Tennis is truly a game of millimeters... not inches! The more I closely examine this wonderful game, the more I am aware of how precise the movement and position of the racquet head must be, if we are to keep our shots within the white lines. We must, at times, control this racquet head movement while running, while stretched out to the max, and in all sorts of wind/sun conditions. Truthfully, it is a minor miracle that our shots ever land within the court boundaries, no?
Here we are in early spring. Many, if not most of you reading this, are beginning to hit balls out of doors. For some, the winter months have been a hiatus from this fabulous game we play. These hibernating tennisphiles are probably in the process of resurrecting and refining strokes.
If you are typical, there are those days when you seemingly can't get a ball to land safely in bounds. You are serving into the net, hitting groundstrokes wide, and your volleys are bouncing two feet behind the baseline. Needless to say, these days test any player's patience.
This time of year is the heart and soul of the collegiate tennis, spring season. As a coach, I had many players ask me, "Coach, why are my shots not landing in?" It is a question that is all too common.
Well in this month's column, I hope to explain the basic principles of why shots become errant, and the factors that may come to play that result in misplaced shots. Simply understanding these may not be all that is necessary to correct any problem(s), but not understanding these will likely make your "slump" last longer than it needs to last.
The single most important factor in why any shot goes where it does is the position of the racquet head at the moment of contact with the ball. The slightest variances in the racquet head's angle at this moment of impact can result in huge differences with respect to the ball's path.
Regardless of the stroke, the racquet head should be perfectly perpendicular to the ground at the moment of impact. When we stand erect, our bodies are perfectly perpendicular to the ground (if we view our body as a straight line). Similarly, the racquet head should be in this perfectly vertical position at the moment of impact.
In the following illustration, I show what I mean by a perfectly perpendicular racquet head position at the moment of impact.
When we have this perfect racquet head position, we can control where we want to direct the ball, and can impart any spin that we wish with control.
In the diagram below, the racquet head is tilted slightly up (I have exaggerated this in the illustration) at the moment of impact. In this position, our ball is going to go upward more so than we expect. The ball approaches the racquet face, makes contact and "bounces" off the string bed in an upward direction.
Without taking the time to draw out every possible variance, suffice it to say that the racquet face at the moment of impact must be in a perfect vertical position, if the player is to maintain predictable control over her/his shots.
Unfortunately, the racquet head may be tilted ever so slightly up or down at this moment of impact. What is the result? The shot goes higher (more likely to land too deep) or lower (more likely to hit the net) than the player expected.
Similar consequences can occur when the racquet head is not perfectly facing the left or right direction that we wish at the moment of impact.
Let's assume that we take an overhead perspective in the following diagram. In the illustration below, we want the ball to travel to the left. To achieve the perfect direction, the racquet face must perfectly face the desired direction at the moment of impact. Again, I have exaggerated the position of the racquet face in this diagram.
You will note in the diagram above that the ball is coming off the string bed of the racquet face in a perfect right angle. When we direct a ball precisely, we do so by moving through the ball guiding it to move in the desired path. As the ball makes contact with the strings, we need to strike the ball in such a manner that it moves in a right angle which results in the intended flight path of the ball.
When you attempt to hit the outside of the ball, you are really making contact in such a manner that the ball is struck so that it will come off the strings in the exact right angle that you need to make the ball go left or right.
Whether all this geometry and physics makes complete sense to you, the point is simple.
Slight variations (really measured in millimeters) in the racquet face's position at the moment of impact result in major differences regarding the path of the ball.
The second major factor that comes to play in producing errant shots refers to the amount of pace that you impart to the ball.
Again simply put, the harder you hit the ball the more pace it has. The more pace that the ball has the farther it is likely to travel (unless something like the net blocks its path).
Conversely if you strike the ball with very little power, it will not travel as far. This could result in a ball landing too short in your opponent's court.
Players who are experiencing errant shots must consider the amount of power that they are attempting to impart to their shots. Frequently, I find that collegiate and high school competitors will try to "crush" every groundstroke.
There is another factor that the player must "address" as he/she decides on how much power to impart when making contact with the ball. This additional factor involves how much pace the opponent's shot possesses.
Shots that come at you with lots of pace come off your strings with greater pace. If your opponent's shots come at you with little pace, you probably need to generate more pace by hitting the ball a bit more forcefully.
The overall principle is particularly true when you are hitting volleys. Since a volley is more of a "blocked" or "punched" shot than a stroke, the pace of your opponent's shot critically impacts the pace of your volley.
Players need to be aware of the power factors involved in their shots (including serves, volleys and overhead smashes) in determining why shots may be going errant.
The last factor that determines whether a shot lands in or out deals with the amount and kind of spin that you place on your shot.
Topspin shots (where the ball rotates forward as it moves off your racquet) tend to drop more quickly and bounce a bit higher. Sliced shots (where the ball rotates toward you as it moves off your racquet) tend to travel a bit farther and bounce a bit lower. Flat shots (where the ball has almost no rotation) do exist, and serve as a reference for attributes associated with topspin and slice.
In the two diagrams below, you can see the ball the ball would spin for both topspin and slice as the ball moves from the racquet face.
All things being equal, a topspin shot will not travel as far as a flat shot before bouncing. All things being equal a slice shot will travel farther than a flat shot before bouncing.
The amount of spin (topspin or slice) must be figured into the equation. Shots hit with excessive topspin tend to land short in the opponent's court. Shots hit with excessive slice tend to "float" long.
Flat shots tend to retain the most amount of pace, but because they have very little spin they are frequently difficult to control.
Players who truly control their shots use both topspin and slice, and only hit flat shots when they are certain that they can control the ball's path to keep it landing in bounds.
Okay Ron, how can I use all of this information to prevent myself from hitting errant shots?
What to consider if your shots are landing consistently long or short.
- A slightly imperfect grip. Even a slight difference in your grip as you hit a shot can make a huge difference in how the ball travels. These grip variances are a principle cause of why your shots may be going too low or too high. If your balls are hitting the net or landing deep, you want to double check the position of your grip. You would be amazed how different frames of the same racquet model may have slightly different grips handles even though they are all supposedly the same size. This is, in part, why the pros have their racquets customized by racquet technicians to make certain that every grip handle is identical. Of course, over grip changes the shape and size of the grip handle. Sometimes when replacing an over grip, we find that we do not grip the handle in the same exact manner. Usually, we re-find our proper grip positions quickly when we take the time to consciously examine them.
- How you take your racquet back can affect the "perpendicular to the ground" position of the racquet face at the moment of impact. Again, this usually affects the height or lack thereof associated with your shots. Checking the length and nature of your backswing may be the second step in determining why your balls are landing short or long.
- Sometimes, we simply hit balls short or long because we hit them too soft or too hard. If the two factors above are not the culprit, the next step would be to take assessment of how much pace you are giving to your shots. Usually, we do best to hit almost all of our shots at a relaxed three quarter pace level.
- The kind and amount of spin that we are imparting to our shots is another factor to measure if our shots are landing deep or short. If your shots are all over the place, consider whether you are hitting them too flat. Generally, it is best to hit only about 10% of all our strokes flatly. Spin is the essence of ball control when it comes to matters of depth.
- Nerves make us hit too hard. If you find yourself being very nervous, you will probably notice that many of your shots land too deep or hit the net with lots of pace. Generally, nervousness forces us to hit with too much pace because our muscles are tight. We can't relax enough to hit fluid strokes. If this is the case, , the best course of action is to breathe deeply, slow down, take your time, and try to relax your muscles in between points and games.
What to consider if your shots are going wide or hit with misdirection.
- Timing is the first factor to consider. Are you hitting a bit early or a bit late? Simply watching the ball more carefully is the best way to regain lost timing. Still, there are times when we are either consistently early or late. In this latter case, the cause is probably related to the pace or lack thereof that your opponent is imparting to her/his shots.
Timing is also greatly affected by nerves. If we are very nervous, we usually time our shots poorly. We find that our shots are frequently going wide. Here, the best course of action is to breathe deeply, slow down, take your time, and try to relax your muscles in between points and games.
- How am I moving? Related to one's timing is court movement. Sometimes we are just moving late to the ball. We are not anticipating our opponent's shots and we get a late start with respect to moving to them. If this is the culprit, I strong recommend that you focus careful attention on the moment of impact associated with your opponent's shots. If you can see carefully the moment that ball makes contact with his/her strings, you are much more likely to anticipate the opponent's shots.
Sometimes, fatigue is the culprit. We may just be sluggish in our movement due to physical factors like conditioning, illness, heat, dehydration, etc. If this is the cause of why your movement is poor, your best course of action is to attempt to hit lots of high moonballs. Why? Well, these moonballs will allow you more time to get back into proper court position, slow down the pace of the match, and allow you to expend less energy.
In attempting to correct stroke problems during a match, the last thing you want to do is become a victim of paralysis by analysis. Thinking too rationally and attempting to analyze every possible flaw can sometimes yield results that are just the opposite of what we seek.
The time to really become familiar with the causes of your errant strokes is during practice sessions! Learning what causes your strokes to break down in a match begins with understanding why they break down during practice. The difference is that we can allow ourselves to be more analytical in practice. Indeed, this is one of the functions of practicing... to figure things out.
In match play being on "automatic pilot" is the most desirable mindset. It is not always easy to achieve. When we are playing in "the zone" everything happens seamlessly. We are not thinking! We are not evaluating! Rather, we are simply performing. It is almost as if we are observing ourselves play rather than actually playing.
Still, there are times when this desirable mindset is just not happening. At these times, we may be better off simply focusing upon the ball, relaxing the muscles or our body, distracting our minds and allowing the necessary corrections to occur naturally.
Nonetheless, there are times when nothing seems to be "natural" in our tennis game. We cannot seem to find a rhythm. We cannot control our shots. It seems impossible to relax regardless of our best efforts.
Well in this latter case, the player has nothing to lose by becoming analytical. Sometimes, the rational mind will figure out what is going wrong and lead us to an effective solution.
If errant strokes are the problem, understanding what is really happening may enable the rational mind to arrive at the right insights more quickly. When we understand what is making our shots go wrong and what is most likely the cause; we are well on our way to becoming, once again, tennis overdogs!