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Perfect Volleys

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

At one point, this wonderful game of ours truly was "Lawn Tennis." Wimbledon has maintained the grass surface tradition, but of course, the type of grass has been altered to favor longer rallies and more groundstroke oriented play. Each year, I go to the Newport Hall of Fame Championships to photograph. This surface, I assure the reader, is traditional grass in every sense. The number of courts worldwide that have grass as their surface is certainly diminishing. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation to the demise of these grass courts and to the number of singles players who compete using a serve/volley and chip/charge approach.
There are good reason why volleying has become less prevalent in the singles game. First, modern racquets and string technology have made the game far "faster" than during the wooden racquet era. Modern players can generate incredible pace off of their groundstrokes. In truth, the amount of time that a player has available to him/her to get to the net has been reduced. The difference may really only be a reduction in fractions of a second, but this can translate into having to volley balls that may actually land at the feet of a player.
Even if you are able to get to the net in a timely manner, there is a greater chance that you may get passed. The modern player can hit a very fast ball that travels low over the net. Both of these attributes make effective volleying more difficult. This whole situation is exacerbated by slower surfaces (hard courts and clay surfaces). The slower the surface, the more time the groundstroke oriented opponent has to set up her/his passing shot.
In truth, I believe many modern players really hate to be anywhere near the net! Indeed in the modern game, a tactic that can win a player points is to draw his/her opponent into the net. Unfortunately, I see too many younger players who do not move forward to the net when they have an opportunity to win the point outright. I can only surmise that there is some fear about attempting to play the net game among these youthful players.
I remember reading a tennis article years back where Jack Kramer (a consummate net player) believed that this great game of ours went in cycles. The net game would be the norm. Eventually, players would emerge who leaned in favor of the backcourt game. But, all players in his era seemed to be able to play both of these approaches. I am doubtful about whether this cycle exists today.
Given all of the above and given the proximity of this article's publishing to Wimbledon, I will explore how to arrive at a perfect volley. My hope is that, despite the advent of the modern game of tennis, each reader will incorporate more volleying into her/his game. Secretly, I hope that the "evolution" of players to come enables the future of our game to be able to play effective net tennis... regardless of surface. I am sure that Jack Kramer would support my hope.
When to Volley in Singles
The most likely time to come to the net to hit a volley is when your opponent is likely to hit a weak reply. Any time that your opponent is stretched when executing a groundstroke, the reply is likely to be somewhat weak. In addition, the reply is likely to travel at a trajectory that takes the ball higher over the net. Both of these attributes facilitate an effective volley... even if a player is not a gifted volleyer.
Unfortunately, many players will stay back in the aforementioned situation and hope to either hit a put away winner or reply with a strong groundstroke. Indeed, this is the typical response to a weak shot in the modern game. However, the alert player who knows when she/he has hit a shot that will put her/his opponent in a defensive position (e.g. running hard to hit a reply, stretched when hitting a reply, drawn way out of court to make a reply) will rush to the net to hit a put away volley.
In my humble opinion, the player who is alert and anticipates a weak reply is far better off rushing the net to volley a winner than attempting to set in and hit a put away winning groundstroke. Even a weak volley can be a clear winner. Many times, I have seen the skilled player miss a put away groundstroke winner because he/she over hits or misdirects the ball.
Roger Federer may be the best example of a player who knows when to rush in and take the net. Granted, Roger has beautiful volleys. But more often than not, he simply executes an "adequate" volley in these offensive situations. It is important to remember that the volley is truly an offensive shot. Even if an opponent can reply to your volley, she/he will probably not be able to really hit a winning shot. Volleys usually stay low, and they may have some backspin. Modern grips do not favor lower bouncing balls!
In any volley situation, it is important to anticipate needing to hit two volleys to win the point! Some opponents can scramble and find a way to put their racquets on virtually any ball. So, the modern player who plays the net game needs to be psychologically prepared and physically prepared to hit two volleys. The best way to do this is to always move forward (even if only slightly) and to move following the path of your volley over the net. These two actions automatically prepare you to be able to hit a good and winning second volley.
Serve/Volley is not a bad option in singles! When coaching collegiate teams, I would always advise my players (male and female) to play serve/volley in every match. For some, this was not a natural approach. But even for these less than gifted net players, the change of pace and surprise won lots of "free" points. Literally, opponents were shocked when they saw my team members serving and volleying in singles. For the less gifted net players, I encouraged them to use this approach when the score was either 40-Love or 40-15. One of my best players (Jamie) literally could serve and volley so well that it was often times his entire game plan... even on slower hard courts!
Chip/Charge is a reasonable option when your opponent doesn't have a huge serve. This approach to competing in tennis is really only seen in doubles these days. Still, it has value in singles play if used wisely. The key is to be able to hit a nice, sliced chip as you return your opponent's serve. If your opponent is typical of many modern players, he/she will give the first serve all the power possible. However, the second serve may be much more manageable. This is particularly true if your opponent hits to your backhand wing. One handed backhands are a requisite in tennis... even if you normally hit a two handed backhand. The one handed sliced backhand is a stroke every player needs in his/her arsenal. Using this sliced backhand to chip a return and approach the net can really be problematic for many modern players. Recently, I watched a man in his sixties destroy one of the area's best juniors. He consistently came to the net chipping and charging on every second serve! What was most surprising may be the fact that this match was played on slow, red clay!!!
How to Move to the Net
I remember some years back when Barbara Potter was coaching in the area. She was teaching a junior how to properly move to the net. Barbara has absolutely beautiful volleys and moves forward effortlessly. So naturally, I watched her coach this young man.
Barbara was instructing this junior player to always move on his toes. Moving forward to volley is never really achieved in an effective manner when even the first step is done flat footed. For modern players, the first step to a groundstroke is usually quite long. Only as the player approaches the ball to make contact do the steps become smaller. In addition, groundstrokes have more of a side motion to them. Both of these factors were items that Barbara made very clear to her young student.
Barbara also realized that there is a necessary "pause" of sorts involved in every volley. She did not demand that this young man stop as he hit his volley, but she did insist that he at least "slow down" his movement forward as he made contact with the ball.
Her third "tip" was to encourage this junior player to always try and keep his head "level" with the ball as it came over the net. Granted, the ball may dip below the net cord level as it approaches the player who seeks to volley. But if the "would be" volleyer keeps his/her head at the level that the ball was at when it passed over the net, the player would automatically be in the right body position to execute the best possible volley.
Barbara eventually had the young man she was teaching "count" his steps aloud. Her goal was seemingly to get him to take three steps to hit the first volley (or sometimes half volley) and then, at least another step forward to hit a potential second volley. I would never criticize a former tour player of Barbara's impressive skills and record!
Still, I tend to support Oscar Wegner's approach to volleying. When he was instructing me, he would always suggest that thinking about one's feet was counterproductive. Why? Well, it forces one to not focus fully on the ball. So for Oscar, he made things very simple. When hitting a groundstroke, move your chest to the ball... the body will automatically make the adjustments necessary to hit the best groundstroke. When hitting a volley, Oscar recommended that I simply move my head to the ball as if I wanted it to bounce off my head. His theory was that this would keep my focus on the ball, but enable me to move properly to any potential volley. I assure the reader that this does indeed work, and that, I have never actually been hit in the head by a ball when using this volley movement technique!
Conventional and modern tennis teach that the continental grip should be used for both forehand and backhand volleys. I fully agree that this is the most desirable grip to use if at all possible. It permits the net player to be able to hit off either wing without having to make any grip change. In addition if the player is serving and volleying, he/she can use the continental grip when serving. As he/she moves forward, the continental grip is in place for hitting a volley (or a half volley if needed).
The problem for many players (particularly recreational competitors) is that the continental grip is awkward and prevents them from hitting firm and crisp volleys. If this is the case for the reader, I would recommend that you use two grips for volleying. Use the eastern forehand grip for forehand volleys, and the eastern backhand grip for backhand volleys. Although, this will require a grip change at times (when hitting two consecutive volleys... one to the forehand side and one to the backhand side), the benefit is that the player automatically has a grip and a racquet face position that facilitates crisp and solid volleys. You may muff a few volleys... particularly during rapid exchanges as is often the case when playing doubles. However for singles, you probably have sufficient time to make the grip changes.
Racquet Head
A simple rule associated with hitting effective volleys is... always keep the racquet head above your wrist... even if only slightly. For groundstroke players who are used to hitting with lots of topspin, keeping the racquet head up can be a bit awkward and strange. On low volleys, it may be difficult to keep the racquet head significantly higher than your wrist. In these cases, even a slightly elevated racquet head will pay dividends. As an added benefit, you will automatically be bending at your knees (not your waist) when you attempt low volleys with an elevated racquet head.
Allied with this, it is wise to try to keep the elbows close to the body when hitting volleys... particularly, the forehand volley. Of course, this is not always possible. One can be stretching to make a volley. In addition, balls can be hit directly at the net player. This situation calls for a motion that forces the racquet head to cross sideways in front of the player's body to make a "blocked" volley.
This may be the most difficult aspect of volleying for the modern player. When volleying, you want little if any backswing. Instead, you want to "frame" the ball as it approaches your racquet and "block" its forward movement with a quick and short forward racquet movement of your own. I have read many books and articles that refer to this forward racquet movement as a "punch." For me, I have never found the analogy to be useful.
When teaching new players to volley, I prove to them that they can hit a volley with absolutely no racquet movement. I hit balls to them while they are at the net, and I have them simply block the ball's movement by "touching it with the strings." The result is initially "stop volleys" that dribble over the net. However after 10 or so balls, the student usually is beginning to not only touch the balls, but he/she is driving forward a bit after the touch.
Watch any good volleyer on TV. She/he will always be moving her/his body forward. However, the racquet head is off to the side is motionless until the moment of contact. Then, the player "pushes" the racquet forward and probably a bit downward. This latter motion imparts backspin and helps control the volley. The backspin keeps the ball lower after it bounces forcing the opponent to "hit up." The result is often times a ball that does not have much pace and travels high over the net... the ideal situation for a second volley winner.
Follow Through
Volleys do have follow through, but it is abbreviated in comparison to groundstrokes. Generally, a fluid motion is best when following through regarding volleys. You don't want too much of a follow through in part because you want to ready the racquet in front of you for a possible second volley.
Oscar Wegner pointed out to me uniqueness associated with John McEnroe's volleys. If you watch John on the Masters Tour or see footage of his matches from the 70's and 80's, he seems to bring his racquet back towards his body after making contact with the ball. If you look carefully, he appears to be "flicking" his racquet at the ball. I am not suggesting that the reader adopt this technique, but John is one of the very best volley players ever. His volleys speak to the relatively unimportant nature of a complete follow through when volleying.
My belief is that we who play this wonderful game of tennis do not practice volleying enough... or in the proper way.
Standing three feet from the net and having a hitting partner feed you balls is NOT going to make your volleys work during matches. This is not a bad way to warm up before a match, but it is NOT the way to practice volleying.
A better way to practice is as follows:

  1. Have your hitting partner feed you a ball that requires a groundstroke.

  2. After you hit this groundstroke move forward to the net with your racquet in front of your body and moving on your toes. Use a continental grip as you move forward. If you change grips to volley (eastern forehand/eastern backhand), you will be able to get to either one of these quickly.

  3. Have your hitting partner feed you a ball that would bounce on or a bit behind the service line on your side of the court. (He or she may need to use a second ball for this feed, if your groundstroke is hit in a manner that does not invite this kind of reply from your hitting partner.)

  4. Hit your first volley. This will probably be a volley that forces you to get low (remember to bend at the knees not the waist) or it may necessitate a half volley. Slow your forward motion as you make contact with the ball.

  5. Once you have hit the volley or half volley continue to move forward and follow the path of the ball that you have just hit (right or left).

  6. Have your hitting partner feed you another ball and hit your second volley for a put away. You are probably 4 feet or so from the net when you hit this second volley.

  7. Stop the drill and go back to the start.

One of the problems with net play is that you may not know which side to cover as you approach the net or after you hit your first volley. Arthur Ashe wrote about this and coached John McEnroe on this when John played Davis Cup with Arthur as Captain. Arthur Ashe truly understood the net game. His rule? Always cover down the line. Even if Arthur Ashe is wrong, you still have a 50-50 chance of being right if you always cover down the line. If your opponent senses that you are favoring this side, you can always reverse the rule. My point? Always have a predetermined side in mind!
A second way to practice is to simply play practice points where you serve and volley. Don't be surprised if you are serving and losing points. It takes a little time to get acclimated to the serve/volley game. However when I coached collegiate teams, I would mandate that a whole practice session be dedicated to serve/volley points at least one day every 10 days.
I would do the same with the third way to practice volleys which is to play chip/charge points. Regardless of whether it was first or second serve, the returner must play a chip/charge point. I assure the reader that this is a very frustrating drill for those returning serve. Usually, serves to the forehand side of the returner would wreak havoc. But sooner or later, the returner would get his/her bearings. The returner may not win more points than the server in this drill, but I assure the reader that the returner's net game did indeed improve immensely.
It is unfortunate that those who watch matches live or on TV prefer long rallies. It is understandable, but there is something truly magical about a tennis match that incorporates some net game into the fray.
You can learn to volley perfectly! You can use volleying as it is intended to be used... offensively! Spending some time learning proper "stroke" production and practicing in ways that replicate real match play will help you win points and matches this summer. Indeed, learning to execute the perfect volley will enable you to 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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