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The Net Game In A Modern Game World

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

With Wimbledon upon us, we are much more likely to experience the joys of watching a very different type of tennis... one that involves net play with much greater frequency.
 
It is true that for some years, the All England Lawn Tennis Club has taken efforts to slow down the pace of Wimbledon matches. Why? Well, during the late 1990's the technology of modern tennis equipment and the physical attributes of big servers made the length of points very short at times. Literally, games were played where the receiver was unable to return serve. Add to this that the grass promotes a lower and more irregular bounce, and the typical modern player was at a big disadvantage on this surface.
 
The professional tours for the most part are played on hard courts. Clay surfaces still abound, and there are still some grass court tournaments played in advance of Wimbledon and the Hall of Fame Classic played at Newport after Wimbledon.
 
Needless to say, sometimes the "big names" do not fare well on the grass surface. The changes made at Wimbledon have not negated what is the essence of grass court play, but they indeed have adapted this surface to favor the modern player's style of play... groundstroke tennis!
 
Jack Kramer was once interviewed and made a very insightful comment. Being a consummate serve/volley player, Mr. Kramer suggested that tennis goes in waves. For a time, the serve/volley game will be very common on the tours. Then, the groundstoke game will come into vogue. When asked if he thought the modern game of tennis would ever really resurrect the net game form of tennis, Mr. Kramer indicated that he did believe this would happen... albeit more slowly given the advances in technology.
 
Clearly, there are modern players on both tours who are comfortable at the net. But, it is probably safe to say that most players on the pro tours are oriented toward big serves, big returns and a groundstroke-oriented form of play.
 
With all of my injuries, my ability to play tennis has been severely diminished. Fortunately, I can still knock balls around and give lessons.
 
This spring, I decided to attend a variety of collegiate matches. A good number of these matches (played during colder, wetter months) were played in indoor facilities. Down the road from where I live, Yale University has a beautiful indoor facility!
 
Anyone who has played this game for some length of time will tell you that there are major differences when playing indoors vs. outdoors. These are so conspicuous and daunting, that these differences will form the basis of a future TurboTennis column.
 
My purpose in viewing so many collegiate matches was to observe and learn! I charted matches using software that is so old that I used my old PDA (still a handy way to chart).
 
One of the conclusions at which I arrived is that there are more players coming up who can and will play the net game. Don't get me wrong. This is not a revolution! Still, I thought of Mr. Kramer's prediction as I observed many matches.
 
With the Tennis Channel available through my cable provider, I have been able to observe much more professional tennis than ever before. Although I photograph pro tournaments, I am usually limited to 3 events per year given my "day job."
 
What I hope to do in this month's article is inspire some of you to develop a serve/volley and chip/charge oriented game... if only as a "Plan B." I am convinced that there is a place for the competent net player in the modern tennis world. I am sure that John McEnroe would agree!
 
I noticed that when one examines the lower ranking players in a collegiate competition (e.g. the number three through six singles players), the likelihood of a successful outcome with a net game approach is statistically much higher. This is not surprising. Top seeded players are generally complete in their abilities and adaptable in their tactics. Collegiate contests in the U.S. take place on hard courts which normally lend themselves to the groundstroke-oriented form of play.
 
On the intermediate or recreational level of competition, it is my firm belief that even a reasonably competent net player can beat opponents that are considered "superior." You see when one rarely sees a net charger; it is a bit disconcerting when one does. He/she is expecting rallies, and coast-to-coast play.
 
The risk in the modern game for the net player is that she/he cannot get close enough to the net to win the point with a solid volley or overhead. In addition, many modern groundstokers love a "target." By this, I mean they like having a clear and indefensible path for their passing shots. No doubt about it. Net players are going to get passed at times. But, I hypothesize that there is a net game approach where the practitioner will prevail more than be passed... particularly if competing on the intermediate or recreational levels.
 
So, this month's article will give the reader what I believe are the necessary steps to take to develop a winning net game... despite modern tennis technology.
 
First, I must put forth a caveat. If you are playing on clay or an extremely slow hard court, you are probably best to avoid net game play as a norm. But, mixing in net play can be a very useful tactic... even on slower surfaces.
 
Obviously, the faster surfaces lend themselves more to net play. Grass and carpet are ideal. They are fast, the ball does not bounce as high and they frequently result in the ball skipping or taking an unanticipated bounce.
 
Still, there are many hard courts which are fast enough to provide almost the same benefits. Indoor hard courts are often much faster and "skippier" than outdoor varieties.
 
Older hard courts generally do not have a gritty surface. Time and the elements take their toll. These courts are usually very fast and do not enhance a high bouncing ball.
 
Thus, the first piece of advice that I would give the would-be net player is to embrace the faster surfaces and approach the slower surfaces with caution.
 
Assuming that you are competing on a net game friendly surface, you need to have some strokes, footwork and tactics firmly grounded to play winning tennis.
 
SERVES
 
Really, an essential serve to own in the net game is the sliced serve. Slice serves can be served with pace, and if their sidespin is significant, they can be extremely difficult to return with authority. Usually, the slice serve stays relatively low after its bounce. Combining these elements, there are two locations for the slice serve that are ideal.
 
First, if you are right handed, serving a slice serve wide into the deuce court is an outstanding selection... even if your opponent eventually guesses that this is where and how you are going to serve. This serves pulls the opponent out wide. If the opponent is a right handed player, she/he is probably using a semi-western or western forehand grip. These two grips are not well suited to return a powerful serve that stays low and spins to the side. If the opponent is left handed the serve is equally effective even if the opponent uses a two handed backhand to return your serve. The player who is left handed and has a great sliced, one handed backhand is probably the opponent who is most likely to be returning this serve successfully.
 
For left handed players, the slice serves works exactly the same... only here it should be employed when serving to the ad court. Believe me. A lefty who has a good slice serve and uses it when serving to the ad side will win many points and frustrate many players... even other lefties!!!
 
The second way to employ a slice serve or a flat serve is to "jam" your opponent. If you have a big, flat serve don't hesitate to go for the ace by serving down the T. But, use that flat serve to jam your opponent by sending it directly at his/her body.
 
Most of us are not blessed with huge, flat serves. Well, the slice serve into the opponent's body is equally effective even if it lacks the pace of a flat serve.
 
The strategy associated with the above serve patterns is three-fold. First, move your opponent out of court. Second, elicit a weaker return of serve. Third, forcing the opponent to hit up on the return of serve usually makes for an easier first volley.
 
Second serves are usually where most players are least likely to attempt any net play. This makes sense statistically. However, Stefan Edberg realized the secret to winning points on second serve. Essentially, Stefan had NO backcourt game to speak of. He was quite simply a serve/volley player. However, he had an incredibly good kick serve. He could place it with accuracy, and the ball would really jump off the court to high altitudes.
 
The slower paced, effectively placed and high bouncing kick serve is perfect for getting to the net on second serves. Why? Well, the slowness actually buys you a little more time to get close to the net. High bouncing kick serves are usually not as easily placed when the opponent attempts to return them. Lastly, if you can vary the placement of your kick serve, your opponent will have more difficulty becoming familiar with how to return your second serves effectively. More often than not, kick serves work best when directed to the opponent's backhand wing. But, you must vary the placement of kickers.
 
So ideally, you spend whatever time it may take you to develop three reliable serves: the flat serve down the T, the slice serve wide or into the opponent's body, and a slow, high bouncing second serve that you can place with authority.
 
Get out there and do buckets of serves!!!
 
VOLLEYS
 
Rarely, if ever, do I see anyone but the touring pros practice volleying correctly!!! Indeed, there are some collegiate, high school and intermediate players who rarely practice volleys at all.
 
The single most important tip that I learned from a touring pro (Barbara Potter) is that a volley is either a block or a touch... it is NOT a stroke.
 
Frankly, it makes no real difference if you use one continental grip for both backhand and forehand volleys. You can switch grips from forehand to backhand and be equally effective at the net. Years back at a clinic, I saw the venerable Roy Emerson switching grips when volleying. It may be that he changed to this switch because of age... at the time he was on in years. But, he was effective at the net using the grip change!!! Literally, nothing got by him. Believe me. The corporate executives participating in this clinic did everything they could to pass Emmo.
 
Frew McMillan from South Africa was a doubles specialist who used two hands for both forehand and backhand volleys.
 
My point? I truly believe that too much is made about using the continental grip, keeping a firm wrist, punching the volley, etc.
 
Barbara made it simple: Just touch the ball with your racquet strings! Let your opponent's pace do all the work.
 
Years back, I observed Barbara working with a junior on volleying. He was a big groundstroke player. He never used a continental grip, and thus, it was uncomfortable for him. He wanted to crush every volley for a winner. By the end of one session, Barbara had him volleying with ease. He changed grips, tried not to impart power, and simply put his racquet face on the ball as it passed. What really amazed me is that despite all these cues, the kid ended up finishing each volley perfectly without Barbara ever mentioning anything about the volley's finish.
 
So, it really doesn't matter what grip you use to volley. If it feels strong, use it. If you need two hands to volley, do it. Volleys really are a "ouch" shot and differ from every other shot in tennis save the drop shot.
 
Experiment with different grips and combinations. Once you find out what feels right (and you invariably will), stick with what you have discovered. Again, practice, practice, practice volleying!!!
 
A little side note about practicing volleys: stand AT the service line as you practice your volleys!!! Why? Well in the real world, you may not get as close to the net as you would like on your first volley. BUT, you can make it to the service line before you intersect the return of serve. By practicing volleys from the service line, you are assuring that any volley that you strike inside the service box will be an easier volley.
 
THE CHIP SHOT
 
If you are going to play the net game, you will invariably need to be able to hit a good chip shot. A chip shot is usually hit off the backhand wing that has excessive backspin but may or may not have lots of pace. Unlike a simple backhand slice, the chip shot is always struck while moving forward to the net.
 
Chip shots are commonly used in doubles. The partner, who is receiving serve, moves forward, takes the serve on the rise and chips it back. At Wimbledon, you will see singles players who recognize the value of the chip and charge return of serve.
 
The second time that a chip shot is needed is when you are caught in "no man's land."
 
(That vulnerable area between the baseline and the service line.) There will be times when after you serve, your opponent has guessed correctly and will have an excellent return. If you can chip, you probably can take that good return and put it back in a manner that allows you time to get closer to the net.
 
Whether you chip/charge on return or not, every net player needs to own a good chip shot.
 
You need to get a hitting partner who will serve to you. Move forward toward the net as the ball is tossed up. Whether the ball comes to your backhand or forehand, return serve with a chip shot. This is the only effective way to develop a reliable chip shot. Here again, you need to practice, practice, practice.
 
FOOTWORK AND MOVEMENT
 
Big strides do not work when playing the net game!!! In some ways, this may be the reason that so many modern players have difficulty with playing a net game.
 
You need to learn to run forward using smaller steps. Smaller steps allow you to adjust your body more easily to intersect the opponent's return of serve.
 
When playing tennis, the last thing you want to be thinking about is your feet! So, you need to run "toe sprints" regularly as an off-court training component. Toe sprints are forward running sprints where you are on your toes at all times. The heel is not allowed to touch the ground. You cannot perform this drill and take long strides. If you stay on your toes the whole time you are sprinting, the length of you strides will automatically be shortened. If you practice toe sprints regularly, you will notice that on the court you (without any conscious effort) begin to take shorter steps when moving forward to the net.
 
I hate when I see coaches trying to instill the "split step" in students. I have yet to see any teaching technique that focuses upon this that works! Once again, the last thing you want to do is to think about your feet.
 
Very simply, practice chip shots and second volleys (you have hit the first volley and your hitting partner or coach hits another ball for you to volley) by simply slowing down at the moment of impact. Whenever you are hitting a ball while moving forward or backward (the latter would be the case when hitting an overhead smash) you want to slow down your movement as you make contact with the ball. You don't need to think about stepping into the ball. You don't need to place your feet in the "triangle." You don't need to make a deliberate effort to execute a split step. All you need to do is slow down your body's movement!
 
Okay Ron, but how do I practice slowing down? Really it is quite simple. When practicing, every time you hit a volley, a chip shot or even an overhead smash say the work SLOW aloud. In a few weeks if you do this faithfully, I assure you that your body movement will naturally slow down at the moment of ball impact.
 
I get nauseas when I look at all the literature that contains diagrams that show how one should approach the net after serving or chipping a return. You can't be thinking of diagrams while playing a match!!!
 
Fortunately, there is a simple, no nonsense way to move effectively in every situation. Follow the path the ball that you have struck!!!
 
If you can imagine the path that your shot has taken after a serve, a chip or even a volley and if you can move along this line; you will automatically be in the best possible court position for any reply.
 
Now, you do need to practice this a bit. When playing groundstroke tennis we don't really concern ourselves with the path that our shot took. Rather, we think about where we need to be to recover effectively. Usually, this means drifting toward the center of the court.
 
Another movement tip that was conveyed to me by Oscar Wegner is as follows: Always move your HEAD to the ball when volleying. Yes, you read this correctly. If you are about to hit a first or second volley, simply pretend that you want the ball to hit you in the head. I assure you. I have never had a student or player actually have the ball hit her/him in the head!!! But, this little tip keeps the body at the appropriate height to execute a perfect volley.
 
For example if the ball is low after clearing the net, by moving your head to the ball you will automatically bend your knees and be down low to execute the best possible volley. Conversely, if the ball travels at a significantly high level over the net, moving your head to the ball will automatically put you in the position to hit a volley that is likely to be a winner.
 
To master all of these, you are going to have to make a commitment to the net game, practice regularly and be willing to lose in order to learn to win.
 
You need to have the courage to play important matches in tournaments, against rivals, etc. and force yourself to play the net game.
 
Realistically, most of you will make a half hearted commitment. In some cases, you may not have access to surfaces that are appropriate for serve/volley and chip/charge. (Such may be the case if you only can play on clay.)
 
This wonderful game of ours may seem to have become a bit homogenized. To some degree, this is probably true.
 
But like Mr. Kramer, I believe that the net game has not died. Indeed, I suspect that in the not too distance future; we will see it resurrected on both pro tours.
 
What I do know is that most of us can beat our opponents using the net game if only because they see it played so infrequently.
 
Maybe this summer is the summer that Wimbledon inspires you to develop a net game. I assure you that if you do that you will invariably become 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.


 

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