this area... it is the lined portion of the court.
At the major tennis academies, the courts are usually equipped with a "string" that can be stretched above the net. This string is usually about 5 to 6 feet above the top of the net. In rallying, players must hit every shot over this string. There is only one way that this can be done... by hitting perfect moonballs.
It is important that when working with a hitting partner that you learn to hit moonballs off both wings. In addition, learn to hit moonballs while on the run.
Although this can be difficult, the moonballer needs to be able to hit this wonderful shot when the ball bounces low and has been struck with slice.
Truly, the moonball is an "out of this world" shot. It can be the single most effective shot in your arsenal when mastered. When observing players during the clay court season on both tours, you will note that they will invariably hit many shots that are moonballs or near moonballs.
I would argue that this shot is effective on almost all surfaces. The only exceptions may be carpet and/or grass, although the great Bjorn Borg was able to hit effective, high, topspin groundstrokes off this latter surface with ease.
Spend some time learning to hit this essential shot. I promise you that once it is a part of your arsenal of weapons, you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!