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My Favorite Quick Fixes For Strokes
Ron Waite, USPTR
Generally, I am not an advocate of any quick fix for stroke production. Why? Well, it has been my experience that there seven areas for each stroke that must be fashioned correctly, if one is going to have consistent and reliable strokes. These are:
- Seeing the ball clearly as it moves. One needs to pay particular attention to when a ball bounces and when contact is made with the ball by your opponent's racquet. These are critically important moments that require focus and attention. The player need not analyze these moments. Rather, she/he should simply trust her/his non-conscious mind to do whatever is necessary to anticipate a serve or shot. When a player is serving, special attention is needed when the racquet makes contact with the ball. This simple action will keep the server from dropping her/his head prematurely, and will encourage a quiet head during the entire service motion. I addressed this in last month's column: Play With Your Head... Quietly.
- Moving to the ball early and appropriately. Learning to take big steps at the beginning of your movement to the ball and very little steps as you come closer to the ball makes stroke production more consistent. One really wants to "stalk" the ball and move to it with this mindset. I encourage players to think about moving to groundstoke balls by focusing on moving his/her chest toward the ball. When moving to volley, I encourage the player to move her/his head to the ball. (Not to worry, I have never known of a player who was actually struck in the head by the ball using this technique.) Both of these concepts allow a player to move without having to "think" consciously. Once the point begins, the conscious mind has one function and only one function: to provide data and information to the non-conscious mind. The non-conscious mind is where the muscle memory and execution software is located.
- Early racquet preparation where the player does not take his/her racquet back any farther than is absolutely necessary. In the modern game, the racquets are sufficiently powerful to allow a short backswing and still generate significant power. The advantage of the shorter backswing is that preparation takes less time, adjustments can be made more quickly, and when on the run, the racquet positioning does not slow down the movement of the player.
- Related to proper racquet preparation is the use of a proper grip. Each player may have his/her preferred grips. In the modern game, the semi-western and western grips tend to be most common among the pros. Quantitatively, more pros on both tours use the two handed backhand. Here, the proper combination of grips is critical. Generally, the dominant hand is in either a continental or full eastern backhand grip, and the non-dominant hand is in an eastern forehand grip. Volleys are most frequently hit with a continental grip, but some players do very well using an eastern forehand grip for forehand volleys, and an eastern backhand grip for backhand volleys. Each of these latter two grips automatically provides a "firm wrist" which is necessary for good volleys. Of course, their disadvantage is that they require a grip change. In rapid exchanges, these grip changes are sometimes impossible to achieve.
- Once you have the proper grip, have your racquet ready and have stalked the ball well; you need to adopt the proper stance. Generally, semi-western and western forehand grips benefit from more open stances (stances where the player is facing the net)... Eastern forehand grips and one handed backhand grips (full eastern and continental varieties) need to have a more closed or "sideways to the net" stance. The beauty of the two handed backhand is that it can be struck well from virtually any stance. Volleys are most often hit best from a stance that is something between sideways and open. I call this the three quarter stance.
- Ideal contact point is the next aspect of the properly executed stroke. Grip really dictates this. But, each player must discover for himself/herself the best "strike zone" for each groundstroke. Volleys always require a contact point that is in front of the body (if only slightly) and where the racquet head is above the wrist at the moment of impact (again, if only slightly).
- Lastly and most important, is the stroke's finish. I know that there is some debate about this concept and its hierarchical position. Suffice it to say that if the finish is appropriate for the grip the rest of the components in the stroke almost always come together properly. Consistently proper finishes lead to consistent strokes!
Some time back, I wrote a column where I illustrated some of the above with pictures. The reader can access this column by going to: The Grip: Picture Perfect.
Proper and regular practice can make each of these seven components of a stroke to be "burned" into our muscle memory (the non-conscious mind). There is absolutely no substitute for this, albeit visualization and video analysis can greatly assist this process.
Here we are in July. Many, if not most of you, are playing tennis regularly. Hopefully, some of you are competing in USTA sponsored tournaments and/or club competitions. Even if you are only a weekend warrior, you are likely to be out there playing sets against your regular opponent(s).
If you play competitive tennis (regardless of what level), you are invariably going to have days or matches where one or more of your strokes seem to have disappeared. Even the touring pros have these days... and they dedicate their lives to this wonderful game!
Shutting down your conscious mind and simply focusing upon the movement of the ball are the best ways to resurrect your errant stroke(s). In doing this, the non-conscious mind takes over. The non-conscious mind doesn't experience fear, frustration or any of the other myriad emotions that can plague the conscious mind. Trusting your non-conscious mind to know what to do to correct any problems is truly the best fix!!!
Still there are times when the conscious mind won't be quiet, won't implicitly trust the unconscious mind, and you are left with only one option... trying to apply quick fixes.
The legendary Vic Braden actually has written a book entitled, Vic Braden's
Quick Fixes: Expert Cures for Common Tennis Problems. Truthfully, this is the single best collection of quick tips that I have ever encountered, and is a great addition to any tennis library.
Well, I have my own (less ambitious) list of fixes that seemingly work for me, and for those whom I teach/coach. They do not cover the extensive areas addressed in Mr. Braden's book, but I do cover most of the common "ailments."
In my tennis bag as part of my "printed" notes, I have placed these tips into a laminated sheet. Whenever I am at my wits end about an errant stroke, I break out these fixes. They are my last resort, but frequently they bring me back to form. If you create your own list of quick fixes that work for you, there is always a "safety net" that you can rely upon when the conscious mind just won't stop interfering with your tennis stroke production.
Again, I remind the reader that the best solution to poor stroke production is to simply relax your body, put your conscious mind's focus on really seeing the ball, and trusting your non-conscious mind to act effectively upon the information that the conscious mind is providing. In my book, Perfect Tennis, I refer to this state as flow.
All of this being stated, below you will find my favorite quick fixes. I have tried to organize according to each individual stroke.
- Force yourself to keep your head frozen for a fraction of a second after making contact with the ball. Fight the temptation to see where your ball is heading.
- Keep your racquet face down (where the racquet face is facing the court) throughout the take back portion of the service motion. This generally corrects any pronation problems.
- Relax your arm throughout the serve. Taking your little finger and loosening its pressure on the racquet handle (or even taking it off racquet entirely) will go a long way to relaxing the arm in the service motion. If you are nervous or feeling tight, this "pinky" fix can work wonders.
The Return of Serve
- Keep your eyes focused on the area where the opponent's toss is likely to make contact with the ball when she/he is serving. This simple action will truly assist your non-conscious mind in reacting more quickly to the serve's direction.
- Move forward... not back... when spin serves are causing you timing and/or movement difficulties.
- As your opponent tosses the ball, move up onto your toes in sync with the rising toss. This action usually helps most when your opponent's serve is forcing you to stretch when returning serve.
- Always move to the ball with your head, and keep your head level with the height of the ball.
- Relax your arm and grip on the handle until the moment of contact. Then, simply squeeze the racquet handle tightly when you feel the ball on the strings.
- Do like John McEnroe and move your racquet backward immediately after making contact with the ball. This action creates the "punch" and prevents a swinging volley.
- If all else fails, simply attempt to block/stop the opponent's shot. Just put your racquet in the way of the ball's path.
- Don't attempt to stroke these shots. Instead, simply block the ball as it bounces upward. Let its own pace put it over the net.
- Stay low (bend your knees) throughout the entire stroke.
- The secret to hitting a better forehand is to hit with a bit of pace but with more topspin!!! To increase the amount of topspin when using a semi-western or western grip, simply point the butt label on your racquet handle at the ball as it approaches you. If you are using an eastern forehand grip, simply keep the racquet head closed (facing the ground) as you take it back in your stroke preparation.
Two Handed Backhands
- Here again, one wants to hit with at least moderate pace but again with more topspin. Since there are many grip combinations one of the following will probably work better for you.
First, make certain that the tip of the racquet head is pointing downward toward the court as you take the racquet back.
Second, imagine that the racquet is like an airplane taking off. You want to start as low as is possible when bring the racquet back. Then, simply pretend in your mind that the racquet head is an airplane taking off from a runway. This will result in about a 45 degree straight line as you hit through the ball.
- Be certain to finish all two handed backhands with the racquet over your non-dominant hand's shoulder. Many times, we hit two handed shots but don't completely finish properly. This is more likely to occur with the two handed backhand because the double fisted grip allows for power to be generated without a complete finish. Still, the complete finish is absolutely necessary for control, spin, pace and consistency.
One Handed Backhand Drive/Topspin
- It is critical to freeze the head (no movement) throughout the contact with the ball and the follow through/finish.
- When setting up to hit the one handed backhand drive, make certain that your dominant hand's shoulder is "pointing at" or facing the on-coming ball. This usually will mean that you have your back facing the net a bit as you approach the ball.
- Be certain to "spread your wings." (The non-dominant hand and arm move backward as the dominant hand moves forward to hit the ball.)
- "Push" the ball forward at the moment of impact with a grip that tightens at the moment of impact. Prior to this impact and immediately after contact, relax the arm.
- On high bouncing balls, lean back a bit (as Tomas Muster used to do) when hitting the drive or topspin one handed backhand.
One Handed Backhand Slice
- Point the racquet handles butt label at the ball as it approaches you. This should make the racquet be almost parallel with the court in your backswing. You will also find that this automatically produces the downward movement needed to hit proper slice.
- Be certain to finish your stroke with the racquet head moving a bit upward and forward... not downward and sideways.
- Whether you are hitting off the forehand or backhand side, always hit your shots high and either crosscourt or to the center of your opponent's court... if you are running hard. Remember: fast feet require slow hands.
- Always hit backhand approach shots down the line with slice. Follow the path of the ball after hitting the approach, and favor the down the line reply.
- Always hit forehand approach shots crosscourt. Theses shots should be hit with less pace, more topspin and should be hit in a manner where the ball bounces near your opponent's service line. Follow the path of the ball after hitting the approach, and favor more of a crosscourt reply.
- Use your non-dominant hand and point at the ball. Pretend that you are trying to catch the ball with this hand.
- Keep looking upward for a fraction of a second after you have hit the smash. This will force you not to drop your head.
- Smash lobs hit with slice deep into the opponent's court. Smash lobs hit with topspin into the service box areas of your opponent's court.
As suggested earlier, quick fixes are just that. They solve problems temporarily. They should not be perceived as permanent solutions to stroke breakdown. If you have practiced well, allow your body to relax and trust your non-conscious mind to do the execution (as you do when you drive a car), then you will probably never need any of these or other quick fixes. But when the chips are down and there seems no light at the end of the tunnel, quick fixes can get you out of serious match troubles.
Once you learn what quick fixes work for you and when to use them, you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!
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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.