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February 2013 Article

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Back To The Board Once Again

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Way back in 2008, I wrote a column with a similar name. Since then, I have truly had to abandon much of my tennis play due to knees that sorely need to be replaced. I will wait another 5 years before considering replacement surgery. I am waiting because I suspect that the present generation of replacement knees won't truly enable me to move in such a manner that I will be able to play tennis again.
Still, I must get in shape for teaching tennis this summer. Although I cannot really play, I am not prevented from teaching and coaching. To do this effectively, I need to be able to strike the ball a bit.
So, I am heading back to the backboard to resurrect my strokes. In actuality, my strokes at the time of this writing are horrific!!! This is especially true of my volleys.
However, I decided to shoot a video narrative with some sample footage of how to use the backboard or wall despite the fact that it really hurts to see myself at this level of stroke production. Still, I thought it wise to allow you, the readers, to know that I empathize with the battle of "getting your game back."
You can access this video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rbij-tlM1g&feature=youtu.be.
Yes, the video is a bit crude in its production quality. Yes, it is embarrassing and traumatic for me to view the footage of me generating strokes. Yes it will take me at least the month of February to get my form back. Unfortunately, my movement (especially bending at the knees) will be an obstacle. But by May, using the backboard or wall, hitting with a ball machine, and real court training with a hitting partner will bring me back as far as I can go.
I say all of this because any of you who are weekend warriors or "hackers" should take inspiration from this month's article and the video that accompanies it. Hopefully, this month's column will help you get ready for the season ahead.
Tennis is a fine motor skill sport. Tennis is also a very demanding sport physically. Indeed, I would argue that tennis is probably one of the most stressful sports on virtually every joint in our body.
Now, I am definitely a senior player. Although I workout in many ways year round, each year the tennis resurrecting process takes longer. Still, this wonderful game is worth the initial frustration, pain and hard work required. Yes, I am addicted to this great game, and I refuse to give it up. I don't want rehabilitation!!!
I may no longer be able to secure ranking. (My highest ranking in Men's 5.0 in USTA New England was 4 for two consecutive years.) I play more doubles than singles when I do play competitively. (This is not a bad thing!) And, there are times during the summer months when movement issues cause me to take a step back.
But, here is my thinking. I would rather play less than perfect tennis whenever I can than not play at all. (My orthopedist would not agree!!!)
So this month, I want to re-address how to use a wall or backboard to begin reclaiming your strokes. Hopefully, my video commentary with very brief examples will clarify some of the things to follow.
There are those who would argue that practicing by hitting against a wall or backboard is counterproductive. Frankly, I would strongly disagree. What may be the problem with backboard practice is that the player simply hits aimless balls without purpose.
There is no substitute for actually playing the game of tennis!!! No drills, no ball machine practice or backboard work can accomplish what playing competitively will do. Still, there are places for each of these forms of practice.
Well here we are and it's February. Those of us who live north of the Equator will soon find ourselves out on the courts playing this wonderful game in earnest. We are dusting off our racquets, getting them restrung, and beginning to put into place a plan for resurrecting our games. Certainly, some of us have not taken a hiatus from playing our sport. But, quite a few of us are seasonal players.
If you are such a seasonal player, this month's column will clearly be of use to you. If you have been fortunate enough to have playing throughout these colder months, I assure you that this month's column can help improve your game, as well.
This month, I want to explain to the reader how one can effectively use the wall and/or backboard.
Before I get into any specifics, let's be clear about some of the clear benefits to wall work.
First, appropriate walls and/or backboards are fairly easy to find. If you are a high school or collegiate player, you probably have access to a gymnasium wall that will permit this kind of practice. Racquetball courts can be an extremely effective location for wall practice. I have actually known tennis players who have used their basement wall for practicing.
Looking to exterior environments, there is usually a building that has an adjacent parking lot which can serve as a backboard. At some public parks, I have seen the high walls that are usually associated with handball play. Private clubs will frequently have one or more courts where a tennis backboard is attached to a fence for practice purposes.
My point is that, if the ambitious player searches, she/he can usually find a wall or formal backboard for practice purposes.
A second benefit to wall work is that it requires no additional player. This kind of practice is best done in a solitary manner. You can do it on your schedule and work on your strokes.
Third, a player can hit lots of balls in a very short period of time when using a wall or backboard. When I practice in such a manner, I can usually hit somewhere around 1000 balls in about 40 minutes or so. Those who are on a tight schedule can find wall practice very convenient.
Of course, there are some disadvantages to this kind of practice. Generally, a player is not required to move as much when using a wall or backboard to hit. But, there are ways in which the amount of movement can be increased. Frankly given my knees and mobility issues, I have to start with the wall or backboard.
When practicing with a wall, the player knows where each "reply" off the wall is headed. Some backboard manufacturers have added uneven surfaces to their products to make the anticipation of these "replies" less likely. Of course, if one hits against a brick wall, the grooves in between the bricks can often times make for uncertain bounces off the wall.
Despite these potential disadvantages, I find that proper use of the backboard and/or wall can pay huge dividends.
Muscle memory can be refreshed in a very short period of time when using the wall. The timing of strokes can be honed to precision as a result of wall work. Finally, every single stroke in the game can be practiced when using a wall or backboard.
Hopefully, I have piqued the reader's interest in utilizing this wonderful tool.
So, let's get started.
Most commonly, people use a wall or backboard to practice groundstrokes. I usually begin my wall routine with groundstrokes. But, I make certain that the first 100 to 200 balls I hit are hit on the second bounce. That's right the second bounce.
By letting the ball bounce twice, the player is not so close to the wall or backboard. In many ways, the distance that is required for two bounces is closer to the distance one would find in actually hitting balls on a tennis court. Additionally, this double bounce allows for the player to really fully finish each stroke.
Since the ball is coming back off the wall with plenty of time for a player to setup for a shot, the player can concentrate on his/her form. When I begin my wall work, I always start with the double bounce, and I concentrate on an early setup, a quiet head at the moment of impact and a full stroke finish. All of these are the key elements in a good groundstroke.
Allowing the ball to bounce twice will probably require the player to hit a higher shot. Balls that clear a net with lots of clearance land deep in the opponent's court. So, this double bounce practice is perfect for getting in the habit of hitting high, deep groundstrokes.
During this phase of my practice, I generally try to hit my shots so that I am alternating between forehand to backhand groundstrokes. If I hit 100 of these type of groundstrokes, 50 will be forehands, and 50 will be backhands. This is the only pattern I use at this phase.
I should note that YouTube places 10 minute limits on free video postings. So, you will not see a demonstration of the two bounce technique of practicing groundstrokes. But, the following description should help make the process more clear as I do show once bounce technique in the accompanying video.
Next, I will move closer to the wall or backboard and begin to hit my groundstrokes allowing the ball to take only one bounce. This forces me to take a shorter backswing, which is almost always desirable. I hit about 200 to 300 balls in this manner. The temptation is to hit these shots with lots of pace. However, I try to temper my shots and to still hit them in a manner that would replicate high net clearance.
The pattern of how I hit these groundstrokes is different from the pattern used previously. Below, is a diagram that illustrates this new pattern.

I start by hitting a forehand straight ahead (Arrow 1). The result is that the ball will come straight off the wall as seen in Arrow 2. Next, you hit a forehand following the path indicated by Arrow 3. I have exaggerated the angle of this shot for illustrative purposes. Arrow 4 indicates the ball coming off the wall (In reality, there would be an angle to its path, but to keep the diagram simple I have drawn a straight line. Again, you hit a straight ahead shot. This time, however, you are hitting a backhand. The ball will come back to you off the wall as illustrated by line 6. Line 7 represents your next shot, which is angled (again, this is greatly exaggerated). Lastly, the ball comes off the wall as illustrated by Arrow 8 which is really the reverse path of Arrow 1. The player now repeats the entire pattern.
Although this may seem confusing, at first, it is really quite simple. You are hitting a forehand down the line, followed by a forehand hit crosscourt. Then, you hit a backhand down the line followed by a backhand hit crosscourt. The entire cycle is repeated over and over.
This pattern is extremely effective when practicing groundstrokes off of a wall or backboard. It forces the player to hit with direction and control. In addition, the crosscourt shots will force movement on the part of the player. Whenever I find that my groundstrokes are a bit suspect, I always return to this wall drill. It is that effective.
Keeping this X pattern in mind, I will move a bit closer to the wall and hit all of my shots using forehand and backhand slice. I normally will hit about a hundred of these always trying to use the pattern seen in the diagram above.
I grant the reader that normally a player may want to move to the net when hitting these slice shots. Still, this drill can help the player focus on hitting an effective slice before moving forward. I have seen many recreational players who have missed an approach shot because she/he did not pause for a fraction of a second while executing the shot.
A Personal Critique
As you view the accompanying video, I am remiss in a few very important ways. When striking my forehands, and the sample one hand slice shots on the backhand side, my form truly suffers. I do not follow through sufficiently on the forehand groundstroke and I do not "spread my wings" (referring to moving my non-dominant hand backwards away from the net) sufficiently. These are some of the reasons that I always like to video record my game. Looking at students and other players strokes so often in teaching, it is easy to neglect my own proper form.
I bring out this self-critique to encourage you to consider video recording yourself practicing. I am sure you will note the flaws in your stroke production. Then, you can honestly start correcting your flaws.
My next series of wall shots focus upon volleys. I apologize for my lack of form and camera composition that you will see on the supporting video.
I will stand about 7 to 9 feet from the wall and start hitting volleys, where the ball does not bounce. Of course, every so often, the ball will be hit without much pace and force me to allow it to bounce. However, this is not a problem, as it replicates what can happen on the court in match play.
I usually just try to keep the volleys moving without any specific pattern. I assure the reader that this is not an easy drill. If you find that you are having difficulty at first, don't despair. With practice, you will find that you can truly keep the volleys moving with control. I have actually hit over a 1000 volleys in such a manner without missing a shot.
I should caution the reader that attempting to do too many volleys off the wall or backboard may cause trouble with the fore arm. So, be judicious until you know what the effects of these repetitive volleys will be. I generally try to do about 300 or so.
Some years back, Oscar Wegner taught me a way to practice volleys that is very effective. In essence, one places a board at a 45 degree angle. The player hits his/her volleys downward with backspin, and the ball bounces off the board at an upward angle.
This is a great way to practice stop volleys and to make certain that your volleys have backspin.
To help you understand how this board would be placed, I offer the following diagram.

Here again, time limitations prevented me from including an example of this latter, 45 degree method of practicing volleys. Hopefully, my verbal explanations on the supporting video will help clarify any confusion. Regrettably, I know of no manufacturer of backboards that produces the 45 degree backboard for practicing volleys. The reader will need to improvise how she/he creates the required angled surface.
A Personal Critique
Boy do I cringe when I view this footage. It has been quite a while since I have practiced volleys against the wall, and in almost every forehand volley, I am late!!! Yes, the camera composition is not the best, but if you watch me carefully, you will see that I am NOT hitting the ball on the forehand side IN FRONT of my body.
In defense of myself, I must confess that it takes some time to readjust to hitting volleys on the wall. If you videotape your wall sessions, do not be surprised if you too experience late hits on the volleys. I promise you that in a few weeks, your volleys will be crisp and hit properly.
Let me add one final note. I am hitting my volleys with quite a bit of pace, which contributes to my late contact. I would not recommend that the reader start backboard volley practice with volleys that are hit crisply. Rather, ease into them and increase the pace a bit each day. (Someday, I will probably take my own advice!)

I needed to use a wide camera composition in demonstrating these in my supporting video. However I believe that upon review, the reader will have no problem understanding how to practice these.
If you are hitting against a high wall or the side of a building, you can easily hit a high feed that will bounce off the wall like a lob. Then, it is simply a matter of hitting the smash. Of course, be prepared to chase a few balls if you are hitting your smashes in an angled manner.
I will hit about 20 forehand overhead smashes, and then, about 20 backhand overhead smashes (arguably the most difficult shot in tennis).
If you are not able to find such a high wall, you can still use the traditional backboard or low wall to practice your overhead smashes. To do this, you need to hit your feed down at the floor in such a manner that it will bounce upward and off the wall. I realize that words make it very difficult to understand this. So, I am offering the following diagram in the hope that the process will be made clearer.

Take about 10 to 13 strides from the wall. Try to approximate as closely as you can the distance from the baseline to the net on a tennis court.
Now, simply serve against the wall as if you were serving on a tennis court. It is really helpful if you have a line that represents the net. I use tape for this purpose. Of course, it is important to remember that a tennis net is 36 inches at the center strap and 42 inches at the posts. So, try to angle your line accordingly.
You may not be able to practice serve depth with great certainty, but net clearance should not be a problem. In addition, you can focus on the rhythm of your serve motion and its form. Both of these elements are essential when serving.
I like to do about 50 serves with about 20 of these being first serves.
Crazy as it may seem, I have even played points out using a wall. Frequently, I will attempt to serve/volley. I will hit a second serve and move forward as I serve. Invariably, I am forced to hit a half volley as I move forward. I will try to direct my half volley in such a manner as to allow me to continue to move forward and hit a volley. I will force myself to hit at least two volleys before I angle the final volley for a put away.
Truthfully, this is an excellent way to practice for doubles using a wall.
All in all, I will hit anywhere from 800 to 1000 balls during a practice session. I would not recommend that you begin with such a high number of balls. However, it is important to keep count of the number of balls you are hitting. You can increase in reasonable increments until you reach 1000.
1000 balls hit against the wall is a great workout.
I assure you that I regularly include wall work into my practice regimen throughout the year. I find it that useful!!! Of course, when time is at a limit, a wall practice session may be the only viable way to hit.
As a means of comparison, I have counted the number of balls that are typically hit in a two set match. Generally, the count ranges from 300 to 500 depending on the surface. As you can see, the aggregate number of balls hit in a match is far lower than we typically imagine.
So, I strongly recommend that this spring you incorporate backboard practice into your routine. If you do, I assure you that you will 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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