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Rock Around the Clock

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Those of you who have followed my column for a while know that I am a firm believer in seeing the ball! I can think of no aspect of tennis which is more important than focusing one's mind and attention on the ball, its travel path and the point at which the racquet makes contact with the ball. Although we never really see this latter "contact point," it is critical that we try. Grips, stances, footwork, stroke finishes are all secondary to proper ball sight. Well, continuing in this tradition, this month's column will help you enhance your ability to see the ball properly, and it will help you control the ball's direction!

Tennis Ball Clock

Using the photo illustration above, I want you to envision a tennis ball as the face of a clock. Like a clock, the ball has a center (on a clock this would be where the hands of the clock intersect). Imagine that the near the edge of the ball we find the 12 hour markers. For our purposes, the most important hour locations are at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock positions.

Ball direction in tennis is primarily a result of two factors: the position of the racquet face at the moment of impact with the ball, and where on the ball the racquet face makes contact. In the overwhelming majority of tennis strokes and shots, the racquet face should be completely perpendicular to the ground at the moment of contact (meaning that it is neither open and facing upward, nor closed and facing downward). Even when a stroke requires a change in racquet face (a chest high ball should be volleyed with a slightly open faced racquet), this change should be minor and almost imperceptible. A little change in the racquet face makes a huge difference in the ball's movement path.

Given all of this, I try to determine the direction in which I hit the ball by focusing upon what part of the ball I hit. This is where the aforementioned analogy of a clock's face can be very helpful. The beauty of using this technique to determine ball direction is that it allows you to set up for every shot in an almost identical manner. Thus, it becomes more difficult for your opponent to "read" or anticipate where you intend to hit the ball. Additionally, this technique puts your mind and focus where it should be...on the ball! Finally, the clock face technique can be of great assistance in helping you impart the desired spin (topspin, flat or slice).

What follows are guidelines for hitting most strokes in tennis using the clock face technique. In coaching players, I have found that almost any stroke breakdown can be almost immediately diminished, if not entirely corrected, when the player focuses on using this clock technique.


  1. TOPSPIN GROUNDS - In modern tennis, most groundstrokes should include some topspin. Much is written about grips, stances, etc., and their role in producing topspin. Using the clock face technique, topspin boils down to a very simple axiom: when wanting to impart topspin, try to make contact with the ball at the 6 o'clock position. Trying to hit the ball at this position will force you to hit up and increase the likelihood that the ball will have forward rotation (topspin).

  2. FLAT STROKES - Invariably, there are times when we should hit our groundstrokes flat. Flat groundstrokes pass low to the net and usually have lots of pace behind them. The problem with flat strokes is that they can be very difficult to control, and often can clip the top of the net or sail long. Yet, when it comes to hitting winners and going for put aways, flat strokes are the method of choice. To hit a flat groundstroke, try to hit the ball squarely in its center point. Remember that flat strokes need to clear the net. So, hit up on the ball even though you are making contact in its center.

  3. SLICE - Slice, or backspin, is often times the only groundstroke a player has on her/his backhand side. After bouncing, balls that are hit with slice usually stay low to the ground making the opponent bend to get under the ball. If he or she uses severe grips (e.g., a western forehand) slice can be a nightmare! Additionally, slice is a great way to strike the ball when you want to approach the net. The low bounce that it causes frequently forces the opponent to hit up severely, and enables you to have an easier volley. The clock face method of hitting slice requires that you strike the ball half way between the center point and the 12 o'clock position. If you mistakenly hit the ball at the 12 o'clock position, one of two things will happen: the ball will dump into the net or it will "float" long. Next time one of these two errors occur, check out where you made contact with the ball. You'll be amazed at how high on the ball your contact point was!

  4. CROSSCOURT OR DOWN THE LINE - The clock face method is an excellent way of controlling the direction of your ball, as well as its spin. The cardinal rule with groundstrokes is, never hit the inside of the ball! If you are right-handed, you want to hit all of your forehands either in the center for down the line shots or at the 3 o'clock position for all crosscourt shots. On the backhand side, right handed players want to hit either the 9 o'clock position for crosscourt shots or near the center for down the line shots. Lefties need only reverse these guidelines for forehands and backhands. In hitting the ball in these ways, you avoid hitting the inside of the ball (the side of the ball that is closest to your body). Hitting the ball on the inside creates sidespin and usually results in a ball that sails wide.

In all groundstrokes, you want to make every effort to end or "finish" your strokes in a consistent manner! By finishing your groundstrokes with the same follow through and end, you will greatly improve your shot consistency, and at the same time, hinder your opponent's ability to read your shot. You can see the proper finishes for all groundstrokes by referring to my column: Picture Perfect.


Generally, we can divide volleys into two categories: high volleys (those that are above net height when we make contact with the ball) and low volleys (those that we hit when they fall below net height). Obviously, it is desirable to try to get to the net as quickly as is possible and as close as possible when hitting a volley. Why? Well, by moving in quickly, you greatly increase the likelihood that you will be hitting a high volley rather than a low volley. These high volleys are much easier to hit and are less likely to be "netted."

In an interview given by Stefan Edberg a few years back, he said that the most important part of being a good volleyer is keeping your eye on the ball. Here again, the clock face method can be a real help.

When hitting high volleys, always try to strike the ball between its center point and the 12 o'clock position. I find that ball direction (crosscourt or down the line) is best achieved by using the racquet face. I literally try and point my racquet face in the direction I want the ball to go at the moment of impact. By hitting the ball between the center point and 12 o'clock position, I impart a bit of slice to the ball while still permitting it to have pace. Hard hit volleys that have slice are difficult for an opponent to return. Thus, the likelihood of your being passed decreases significantly.

When hitting low volleys, always try to strike the ball between its center point and the 6 o'clock position. Again, I let my racquet face determine the ball direction (left or right). When hitting a low volley, the most important thing is to get the ball to clear the net. I don't try for pace on these shots, but I do try to make my opponent move to make a reply. If I am really stretched when hitting a low volley (which is often the case), I will also make a concerted effort to hit the ball on the outside (the side farthest from my body). This action coupled with a low-ball contact point (between the center and 6 o'clock position) usually enables me to keep my volleys deep. This is important because short volleys usually come back at you as passing shots!


The clock face method is a great way of helping you to serve properly. Many players forget that serves need to clear the net. They mistakenly think that tossing the ball up means that you have to hit down on it (striking it at the 12 o'clock position). Nothing could be further from the truth. All serves need to be hit at the center point or below (toward the 6 o'clock position). Hitting your serves in this manner assures that they will clear the net. Remember that it is easier to correct for serves that are long than for serves that hit the net! In addition, the clock face method can help you impart the proper spin to your serves. Slice serves require that you hit the outside of the ball (3 o'clock position for righties and 9 o'clock position for lefties) Kick serves require that you strike the ball at the 6 o'clock position.

When serving, two things can affect the direction of your ball (left or right): the racquet face angle and the ball toss. Most players that I've watched vary the toss in order to serve wide or down the line. What amazes me about Pete Sampras is his ability to change direction of the serve by making slight changes in his racquet face's angle. Whether he is serving wide, up the middle or down the "T", he tosses all his balls to the same spot. But even Pete has to follow the clock face rules when serving the slice or kick serve.

For more detailed advice on serves, read my Service with a Smile column.


The last stroke in tennis that I believe can really benefit from the clock face method is the overhead smash. If you read last month's column, you already know that the spin lobs greatly affect how you hit overheads. When the lob has backspin, try to smash the lob by hitting the ball at its center position. If the lob has topspin, smash the ball by hitting it closer to the 12 o'clock position. Using the clock face method when hitting overhead smashes will minimize the number of times that you net the overhead or send it out of bounds. The key, however, is that you must know the spin (if any) that the lob has. Once again, focusing upon the ball carefully is the best way to know its spin.

It does take a little while to get used to hitting balls using the clock face technique. I strongly recommend that you practice against a wall or a backboard. This will greatly accelerate your acclimation to the technique.

"Rocking around the clock" allows for more precise ball spins, better ball control, and puts your mind where it should be...on the ball. If you practice this technique and incorporate it into your match play, I am certain that you will soon become a tennis overdog!

Good luck in your game!

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Turbo Tennis Archives:
1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present

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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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