Each month, I receive lots of e-mail from readers with specific questions. One of the most common requests concerns how to volley properly. Well, it may not be as difficult as you might imagine!
First, I believe that there exists three distinct types of players...the baseliner, the natural serve and volleyer
(usually, this player is accomplished at doubles), and the all-court or all-game player (this player is truly gifted). Each player type has its own brain "software" that governs how the individual grips the racquet, strokes the ball and approaches the entire game. The all-game player is truly fortunate in that she/he is capable of playing any style of tennis...essentially, she/he has more than one software in her/his tennis computer (brain).
Most of us, however, gravitate toward either the baseliner software or the serve/volleyer software. For most of us, the game of tennis is rather one-dimensional. We either love to rally, or we can't hit several groundstrokes consecutively. We either love to be at the net or only approach it to shake hands at the end of the match. In my opinion, most modern players, especially juniors, are baseliners. They wail at the ball and are willing to run all day. In part, I think racquet technology has made this style of play capable of being aggressive. Certainly, players like Agassi and Graf haven't hurt the popularity of this game approach. The older player (such as myself) needs to be able to end points early to conserve energy. Thus, aggressive tennis should involve the volley. Whatever your situation, like it or not, at some point in your tennis career, you are going to have to be able to volley!
Personally, I am a baseliner by nature. I have big groundstrokes that travel with lots of topspin or are hit flat with lots of pace. Historically, volleys have not been my strong point. But, living in New England, I must play much of the tennis year indoors...surfaces that usually are tailor made for the serve and volleyer. So, for the last 10 months, I have truly dedicated myself to understanding the volley and how to use it.
My first realization in attempting to develop this facet of my game was that most of what is written about the volley is confusing and useless. Most TV commentators relate what seemingly are essential basics of the volley, but never tell you specifically how to develop these skills. So, as is often the case for me, I had to discover a methodology that would be workable for me and for others. What follows is my findings.
Let's begin with grips. Most commentators, texts and teachers recommend the continental grip for both
backhand and forehand volleys. The theory is that you will have control over the volley and not have to
switch grips during fast exchanges at the net. I totally disagree. My photographic studies of Stefan Edberg
reveal that he actually has a distinct grip change between forehand and backhand volleys. He uses a continental grip but varies it slightly from side to side. In fact, when I examine the grips of most of the really good volleyers on the tour, the majority make some adjustment from forehand to backhand...why? Well, it is really simple. Good volleys require a firm wrist at contact (meaning the wrist doesn't bend or "break" at contact). The continental grip doesn't really help in this regard. So, the pros instinctively make adjustments to provide the needed support. Even the greatest volleyer of all time...Roy Emerson...makes some adjustments in grip when moving from forehand to backhand volleys. I wouldn't be at all surprised if these greats were unaware of these changes, in that they have become second nature. It is my belief that many players blow the volley simply because the grip at moment of impact doesn't provide the needed support.
So, here is my advice. Begin your journey to be an accomplished volleyer by using an eastern forehand grip for all forehand volleys, and an eastern backhand grip for all backhand volleys (see my previous article "True Grip" for specifics on grips). Keep your non-dominant hand at the throat of the racquet and let it turn the racquet as is necessary when moving from one side to the other. Now, I know that this is a severe change and that you will likely think that you won't have time to make the grip changes necessary as the opponent hits to your forehand to your backhand, etc. Trust me...you will!!! For every volley you miss because of a grip change, you will make at least 10 that normally you would not. As you become more accomplished with the volley, you can slowly move to a more central or continental grip. But, here again, you will still need to shift your racquet slightly from forehand to backhand variations. Spend one month volleying with the full eastern grips. Then, spend a month with slightly less severe and more "central" grips...still allowing for a change. Each subsequent month, move a little more to a central or continental grip, and make the forehand/backhand variations less severe. Eventually, you will find your volley grip combinations... but it takes time, patience and perseverance.
It should be noted that there are really two continental-like grips...the true continental and the "hammer" grip. The true continental grip has the index finger spread away from the rest of the fingers and curling up and under the upper portion of the racquet's grip. The "hammer" grip is exactly the grip you would use if you were going to hammer a nail. Both grips place the racquet head and wrist in similar positions. The Australian players almost always use the true continental grip. They say that the index finger curled up and away is really the "trigger" finger...and allows the player a greater sense of feel and control over the volley. The hammer grip is usually preferred by those who for whatever reason have weaker wrists and require more support. It is actually easier to become familiar with and use the hammer grip.
Wrist support is greatly assisted when you can squeeze your bottom three fingers tightly (the middle finger, ring finger and little finger) when gripping the racquet. The tighter your grip with these three fingers, the more stability in your wrist when you hit the volley. Now, you don't have to have a "death grip" at all times with these fingers. Rather, you want to tighten them at the moment your racquet makes contact with the ball during the volley. This "squeeze at impact" will greatly improve your volleys.
Stance is next. If you read the texts, you will find yourself paying so much attention to your feet and stance that you will probably get hit by the ball...certainly, foot awareness takes your mind off the ball. I have a simple "rule" regarding stance and feet during the volley...just maintain your balance!!! You will invariably have to hit volleys from every stance imaginable...and if you're Boris Becker, from some diving stances. The key is to try and be balanced during the volley. Stay a bit low with knees bent. Keep your back straight. If you do these two simple things, I promise you that your volleys will soar.
Frequently, you'll hear commentators and instructors refer to the split step when approaching the net to volley. They would have you stop, jump a little bit in the air, and spread your feet apart at the moment that your opponent makes contact with the ball. Now, I have seen some pros who can do this well. The theory is that when you take a split step, you are able to move in any direction that your opponent hits the ball. In theory, this is true. But, believe me, if you are focusing on all these movements, you are going to miss a lot of volleys. Best to save this technique for after you have mastered the fundamentals of the serve and volley game. The split step is really an advanced technique...a good one, but nonetheless advanced.
One tip that I believe will greatly help your natural movement to the ball during the volley is something I learned from Oscar Wegner a few years back. Some of you may be familiar with Oscar's TV tennis tips and famous book, You Can Play...Tennis in 2 Hours. Several years back, I was training with Oscar and he improved my volleying movement tenfold with one simple cue. As you approach the ball to hit a volley, try to move in such a way that the ball will actually hit your head or face if you were to miss the volley. In other words, move your head to the ball. Granted this sounds strange and a bit frightening...but, it really works. I assure you that you won't be hit by the ball nor will you be able to move quickly enough to have all balls even come close to hitting you in the face or head. However, by attempting to move in this way, several things happen...First, you adjust your body to the height of the ball...if it goes low after crossing the net, you will automatically get down low to hit it...if it goes high over the net, you will automatically set up for the put away volley. Second, it will force you to hit all volleys as close to your body as is possible. A real problem volley is one that you must stretch to hit. The farther the ball is from your eyes the more difficult it is to sight properly. Moving your head to the ball helps assure that you will actually see where to make contact. Finally, this head to ball movement requires no elaborate thinking...the last thing you need when hitting the volley. If you get nothing else from this month's column, get this tip!!! Thanks Oscar!!!
The final guideline I want to give you regarding the volley involves swing length. Actually, the volley is not a stroke! It's like the bunt in baseball. You don't swing with volleys (the only exception being on the very
high floater which requires some swing to give the ball pace)...rather, you block, push or punch volleys. By this, I mean that you actually take very little, if any, backswing...and you really don't follow through as you would on a groundstroke. To really "stick" volleys, you must actually stop the racquet's forward motion at the moment of impact with the ball. Really, you are hitting forward, making contact with the ball, then
bringing the racquet back. I know this may sound crazy but it really works!
As a child I had a toy, wooden paddle that had a rubber ball attached to it with a long elastic. The object of the toy was to keep hitting the ball off the wooden racquet. To do this, you had to hit the ball, let it go to its farthest point, let the elastic bring it back and then hit it again. The key to success involved stopping the racquet's forward movement at the point of impact...you had to "paddle" the ball! This is how you should attempt to hit volleys. You won't be able to stop the racquet's forward motion completely, but in trying to do so your volleys will improve. Try it...you'll like it.
If you have time, read my previous article entitled Freehand Tennis. In this article, I discuss what to do with your non-racquet hand. There is a brief section that deals with the non-racquet hand during the volley.
If you read my previous article, Solo Tennis, you will discover some simple ways to practice your volleys.
In a future article, I will explore the strategies involved in serve and volleying. For now, work on perfecting the volley. It may take a while if you are a natural baseliner, but I assure you that it will be well worth the effort.
As a final note, I recently competed in a tournament and decided I would play every match as a serve and volleyer (not my natural game!). The months of work paid off. I was ultimately defeated by the number one seed in the quarterfinals, but not until after I beat two other seeds. I consider this as an important step forward.
If I can win playing serve and volley in addition to my normal baseline game...then, I am well on my way to becoming an all-game player...and that's my goal!
I know if you add the volley to your arsenal, you will soon become a tennis overdog!
Good luck in your game!