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I Want To Play The Net Game!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

The serve/volley and chip/charge styles of tennis normally appear only during grass tournaments like Wimbledon, and when the tournament is played on a fast surface like carpet. Let's face it. Most modern players are baseline oriented, and rarely move to the net unless forced to come to the net.
 
Actually, there are some good reasons why the "net game" has diminished. First, modern racquets and string technology have made the power more viable for all players. In the hands of pros, these tools are certainly capable of generating incredible pace. When imparting of the right amount of topspin, pros on both tours can be reasonable certain that there shots will land in bounds despite this increase in power.
 
As a result of this increased power, it is very difficult for players to be able to play serve/volley or chip/charge. The consequence of this power is that it is extremely difficult to close the net in the modern game without being passed. More often than not, the net player finds herself/himself deeper in the court than she/he would like to be when they strike the first volley... assuming that the net player is not passed. Being one step deeper in the court can be a huge problem for the net player.
 
On surfaces like grass and indoor carpets, pace may actually be less of a problem for the net player. Why? Well on these surfaces, the ball does not bounce as high. Thus, it is more difficult for the groundstroke-oriented opponent to be able to setup and tee off on a ball.
 
Coupled with this low bounce on grass, we see that the bounce may actually be more unpredictable as the tournament progresses and the courts begin to develop divots and dry patches. At Wimbledon, center court is quite a mess of pits, valleys and irregular spots. In part, this is why the latter matches in this great tournament are so difficult to win. The serve/volley player is at an advantage because she/he attempts to never let the ball bounce on her/his side of the net.
 
Also, fast surfaces favor the big server. Wimbledon has slowed down the speed of the games played on their grass by literally changing the type of grass. Still, the big serve at Wimbledon is still extremely difficult to return. The same is true with carpet surfaces. The serve is truly explosive off of an indoor carpet court. When returning serve is difficult, there is less likelihood that the return of serve will be hit in a manner that is threatening to the serve/volley player.
 
Whenever the return of serve can be an outright winner, the net game player is vulnerable. Net players need time to get to the net for their first volley whether they are serving/ volleying or chipping back a return of serve. In major measure, this is why one does not see as much net play on hard courts, and certainly, the net game is difficult to employ on slower surfaces like clay.
 
Still, there is a place for the net player in the modern game of tennis. One can play successful serve/volley and chip/charge strategies on hard courts. I am not certain that this approach can be as successfully employed on clay. But, you will see this net game played on some points at Roland Garros.
 
With this in mind, this month's column will attempt to help the reader improve his/her success with respect to net play. In my discussion, I am assuming that the player is likely to be playing on a medium to fast speed hard court. At least in the United States, this seems to be the most common surface upon which players of all levels will compete.
 
It should be noted that one does not have to commit to a net game on every point. Indeed, I would encourage players to occasionally play a serve/volley or chip/charge point every now and then, just to keep the opponent honest. Of course if this is not a comfortable style of play for you, don't go to these tactics on critical points. Rather, mix these in at times when you are up 40-Love or 40-15. If you lose the point, you have not put yourself in danger. Even if you do lose the point, it may unsettle your opponent who is not expecting net play.
 
As a backup strategy, going to the serve/volley and chip/charge approaches can be very useful. Let's say you are significantly behind in a match. You have tried various modifications in your tactical approach, but to no positive avail. Well moving to a full net game that is played on every point may be just what is needed to turn the tide. Desperate situations require desperate measures. For most of us, the net game is more of a desperate measure than a comfortable starting point.
 
This said, let's start examining what needs to be done and known to develop your net game.
 
First, you must have reasonably good volleys. If you are like many modern, recreational players and spend little time practicing and perfecting your volleys, you will likely not succeed when attempting to employ a net game approach. Second, you need good approach shots. Usually, forehand or backhand approach shots that are hit with lots of biting slice are best. Why? Well, these approach shots do not bounce high. They usually prevent the opponent from really hitting out on her/his reply, and they usually force the opponent to hit a shot with a little less pace.
 
When hitting approach shots off of either wing, it is usually best to hit deep into your opponent's court and down the line. The geometry associated with this makes the likelihood of your hitting a good first volley greater. Of course, you only want to hit an approach shot IF it forces your opponent to have to move (preferably run hard) to make a reply!
 
In the diagrams below, you can see the range of reply for the opponent (Y) when you (X) approach down the line. Although there is the possibility that the opponent will reply with a wide shot, this is extremely unlikely. Why? Well, the opponent is moving, if not running, to make his/her reply. As such, the extreme cross court angle is not very likely to be executable. So by following the path of the ball, you are automatically positioned in the exact middle of likely returns... which most often will be directed to the center of the court of the net to down the line. Line A represents the realistic return crosscourt. Sure, there are times when very wide reply crosscourt will be made... but it is not all that likely.
 


 
Often times, players with big groundstrokes are not able to hit the forehand, sliced approach shot with authority. If this applies to you, a sharply angled crosscourt approach that is hit with plenty of topspin will certainly work. Again, the geometry associated with this approach favors your hitting a good first volley.
 
When coaching players, I frequently recommend that they approach the net using a one handed, backhand slice or a severely angled, topspin forehand. It is my experience that most groundstroke oriented players can hit both of these shots with proficiency.
 
Of course, the serve is critically important when playing the net game. Players need to work on what I call their serve/volley serves.
 
First, most of us hit our volleys using a continental grip. So, it makes perfect sense to hit the serve with this same grip. This grip usually is best for big, flat serves or for sliced serves. Using both of these serves and varying when you employ them is certainly helpful when trying to serve/volley on the first serve.
 
My recommendation is to hit the big, flat serve down the T. While I would slice my first serves as wide as is possible. I find this "rule" to be applicable to both the Ad and Deuce courts.
 
Between these two, I find that the slice serve wide is usually better for the less than comfortable net player. Why? Well first, your opponent is drawn wide to make a return. If she/he tries a down the line return, the ball has to travel over the highest part of the net and must land in the court with less margin for error. If the return is directed cross court, the server can usually be positioned in a manner that permits a fairly easy first volley to the open court.
 
In addition, slice serves give the server more time to close the net. Granted, this may only be a fraction of a second, but this can make a big difference with respect to how close the server is able to get to the net when making his/her first volley.
 
If you look at classic serve/volley, you will see that the wide, sliced serve is the norm for first serves.
 
In the diagrams below, you can see the range of potential returns that the opponent (Y) has when you (X) slice your serve wide. You will note that your opponent is returning from near the outside of the doubles alley. Again by following the path of the ball, you are in an ideal position to cover all of these returns. Unlike approach shots in this case, the opponent may actually be equally likely to return down the line or crosscourt.
 

 
The big, flat serve is usually best hit down the line for two reasons. First, the opponent is normally reacting very quickly to this serve and has more difficulty in making a winning or strong return. Should he/she be able to anticipate this serve and return with authority, more often than not, the return will be placed somewhere near the center of the net. Thus, the server has a narrower area to cover in making her/his first volley.
 
In the diagrams below, I have shown the down the T, flat serve. You will note that this serve offers a range of returns that puts the opponent (Y) in or around the center of her/his court. Thus, by following the serve's path, you (X) can best cover all of these potential returns.
 

 
Kick serves are normally the very best option when hitting a second serve. A kick serve has both topspin and a bit of slice. The ball bounces higher than normally is the case, and if there is some slice on the serve, the ball will bounce to one side.
 
The kick serve is the norm for second serves on the pro tours regardless of whether the server intends on closing the net. This is because the high bouncing ball that spins to the side is a bit more difficult to put away for a clean winner. For the serve/volley player, the kick serve provides a bit of extra time to close the net. Again, this fraction of a second of extra time can make a significant difference with respect to how near to the net the server is when making her/his first volley.
 
Quite frequently, the kick serve can be a useful first serve when attempting to play the net game. The great Stefan Edberg hit every serve as a kick serve. These serves coupled with his natural speed when closing the net provided him with an advantage for his serve/volley game.
 
A problem with the kick serve is that it normally requires an eastern backhand grip. Thus, the serve/volley player must change grips to the continental grip after striking this type of serve. However, this is not a difficult change.
 
I have actually learned to hit a kick serve using a continental grip. Thus, I am ready to strike a volley immediately after serving without having to change my grip. I grant you that my continental gripped kick serve does not have as much topspin as those hit with an eastern backhand grip. But, there is some kick, and almost any player can learn to kick serve with the continental grip... if he/she practices!
 
When attempting the net game, the serve is struck while the body is moving forward. Many times, the baseline player will jump up when serving, but not really move forward into the court. If a player wants to serve/volley, she/he must learn to lean forward and move forward while serving. This motion is critically necessary to assist the player in closing the net after striking the serve.
 
Given this, players need to practice serving for the serve/volley game. Using the normal, stay-back serve motion will not be helpful when attempting to serve/volley. Really, these are two very different motions.
 
Moving to the net and learning to when to split step (or just stop the forward movement) is the next variable that needs to be explored.
 
I remember watching Barbara Potter teach area players how to serve/volley. She would literally have them count one, two, three, and then, split step to make the first volley. I don't think that this is a bad technique, and certainly, Ms. Potter was a great serve/volley, tour player.
 
For me however, this is a bit cumbersome to adopt. It may not be for you, and I encourage each reader to give this coaching technique a try.
 
I prefer to have my entire focus upon the ball. I don't want to be thinking about my feet. Nor do I want to be counting steps. Rather, I split step (really simply stopping one's forward movement is sufficient) as soon as I see the ball touch my opponent's string. I have found that this almost always helps me to split step at precisely the right moment without having to take my focus off of the ball.
 
Most of us seem to move directly toward the center of the net after we serve. I guess that the "center theory of coverage" which we use in baseline play wants to impose itself on the net game.
 
Simply put, this center approach is not useful when serve/volleying or chip/charging.
 
As stated above, the server should "follow the path of the ball" after hitting the serve. If the serve is wide, the server automatically shades a bit in this direction. If the ball is hit down the T, the server will naturally move to the center of the net. Here again, I find that this technique helps me to move properly without having to think. I can focus on the ball, which is the most important aspect in the game!
 
This same rule of "follow the path of the ball" should be employed when chip/charging and after each volley! If you approach the net with a down the line shot, and follow the path of the ball, you will automatically find yourself in the best possible court position to cover any possible replies. If you approach with a severely angled, topspin approach, you will still automatically be in the ideal position.
 
Many players freeze and do not move after hitting their first volley. Whether it is your first, second or third volley, you should always be moving forward a bit and shading in the direction of the ball's path after you strike the volley. By continuing to close the net after each volley, you make your next volley easier. The closer you are to the net, the likelihood of having to hit a low volley diminishes. By following, the direction of your volleys, you automatically put yourself in the ideal position to cover any reply.
 
Always expect that you will need to hit another volley! I see many players who hit the first volley and expect that it will result in a winner. This may be the case, but quite frequently, our opponents find a way to hit a response to our "great" volley. Doubles players usually do not fall victim to this syndrome. They realize from playing doubles that there is always a possibility that the opponent will get to any volley struck.
 
The chip/charge approach to return of serve is one that is a very underutilized in the modern game. Here, the return is hit with slice... down the line. The returner follows the path of the ball toward the net, and attempts to hit his/her next shot as a volley, or if necessary, as a half volley. The topspin, crosscourt return is not a wise choice for moving into the net off of the serve. Why? Well, the ball may bounce high enough and short enough that the fleet footed opponent may track your return down and put it away.
 
So, let's review.
 
First, one needs to have reliable volleys. In practicing volleys, do not stand close to the net! In all probability, you will not be hitting your first volley from such a close position. Rather, stand closer to the service line as you take practice volleys. This position is more realistic with respect to match play. If you can volley effectively from this deeper position, the volleys you hit when closer to the net will be no problem.
 
If you are going to play a net game at some point, you will need to be able to hit a good approach shot. These transition shots are needed even if you do not intend on playing serve/volley or chip/charge. The baseliner who wishes to integrate some net game into her/his arsenal will need these approach shots to be well honed. The rule is relatively simple. Approach down the line with slice, and approach crosscourt with topspin. Each player should practice approach shots and discover which approaches work best off of each wing.
 
In serve/volley tennis it is imperative that the player can serve effectively while moving forward to the net. These serves are not the same as serves hit when playing "stay back" tennis. Each player needs to practice forward moving serves that will be used in the serve/volley game.
 
Serve spin and placement are critical in the serve/volley game. First serves should be hit generally in one of two ways: Slice wide or hit flat serves down the line. Of course, every once in a while it is worthwhile to hit a flat serve with pace directly at your opponent. These serves "jam" your opponent and can result in a weak return. These will work effectively on an intermittent level, but if one attempts to jam your opponent on every first serve, it will not take him/her long to realize this tactic and run around your serve. This frequently can result in the opponent hitting a winner off of her/his return.
 
Second serves are usually best struck as kick serves when playing serve volley. Generally, they are best hit to the opponent's weaker wing. More often than not, this will be the backhand side.
 
Movement in the net game needs to be natural but effective with respect to positioning. Following the path of the ball in the net game is a requirement, if one is to keep mental focus on the ball while moving to strategic positions on the court. This rule applies to serves, chipped returns, approach shots and movement after hitting volleys.
 
A great way to help you become a better net player is to incorporate playing doubles into your practice and tournament schedules. I always admired the fact that John McEnroe played both singles and doubles during the height of his career. Each of these, in my mind, helped him perform better in the other.
 
Mastering the net game will take some time and a bit of deliberate dedication. But, it is an essential option to have when playing singles. Should you take the time to integrate the net game into your tactical arsenal, I am sure that it will help you to 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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