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Timing is Everything in Groundstrokes

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

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. Timing plays a critical role in our wonderful game in various ways. This month, I want to explore some of the ways that improving your overall timing can help you win more matches.
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 stroke timing. This is completely normal. In a sense, developing timing in a stroke is similar to learning how to parallel park with a car... both require practice.
To correct the problem of mistiming in strokes, several things can be helpful. 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 that one hits bounces, spins and returns to the player 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. If one is interested in hitting on a backboard or wall, I would refer you to my previous article entitled "SOLO Tennis."
Apart from hitting lots of balls, hitting them correctly is key to developing or recapturing proper timing. Every stroke in tennis has its own unique contact point... groundstrokes, volleys, serves and overheads... every stroke. The proper contact point for groundstrokes is determined by one's grip on the racquet and by one's preferred hitting height. By hitting height, I mean how high a player lets the ball bounce before hitting it. Some players will make contact with the ball as it is "on the rise." This is called "taking the ball early." 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. In the latter situation, the ball is actually descending after its peak. Beginners frequently will "take the ball on the decline." But as their games improve, they usually move toward hitting the ball at its peak.
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. (Grip dictates stance. Together grip and stance determine ideal height for ball contact.)
Second, I would suggest that you video record yourself hitting strokes... all strokes. Given modern smart phones, it is easy to record yourself hitting strokes. You want to deliberately experiment with different contact points. These variations need not be drastic. Even a slight change can make for a major Improvement. After all, tennis is a game of millimeters. You should be able to "feel" what the best contact height is. With video, you can actually see this ideal height given your stance.
Have a hitting partner rally with you. However, be sure to play points with this partner. Why? Well, rallying in practice is one thing... playing a point is much more likely to confirm the preferred contact point for each stroke. The best way to evaluate anything in your game is to put it to the test while playing points. If your experimentation described in the paragraph above has suggested a particular contact point, you can only really test this decision through playing competitive points.
Once you have determined the proper contact point for each stroke, it is then necessary to identify the proper distance and position you need to be in relationship to the actual bounce of the ball and the moment of impact. (Of course, this does not apply to volleys and to hitting overheads. Neither of these shots allows the ball to bounce.) To learn these proper body positions, one must have his/her attention 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. To help you, I would refer you to my very first column entitled, "SEE the Ball!!!"
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.
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 throw balls over the net. Your job is to catch the ball on its rise after bouncing. 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. Hitting balls on the rise will increase your groundstroke pace and will invariably provide you with an aggressive backcourt game. The earlier you take the ball, the closer to the net you will be. The closer to the net that you are, the wider you can hit your groundstrokes.
Finally, "freezing or quieting" one's head at the moment of contact will also improve stroke timing. As is the case in golf, one does not want to have any movement of the head when actually hitting the ball. When practicing, 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. This makes my timing better, and usually means that my stroke finish will be full and consistent... both are very desirable stroke attributes. If I freeze my head in this "exaggerated" manner when I practice, my head will be more "quiet" when I play matches. Of course, I won't be able to freeze my head for a full second when I am playing a match, but I probably will be able to stare at the contact point for a half second when I am competing.
Watch Roger Federer when he hits his groundstrokes. He is remarkable in how he keeps his head quiet during the moment of contact... and he continues to keep his head motionless for a significant amount of time after the ball has been struck.
Apart from stroke production and moving to the ball, timing takes on another 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.
  • Don't go for a winner when you are in a defensive position.
  • When going for a winner, try to go crosscourt 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 answers 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 win 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 is 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. When I was going for ranking, I reached a USTA New England Sectional Ranking of 4 in Men's 5.0 Singles for two consecutive years. 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 critical 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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