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How And Why To Play Indoor Tennis

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Ron Waite, USPTR

For those of us who are presently living in colder climates, the option to play tennis invariably is singular: We must play indoors!
Some recreational players may be unable or unwilling to afford the expense associated with indoor court fees. In this modern economy, I would venture some recreational players who would normally patronize indoor tennis facilities may be forced to re-evaluate this option.
There is much to be said for taking a "break" from playing tennis. In my opinion, the pro tours are just too demanding upon these great athletes. In some ways, I fully understand why the Williams sisters play fewer tournaments per year than many of their competitors. Physically and emotionally, taking a "breather" from playing tennis makes sense!
That said, one does not want to abandon cross training and remaining in shape during this "downtime." Even recreational players should investigate joining USTA leagues during the winter months. These are wonderfully affordable and enjoyable experiences! In addition to maintaining tennis skills, the social aspects of tennis play are emphasized. Many indoor facilities sponsor USTA leagues. In my opinion, these are a highlight of the USTA efforts to propagate this wonderful game of ours.
Seriously competitive players who are concerned about ranking, college competitors, and those high school tennis athletes who compete for their schools during the spring invariably need to maintain "real court" training. If you are one of these and live in the northern sections of our planet, the only option for this kind of realistic training involves practicing and competing indoors!
For these players, the USTA has numerous tournaments scheduled throughout the winter months at indoor facilities. These sanctioned tournaments span Junior, NTRP, Senior and Open levels.
Looking at European tennis, there are similar programs for recreational and competitive players at indoor facilities.
Given the above, this month's column will address the phenomenon of playing tennis indoors.
The first, and perhaps most important, reality that must be accepted is that indoor and outdoor tennis are very different forms of the same game!!! Many times, I have heard players who are moving from one to the other remark that the differences are significant, and I totally agree.
Personally, indoor tennis does not favor my natural approach to the game. Still after taking my obligatory break from playing any tennis (to allow my mind and body to recover); I begin my regimen of "resurrecting" my game by practicing and playing indoors! For me, the end of January or beginning of February are the starting points for this portion of my annual training regimen.
When I was actively competing for USTA rankings, I would play at least 5 tournaments per year at indoor facilities. Living in Connecticut, these tournaments would span the several New England states. Being a New Haven resident, I frequently found that I would play tournaments that were sponsored by the ETA division of the USTA in NYC. So, it is probably safe to say that I have seen virtually every type of indoor surface and facility!
Not all indoor facilities are alike!!! Some are permanent structures that are most likely have insulated metal walls. Others are inflated, structures that are frequently referred to as "bubbles." These two can differ from each other significantly!
Some of the variables that need to be considered include:
The type of surface: Generally, indoor courts are either hard courts, rubber covered hard courts, Har-Tru clay surfaces, carpeted surfaces and wooden floors.
Most indoor hard courts play very fast! The ball loses little pace when bouncing and generally does not bounce as high. Once in a while, indoor courts will be resurfaced, and they may include some "grit" in the new surface. Still, it doesn't take long for these refurbished courts to become faster.
Rubberized hard courts are fairly uncommon, although I have encountered this type of surface at the Boston Athletic Club. Literally, the surface is a "stretched" rubber-like sheet that is put over concrete. In playing on this surface several times, I can say that it is most unusual. The court plays extremely fast and balls literally skid a bit as they bounce. It takes at least a set to even become familiar with this type of surface. Fortunately, I do not think that this is a very commonly found surface. Although, I must confess that the rubberizing does make the court a little "softer" and gentler on one's joints.
Har-Tru is a brand name for what are commonly referred to as "green clay" courts. When Har-Tru is used in indoor facilities, it generally retains moisture, but is very slippery with respect to movement. It is usually slower and results in higher bouncing balls. But rarely, if ever, are these indoor Har-Tru courts as slow and high bouncing as they are when playing upon them outside.
Carpet surfaces are literally like a carpet. They are like a padded, smooth rug. When a ball bounces on carpet, you hardly hear any sound. These carpeted surfaces are extremely fast and never allow for higher bouncing balls. Indeed, these carpeted surfaces are very "skippy." Balls literally skid as they bounce. If you are playing on carpet, your body will enjoy their softness, but you will be bending down all the time! If you have bad knees, this is probably not the surface for you.
In NYC, I have encountered indoor facilities that have wooden floors exactly like one would find on a basketball court. It is my understanding that these surfaces were the norm for indoor courts during the 1930's and earlier. Here again, the surface is fast and balls skid when they bounce.
Again in Boston, I experienced the most unusual surface I have ever encountered. A hockey rink was in the process of being converted into an indoor tennis facility. Before the real renovations could be started, a metal grid was placed over what was the hockey rinks base floor. Yes, I did write "grid." The grid was open-spaced and was about a half inch in thickness. It was anchored well. So, there was not movement of this temporary surface. The surface was relatively slow, and given the grid, any spin on the ball was exaggerated. However, the balls generally bounced low. Fortunately, I have only encountered this surface once! I sincerely doubt that many, if any, of you reading this will find yourself playing on this grid surface.
There may be other surfaces, but they are probably rare, and I certainly have never played upon them.
In aggregate, it is probably safe to say that almost all indoor courts are fast and do not result in high bouncing balls. This is quite a difference from most outdoor surfaces. To "punctuate" this statement, I will inform the reader that I have played tennis in NYC on rooftops that have been covered with an inflatable "bubble!!!" I kid you not.
Lighting: More often than not, indoor courts are poorly lit! There are some exceptions to be sure, but overall, the level of light is very low. As a photographer, I have shot images in a host of different indoor courts. I can assure the reader that my exposure meter confirms that the light is extremely low level. Thus, visibility becomes a real factor.
Temperature: I have never... I repeat never... have played on an indoor tennis court where the temperature was not low! Generally, temps range from around the low 50's to the low 60's Fahrenheit. These lower temperatures decrease ball speed a bit, but usually exaggerate the lower bouncing quality of most indoor courts.
Court space: If you play on most outdoor tennis courts, there is plenty of room between courts. This may or may not be the case with respect to indoor tennis courts. Regardless of the amount of space between courts, most indoor facilities have large "nets" that prevent balls from going inadvertently into adjacent courts. So, the bottom line is that when you play indoors, you really don't have the same "running room" from side to side that you have when playing outside.
Ceilings: For outdoor courts, the sky is literally the limit. But when playing indoors, there is always a ceiling. Some facilities have very high ceilings which permit some very high lobs. Most do not. Indeed, "bubble" structures can have very low ceiling... especially when you are playing on a court that is next to one of the curved walls. Apart from the height of an indoor court's ceiling, there is the problem of "color." Generally, it is very difficult to track a lob and hit an overhead smash when playing indoors. The effect is very similar to what one experiences when playing outdoors on a very cloudy day. It is very easy to lose "sight" of lobbed balls.
Sound: With the exception of carpeted facilities, most indoor courts are full of potentially distracting noises. Heating fans that go on and off can be annoying. Sometimes there is a sort of "echo" effect in some indoor facilities. Big, first serves can almost sound like a gun going off in some indoor courts. Chatter from adjacent courts usually is more pronounced indoors. All of these place demands upon one's ability to be able to block out distractions and maintain proper focus. Although this is a greater challenge indoors, it can often time help players who are easily distracted to learn to become more focused when playing outside.
Wind and Sun: Well, indoor courts do provide a more consistent environment for play. There is no wind with which to contend, and the sun is never a problem. In fact, "bubble" courts are usually very bright and evenly lit on a sunny day. Many, if not most, standing structure tennis courts have frosted ceiling windows that help illuminate courts during the daytime. Once in a rare while, however, there will be a light that is placed in such a manner that it creates a problem when the ball travels in a manner that forces a player to look in the light's direction. But again, this is very uncommon.
Night: Here, indoor and outdoor courts are fairly similar. When playing outdoors under the lights, ball visibility becomes more difficult. The same is true with indoor courts. If you have trouble seeing the ball in low light you are probably going to have some difficulty playing indoors at any time of day. But, this effect will be much more pronounced when playing at night. The good news is that sunglass manufacturers have generated a whole new line of eyewear that is specifically designed to help one see the tennis ball better in poorly lit situations. I won't plug any specific brand, but I do encourage the reader to shop around and try out some of the products available... they do help!
Having described the variables that distinguish indoor courts, let's speak about how to play better indoor tennis.
First, you absolutely MUST allow yourself sufficient time to become acclimated to the particular surface upon which you will play indoors. No two indoor courts play the same! If you are a member of a facility, you will automatically become adjusted to the surface, lighting, and sound peculiarities over time.
USTA league play normally brings people together at a common facility. But, these teams will often times compete against other facilities' teams. If you are playing a tournament at a facility where you do not play you will soon discover that there are differences both conspicuous and subtle. My point? If you are going to compete on an unfamiliar, indoor surface, make certain to get some practice time well before your match. Frequently, facilities will extend the courtesy of member rates to tournament players. So, you may be able to get an hour or two of practice on the courts before your match.
Wear the right shoes. Sounds a bit crazy, but one needs different shoes for hard courts, for clay courts and for carpeted surfaces. Each, surface has its own level of "slipperiness." You will need the right footwear to play well!
Bring plenty of warm clothing. You will probably not need to be competing in a warm up, but you will definitely need to bring warm clothing to an indoor facility. Start your pre-match warm ups wearing sweats or a warm up suit. You will probably not need these during your match, but I always bring a heavy towel to put around me during changeovers. I find that during changeovers, I frequently would get a chill without the towel. Obviously, one doesn't want to get cold.
Bring plenty of fluids. When playing indoors it is easy to forget to hydrate your body during play. Yet, your body perspires significantly when playing indoors. It just isn't as conspicuous as when playing on a hot day outside. Without proper hydration you run the risk of cramping. Believe me. I have seen quite a few players cramp indoors over the years.
From a strategic and tactical point of view, indoor tennis has some guidelines that are fairly consistent.

  1. It is more difficult to play a baseline game indoors. This is for a variety of reasons. First, the balls usually bounce lower. Unless you prefer a lower bouncing ball (not usually the case with modern forehands and two handed backhands), you are likely to make more errors in this approach. I am not suggesting that you abandon this game plan. However, you do need to modify it a bit.
    Try to hit balls with a bit more topspin that land deep in your opponent's court. This can be difficult with semi-western and western grips because the ball bounces lower. However if you take pace off your shots and deliberately hit balls that clear the net with plenty of margin, you will be able to keep your opponent deep in her/his court.
    When playing a baseline game, be more patient when playing indoors. Really, be willing to hit more balls than your opponent. With indoor tennis, the player who is most patient is usually victorious. Let your opponent become impatient and go for the ill-timed winner.
    Use the narrow court space associated with indoor tennis to your advantage. By this, I mean that you are wise to periodically hit groundstrokes that land shorter in your opponent's court, but forces him/her to move forward and wide. It may not sound fair, but I have no problem forcing my opponent to run wide into the netting that separates indoor courts. These short, but severe angles are almost always winners. You just need to make certain that your opponent is deep behind her/his baseline when you decide to strike this short angled shot.

  2. Use a big, flat, serve on every first serve. Indoor courts are almost always fast. You don't have the element of wind to deal with. So, trying to hit big, flat, first serve is less risky indoors. You can win many "free" points with first serves indoors.

  3. Use a slice serve as your second serve. Kick serves rarely bounce high enough indoors. Frequently, a kick serve will bounce right into your opponent's "strike zone." A much better option is a sliced, second serve. Try to "jam" your opponent and slice this second serve into his/her body. Equally good is the slice serve that goes wide to the right handed player's forehand when serving to the deuce court. Why? Well, slice serves will bounce low and modern forehand grips do not prefer lower bouncing balls. Second, the wide slice serve can often times force your opponent to move into the net that separates courts... perfectly legal!

  4. Don't go for big returns of serves. It is very rare that one hits a winning return of serve indoors. It happens, but less frequently than when playing outdoors. I suggest that a less forceful or "bunted" return can be very helpful when playing indoors. These returns require the server to generate pace. Quite often, the server will hit an errant shot. Try the bunt return indoors. You will be surprised at how effective it can be.

  5. Hit lots of one-handed, sliced backhands. If there is one groundstroke you must have to play indoor tennis it is the one-handed, backhand slice. Indoors, these shots stay very, very low. The big groundstroke opponent may be able to hit some of these back with authority, but fewer than would be the case outdoors. In addition, you are forcing your opponent to bend low. Quite often, this bending tends to fatigue your opponent. I have seen many matches where in the first set a groundstroke oriented player could reply effectively when presented with a heavily sliced backhand. But little by little, these shots take their toll. By second set, the big groundstroke player frequently becomes less successful with her/his replies.

  6. For once in your life serve/volley and chip/charge! When playing outdoors, grass is very similar to many indoor surfaces. Grass is fast and the ball bounces low. However when playing on grass there are the irregularities of a natural surface that can really play havoc on the consistency of ball bounce. On grass, the best strategy is usually to play serve/volley and chip/charge tennis. The same is true, albeit less so, when playing indoors. Even if you are not a natural at the net, indoor tennis is the time to try this approach. If nothing else, you will improve your ability to play this type of game. If you are playing on carpet, I suggest this be your only approach!!!

If cost becomes a significant factor, try to play more indoor doubles. The surfaces are really tailor made for doubles, and you can split court time fees among four players.
I know of competitive singles players who only play doubles indoors. Why? Well, they realize that indoor tennis is different from outdoor tennis. So, their big, groundstroke oriented games are not likely to be all that useful or successful. But doubles is a very different game... one that favors control over pace. A singles player can truly benefit from playing doubles. If in no other way, the singles player can learn to improve his/her volleys and employ them more offensively when resuming outdoors singles competition.
So, there is value to taking a break from playing tennis. But, there is great value to playing tennis indoors.
If you are the recreational player, indoor tennis can be an important component in dusting off the cobwebs in your game.
If you are a serious, competitive player; indoor tennis is a mandate... not an option... when you live in colder, winter areas.
In either situation, it is important to realize that indoor tennis is different from outdoor tennis. Both are fun, and both emphasize different aspects of the total game.
So if you play USTA league tennis, USTA tournaments, participate in teaching clinics, play regular doubles, or if possible, practice daily indoors, you can not only maintain, but actually improve your tennis game. Once this occurs, 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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