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April 2013 Article

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Critical Shots That Are Overlooked, Overused Or Misused

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in April. Collegiate and High School competitions have started, and the weekend warriors are sure to be getting themselves back in tennis form.
One of the things that I like about April is that it is usually the first month here in New England where one can begin to play outdoor tennis again. Also, I get to watch lots of high school and collegiate competitions from which I always learn much.
Over the years of coaching teams and individual players, I have charted many matches. In all my charting, I will make personal notes about particular shot selections and other matters. Well this month, I want to share with you some of my insights about shots that are critically important to any player's game, but frequently are overlooked, underutilized or misused. These are certainly true when examining the play of intermediate players, but I have found that in many instances advanced players fall victim to these stroke peculiarities.
So let's begin with...
The Slice Serve
At one point in the history of this great game of ours, the slice serve was a norm... not an exception. You will still see many seniors using this serve, and those players who find they are competing on grass or carpet usually bring out the slice serve.
Today in the modern game, the first serve is usually hit very flat (little to no spin) and with much power. Given modern racquets, strings and the hard court surfaces that abound today, this is not surprising. A player can win quite a few "free" points if she/he has a big, flat, first serve.
The norm today on most surfaces is for a second serve to be a kick serve (one with topspin and maybe some side spin that bounces higher than would normally be expected). This too makes perfect sense in that the higher bouncing ball is a bit more difficult to return as an outright winner.
However, the slice serve (where you impart side spin) still has its purpose in the modern game! Generally, players do not practice the slice serve. More often than not it is best hit with a continental grip or an eastern backhand grip. If you are right handed and serve wide to the deuce court using a slice serve, you can draw your opponent out wide and frequently force an error on the return. This is particularly true if your opponent is right handed and uses a full western forehand grip.
If you are a lefty, the same holds true for a slice serve to the ad court against a left handed player.
Left handed players frequently will draw a right handed opponent out wide in the ad court. The returner will be hitting with his/her backhand grip which is frequently the weaker wing. Usually, the side spin on the serve is so unusual and pronounced that the right hander receiver has a very difficult time returning with placement and pace.
One of the reasons that Ivan Lendl had Tony Roach as a coach was that Tony is a lefty. Knowing that he would be competing frequently against the left handed John McEnroe, Ivan wanted to be completely familiar with this "opposite" spin.
What is not as commonly used, but should be, is a right handed server serving wide in the deuce court to a left handed player. In essence, this is doing the same to the lefty as she/he does when the lefty serves wide in the ad court.
Apart from the unusual spin and ability to draw players out of court, the slice serve is a useful tool as a second serve. Generally, a slice serve that is directed at the receiver's body is very effective.
Lastly, mixing in a slice serve now and then for variety makes perfect sense. This is particularly true if your opponent is becoming "familiar" with your normal serves.
Learning the slice serve and applying it as described above is a much overlooked but critical stroke in this wonderful game.
The Drop Shot
This is probably one of the most effective strokes in the game when used in the right circumstances. On clay surfaces, the drop shot can be absolutely devastating. Even on hard courts, however, the shot has its purpose.
First, the vast majority of players never practice the drop shot. They will break it out in a match, but never spend the necessary time perfecting the stroke.
A good drop shot is one that is disguised. To really keep from telegraphing when you are planning on using this stroke, practice is absolutely essential.
Drop shot are too risky when attempted using a forehand. I have seen pros use the forehand drop shot to their advantage, but this is not likely to be a stroke that we mortals can master.
Rather, the drop shot is normally hit off of the backhand wing. Even two handed players should learn to hit this shot effectively. The key to disguise is the setup. If you can practice the drop shot in a manner where you switch at the last moment from what appears to be a backhand drive, you can be lethal on the courts. Where you are positioned on the court is critically important in the likelihood that you will strike a winning drop shot... and when they are used correctly that most often result in a clean winning shot. Unless you are playing on clay, you never want to attempt a drop shot unless you are at least half way between the baseline and the service line. The closer to the service line you are, the more success you are likely to have... if you execute properly and disguise the shot as you setup.
My advice is to always strike your drop shot in a direction that forces your opponent to run the greatest distance to make a reply. Even if he/she does get to the shot and makes a reply, it is very likely that you can put away their weak response.
The greatest misuse of the drop shot is as a desperation measure. A player is in a match and is either losing or becoming fatigue. She/he gets the short ball and instead of going for a winner, she/he hits the drop shot. More often than not the drop shot is netted or easily tracked down by the opponent.
Whenever you see your opponent going for drop shots, particularly on "important" points, you can be sure he/she is either losing confidence or succumbing to fatigue.
The Backhand Overhead
This shot is often called the most difficult shot in our great game. I wouldn't disagree with this assessment. But, it is a necessary stroke to have in your arsenal.
I rarely, if ever, see players practicing the backhand overhead. However if this shot is mastered, it can be utilized well to hit lobs and prevent a player from having to run back to make a reply. More often than not if a player hits a backhand overhead, the opponent is completely unprepared for such a quick reply.
Two essential aspects to keep in mind when practicing hitting lobs with the backhand overhead:

  1. Always keep your eyes focused clearly on the ball BEFORE and AFTER it passes the net. Granted, sometimes the backhand overhead is a quick decision that is almost made "on the fly." Still, if you practice this shot, you will find more occasions to use it in matches effectively.

  2. When hitting the backhand overhead, always have the butt of your racquet (the very bottom of the grip) pointed directly at the ball as it travels. This does several things. It keeps your focus on the ball and it sets up the downward and forward snap that a truly effective backhand overhead requires.

I have discovered that at the intermediate level, the backhand overhead is almost always preferable to running back and hitting the lob after it bounces. On more advanced levels, it still has its value, but probably is not as likely to be an outright winning shot.
Some years back I dedicated a column to how to hit the backhand overhead. The reader can access this by going to http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_05_08.html.
The Swing Volley
Before the development of modern tennis equipment, swing volleys were near impossible. However with modern forehand grips, light and maneuverable racquets and the control that modern strings provide, this is a stroke more and more players are developing.
In my mind, this stroke is best executed by either of the Williams sisters. When they come in to hit this forehand volley, you can bet it results in a clean winner.
As is the case with all volleys, the closer you are to the net when making contact, the greater chances of success.
A great advantage to the forehand swing volley is that it requires no grip change. I have seen successful swing volleys hit with semi-western and full western grips.
If you hit a two handed backhand, there is the possibility that you can also hit a backhand swing volley. It isn't common, but a few years back I saw a player competing against Yale University's team that really owned this stroke. Almost every time he came to the net to hit a backhand volley it was struck with a full swing, two handed backhand. I am NOT recommending this backhand swing volley, but if you can master it, do so!
Here again, practice is essential. Unlike practicing regular volleys where you are not moving forward as you volley, the swing volley requires that you practice by moving into the ball and striking it with a full swing. To do this, have your hitting partner feed you balls while you run forward starting from half way between the baseline and the service line. You hit one, and to keep a rhythm, have your hitting partner feed you a lob after you strike the swing volley. Believe me. After 15 or 20 of these cycles, you will find yourself becoming winded and tired. Take a break and begin the ritual again.
The Moonball
It never ceases to amaze me how many players are addicted to power. I have seen matches that have gone three sets where both players are very tired. Still, they both are out there trying to crush every shot they hit.
The building blocks of a good game are ordered in the following manner.
  1. First get the ball over the net.
  2. Second, try to get the ball to land deep in the opponent's court.
  3. Third, work on the direction and placement of your shots.
  4. Fourth, perfect your spins... both topspin and backspin.
  5. Lastly, add power to your strokes.

The moonball is a lob that is hit with severe topspin. It usually travels in a manner that it lands deep, and the topspin forces the opponent to move even farther back from the net to make contact. The moonball can be hit off of either wing, but is usually best off of the forehand side. One handed backhanders (save Tomas Muster) normally do not have the arm strength to hit many, if any, moonballs. Two handed players usually have no difficulty finding a way to strike this very useful lob.
Many years back, I was training at a camp in Florida. My hitting partner and I decided to play a 10 game pro set. We were playing on Har-Tru (green clay) and the surface was very slow. Well to make a long story short, I lost the set 10-8. But, the amount of time that was involved in completing the set was longer than many of my USTA matches. While cooling off after the match, my opponent asked me a question: "Why didn't you slow down and rest by hitting moonballs when you were tiring?" I really had no good answer.
Well from that time onward, I made sure to perfect my moonball and am able to hit off either wing with control and lots of spin.
When coaching a collegiate team, I would play our number 1 and 2 players and literally torture them by hitting all my groundstrokes as moonballs. They would try to out power me. They would try to keep the ball very low by hitting lots of slice. But, I had spent hours with a ball machine learning this single stroke. I could hit it regardless of bounce, and I could hit it effectively on the run.
Most players only use the moonball (topspin) lob when their opponent is at the net. This is a wise choice more often than not. However, you can build an entire groundstroke game off of hitting nothing but moonballs. You will find that you run less, don't have to hit the ball as hard, and it is a joy to see your opponent completely baffled by this approach.
I strongly recommend that every player master the moonball, if only off the forehand wing.
I assure the reader that if you give attention and dedicate practice time to the five strokes listed above that in no time 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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