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Elevated Tennis

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Whenever you watch the pros on either tour, or collegiate players; you will see that more often than not the player is off the ground at some point on many strokes. I refer to this as elevated tennis or sometimes as airborne tennis.
 
Back in the days of wooden racquets, the rule was to always keep your feet on the ground. Indeed at one point, there was a regulation about keeping one foot on the ground when serving... this was long before my time. {;-)
 
There are some practical reasons why modern tennis players are lifting themselves upward and off the ground on certain strokes. Specifically, groundstrokes that are hit flatly or with topspin and serves are the most likely strokes where you see this phenomenon. It is probably safe to say that hitting a backhand sliced shot is not going to benefit from being off the ground as you produce the stroke. Overhead smashes by their very nature frequently require that the player be off the ground at the moment of impact as she/he moves backwards to produce the shot.
 
In recent months, I have been communicating with a senior player who competes in USTA tournaments on a regional level. He has just entered the 50 year old division. Over the years, he had made some significant changes in his game. He shifted from an eastern forehand grip to a semi-western grip. He learned to execute a one handed topspin backhand. Prior to this latter acquisition, he was limited to hitting one handed backhand slice. Each of these changes took about a year of constant practice, modification and "forging" through match competition. However, he successfully made these changes in his game and found himself defeating opponents to whom he would lose in the past. (If you play regional tennis tournaments for any length of time, you are bound to encounter some opponents many times as the draws unfold.)
 
What this reader was asking of me is: "Should I try to incorporate airborne or elevated tennis into my game?" The quick answer is yes. But if you are indeed senior player, you need to weigh the benefits vs. the risks.
 
What is the greatest risk for seniors? Well in my mind, the pressure upon one's knees when attempting elevated or airborne tennis can take a major toll... especially on hard courts. Elevated tennis requires constant knee bending whether it be regarding serving or groundstrokes. Once one has made contact with the ball and airborne (completely off the ground) the knees come into play regarding the cushioning gravity's pulling the body back down onto the court.
 
So, I put forth this caveat. If you have bad or injured knees, you probably want to avoid attempting to play an elevated or airborne form of tennis... this is particularly true if you play primarily on hard courts.
 
Assuming this is not the case for you, there are clear reasons why elevated or airborne tennis can be beneficial.
 
First, elevated or airborne tennis usually results in generating more power. When you move up and off the ground to make contact with the ball, you are using every muscle in your legs in addition to body rotation, arm strength and any wrist movement. For most of us, the legs are the most powerful part of our body. Incorporating legs into the kinetic chain associated with any stroke is usually going to increase power by a factor of about 10% to 20%. This may not seem like much, but from your opponent's perspective the increased power is significant.
 
Second, airborne or elevated tennis naturally increases the imparting of topspin. Topspin is where the tennis ball is rotating in a manner that occurs when you brush upward on the back of the ball when making contact. Frequently, topspin has been called forward spin, which may be a better label. The effect of topspin is that the ball drops a bit more quickly than if hit with little or no spin. When the ball makes contact with the court surface, the forward spinning of the ball produces a bounce which is higher that would be the case with a ball that has been hit flat.
 
Topspin is the bread and butter of the modern game. This is not to say that powerful flat groundstrokes or sliced backhands are not hit frequently or that they have outlived their usefulness. Nothing could be further from the truth.
 
However, topspin allows a player to hit a ball harder while being confident that the ball's spin will bring the ball down within the side and base lines. When a player hits a groundstroke with topspin and it lands deep in the opponent's court, he/she is usually in a very good position to rally with authority and elicit a weaker reply from the opponent.
 
When your body is moving upward and forward (as is the case with elevated or airborne tennis), there is a natural increase in the amount of topspin your shot carries. On hard courts and clay courts, you are not likely to prevail if you cannot hit many groundstrokes with powerful topspin. On grass and carpet surfaces where the ball's bounce is lower due to the nature of the surface, airborne or elevated tennis groundstrokes may not be so beneficial.
 
Third given the topspin nature of the modern game, groundstrokes generally bounce a little bit higher. Being airborne when making contact with the ball actually may place the ball's contact more within your "preferred" strike zone or "wheelhouse." Depending on grips and how we approach hitting a shot, many of us (if not most) find that the ideal contact point for our groundstrokes is somewhere around waist high.
 
Frequently, a player will wait until the ball has started its downward decline (after reaching the apex of its bounce) and make contact with the ball as it is moving downward. Using the elevated or airborne approach, you can actually strike the ball in your favorite "contact zone" when it is at the peak of its bounce and before it has stated to begin its downward path. The advantage here is that you are actually making contact with the ball at a higher position to the net. Just as higher balls make for easier volleys, the higher the ball is when your groundstrokes make contact with the ball, the more likely it is that the ball is going to clear the net and land deep in the opponent's court.
 
The worst error in tennis is when you net the ball. Any other error is less severe. Why? Well even a shot that lands wide or deep could land in bounds if a wind affects its trajectory, or if an opponent makes the mistake of hitting a ball that would have gone out. Making adjustments to correct for deep or wide shots are usually not as difficult as correcting stroke production when one is hitting lots of netted balls. Let's be honest. There is no hope for a "miracle" when the ball hits the net.
 
In my mind, elevated or airborne tennis helps minimize the number of netted errors a player makes.
 
It should be noted that there are some drawbacks to elevated or airborne tennis.

 
Body movement and stroke timing may be more difficult at first. Generally, one is going to become a little more fatigued when playing an elevated or airborne form of tennis.
 
On a very windy day, airborne or elevated tennis can actually make it more difficult to control shots. Why? Well, the normal point of contact may be a little more difficult to predict due to the impact of the wind on the ball's path. This is particularly true on "gusty" days when the wind is up and down in its intensity.
 
If you are really on the run or stretched, you really won't be able to execute an airborne shot. These factors create an emergency situation that precludes jumping up to hit the ball. However, junior and younger players who anticipate well and are in good physical condition may not experience any real difficulties going airborne when on the run.
 
Groundstrokes are not the only stroke that can benefit from elevation or going airborne. The modern serve is a stroke that can really be improved if the player is airborne at the moment of contact.
 
There are two schools of thought about the serve. One school suggests that a low toss and an abbreviated serve motion (a la Roddick or Roscoe Tanner) are best. Why? Well, there is less that goes wrong. The motion is simpler. The low toss minimizes the effects that wind may have on the ball. Given my bad knees, the low toss serve has always been a preference for me. I have even learned how to execute a kick serve with a low toss (ouch, my aching back)!
 
As I photograph pros on both tours and visit the various tennis academies, I have noticed that more and more players are tossing high and getting completely off the ground (airborne or elevated) when making contact with the ball on serves. If you look at the vast majority of players on both tours, this is now the norm.
 
The advantages of serving in an elevated or airborne manner are exactly the same as they are for using this technique to hit groundstrokes. You generally can produce more power, clear the net with greater certainty and impart more spin (both slice and topspin).
 
Whether you use a low or a high toss, you are almost certainly going to need to bend your knees when serving. If you don't bend the knees at all, the serve will be nothing but an arm and shoulder stroke. To get any real power, you are going to have to muscle the ball.
 
I do recommend that every player who is physically capable of executing and withstanding the rigors of hitting airborne or elevated groundstrokes incorporate this technique into her/his game.
 
With the serve, I recommend the higher toss and airborne contact, but I realize that the combination of body motions necessary for this may be completely foreign to a player. If this is the case, stick with the lower toss that does work for you.
 
It seems that every player wants to have a devastatingly powerful, first serve. Most of us mere mortals are not going to achieve the 125+ mph serve regardless of toss. The most important thing in serving is getting your first serve in... even if it is a bit weak. The second most important factor in serving is placement. In third place comes spin. Lastly, power enters the equation.
 
My point? Spend time working on the airborne or elevated groundstroke even if it take some time and is frustrating. However when it comes to the serve, give the airborne or elevated serve a chance, but you will know if this is just not right for your game.
 
So, this leads us to the obvious question, How do I develop an elevated or airborne style of play?"
 
First, all elevated and airborne tennis involves a player bending his/her knees, and being on her/his toes!!!
 
Whether it is a groundstroke or a serve, bending the knees a little more than you might normally bend them is a key ingredient in getting properly airborne.
 
If you think about it, there is only one way to jump... from your toes. Players who are flat footed as they make contact with the ball are going to have to make a deliberate and exaggerated effort to reverse this footwork.
 
When learning to hit groundstrokes airborne or elevated, the backboard or wall is the best place to start the transformation. Try hitting balls off the wall or backboard in a manner that allows them to bounce fairly high. You almost certainly want to use new balls for this process as dead balls just do not bounce high enough.
 
At first, just try to hit the ball at the highest part of its bounce (its apex). You should probably find that you are making contact with the ball at a chest or shoulder height.
 
Once you are a bit comfortable with this, keep your distance from the wall or backboard the same, and begin to jump up to make contact with the ball. At first, this will be awkward and you probably will feel foolish or klutzy. BE PATIENT. In a short while when your conscious mind calms down and stops trying to figure out what needs to be adjusted, you will find that the motion becomes more natural and the contact more reliable.
 
When this "jumping" contact is somewhat solidified, you want to go out to the courts with either a hitting partner or a ball machine and begin to move to the ball before making your jump up. Again at first, this will seem awkward and you will probably feel a bit foolish. BE PATIENT. Don't try to figure out what needs to be adjusted. Simply move to each shot with your knees bent a bit and on your toes. Initially, you will need to forcefully exaggerate the knee bending and being up on your toes. Soon however, your non-conscious mind and its muscle memory will kick in. You will find that it becomes easier to be airborne, you can execute the technique more fluidly, and you will begin to sense that you have control over your shots. LIKE ALL THINGS IN TENNIS, LEARNING IS A PROCESS.
 
The only way to develop the elevated or airborne serve is to begin with a higher toss. At first, you will toss higher and simply wait for the ball to fall to your normal contact point. The key is to bend your knees in an exaggerated manner, and to launch off the ground using your toes. You need to focus on trying to make contact with the ball at a higher level than you normally would. Don't be surprised if you "whiff" a few serves as you adjust to this new ball height and body movement... remember these are two somewhat separate adjustments. Eventually, your conscious mind will get frustrated and shut down. This is good. Now, your non-conscious mind will kick in and guide you more effortlessly to the elevated serve.
 
The conscious mind is helpful in remembering to bend knees and stay on toes. Beyond this, it serves no useful purpose. Indeed, it will just get in your way. Our conscious minds are really egotistical. The conscious mind believes that it can "solve" any problem. Once you get the conscious mind out of the way and simply execute, you will find your progress is more rapid and more permanent.
 
I know this may sound crazy to some of you who are reading this column, but think about this reality. Millions of people drive cars to and from while their conscious mind is thinking about anything but driving (music, conversations with passengers, etc). So, who is driving the car? The non-conscious mind! All the conscious mind is doing is providing sense data to the non-conscious mind as we drive. The non-conscious mind makes the myriad adjustments with the steering wheel, accelerator, brakes, etc. in a seamless manner!
 
The most difficult part of elevated or airborne tennis is developing perfectly timed execution. Be patient and trust in yourself. I have seen players adopt this form of tennis in a matter of weeks not months. It is very difficult at first. But like riding a bicycle, once you master the technique it is yours forever, I assure you!
 
During this year's U.S. Open, really watch how the pros become elevated or airborne as they hit groundstrokes and serves. Watch their body movements, the fluid way in which they become airborne. You can learn a lot by paying close attention to the manner that each pro arrives at being elevated. These insights will help you refine your own elevation or airborne techniques.
 
Once you learn to become airborne, you will be 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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