In playing this wonderful game of ours, there are two axioms that players frequently forget:
1. You can't hit what you don't see.
To this end, I have written several different columns where I have made numerous references to truly "seeing the ball" while practicing and competing. Indeed, my very first column is entitled: See the Ball.
The second axiom is less frequently referenced by me or by others who write about tennis.
2. How you move to the ball dictates how well you can hit the ball.
We work on grips, backswings, contact points, and proper stroke finishes. In fact, most players spend most of their practice time working on improving their strokes or adding new strokes to their arsenal of weapons. The rest of our practice time is usually spent on learning to execute tactics and strategies.
But ask yourself this simple question: "When was the last practice session that was dedicated to footwork and how well you move around the court?" My guess is that you probably cannot recall such a session.
Well this month, I want to spend a little time describing what proper movement is, and suggesting some ways that you may improve your overall effectiveness with improved court movement.
Let's begin with the most important stroke in the game, the serve. Now, I imagine you are saying to yourself, "What movement is involved in serving other than the service motion itself?" You are right to ask the question. My response? There are three distinct ways in which one moves her/his feet when serving.
The first is what I call the "toe" serve. The player begins with a normal stance, and slides his/her back foot next to the front foot as the service motion unfolds. At the moment of contact, the player may be leaning forward, but both feet are together and the server is on his/her toes. This is a very common service practice in the modern game. It is particularly useful when attempting to serve the kick serve.
The second motion is what I call the "follow through" serve. Here, the player finishes the serve with her/his back foot in front of her/his other foot. This service motion resembles what one expects when watching a baseball pitcher. This service motion was at one time the most common service motion on both the men's and women's tours. Many players still use this motion to provide the maximum amount of power on first serves. It is also a great motion for slice serves.
The third service motion is very the similar to the "follow through" serve. In this case, we are doing a serve/volley motion. One must move forward into the court to be able to close the net and volley. Either of the previous service motions can be employed when attempting the serve/volley game, but the "follow through" version is far superior. Why? Well, with the "follow through" motion you are automatically moving forward into the court. All one needs to do is continue the forward movement and you are two thirds of the way to the net.
The serve/volley service can work with the "toe" service motion. However, the player using this motion must make certain that he/she is significantly leaning forward into the court when making contact with the ball. Without this deliberate effort to lean forward (and associated forward toss adjustment), a player will always be caught too far back when attempting to make her/his first volley.
In truth, I use three distinct service motions. For my first serve, I use the "follow through" service. I don't generally play serve/volley. Rather, I use this motion to maximize the power associated with my first serve. For second serves, I almost always hit the kick serve. I find that the "toe" service motion is best for executing a high bouncing, second serve. When playing doubles, I always use the "follow through" motion for both first and second serves. I need to get that extra step that this service motion affords me if I am to avoid having to hit half volleys as I approach the net.
I realize that my approach does not really provide any disguise or deception. I envy Pete Sampras, who is the only player that I have seen who hits every serve with identical service motions. Whether it was a hard, flat serve... a slice serve... a kick serve or a serve/volley service; Pete used the same motion and tossed the ball in exactly the same spot each time. Believe me, this is no easy feat, and speaks volumes about the talent that Pete possesses.
Each player needs to spend significant practice time on the court practicing their three distinct service motions: first serve, second serve and serve/volley. Most players spend most of their time practicing first serves. In my mind this is a bit misguided. If any one stroke needs the most amount of practice, it is the serve. Why? Well if you never missed a second serve, you would never double fault.
I want to make a pitch for practicing a service motion that is associated with your serve/volley game. Although this is an absolute necessity for playing doubles, every player should be able to play a serve/volley game... even if you simply interject a serve/volley point every now and then. Still, I believe that every singles player should be able to adapt to a serve volley strategy, if only as a last ditch effort in a losing match situation.
Groundstrokes are the most commonly hit stroke in the modern game. So, learning to move to hit groundstrokes effectively is essential. Most of us move only sideways when attempting to retrieve a shot for groundstroke. Simple truth is that one should always move forward and sideways when moving to hit a groundstroke. This combined movement actually gets you to the ball more quickly, and in addition, it puts you a little closer to the net. With the exception of being caught in "no man's land" (the area from the service line to about 4 or 5 feet toward the baseline), moving forward a little after each groundstroke is tactically desirable. Why? Well, the closer you are to the net, the more severely angled reply you can hit. Indeed, Andre Agassi was the master of this technique. Every groundstroke he hit moved him about a half foot to foot closer to the net. By the third groundstroke, he was in a position to hit angled shots that would force his opponent to run very wide.
Really, tennis is a game involving geometry. To help my readers understand this concept, I wrote a column some time back on this topic, Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game.
When moving to hit a groundstroke a player should start his/her movement with a single large step or two. After these, small steps should be the norm. By shifting to smaller steps as a player approaches the ball, he/she is better able to make the minor adjustments necessary to be in perfect position to strike the ball. This is particularly true on natural surfaces where bounces can be a bit unpredictable, and on days when the wind may cause the ball to move after bouncing.
In practice, players should spend some time deliberately focusing on this kind of footwork. The more you focus on this in practice, the more natural it will become when you compete.
When competing, I discourage the player from engaging in too much conscious thinking while actually playing points. My belief is that the player should attempt to be on "auto pilot" whenever possible. To this end, I have found that if I have practiced my groundstroke footwork sufficiently, I need only focus on trying to move my navel (belly button) to where the ball is headed. The rest just naturally falls into place without any conscious effort on my part.
When striking one-handed, backhand slice shots, the player must also make a deliberate effort to keep her/his knees bent throughout the shot. Staying low through the backhand slice is critically important. Here, a lack of movement is what is needed once you setup for the shot.
Volleys often times involve whatever movement you can muster to stretch and make contact with the ball. However when you can move at the net, you want to move while being on your toes. If you watch the pros invariably they are attempting to stay up on their toes whenever moving to hit a volley.
Volleys that force the player to make contact with the ball below the level of the net cord may seem to prevent the player from remaining on his/her toes. But if a player practices hitting low volleys, she/he can learn to stay up on her/his toes despite having to bend low.
Speaking of bending, one always wants to bend at the knees to get to low volleys. Do not bend at the waist. Bending at the waist will only hurt your back, and will prevent you from staying on your toes as you move to hit the volley.
When I hit volleys, I use a trick taught to me by Oscar Wegner author of Play Better Tennis in Two Hours: How to Master and Re-Master the Fundamentals and Play Like the Pros. Simply move your body by pretending that you want the ball to hit you in the head. By moving your head not your body to the ball, your movement will automatically be appropriate, and you will find that you are in the best possible body position to make a crisp volley. This tip works without any conscious thinking, if you have practiced hitting your volleys (high and low) regularly.
As an aside, take your practice volleys while standing just a bit in front of the service line. Too many players take all their practice volleys while positioned very close to the net. The problem is that it is rare in singles, if ever, that you will be extremely close to net when you hit a volley in a match. Practicing volleys close to the net just isn't reality.
The last kind of movement that a player may experience is moving backwards... away from the net. Of course, the rule is never move backwards. But when you are near the net and the opponent hits a lob, you have no choice.
If you are going to respond to the lob by hitting an overhead smash, you want to move back by taking side steps where you cross one over the other. This sideways movement is the only way that you can move in a manner that will allow you to make the adjustments needed to position yourself appropriately for hitting the smash.
One needs to practice hitting overheads with these crossover steps in practice drills until they become second nature. In matches, if you have done sufficient practice, all you need to do is pretend that you want to catch the lob in your non-racquet hand. This is exactly what outfielders need to do when they move back for fly balls.
Sometimes, you will be have to really run hard to get back far enough to make a shot off of a well struck lob. Instead of moving straight back to the baseline, curve your movement a bit. Try to run a little right of the ball if you are right handed, and a little left of the ball if you are left handed. These actions will allow for a little arc-like movement and enable you to better position yourself for whatever shot (usually a lob) you are capable of hitting. The only exception to this rule is if you are able to hit a "tweener." This is the shot hit by pros where they hit the ball back to the opponent by making contact with the ball when it passes between their legs. When executed well, it is truly a remarkable shot. Unfortunately, the data suggests that most "tweeners" end up hitting the net... on all levels of the game.
Here again, you need to practice hitting these extreme lobs hit by your opponents. Have your hitting partner hit deep lobs while you stand at the service line. Run back and practice hitting the defensive lob reply (this is the statistically most successful reply).
If you are like many of us, you probably want to spend time off the court working on improving your overall footwork. If this is the case, I refer you to one of my previous articles entitled, Feet Don't Fail Me Now. I am certain that adopting these drills into your off-court training regimen will greatly help to ingrain the proper foot movements into your mind's non-conscious software.
So, working on your footwork and movement are absolutely critical in raising the level of your game. Should you practice footwork and movement with deliberate intent during practice sessions, I assure you that they will be much more successful in matches. Once your movement is refined and seamless, you are well on your way to becoming a