Two of the most important specialty shots in tennis involve balls that literally approach "second story" altitudes. These are the lob and the overhead smash. These are usually perceived as shots that are secondary in nature... since they are not hit as frequently as groundstrokes, serves and volleys. Well, quantitatively, these two shots are relatively infrequent in most tennis matches, but from a qualitative point of view, they are absolutely essential to a complete and winning arsenal.
Let's begin our discussion with the lob. Actually, there exist several different kinds of lobs: the moonball, the offensive lob and the defensive lob. Each is distinguished from the others in terms of:
ball spin, to some degree how high the lob is hit, and the strategic reason for hitting the lob.
Many players, especially juniors, are hesitant to hit lobs. I think this reluctance is a result of two misperceptions. First, players often perceive lobs, particularly the moonball, as a "pusher's" shot, and believe hitting such a shot is a sign of weakness or lack of skill. Second, players often possess a power-oriented mindset, which doesn't even consider the value of the lob. Both of these perceptions are, in my opinion, ill founded, and they rob the player of an absolutely essential option in many match play situations.
The moonball is a lob that is hit with topspin and usually travels about 8 to 12 feet above the net. It is designed to land deep in the opponent's court... keeping her/him back, and thus, less likely to attack the net or hit an offensive groundstroke. At least two players on the men's tour have made careers off of this
"elevated" groundstroke: Bjorn Borg and Harold Solomon. I have spent many hours watching old tapes of Borg when he was in his prime. Whether it was clay, hard court, or even on grass, Borg hit the majority of his groundstrokes as high, deep moonballs. Granted, when Borg won his five Wimbledon titles, he was serving and volleying whenever possible (most people do not realize how adept he was at this style of play). However, even on this fast, low bouncing surface, Borg was able to get under the ball and hit his patented topspin groundstrokes... which more often than not were moonballs! I really think that this was an important reason why Borg became one of the greatest. Unfortunately, Borg has abandoned this shot when he plays today on the Nuveen, Seniors' circuit. I believe that this is part of the reason that Borg has not enjoyed as much success in recent days. As for Harold Solomon... well, he built an entire career off of this shot!
It is not uncommon to see moonballs when players compete on clay surfaces. Brugera, Muster, Rios, etc... all can and do hit moonballs. The advantages to this shot on clay are clear: it keeps the opponent back; it allows a player time to get back to a desirable court position (since the travel time associated with the ball's flight is a bit longer); it permits players to "hit out"... the severe topspin keeps the ball in; and on clay where balls bounce high, the player can easily get under the ball (necessary to hit the moonball). Although a norm on clay, the moonball is not as common on hard or grass surfaces. However, whenever
possible, I try to hit the moonball on almost any surface. It is truly one of my weapons... especially, when hit to an opponent's backhand. If she or he is a onehander, the effects of this shot can be devastating. A few years back, my number one player on the Albertus men's team had an incredible moonball , which he hit off his twohand backhand. Opponents were literally paralyzed with fear when he hit this shot. I can't begin to tell you how many points he won with this shot alone. Percentage tennis is greatly enhanced when a player uses moonballs as part of a typical baseline rally (see Percentage Tennis... the Odds Are in Your Favor).
The key to hitting the moonball is in the grip and the stance. Whatever grip you use, you must keep the racquet face a bit closed as you strike the ball. On the forehand side, Western and Semi-Western grips are most effective. On the backhand, twohanders have an edge... especially if they can flick their wrists up and over as they strike the ball. The onehander is not without this shot if she or he can use a severe Eastern backhand grip. On either side, the more open your stance the more topspin you can impart. Believe me, this shot is one worth practicing... particularly, if you play most of your matches on clay.
The offensive lob is very similar to the moonball, but is hit a bit higher and not quite as hard. The idea behind the offensive lob is to win the point outright... not to simply rally. The offensive lob is, in my opinion, best used when your opponent is approaching the net. When he/she is moving in to volley, it is extremely difficult to stop, change direction, and then, move back to hit the lob with an overhead or after it has bounced. If your opponent is crowding the net, the offensive lob is frequently a desirable shot. If she or he is truly close to the net, the overhead is probably not viable. She or he must scurry back and hope to hit the lob after it bounces. Here, you move in and cover the net, as soon as you see your opponent retreat.
By moving in, you put yourself in the best position to hit an offensive shot (a put away volley or an overhead smash ) should your opponent return your lob. Finally, the offensive lob is a great way to catch your opponent off guard. Frequently, we hit passing shot after passing shot when our opponent is at the net. Every so often, hit the offensive lob... just to keep your opponent honest!
If you can hit any amount of topspin, you can hit the offensive lob. The key is disguise! Try to set up as normally as is possible. Then, at the last moment, lift and roll the ball. The idea is to put the ball up without much power. The topspin you impart and the ball's height will give it pace when it bounces.
I practice this shot by imagining that I am lobbing the ball through a second story window which is located directly above the net. This visualization provides me with the right amount of height and prevents me from overpowering the shot.
The third and finally type of lob is the defensive lob. This is the shot that you hit when you are stretched to your limit or when you have been drawn way out of court. Here, the idea is to buy time. You want to get the ball in the court, yes. But, equally important, you want to be able to recover from an uncomfortable or undesirable position. Defensive lobs are best hit with backspin. They are most effective when they travel very high over the net (twice as high as an offensive lob) and land deep in the opponent's court. Whenever you hit a defensive lob, you must expect that your opponent will be able to return it. Rarely do defensive lobs result in winners. However, you usually have lots of time before your opponent hits the lob. As a result, I immediately focus on my opponent after hitting a defensive lob. I am trying to read any body language clues that will tell me where he/she will hit the reply. More often than not, I can anticipate what he/she will do and move to cover the shot. There is one major problem, however, with defensive lobs... sometimes they land short. Unfortunately, this frequently will allow your opponent the easy overhead smash. Still, if you are hitting the defensive lob, you are probably left with no other option!
You need to hit defensive lobs in practice matches. This will give you a "feel" for the shot. In any severe,
"emergency" situation, your best option is the high, deep, defensive lob.
The best reply to any offensive or defensive lob is the overhead smash. If you play serve and volley, you cannot survive without an effective smash. Why? Sooner or later, you are going to be lobbed! However,
any player, including the baseliner, needs to be able to step in and put away the overhead.
Frequently, inexperienced players have difficulty with the overhead smash. I know I did. Now, I long for the opportunity to hit the overhead. I know that more often than not I can put the smash away for a clean winner. Essentially, the overhead smash is a confidence shot that is aggressive in nature.
Many writers and teaching pros equate the overhead with the serve. Although both involve a similar motion, that is where the similarity ends. When serving, you control the toss and can direct it to the ideal contact spot. In addition, you are relatively motionless when serving. Finally, a good serve toss has no or little ball rotation (spin). The overhead, however, involves hitting lobs, which can vary greatly in terms of
height, direction, and spin. Frequently, you need to move in or move back to hit the overhead smash.
Although the ball can land anywhere in your opponent's court when hitting the overhead smash (more space than when hitting the serve), the relative height of the net changes depending on how close or far away you are from it when you hit the smash. What all of this means is that the overhead smash has many more factors to consider than the serve, and as such, is more difficult to control. So, if you have a good to great serve and find yourself missing the "easy" overhead smash, don't dismay. You are not alone, and you can learn to master this shot!
As is the case with any shot in tennis, grip is extremely important. I recommend the Continental or the Eastern Backhand grip when hitting overheads (refer to True Grip... No, Not the Movie and Picture Perfect)). Usually, these are the grips that you use to serve. So, getting the right grip for the overhead smash should be quick and natural. However, I have observed a few pros who hit the overhead smash with an Eastern Forehand grip. This latter grip is fine when the ball doesn't force you to move back. However, if you must scramble back to hit an overhead, the Eastern Forehand grip will certainly limit you and result in shots that bounce out.
Next, we must consider the proper stance (see Picture Perfect) . Most texts and teachers recommend a sideways or closed stance when hitting the overhead. I don't really disagree with this advice, but I think it is a bit too simplistic and incomplete. The more Eastern Backhand your grip, the more closed your stance needs to be. If you use the Continental grip, you may find that a 3/4 closed stance will probably be best. In addition, how the lob forces you to move influences stance. If you are moving back to hit the lob, you need to be more closed than if the lob forces you to move forward. In fact, if the lob forces you to move forward at a running pace, you probably want to be in a very open stance at the time you hit the ball (Look at Sampras when he comes in to hit his airborne overhead... at the time of contact, he is completely open!). Even when you move back, you will probably find that you open your stance a bit to strike the ball. However, whenever you are moving back to hit an overhead, it is important that your preparation involve closed or relatively closed stances. Thus, you need to take crossover steps when moving back. Watch any pro as she/he moves back to hit an overhead smash. Invariably, his/her feet move one in front of the other (crossover steps) as she/he glides back in a sideways manner. Whenever, I practice foot drills, I make certain to include these crossover steps!
Keeping sight of the ball is absolutely critical in hitting overhead smashes (refer to SEE the Ball). I make every effort to focus my attention on the seams of the ball as I move to position myself for the overhead. Wind, sun, glare, etc. can distort the way in which we see the lob. Thus, it is absolutely essential that you make an extra effort to see the ball in its flight path. This is why you see the pros pointing at the ball as it travels in its lob flight. Assuming that you are truly seeing the ball, positioning your body is really quite simple. Just pretend that you want to catch the ball in your non-racquet hand (if you play American baseball, pretend that you have a glove on your non-racquet hand). This will force you to move in a way that keeps the ball in front of you... but close to you... the ideal position to hit the overhead smash. I often
have my students catch lobs that I hit. I have them move with their racquets in hand. But, I don't have them hit the lob. Rather, they simply catch the lob in their outstretched non-racquet hand. This drill is a great way of introducing the overhead smash. Just make certain that the racquet is up and ready to hit the lob, and that the non-racquet hand points at the ball as it travels... then, the non-racquet hand catches the ball when it has dropped sufficiently. Make certain that both the racquet and the non-racquet hand are up as soon as the lob is hit.
Finding the right contact point for hitting the smash requires a little trial and error. In real match play, you
may actually have to make contact with the lob at a point that is not ideal (sometimes you just can't move to a perfect position). This is why it is extremely important that you keep your head up and quiet throughout the entire motion of the smash. The temptation is to look at the spot where you want the ball to go... fight this temptation! Keep the head motionless and look at the contact point for a moment after you have hit the ball. If you hit your overhead properly, there is no need to see where it will bounce... it will bounce in and will not be returned.
In my opinion, most people overhit the overhead smash. They try to "kill" the ball on every overhead. Granted, pace is great on the overhead. However, as with all shots in tennis, placement is more important than pace. I try to hit all my overheads at 3/4 pace. Surprisingly, by doing this, I usually make sweet contact with the ball and find that it has much more pace than I anticipated.
The overhead smash and the volley are unique shots in tennis... the ball you hit hasn't bounced (some overhead smashes will hit balls after they have bounced, but most don't). This means that the spin on the ball has not been neutralized. Every ball that bounces comes off the ground with some forward rotation of the ball
(even the slice shot!). When you hit the airborne lob, its spin has not been neutralized by a bounce. This greatly affects the way the ball comes off your racquet when hitting the overhead smash. Lobs with topspin usually come off the racquet in a manner that places the ball deep in the opponent's court. Lobs with slice usually come off the racquet in such a way that they are more likely to hit the net or bounce short in the opponent's court. These are other reasons why it is important to see the lobbed ball clearly. You want to know how the ball is spinning in its flight (frequently, the way in which the opponent strikes the ball will tell you whether the lobbed ball has backspin or topspin). If the ball has topspin, try to hit the ball a bit shorter in your opponent's court... its spin will keep it from hitting the net. However, if you notice that the lobbed ball has backspin (slice), you need to compensate for this spin by hitting it deeper into your opponent's court. Here is my little rule for hitting overheads: if the lob has topspin, I aim for the opponent's service line... if the lob has backspin, I aim for the opponent's baseline... if the lob has very little ball rotation, I aim for a spot half way between my opponent's service line and baseline. A player's inability to notice the lobbed ball's spin and to compensate for that spin will result in many missed overheads!
Finally, the player needs to know when to let a lob bounce before hitting the smash. There are three situations in which I let the lob bounce: when the lob has been hit very, very high... when hitting the lob before it bounces will put the sun in my eyes... and when a swirling wind prevails. In each of these situations, I move back as far as I can as quickly as I can. I watch the ball carefully, let it bounce and then
move in to hit the overhead. I always try to position myself in such a way that requires that I move forward to hit the overhead if I am letting the lob bounce. In addition, I try to impart some sidespin on the overhead
(similar to the slice serve), whenever I let the lob bounce.
Players need to practice hitting overheads regularly in their practice sessions. Have your partner feed lobs or use a ball machine for this purpose. You can actually feed yourself lobs by bouncing balls off a backboard of wall (see SOLO Tennis). Regardless of how you practice the overhead, every player needs to find time for these essential specialty shots.
Moonballs, lobs and overheads may not be the norm in your tennis game. But, I assure you that if you master these shots, you will soon become a tennis overdog. Good luck in your game!