Over the years, at one time or another I have visited virtually all the tennis academies in Florida. Almost without fail, I watch young player practicing who focus on really only two strokes: groundstrokes and serves. The latter is often times given less attention than I believe it deserves. After all, one is only as good as one's serve!
This reality is not all that surprising. In truth, the vast majority of shots hit in the modern game are groundstrokes. The serve/volley game is uncommon (although not completely extinct) and who doesn't want to win "free points" off of one's serve.
Observing these young players "competing" in practice sets, certain "specialty" shots are rarely struck. Again, this is not surprising given the modern game, but sooner or later, specialty shots are demanded. If you are a pro or on the way to becoming a pro, you need to make sure that you possess all the shots in this great game of ours. Some of the academies spend at least one practice session per week honing the skills of young players with respect to specialty shots. One specialty shot that is frequently perfected in "drills" is the overhead smash.
In my mind, if you are an intermediate to advanced player, there are five important shots that you must have to beat the better player. Some of these you may already have... some may need to be acquired. But, I assure you that you need all of them, if you are truly looking to move up the tennis ladder.
Not surprisingly, the first of these five shots deals with the serve. Now, those of you who read my column regularly know that I advocate spin serves that land deep in the service box. Even if these spin serves lack pace, they are not likely to be returned aggressively... if they do land deep in the box. I would rather see a spin serve directed to the opponent's weaker wing than to see a big, flat serve that may come back at you harder than you served it... presuming it lands in the service box.
The "kick serve" is the most prominent spin serve. In this serve, the ball has both topspin and side spin. Even if this shot is with only moderate pace, the opponent is usually unable to "tee off" on his/her return. In the modern game, the kick serve has become the norm for pros as their second serve. At times, you will see the pros hit a slice serve (side spinned) direct in a manner that pulls the opponent out wide. This slice serve is particularly effective when it is used to the forehand side of a player who favors a full western grip. This serve stays relatively low and the western grip favors higher bouncing balls. Put the opponent on the run to hit his/her return, and you can often times expect a weak return.
I might recommend that the intermediate or advanced player use spin serves (varying the placements) as both a first and second serve.
However, there is one flat serve that I think every player should strive to develop. This is the "jam" serve. By this, I mean a serve that is hit hard, with little spin which lands deep in the box. But, this "jam" serve is directed at the receiver... not away from her/him.
I try to use this serve as a first serve and I target the opponent's hip as my aim point. I usually try to hit this jam serve to the hip that is associated with the opponent's weaker wing.
I have found that even when the receiver does get her/his racquet on this type of serve, it usually is a weak return. When I hit this serve, I immediately take a step forward after making contact with the ball. Why? Well, I am expecting a weaker reply that often times will land a bit short in my court. By moving in, I am ready to put this weak return away for a winner.
Now, you cannot use this serve for every first serve. If you do, the opponent will expect it, and he/she will run around to hit his/her favorite groundstroke. But, you can use it every third or fourth point with success.
Occasionally, you will be facing an opponent who has no problem with this type of serve... but this is very rare. If you do face such an opponent, it will not take you long to realize this fact. Anecdotally, I must confess that in my experience the opponents that seem to be out of shape and slow of foot are usually the ones who return the jam serve best. Paradoxically, the fit player who moves with grace and speed is often times at a disadvantage when given this "jam" serve. But, there is only one way to know for certain... experiment with it.
To practice this serve, use an empty tennis ball container and place it deep in the center of the service box. Try to serve with pace and attempt to knock this container over. Believe me -- it is not as easy as it may sound.
The second shot that every serious player must have in her/his arsenal is the "short ball put away." How many times have you had a short ball and either netted the put away or hit the ball out? Probably more often than you would like to admit or remember.
The pros actually practice this put away fairly regularly. Their coaches will rally with them, and then, deliberately hit a short ball. The pro will rush in, setup and literally crush the ball for a winner.
The problem is that most of us never really practice this shot. When we get the short ball, we salivate at the prospect of hitting a winner. But, often times, we over hit or under hit the shot.
Have your practice partner or teaching pro give you the short ball drill. Start a rally of groundstrokes that are hit deep. After three or four successful passes over the net, have your hitting partner hit a short ball. When this happens, you need to move quickly, setup quickly, but hit deliberately. By hitting deliberately, I mean that you need to take a shorter backswing, hit with a little less pace, keep your head motionless through the entire stroke and finish the stroke completely.
In my observations, most players miss these put away shots because they are not freezing their heads at the moment of impact. Rather, they are too concerned at looking where they want the ball to go. Thus, they lift their heads prematurely. Having a "quiet" head is imperative in every shot in our game!!! Instead of looking where the ball is suppose to go, freeze your head and "visualize" the spot on the court where you seek the ball to land. (Visualizing every shot before you strike it is a good technique for every shot in our game.)
If the shot is truly a put away, it should not come back. There is no point looking to see where it lands. If your opponent calls it out, it's out (unless you have an umpire on court and appeal the call). It is better to allow for a little more margin of error and not look to see if the ball lands in. If your opponent does get to the shot, her/his reply will probably not be strong. Thus, as soon as you hit the put away shot, move forward to the net... in the hope of hitting a volley for a winner. How should you approach the net? Here is a simple but useful tip. Simply follow the "path" of your put away, and you will automatically be in the best court position should you need to hit a volley.
The third essential shot for the competitive player is the drop shot. This shot can really win you lots of points, particularly on clay or grass. The key ingredients in being successful with this shot include the following.
First, do not hit drop shots unless you are near or inside the service line. Drop shots hit from deeper court positions usually sit up for the opponent and end up being put away for a winner.
Second, make certain to impart backspin on this shot. Truthfully, I try to hit these drop shots with both backspin and sidespin. Why? Well, if your opponent does manage to track the shot down, the additional side spin makes his/her reply a bit more difficult to execute.
Third, play drop shots when early on in a match or when you are ahead in terms of the score. Many of us tend to hit drop shots out of desperation, when we are losing. Drop shots require a relaxed arm and wrist. Usually, we are not relaxed when we are losing.
Practice hitting drops shots with a hitting partner. Again, start a groundstroke rally. Have your hitting partner hit a ball that bounces high and hits the court inside your service lines. Step in as you would for a put away. However, this time, hit the drop shot. If possible, hit the drop shot at an angle... away from your opponent. This will increase the chances that he/she will be unable to reach the shot before its second bounce.
The fourth essential shot is very similar to the drop shot in its effect. What I am referring to is the stop volley.
Stop volleys are shots that literally drop over the net. To hit the stop volley you need to soften the stiffness in your wrist at the moment that the ball makes contact with the strings. This takes timing. You also want to be very close to the net when you hit this volley.
The times to hit stop volleys are when your opponent is deep and has hit a shot at you that does not have too much pace or too little pace. The idea is to deceive the opponent. You setup exactly as you would for any volley. However, you literally soften your grip at the moment of impact while the racquet face is tilted slightly upward. The result should be a shot similar to a drop shot only it is hit as a volley (the ball does not bounce before you make contact with the ball).
If the shot has lots of pace, you will probably find that the stop volley usually becomes nothing more than a weak volley. The opponent will step in and put the ball away for a winner.
If the shot has very little pace and/or excessive backspin, the stop volley will probably drop into the net.
You need to practice hitting the stop volley in order to get a sense of how to soften your wrist and what balls you can appropriately handle with a stop volley.
To practice this shot, have your hitting partner hit to you while you are near the net. Have her/him hit at you and away from you varying the pace of these shots. Each time, try to hit a volley that literally dribbles over the net. After a short time, you will begin to get your bearings and be better able to judge which balls can be hit for a stop volley successfully and which ones cannot.
The fifth essential shot is the topspin lob. This lob is one that is essentially offensive in nature. I am told by my senior tennis friends that the former touring pro, Harold Solomon, made a career out of this shot. Virtually every groundstroke he hit was a moonball (really a topspin lob).
Being able to hit topspin lobs is a very valuable skill. First, topspin lobs will buy you time in a point, and allow you to get back to center court more easily.
Second, topspin lobs bounce high, and usually, your opponent cannot hit a clear winner off of them. Pushers, however, will almost always try to hit a short, slice shot off of these lobs. So, when playing a pusher, be ready to move in for the put away. Frequently, the pusher can hit these slice shots with some pace. So, the ball may skip and/or stay very low. It is essential that you setup early for these shots. Anticipation is the only way that you can get an edge up on the accomplished pusher.
Third, topspin lobs keep your opponent back and away from the net. Obviously, this is where you want your opponent... especially if she/he likes to volley.
Lastly, topspin lobs can be used successfully in doubles or in singles when playing a net rusher. If you have a good topspin lob, you may actually return serve in doubles by lobbing over the head of the net player. When playing a net rusher, mix up passing shots and topspin lobs to keep him/her guessing and honest.
Topspin lobs can be very risky on windy days. Why? Well, the ball travels a greater distance due to its arc. Thus, the effects of the wind are more pronounced. When the wind is in your face, the danger is that the ball will land too short. When the wind is at your back, the danger is that the ball will go long.
Still, I cannot tell you how many points I have won simply by hitting lots of moonballs. They may not be exciting, but they do the job.
It is important to note that most lobs hit in our great game are sliced (backspin) lobs. These are defensive lobs. They may help keep a player in the point, but they often times result in one's opponent hitting an overhead smash, if this defensive lob does not land deep in the opponent's court.
The great thing about topspin lobs is that they are actually offensive in nature. Once the ball lands for its bounce, it usually moves forward more quickly due to the topspin.
So as we in the Northern Hemisphere of this planet approach the outdoor tennis season, it is important to work on more than just groundstrokes and first serves. Adding or refining these five specialty shots will greatly enhance your tactical prowess in matches. However, each requires practice! Once you "own" these specialty shots, I am quite certain that you will be well on your way to becoming a