One year ago, I wrote a column, The Unorthodoxy of Unorthodoxed Strokes, that addressed unorthodox ways in which players, including some touring pros, hit various strokes. Although, I do not advocate that unorthodox methods of producing a stroke should become the norm in our wonderful game, I do believe that some players are capable of playing more competitive tennis... despite their unusual ways of hitting the tennis ball.
In last year's column, I made reference to players such as Jay Berger (unusual service motion), Francois Durr (a most extraordinary forehand grip), Monica Seles (the two hand forehand) and even the somewhat unique body movement that John McEnroe exhibits in his volleys (his body seems to jerk backwards at the moment of contact).
This summer, I had the distinct pleasure to photograph Fabrice Santoro at the Newport Campbells' Championships and at the Pilot Pen in New Haven. Clearly, the "Magician" earned his name for his unorthodox strokes and ability to control the ball's spin with extraordinary precision.
Fabrice is one of the most entertaining and formidable tennis pros that I have ever been privileged to watch and photograph. In addition to incredible strokes, Fabrice is clearly one of the greatest tacticians to ever have played the game! In this his farewell year, we should all be appreciative of his contributions to this great sport.
While photographing Fabrice, I made a deliberate effort to focus upon one of the more overlooked aspects of his game... his great volleys! Fabrice played championship doubles throughout his career, and his volleys were important ingredients in his success.
With every stroke, Fabrice could hit the conventionally volley, and he was able to hit a two handed strokes off either wing. However when volleying, he frequently utilized his formidable, two handed volleying on his backhand side.
Fabrice is truly a player who can hit it all... conventionally and unconventionally.
Similarly unconventional, I witnessed the increasingly common "swing volley" hit by both Williams sisters at the U.S. Open. This unusual volley was really introduced to the game by Andre Agassi during his career on the ATP tour.
In coaching tennis, I see many collegiate players who rarely, if ever, move to the net to volley unless forced to do so by their opponents. In large measure, the same is true for many of those who compete on either pro tour.
In the modern game of tennis, big serves and heavy, topspin groundstrokes are the norm. Clearly, racquet technology, string technology and the prevalence of hard courts have contributed to why these approaches to the game are so common. Today, two handed backhands, and forehands that are struck using a western or semi-western grip are more common than the more traditional one handed backhand and eastern grip forehands.
If Bill Tilden or his contemporaries were playing on the tours today, I suspect that none would recognize the sport! The modern game is a very different entity. Two handed backhands are a norm. Big forehand groundstrokes are struck these days using semi-western or full western grips.
One by-product of the western/semi-western forehand grips and two handed backhands is that they actually can inhibit the player's ability to volley. The "software" of these modern strokes is in direct contrast to what is needed for a successful volley. So, it should not be surprising that so few players today (at any level) are comfortable at the net.
Well, I believe there is hope for those of you who hate being at the net, and find conventional volleys to be difficult. For some, the "no swinging" aspect of a properly struck volley is just too strange given their normal groundstroke production "software." For others, a weakness in their wrist may be the reason they strike ineffective volleys, and thus, avoid the net.
If either of these applies to your game, I may have the answer to your net dilemma: the forehand swing volley and the two handed backhand volley. Being inspired by Fabrice Santoro and the Williams sisters, I believe that these two volleys can be easily learned by the "modern" groundstroker, and effectively employed in match competition.
With these goals in mind, this month's column will address each of these two very unconventional strokes.
Let's begin with the forehand, swing volley.
This swing volley can be struck with either the full western, forehand grip or the semi-western, forehand grip. However, the latter grip is by far the more reliable of the two.
The forehand swing volley is hit exactly as a forehand groundstroke with a few exceptions. First, this volley will not work well if the ball is below the level of the net cord at the moment of contact. If the ball is allowed to fall too low, there is very little likelihood that the player will be able to lift the volley over the net. If one does not net the ball, it is likely to land deep. However, if the ball is above the height of the net at the moment of contact, the swing volley can be very effective.
If you watch when pros hit the swing volley it is almost always hit in response to an opponent's reply that travels fairly high over the net. Pros charge in when they see such a reply and swing away with as much force as necessary to put the volley away for a clean winner.
Should the ball fall below the net before a player can make contact with it, she/he is far better off letting the ball bounce and attempting a half volley.
The forehand swing volley cannot be employed in every situation. Traditional volleys that are more of a "blocking" or "punching" nature are needed more often than not on the forehand side. Still, one can hit swing volleys when the ball height is right and when one can move forward to "attack" the ball.
The second important consideration in the swing volley is making certain to attempt a very level swing. Generally, we are lifting groundstrokes when hitting with a western or semi-western grip off the forehand side. However, this racquet motion must be amended to permit the swing volley. A player must take his/her racquet back higher than would normally be the case, and make certain that the stroke is as level as is possible. In part, this is why the ball must be above the height of the net when making contact. Those of you who hit with the full western grip may need to try and get under the ball a bit more, but still the overall swing should be level.
Don't hesitate to take a full swipe at the ball when striking the swing volley. Go for it. The idea behind this volley is to put it away for a winner. Thus, pace is necessary to be successful. Given this, always attempt to hit your swing volley in a manner where it will pass directly over the net's strap. This is the center of the net, and it is 6 inches lower in the center than at its posts. Your chances of hitting a successful winner are greatly enhanced when every swing volley is hit over the center of the net... regardless of where you are on the court when making contact with the ball. Why? You have a greater margin for error!
If you need to hit a second volley off the forehand wing, simply block the opponent's shot with your racquet. This blocking action should not require any grip change. Indeed, a blocked volley struck with either the western or semi-western forehand grip, is really quite easy to hit. Just pretend that your racquet face is like a crossing guard's "stop sign." Simply intersect the ball with the racquet face and let the ball's pace carry the ball back over the net. If the volley is struck below the level of the net cord, make sure to bend your knees to get lower. It will be difficult to angle the racquet face upward when using either of these grips. If successful, your volley will probably land a bit short in the court... almost a drop shot at times. Here, pace is not the goal. Rather, you are simply looking to "bunt" the ball over the net.
If you are like many modern players and rely upon a big forehand groundstroke for your primary weapon, these swing and block volleys will not be difficult to learn. In many instances, the player will find that she/he can volley better in these unconventional ways than using the classic, continental grip volley.
Inspired by Fabrice Santoro, I would recommend that if you are uncomfortable with your backhand volley, a two handed volley may be just the answer.
I grant you that your "reach" will be limited with a two handed volley as opposed to the classic one handed variety. But, two handed volleys can be struck with incredible precision. In addition, the two handed volley will permit a player to strike an effective volley that travels into the opponent's court at a very severe angle.
In striking the two handed volley, one can use one of several grips with respect to one's dominant side: the continental grip, the eastern forehand grip, or even, the semi-western forehand grip. The only dominant hand grip that can't be employed is the full western forehand.
What grip you use for your non-dominant hand (the hand higher on the racquet grip) is often best determined by what dominant hand grip you choose to use for your forehand groundstrokes. But, many players who hit the two handed, backhand volley will make a grip change with their dominant hands.
The forehand grip you use for this two handed, backhand volley will dictate what grip you need to use with your non dominant hand.
If your dominant hand is using the continental grip, try using a continental grip for the non-dominant (upper) hand as well.
If you are using an eastern forehand grip with the dominant hand, try using a continental or an eastern forehand grip for the non-dominant hand. One of these two will work better for you. Trial and error is the only way that you will discover which of these combinations works for you.
If you want to hit a two handed backhand volley where your dominant hand is in a semi-western grip, the only grip that will work for your non-dominant hand (the upper hand) is the eastern forehand grip.
There is a distinct advantage to the latter of these three combinations. First, if you hit your forehand with a semi-western grip, you won't need to change it when hitting the two handed volley. In addition, you can keep the semi-western grip when hitting a swing, forehand volley or a forehand, blocked volley. The fewer grip changes one needs to make, the less likely it is that a player will get caught "changing grips."
John McEnroe hit all his strokes with one single grip: the continental grip. This grip would not likely be successful in the modern game. The pace of shots and the height at which balls bounce today make the continental grip for forehand groundstrokes a significant liability. In the days when John competed on the ATP tour, wood racquets, grass courts and slower hard courts enabled him to use this one grip with extreme effectiveness. A wonderful aspect in John's game is that he never had to think about what grip he needed to use... everything was struck with the same grip. With this simplified approach, he was never caught "changing grips."
The two handed, backhand volley does allow a player to swing at the ball more so than would be the case with classic, one hand, backhand volleys. But in teaching this volley to my students, I have discovered that in a very short period of time they learn to block any low volleys and put away any high volleys. At first, the temptation to take a full swing at the ball is there. But, it doesn't take long to abbreviate this into a more blocking-like motion.
Children, senior players with wrist problems and some female players find traditional backhand volleys to be difficult if not impossible. Simply put, some players just can't find a way to "stiffen" or "lock" their wrists at the moment of impact. For people in this situation, learning the two handed volley may be their only option. But, I assure you that it is not an ill-founded choice.
In the game of Fabrice Santoro, this amazing player could hit even very low volleys with control and placement using a two handed, backhand volley.
Again, I am not attempting to suggest that every player should adopt the swing volley and/or the two handed volley. But if you are a player who finds that she/he is complete vulnerable at the net, these two unconventional strokes may be a viable and desirable addition to your game's arsenal.
The "infamous" pusher will always exploit an opponent who cannot volley effectively. The pusher will hit groundstrokes to her/his opponent that have absolutely no pace. They will loft balls to bring their opponent deep into the court. Then, they will force the opponent to the net by hitting a short ball. Once the opponent is at the net, the pusher will fire away a blazingly powerful passing shot. Pushers almost always can hit an effective and powerful passing shot. If they sense an opponent is unable to volley effectively, the pushers in this game will always find a way to bring these opponents to the net.
Let's face it. The modern game may not be built around serve/volley and chip/charge. But, every player needs to be able to volley with reasonable skill and effectiveness. Every player needs to have a level of confidence in his/her ability to volley... even if this is not what the player prefers to do.
Learning to hit the forehand, swing volley and the two handed, backhand volley can go a long way toward helping your net game. You may find that you actually feel comfortable and confident at the net when you own these two strokes. If these do become realities for you, you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!
[If you are confused about grips, please refer to my previous article which is available at The Grip: Picture Perfect. You will find images of all the grips mentioned above from both right hand and left hand perspectives.]