By now, the tennis "fever" is probably surging through your mind and body. Having seen the Australian Open, many players find themselves eager to resume training for, and competing in tennis matches. It is only natural! Indeed, I believe the "children" in us resurrect as we watch grand slams. Like kids, we imagine and dream of playing high intensity matches as the men and women on both tours do.
Soon, those of us north of the equator will be experiencing warmer temperatures and weather conducive to outdoor tennis. Hopefully, some of us have been able to play this wonderful game during our winter "hiatus." One way or another, each tennisphile is going to want to re-establish and improve her/his stroke production. In my mind, this time of the tennis year is the ideal time to improve strokes.
This month's column is going to review with you the basic considerations that each player needs to make regarding stroke production. In my teaching experience, I have noticed that beginners are much more "aware" of each of these components than more seasoned players. However, I would argue that every intermediate and advanced player needs to "go back to the basics" if he/she truly wishes to resurrect proper strokes and/or wishes to improve stroke production.
I have "numbered" each of the following stroke components and am presenting them in the order in which they occur. My suggestion is to focus on one component at a time. In fact, I would dedicate one complete practice session to each of these elements. Spend some "in depth" exploring and refining of each component separate from the others. Then, work to integrate all of these elements into a smooth, consistent and seamless whole.
How you go about addressing the elements of a stroke is as important as what you change or re-establish with respect to stroke production. Process is as important as examination.
It may seem counterproductive to stroke flow and integration to focus upon each element one at a time. However, there is no other way to truly learn what is happening in each stroke, to determine why things may be happening, and what modifications may be needed to re-establish a stroke, or perhaps, change an ineffective stroke.
Once stroke fundamentals have been established, seamless stroke production is not at all difficult to achieve or resurrect.
Given these realities, let's go through stokes by the numbers.
1. Seeing the Ball
Not enough attention is given to this absolutely essential ingredient in stroke production. Focusing upon the seams of the ball is one way to give greater emphasis to how well you see the ball. There are four times when close attention to the ball's path becomes critical.
First, you want to truly see and pay attention to the ball coming off the opponent's racquet face and strings. You don't need to make any conscious analysis of what you see. Things happen too fast to really get "heady" about ball movement. Rather, you want to simply give your non-conscious mind the data in needs to assess and react.
Next you want to notice and see carefully as the ball passes over the net. Here again, do not get analytical. Rather, just feed your non-conscious mind the data it needs.
Third, you want to make sure you pay attention to the ball as it bounces off the court. This is obviously not applicable to volleys. The bounce may be a bit different from what is expected. Your non-conscious mind can instantaneously adjust to the bounce if it is given the proper data.
Lastly, you want to pay close attention to the ball at the moment of impact. In truth, you can only really see the impact moment when serving. Still, it is wise to try and see the ball come off your strings. Why? This effort will "quiet" your head and body at the moment of contact. A quiet head and calm body make for more consistent strokes.
The starting point in re-establishing or correcting any stroke is to see the ball clearly.
2. Court Positioning
We always "seem" to know where we may be on the court, but we don't always realize that a tennis court is actually quite large. Hitting, let's say a backhand groundstroke from the ad court sideline is different from hitting the same backhand from two or three feet inside the ad court sideline.
Good stoke production relies upon an awareness of where you are on the court.
When focusing upon this variable, try to concentrate upon the feel of your strokes. There will soon become a new awareness of how hard you can effectively hit the stroke, the best or most successful paths to direct the ball, and the level of confidence you have from the specific court position.
Begin by trying to hit every shot cross court, which is where most of your shots should be directed. As you begin to get the feel of things try to direct your shots to other areas in your opponent's court. Always pay close attention to how your body feels as you produce an effective shot, the amount of force you are bringing to the effective shot, and how the moment of impact feels when you hit the ball.
You don't need to consciously analyze this data. Rather, be a willing observer. Experiment with different levels of power, ball paths and spins. Eventually, your non-conscious mind will establish or re-establish a "memory bank" that will be employed without effort.
3. Movement to the Ball
Many tennis players totally neglect to work on effective footwork! Indeed, the way you move to the ball has a monumental impact upon whether you strike an effective or less effective shot.
Spend some time giving attention to two things associated with your footwork.
Concentrate on taking small steps, and then, concentrate upon moving where your feet and shoes make little or no noise.
I remember coaching a collegiate player on my team some years back who frankly was a bit overweight. However, he was a goalie for the college's soccer team. He had incredibly great footwork! If you closed your eyes, his feet would never betray where he was on the court or whether he was closing the net.
Small steps and silent movement indicate effective footwork.
It is true that the first one or two steps in moving to a groundstroke probably involve strides that are a bit longer. If you can make these very explosive, and then, shift to smaller steps; you will invariably have the movement that you need to always setup for a stroke properly. Footwork is that important.
It should be noted that your footwork when serving is equally important. Where you place your feet to serve, whether you move them as you perform your service motion, where your feet are located as you end the serve are all critically important. Pay some close attention to your footwork as you serve! In some ways, the feet may be the key to improving or resurrecting your serves.
The incredible tennis legend, Rod Laver, is quoted as once saying, "Grip is everything." There is much truth to this statement!
Most of us have firm grip preferences for all strokes. Maybe you use a Semi-Western Grip for forehands. Perhaps, you use a two handed backhand where your dominant hand is in the Eastern Backhand grip. Volleys are best hit with the Continental Grip.
If you have taken some time off from this wonderful game and are getting back in form, you may want to re-evaluate your grip selections. Having taken a break from the game, you are more likely to amend and change grips. Still, any grip change of significance probably requires about four to eight weeks to be "solidified" and be reliable. If you decide to change a grip, commit to the change and be patient.
One of the things that players of this revered game do not notice is that they may actually alter their grips ever so slightly as the season unfolds. Even a change as little as a millimeter in your grip positioning on the racquet handle can make for less effective strokes.
Pay attention to your grips. Try to discover the right feel, and then, look for anchor "cues" that involve the sense of touch to make certain that you are holding the racquet properly for each grip used. For example, I find that the knuckle where my index finger meets the base of my hand is a critically important "feel" cue in having the proper grip. For you, it may be your palm. The point is to pay some deliberate attention to the feelings associated with each grip. Once you discover your own individual "anchors," you will always know that you have the perfect grip for each shot.
To add some credibility to why this "awareness" is so important, think about times when due to heat and perspiration, your grip slipped a bit. The result was probably an errant shot. As we play a match or even more likely when we change racquets (even though they are seemingly the same exact model), we are susceptible to very minor but important grip differences. This is why the "anchors" are so important. It also explains why the pros have the grips on their racquets fashioned to exacting and identical dimensions!
5. Stance in Preparation and Execution
Every stroke requires a proper stance. Depending on the stroke and the grips that you use, there are preferred and better stances for each stroke you produce. In all honesty, there are many times when we are stretched by our opponent or are on the run, and we cannot hit from an ideal stance.
Still, you need to know what the ideal stance is for you... for every stroke!
Here again, I see players (even pros) who slightly alter their ideal stance when competing. These very slight differences in stance may make for errant shots. At times, I see these minor variances in stance accounting for a pro having an "off day."
Here, you should place your concentration on feeling the proper stance. Once again, you don't want to think this out or analyze it too carefully. Simply give attention to your stance... where your feet are, where your center of gravity may be at the moment of impact, what body and shoulder rotation you may have when striking the ball, and how much do you rise up onto your toes.
Trying to consciously control all of these factors and still hitting the ball is an exercise in futility. Rather, you are simply attempting to provide the right "data" for your non-conscious mind... which really controls all our muscle memory.
6. The Backswing
Almost all of us have been taught and/or told that we need to get our racquet back early! My friend and teaching guru, Oscar Wegner, has proven that this is an overstated axiom!
Still, each of us has a proper backswing when producing each stroke.
You want to give some conscious attention to each of the following for each different stroke: When should I take my racquet back? How high or low should I take my racquet back? How far behind my body should I take my racquet back?
There is no absolute right of wrong answer to these questions. Instead, each person has her/his own unique "right" answers for every stroke. You need to discover the right answer for you!
By being attentive, you will need to feel the correct answers to the above questions for each stroke. Your non-conscious mind can store and recall the proper feelings while your conscious mind is focused upon other matters while playing a point. Still, you want to have the right answers archived in your memory bank.
7. Timing the Fore Swing
If you have taken some time off from this wonderful game of ours, you probably need to spend some conscious effort on regaining your timing. Timing is so easily lost. Even when we are in peak shape and have trained significantly, we can lose our timing in a match all too quickly.
Proper timing involves a clear visual understanding of the ball's movement path.
In part, this is why "seeing the ball" is the first step in stroke production.
I have discovered that verbal cues can help establish or re-establish proper timing for each stroke in the game.
Once your racquet is back and ready to move forward to make contact with the ball (regardless of stoke) simply say, "ready"... "move"... "hit."
"Ready" indicates that the racquet is in position to move forward and hit the ball, but has not yet started this movement. "Move" indicates that it is time to move the racquet forward to make contact with the ball. "Hit" indicates that it is the moment of contact.
Simply spending some time hitting all your various strokes using this "system" of verbal (they can be said aloud or silently) will help assure a proper stroke motion.
In matches when you believe that you may have lost your timing, these verbal "markers" can almost always make sure you regain the timing in the shortest amount of time.
8. The Moment of Contact
The moment of contact when the racquet strings make contact with the ball is the single most important moment in a stroke. There is very little one can change at the actual moment of impact. Indeed, all the other steps are designed to assure that this moment of impact is as "trouble free" and "in control" as is possible.
Still, there is value in paying some deliberate attention to the moment of impact when practicing and during matches.
Here again, feeling is everything. You want to feel the racquet handle in your hands at this moment. You want to be aware of your body and its muscles at the moment of impact. You also want to be aware of your breathing (always best to be exhaling) at this moment of impact.
If you are having an off day in practice or in a match, simply pay close attention to this moment of impact. I assure you that you will soon discover what if anything may be the problem. If there is no problem, your muscle memory will underscore all that was done right to produce the proper stroke.
9. The Follow Through and Finish
If you were to travel to any of the tennis academies anywhere in the world, you would hear coaches emphasizing the importance of a proper finish. With groundstrokes, a proper and consistent finish/follow through is absolutely essential for reliable, predictable and controlled results. This is particularly true when a player is "on the run."
Depending on your grip(s) and your stance, there is an ideal finish for every stroke. (For volleys, there may be an absence of finish.) Even serves require a consistent finish and follow through.
Since you can't see your follow through or finish, you must rely upon feelings and upon ending positions.
For example, my forehand is properly finished when I have the racquet over my non-dominant hand's shoulder and pointing down at the court from behind my back. For me, this is full and proper finish.
Each player must discover the proper finishes for each of this game's strokes. They may vary a bit from player to player.
To discover these, stop after hitting a well struck shot. Notice where your racquet is and where it is pointing. Now, try to hit every shot that employs this particular stroke with the same exact finish.
This may take a bit of time to really implant in your muscle memory. Be patient. At some point, you will be able to replicate the proper finish almost with 100% consistency. When you do, you will truly own your shots. In part, this is why finish and follow through are near the end of our tennis by the number list.
When I watch many recreational players and especially beginners, I notice that they hit their shot, and then, stand still!
Tennis is a game of constant motion interrupted by the end of points and the end of games.
As soon as you complete a shot (regardless of what the stroke may be), you should immediately be preparing for the next shot. Granted, there are times when the point is over because you have hit a winner. But even in these situations, the pros are always "moving" to prepare for the next shot... even if this movement is nothing more than bouncing up and down on their toes.
It is imperative that every so often you pay close attention to how you "recover" after each shot! Simply working on making certain that you are always preparing to be in the best position for the next shot, and avoiding the tendency to remain motionless as you watch the shot you just hit will go a long way toward improving your anticipation and subsequent shots.
To improve in this area, I would advise that you videotape your practice sessions and/or matches. Today, this is an extremely easy proposition. Almost all smart phones have video capabilities. Simply asking someone else to video record some of your play will provide you with the visual information you need to assess your recovery habits. Once you see yourself, you will immediately know what changes you may need to make.
Over the many years that I have been captivated and blessed with this wonderful game, I have read and heard many experts preach, "Get back to basics." Even highly skilled players who train year round can benefit from a self examination of stroke production.
If you are like many tennisphiles, you have strokes that are strengths and strokes that are liabilities. The latter can greatly benefit from taking a step by step approach to discover what does or does not work.
If you have better strokes, you play with greater confidence. If you have more confidence, you compete with greater effectiveness. If you compete more effectively, your winning percentages are likely to go up.
Although much of what I share in these columns focus upon the mental and strategic aspects of tennis, better stroke production is always a desirable goal.
Spend some time this month and next really paying attention to each of your strokes. Experiment and discover what works best for you. Let these insights be firmly implanted in your non-conscious mind.
If you do these things, I assure you that you will soon become a tennis overdog!