Here we are in April. For high school and collegiate players, the heart of the tennis season is just beginning. Coaching teams can be a somewhat daunting task. Getting a team ready to compete is a process. Practice times can be somewhat limited, and when interschool matches become the norm, it can be difficult to know how best to practice on "off days." Having coached NCAA Men's and Women's teams, I thought it wise to share some of the practice drills that I have used with success.
Frequently, I see players practicing in one of several ways... either they play sets, play points, or they hit lots of groundstrokes back and forth without any real purpose. If you regularly play sets with a particular hitting partner, each of you knows the other's game. Even if you are evenly matched, you are likely to be playing the same type of points with the same results... not a lot of learning or improvement! If you simply play points and switch back and forth which player will be the server, you will also fall into the same rut. Hitting groundstrokes back and forth aimlessly is fun, recreational, and in some ways helpful... but, you probably will not improve significantly if this is your primary method of practicing.
There are lots of books with practice games/drills that one can purchase to "spice up" practice sessions. What we all need are different games and drills that will permit variety... but at the same time... these must help improve players' games.
What follows is a list of some of the practice games that I play, and that I have my team players play. Each has some specific benefit. In addition, playing different games/drills means that one person is rarely able to dominate all the time. Thus, every player is likely to find at least one game/drill among those listed below in which she/he can compete effectively. Matching your number one singles player against your number 5 singles player can work for both players... despite the difference in proficiencies. Finally, these games provide variety, which will help keep players interested in practicing.
If you practice on a regular basis, I strongly encourage you to incorporate these games into your regimen. If you coach or teach tennis, these games will allow your students to practice and compete at the same time. Competition is essential in developing your game. Without it, you really are not preparing yourself for tournaments and/or scholastic matches. Part of every practice session should include some healthy competition.
Chris Evert speaks about the times that she and her father would simply hit hundreds of balls back and forth. However, there was a purpose to her practice... to develop consistency in shot production. In an attempt to add the element of competition, I play what I call the consistency game.
Here, each player tries to hit as many balls as is possible from the baselines (approximately one half of the court on each side of the net). However, each ball must land between the service line, sidelines and baseline. The idea is to help your partner in hitting his/her groundstrokes by keeping the ball in play within the limits identified above. If a player misses a ball, hits out of bounds, hits too short (within the service box areas of the court on either side of the net, or hits the net... she/he will give the opponent a point. The goal is to be consistent in your stroke production. Eventually, within 10 or 15 shots (often times sooner), one of you will mishit the ball. When one of you does hit the ball "out' or misses the ball, he/she gives the other a point. The first to accumulate 11 points with a winning margin of 2 wins the match.
This is similar to the Consistency Game. In the Groundstroke Game, the ball is put into play without a serve (you simply hit the ball over the net with a forehand after dropping it for a bounce or by using an underhand serve). The ball becomes "live" (meaning it is in play) after the ball has passed over the net three times. However, the three passes over the net must result in the ball landing within a player's backcourt (from the service line to the baseline). If the ball bounces in the service box... you must start over... again, the ball is not live until it passes over the net three times and lands within the backcourt boundaries. If the ball is out before it passes over the net three times, you must start over. Similarly, if the ball is netted before it is live, you must start the count over. A point can only be scored after the ball has passed over the net three times.
After the ball has passed over the net three times and has landed within the backcourt area, the ball is considered live. Now, the entire court (as would be the case during a regular match) is open to score a point. After the third pass, the player can actually hit a volley for a winner... or a drop shot for a winner, etc. Again, you play the game to 11, but the winner must win by a margin of 2.
The Volley Game
In this game, each player begins each point by standing at the service line. One player "serves" an easy volley to the other. The "receiver" must volley back to the "server." After the ball has passed the net four times it is considered live and in play. From this point on, either opponent can hit any shot (volley, groundstroke, smash, etc.) that will win him/her the point... most of the time, each player only hits volleys. Once the ball is live, the entire court is open for shots. This game will greatly improve your volleying and your net sense. Keep score and the first person to 11 with a margin of 2 wins the game. This game/drill is particularly beneficial for those players who compete in doubles where volleys become essential. This game/drill can be modified to include two players on each side of the net, and incorporate the doubles alleys as part of the court open for shots.
Deuce Game Sets
Next time you play a set, start each game at deuce. This puts pressure on the server immediately. If the server wins the first point, the score is 40/30. If the receiver wins the first point, the score is 30/40. As is the case with any normal tennis game, you may find that you play two or three deuces before one player wins the game. Keep score of games as you normally would, and change serves and courtsides as is normally done when playing sets. Because you are starting each game a deuce, the amount of time necessary to play a set is greatly reduced... yet, the pressure to play flawlessly is greatly increased. It may take you only a half-hour to play two sets when playing Deuce Game Sets but, the pressure that will be associated with this game will not be reduced! If practice time is limited, this particular game/drill can be a most efficient way of using what time is available.
Second Serve Sets
Another way to play sets is to limit each player to only one serve per point. This means that each player will probably be serving second serves. This enables returns to be more aggressive, and in fact, the server actually can lose his/her advantage. A player "double faults" if she/he misses any serve! There is an old tennis adage... You are only as good as your second serve. This "limited" form of tennis competition really helps develop good second serves and aggressive returns of serve!
Serve and Volley Sets
In this game, the server does get the normal two serves per point, but he/she must serve and volley on every serve! The receiver knows this, and consequently, he/she goes for returns that will make the volley difficult. If you are a groundstroker who wants to improve his/her all court game, play sets where you must serve and volley. I promise you that this game will improve this part of your game immensely and quickly!
Chip and Charge Sets
This is similar to the serve and volley set, but in this game the server can stay back if she/he wants. The receiver, however, must always chip and charge on every return of serve... whether it is a first or second serve. Believe me; this game puts the server at a great advantage. Anyone who wins a game playing these types of sets should be pleased... it is not easy. However, this type of return is necessary... especially on fast hard courts or indoor surfaces. Playing chip and charge sets will help you when you play matches on either of these surfaces. You may not want to play chip and charge on every point, but when you do want to sneak such a tactic into a match, you'll be prepared and confident as a result of this game.
Half Court Sets
Play sets where you only use half of the court. For example, one way is to play a set where each player must serve, rally, volley and smash to the opponent's diagonally opposite court. So in this version, you serve to the deuce court and the return must come back to your deuce court. From here on in the point every ball hit by each player must go crosscourt to the other's deuce court. When serving to the ad court, every ball must be hit to the opponent's ad court. The centerline divides the court (you need to make judgment calls on whether or not a ball is out if it bounces beyond this line... and most will). When played this way, sets become very long... because there are no surprises about where the ball will be placed.
A variation of this occurs when you play all the points down the line. Here, the server serves as is normal (diagonally) but the receiver must return down the line. From this point on, all balls must be struck down the line and land within the proper half of the court. For example, I serve to the deuce court. My opponent must return to my ad court (again the center service line divides the court). From this point on, I must hit all of my balls to my opponent's deuce court and he/she must hit all his/her balls to my ad court. When I serve to the ad court, the receiver must return to my deuce court. From this point on, I must hit every ball to his/her ad court and he/she must hit every ball to my deuce court... and so on and so on.
All of this may seem a bit confusing, but once you go on court and follow the guidelines for this type of play... it will become easy.
The real benefit to these forms of our game is that it forces each player to hit with control. Playing this game regularly will greatly improve the accuracy of your return of serve, and it will help you develop accurate groundstrokes.
These different ways to play the game of tennis offer the variety and diversity necessary to improve all parts of your game. In addition, you will find yourself more eager to practice because you are not always training in the same way. Each of these games involves competition. My firm belief is that training and practice should involve some competitiveness whenever possible... after all, tennis is a competitive sport and should be played this way.
Print out this month's column and take it with you to the practice court. If you are a coach, schedule each of these games regularly into your practice regimens.
Try these games out and let me know what you think. I am certain that if you incorporate these games into your training routine... you will soon become a