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Timing Is Everything

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Timing is indeed everything in the game of tennis!!! Tennis is a game that requires precise timing regarding every stroke. Being off even a millisecond with respect to making contact with the ball can make the difference between hitting a winner and producing an errant shot that loses the point.
How many times have you been on a tennis court and heard a player, or yourself, say, "I'm late... or... I'm early" when hitting an errant stroke? Have you ever gotten to a ball a bit late or a bit early, and found that your stroke went awry? When you play some points, do you find yourself rushing to win the point, and as a result, hit a shot for a "winner" that just lands outside the lines?
All of these examples illustrate the importance of proper timing when playing the game of tennis. Well this month, I want to spend some time talking about how one can actually improve the various ways timing comes to play in her/his game of tennis.
Let's begin with stroke timing. Finding the perfect contact point for a stroke is not simply a happenstance. Consistent hitting results from working hard to make certain that each ball struck is hit with the perfect contact point in mind.
If one hits the ball too early, it will invariably go more to the left (if right handed) and to the right (if left handed). Why? Well, when one hits the ball early, she/he is actually hitting the outside of the ball (the side farthest from the body of the player hitting the shot). Conversely, hitting the ball late forces one to hit the inside of the ball (the side closest to the player). The net result is that a late hit will force the ball to go more to the right (if right handed) and more to the left (if left handed). Hitting late almost always occurs when the player is "jammed" by a serve (meaning that the serve is hit with pace and directly at the receiver's body).
Players that are new to the game make lots of mistakes with respect to timing. This is completely normal. In a sense, developing timing in a stroke is similar to learning how to parallel park a car... both require practice.
To correct the problem of mistiming in strokes, several things must be done. First and foremost, one needs to hit lots of strokes. The more you hit, the better your timing will be. If you don't play tennis for several months (as is the case with many recreational players), you will probably find that upon picking up the racquet again, the major problem with stroke production is mistiming. It takes some time and practice to regain form. Generally, I find that players who have taken a break need at least a full month of hitting a minimum of three times per week to regain their form with respect to timing.
One can greatly help timing by hitting against a wall or backboard. I try to hit at least one day per week in this manner. The backboard can provide a means of hitting lots of balls in a controlled manner. By varying your distance from the wall or backboard, a player can hit balls that force him/her to move and setup differently. Sometimes, I will allow the ball to bounce only once after coming off the backboard. Other times, I will let it bounce twice. Why? Well again, I find that this provides variety to the pace of the ball and its bounce height. This variety is crucial in helping me developing proper stroke timing. After all, not every ball one hits bounces, spins and comes at you in the same way. I actually practice volleys off the backboard or wall by moving very close to the wall. By focusing on making contact in front of my body, I find that my timing on volleys great improves when I return to hitting on a court.
Apart from hitting lots of balls, hitting them correctly is critical in developing or recapturing proper timing. Every stroke has its own unique contact point... groundstrokes, volleys, serves, overheads... every stroke. The proper contact point is determined by one's grip on the racquet and by preferred hitting height. By hitting height, I mean how high a player lets the ball bounce before hitting it. Andre Agassi used to take virtually every groundstroke "on the rise." He liked to hit these balls as they are still rising from the bounce. Other players will hit the ball at the peak of its bounce. Lastly, some players prefer to stay back from the bounce of the ball and make contact with it after it has reached its peak and is beginning to descend.
More and more players on both tours are beginning to take balls on the rise as Andre used to do. Why? Taking the ball on the rise is automatically an attacking stroke. Hitting on the rise automatically moves you forward. The closer you are to the net, the wider the opponent's court becomes. In addition, balls that are hit on the rise usually have lots of spin and pace. Lastly taking the ball on the rise reduces your opponent's reaction time and your shot comes back at her/him a bit more quickly.
To determine what the right contact point is for you, I suggest you begin by referring to my earlier article entitled The Grip: Picture Perfect. This heavily illustrated column will show you various grip, stance and contact point combinations. In addition, I would suggest that you video record yourself hitting strokes... all strokes. Have a hitting partner rally with you. However, play points with this partner. Why? Well, rallying in practice is one thing... playing a point is much more likely to reveal the preferred contact point for each stroke. Given that virtually everyone owns a smart phone with video recording capability, this is not a difficult task. You may have to enlist the services of someone to serve as camera operator, but I have seen cell phones literally taped to fences and net posts when being used to record a player's strokes.
Once you have determined the proper contact point for each stroke, it is then necessary to identify the proper approach, stance and position you need to be in relationship to the actual bounce (of course, this does not apply to volleys and to hitting overheads). To learn these positions, one must have his/her undivided attention and awareness on the ball. One needs to really see the ball in order to learn the perceptual reference that is necessary to develop consistently proper timing in stroke production. My very first column, SEE the ball!!!, written over twenty years ago still applies today. I recommend that the reader review this column!
Of course, early preparation greatly improves one's stroke timing. Getting set to hit the ball as early as is possible will automatically improve your stroke timing. By preparation, I do not mean that the racquet has to be all the way back as you move to the ball. In fact, if it is, you will probably not move to the ball quickly and efficiently. Rather, I mean that one needs to get ready to move to the ball quickly. If one has developed a shorter backstroke (which I strongly advise), the racquet "take back" will automatically be done well in advance of the actual forward motion of the racquet in the stroke. The keys here are: moving to the ball quickly and taking a short backswing with the racquet. I realize that some of my readers have very long strokes. I firmly believe that every player can greatly benefit from shortening his/her backswing. Given modern racquets and string technology, there is no need for a long backswing to generate power. Also, there is less to go "wrong" when you have a short backswing.
Getting that first step will be greatly improved if one does lots of off court training on footwork. Forget the distance running... it won't help here. Rather, run lots of sprints which will improve your foot speed. Second, make certain that you move forward (at least a little bit) every time you move to a ball. Too many players simply move from side to side... never taking even a small step forward to the ball. Early preparation means getting to the ball early. To do this, one needs to move forward.
A good drill to help you move properly is to have a hitting partner hit you balls at a medium pace. Your job is to run to the ball and catch in your hand the ball immediately after it bounces. In essence, you are trying to catch the ball on the rise. If you do this drill, you will see that you automatically move forward to each ball. An added benefit to this drill is that it encourages you to hit groundstrokes while the ball is still on its rise after bouncing. As I have stated above, hitting balls on the rise will increase your groundstroke pace and will invariably provide you with an aggressive backcourt game.
Finally, "freezing or quieting" one's head at the moment of contact will also improve timing. As is the case in golf, one does not want to have any movement of the head when actually hitting the ball. To ensure this, I try to force myself to look at the moment of contact (in truth, you never really see it) for a full second after hitting the ball. In truth, I am sure that I never "linger" for a full second. But, I try. "Freezing" the head helps me keep a consistent contact point and keeps my body balanced through the entire stroke. Together, these make my timing better, and usually mean that my stroke "finish" will be full and consistent... both are very desirable stroke attributes. If you could finish every stroke in the same way every time you stuck the individual stroke, I assure you that your game winning percentage would skyrocket!
Apart from stroke production and moving to the ball, timing takes on at least one other significant meaning in tennis. Going for winners requires proper timing.
Most of us like to believe that our winners win us matches. This is not the case on any level of the game. In reality, the person who makes fewest errors wins... not the person with the most winners.
Winners are tempting. They feel good when they go in, and they send a strong psychological message to our opponent. Yet, they need to be hit judiciously. When you attempt to hit winners is critical.
Here are my suggestions:

  • Never try to hit a winner off of your weaker strokes.
  • Never try to hit a winner when you are behind the baseline.
  • Never try to hit a winner on the first stroke of the point... the odds are very much against you, if you do.
  • Don't hit winners that are based on pace. Hit winners that are based upon placement.
  • Don't try to crush every winner, but at the same time, don't "push" shots that are intended to be winners.
  • Don't go for a winner when you are in a defensive position.
  • When going for a winner, try to go crosscourt whenever possible to allow for a greater margin of error.

If you keep your winner attempts within the above guidelines, I promise you that you will find that they are much more likely to actually win you the point. Timing is also an important consideration when one considers the answer to the following questions: At what time of day do I normally prefer to play? At what time of year do I play my best tennis? Scheduling recreational matches and entering tournaments with these questions in mind will help your winning percentage. Unfortunately, tournaments do not allow contestants to determine match times. Still, some tournaments have fairly predictable match schedules. If you can, try to enter those in which you have the greatest chance for playing at ideal times.
I play my best tennis in the morning in the spring. When I was competing for USTA ranking, I made certain that most of my tournaments were played in April and May. Fortunately, the tournaments that I selected had morning matches. In 1993 and 1994, I made a USTA New England Sectional Ranking of 4 in Men's 5.0 Singles. Every time I look at these plaques on my wall, I realize how important timing was in the selection of tournaments to play.
Well hopefully, you will agree with me that timing is everything in the game of tennis.
If you work on proper timing, I assure you 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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