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Volley...Ball!

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in July. I am sure that most of you reading this have had a wonderful experience watching the oldest Grand Slam event, Wimbledon. One of the great things about this wonderful tournament is that we get to see many players hitting volleys. Per match, I am quite certain that Wimbledon is the Grand Slam event that records the most number of volleys struck... both in singles and in doubles.
 
Some time back, I received an e-mail from a faithful reader. He was very concerned because he simply was in his words, "horrible at the net." In short, he was unable to hit volleys with any proficiency. Although his normal game is that of a big groundstroker, he at the time was competing during winter months indoors. Here, the surfaces he faced were much faster. His big groundstroke game suffered against the "pusher" who would bring him to the net and against the adept serve/volley player. His appeal to me was to help guide him through a process that would lead to better volleys.
 
Well, without revealing this player's real name, Bob, as I will call him, has recently written to me and has achieved a level of volley skill that he never thought possible in his game.
 
Given this positive experience "coaching" a reader from afar and the fact that Wimbledon is still in our minds, I am dedicating this month's column to a primer on how to develop your net game. I know that there are many of you out there who only come to the net at the end of a match to shake your opponent's hand. You may not become the consummate volley player, but you certainly can add this stroke and make it a reliable weapon in your arsenal.
 
So let's get started.
 
GRIP
 
Most commonly, players will use the same grip for both backhand and forehand volleys. This grip would be the continental grip or a tighter fisted version of this grip, which is known as the hammer grip. I have incorporated some images below to help clarify these two grips.
 
  
 
Above are the continental grip for both lefties and righties. Note that the top base knuckle of the index finger is on the black bevel of the racquet handle.
 
  
 
Above is the "hammer" grip which is really a tight fisted form of the continental grip. It is given its name because it resembles how one would hold a hammer when hitting a nail. Note that the base knuckle of the index finger is still on the black bevel of the racquet handle.
 
There are advantages to these grips. First, it is possible to serve well with either of these two grips. Thus, serve/volley play is easier to achieve in that you are in proper grip for the volley even when you are striking the serve. Second, by using one grip for both forehand and backhand volleys, you have no grip change. Thus, you are able to react to hit the volley a fraction of a second more quickly.
 
The major disadvantage to these two grips is that they rely upon a "firm" wrist at the moment of impact. As a result, some players find these grips very uncomfortable. It is not surprising because most of us play with a semi-western or western forehand grip, and many of us use a two handed backhand for groundstrokes.
 
Although I strongly recommend learning to volley with either the continental or hammer grip, you can be effective at the net by changing grips when volleying. On the forehand wing, you want to use an eastern forehand grip, and on the backhand side the eastern backhand grip. Both of these grips automatically put your wrists in positions of strength when striking volleys. Of course, the major disadvantage is that there is a fraction of a second needed to make the grip change from one side to the other. Still, this can be done effectively. Below are the two grips.
 
  
 
Above is the eastern forehand grip. Note that the base knuckle is behind the racquet handle and not really on top.
 
  
 
Above is the eastern backhand grip which is normally the preferred grip for one-handed backhand players. Notice that the thumb and the base of the palm provide support.
 
To help you understand how to get these and other grips, I have a YouTube video which you can view here:
 

 
I think between the images above and this video, it will become clear to you what each grip is all about and how to easily acquire each grip.
 
Some of you may want to try hitting backhand volleys with a two handed grip. If this works for you, go right ahead. The problem with this approach is that one's reach is severely limited and placement almost always is easy crosscourt, but difficult when trying to hit forward.
 
There was a great doubles player by the name of Frew McMillan who hit both forehand and backhand volleys with two hands. He was one of a kind, and though very effective, I don't recommend this approach. It should be noted that he was a doubles specialist where the reach necessary for volleys is frequently less severe.
 
CONTACT POINT
 
All volleys that are struck with one hand on the racquet need to be hit in front of the body whenever possible. With two handed volleys, you can make contact with the ball a bit more to the side of the body and still have an effective volley.
 
This means that you need to really anticipate the ball's path as soon as is possible. The best way to do this is by focusing carefully on the moment that the ball hits your opponent's strings. Just this simple focus will give you an added fraction of a second of anticipation, and this can make all the difference in the world.
 
Really, the volley is NOT A STROKE! In reality, a good volley is either a blocking motion (simply intersecting your racquet with the path of the ball) or a "punch" or "jab," if you are familiar with boxing. The point is that you do not want to swing at the ball (swing volleys notwithstanding).
 
Try this on the court. Using a ball machine or hitting partner, simply block every ball with your racquet. Don't swing at all. Rather, use your opponent's pace to move the ball over the net. You will be surprised at how effective even these block volleys can be.
 
After experimenting with the above, try just "punching" the ball with a "jabbing" motion. Here is how you can achieve this effect. Keep the racquet to the side of your body. Do not bring it back any farther than the shoulder of the side that will be striking the volley. Now, keep your hands relaxed and move the racquet forward quickly. Keep your grip relaxed until the moment of impact. Then, tighten your grip as you make contact with the ball. This action will almost always produce a crisp, fairly powerful volley. Equally important, you won't feel the need to swing at the ball if you practice this technique a bit.
 
Frequently, I have noticed that the relaxed/tightening technique described above leads players to produce what I call "McEnroe" volleys. If you ever watch John McEnroe hit a volley, he seems to move his body backwards at the moment of impact. In my mind, this makes certain that he produces the kind of punch that is achieved when one stops all forward movement of the racquet at the moment of impact. Clearly, John McEnroe is blessed with some of the best volleys ever in this great game of ours.
 
To help prevent you from swinging too much, you might want to prepare to volley by having both arms fully extended forward. This exaggerated forward position makes taking the racquet back more difficult. Thus, you have a shorter swing.
 
The problem with volleying for many players is that it is very different from hitting groundstrokes where swinging is the norm. I would strongly recommend that you try hitting volleys against a wall to learn the shorter racquet movement needed in effective volleys. When I practice volleys, I use a wall and will do a couple hundred volleys off the wall for each wing. Believe me, this is not as easy as it sounds, but is a great way to develop shorter stroke length and quicker reactions that volleys demand.
 
Oscar Wegner of Play Better Tennis in Two Hours fame taught me a technique for practicing volleys that I strongly recommend as well. Instead of using a flat wall, take a piece of plywood or other hardwood, and place it at a 45 degree angle to a wall. Now, hit your volleys off the slanted board. This encourages a more natural slicing motion which is helpful when striking real volleys.
 
RACQUET HEAD
 
Always hit your volleys with the racquet head above your wrist!!! This is true regardless of what grips you may use. The more elevated the racquet's head the better. However even when the racquet head is just an inch or so above the wrist, you can strike a crisp and controlled volley.
 
Of course, this means that you will need to bend down for many volleys. The goal is to try and hit every volley at a position above the net. However, this is not always possible. You can always be in the right position to have an elevated racquet head if you move your head to the ball as you volley. I know. You are probably saying, "I don't want to be hit in the head by the ball." I assure you that you won't. But by trying to have the ball hit you in the head you will bend appropriately for each volley. Just remember to bend at the knees and not at the waist when going down for low volleys.
 
FINISH
 
On both wings, the most desirable finish is with the body somewhat forward and with the racquet face pointing upward. If you are finishing a volley in this manner, you have not taken a full swing, and you have imparted some backspin or slice to your volley. Sliced volleys stay low after they bounce and force your opponent to hit up. Thus, your second volley is less likely to be struck below the height of the net.
 
PLACEMENT
 
There are no truly hard and fast rules with respect to volley placement, but these are the guidelines that pay the most dividends. However, good volleys are a control not a pace shot.
 
In singles, try to place your volleys away from where your opponent may be. If your opponent is deep in her/his ad court, put your volley short and into the deuce court. If your opponent is in the center of the baseline, hit a short angled volley crosscourt. The idea is to make your opponent run to strike a reply to your volley. If you can make the opponent run forward, it is all the better. In the modern game, players are truly more side to side oriented with respect to their court movement.
 
In doubles, there are two placements that work well. First, try to place your volley at the feet of an opponent or directly at him/her. This is normally feasible if the player is near the net. The second best placement is to volley in between the two players.
 
Regardless of whether you are playing singles or doubles, always plan on having to hit two volleys rather than just one. Generally, the modern player tries to hit an outright winner on the first volley. This is frequently not productive because you are probably about 5 to 7 feet away from the net when you strike your first volley. If you close the net after the first volley, the second volley will be struck at about 3 or 4 feet from the net. The closer you are to the net, the easier the winning volley becomes.
 
MOVEMENT
 
Whether you are serve/volleying, chip/charging or closing the net after striking your first volley, always follow the path of the ball. This simple rule will automatically make certain that you are moving in a manner that allows for the best possible court coverage. It doesn't require any thinking, and thus, you are able to really focus on the ball. You need to practice this technique to make it your own naturally, but it is the best way to move when attempting to play net tennis.
 
Associated with good movement are two other factors. First, take little steps as you move toward the net. These will enable you to adjust more quickly to your opponent's replies. Second, try to stay on your toes as you move. This will help you move more adeptly and will keep your feet quiet. Quiet feet indicate that you are moving well, and prevent your opponent from knowing that you have approached the net.
 
SITUATIONS
 
In the game of doubles, you should be playing serve/volley and chip/charge on the return whenever possible. The goal in doubles is to control the net! If you stay back in doubles, you are automatically putting your opponents in a position where they can take the net and grab the offense. If you are a singles player, you should play more doubles. This game is a game of control, and is not your swing from the hip type of groundstroke tennis. Playing doubles will greatly improve your singles!!!
 
In singles, it is more difficult to get to the net on clay courts and hard courts. In part this is because the racquet string technology is so advanced that passing shots are much easier to hit than in the wooden frames era. The pace and spin on the average groundstroke and serve are much greater these days.
 
Still, there are times when even the less than truly accomplished player should attempt to grab control of the net.

  1. Every once in a while, play serve/volley and chip/charge to keep your opponent "honest." Just make certain to play these at times when the score is clearly in your favor such as 40/Love, 40/15 and maybe, 30/Love.

  2. Whenever you draw your opponent out really wide, follow the path of your shot to the net. It is in these situations that you are most likely to get a high reply from your opponent (making the volleys easier), and can put the volley away very easily.

  3. When playing the classic "pusher," one of the best tactics is to play net tennis. Pushers generally do not like to have opponents at the net.

Remember, the faster the surface the more likely serve/volley tennis will be successful. Hard courts can be very fast if they are worn or without "grit." Indoor carpet surfaces are always very fast. Of course, grass courts are fast and the bounce is always unpredictable. The rule on grass is simple. Never let the ball hit the ground.
 
Stop volleys are a more sophisticated volley where you literally take all pace off the ball by relaxing the wrist and arm at the point of impact. You need to impart lots of slice with stop volleys. They take time to learn, but they are worth practicing. On clay and grass, they can be devastating to an opponent.
 
Swing volleys are a modern phenomenon. Certainly, the Williams sisters have this shot down, but there are many more devotees. I don't recommend swing volleys for the average player. However, more and more modern players are incorporating these into their games. I suspect in time, many of the instructional texts and the tennis academies will be teaching this shot as a normal part of a stroke repertoire. For now however, I would put learning these volleys on the back burner and focus on learning to master the traditional volley.
 
So, you can see that "Volley...Ball" is a form of tennis that is not outmoded! Granted, it is a bit more difficult to be successful using net tennis in the modern game of singles. But if you can learn to master the net game, I assure you that you will soon 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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