Tailor your Returns

As mentioned in a previous tip Returns against Net Rushers it is important to shake up your opponent’s serve early in the match. The earlier they start to doubt their serve, the earlier you’ll break them. While the previous tip dealt with doubles, the following tips can be used in singles as well.

  •  Against a good first serve block the ball back deep and cross-court to get the point started.  Use a short backswing and follow threw toward the target.
  •    Against a weak first serve or second serve try to run around your backhand and smack a forehand for a winner down the line. Or, hit it right at the server and charge the net.

  Try the above strategies from your first return game to unsettle your opponent. Remember to play the score when deciding whether to go for the big return and go back to consistent cross-court returns if you get down or tight. 

Return of Serve Drill

*practice crosscourt returns for doubles    

   Last week we talked about the basics of the return of serve. A good return of serve is important in doubles…because if it’s bad, there is a hungry net player ready to eat it up. The return needs to be consistently crosscourt, away from the net player.

   A good way to practice crosscourt returns is to have a real or imaginary obstacle sticking up at the center of the net…like the handle of a court squeegee or broom. Have a partner serve to you and practice hitting the return well wide of the obstacle into the server’s side of the court. Serves down the middle and out wide will be particularly hard to hit away from the obstacle and/or keep in the court. Practice your crosscourt returns and take the net player out of the equation!

Return of Serve

This week we review some basics of the return of serve. Like the serve this stroke is import because you are starting the point. The more returns you put in play, the more pressure your opponent feels on their serve. Let’s look at some general points to remember.

Returning serve
The basics of returning serve in tennis
  • Split step as your opponent makes contact with the ball. This keeps your weight moving forward.
  • Keep your backswing compact. Often the serve is upon you faster than you expect, or takes a funny bounce. A short backswing allows you to adjust quickly
  • Try to hit the ball out in front of your body. This should be the end result of the above actions.
  • In most instances it’s best to return the ball cross court.

  Check out other return tips Backhand lob return and Returns against Netrushers, for more pointers on returning specific types of serves.

Zen Tennis part 2

Last week we talked about taking your mind, that is your conscious mind, off your tennis, so your subconscious could take over. Continuing with our focus on using your brain to help you play better tennis (or at least not hindering your ability to play to your potential), let’s look at some ways to get your brain involved in the right ways.

   1. Know your strengths- take some time to analyze your strokes, better yet, have a tennis pro evaluate your game. Once you know which shots or abilities (baseline rallying, net play, movement, etc) are your strengths, you can design your style around them. You may excel at long baseline rallies due to a good forehand, great stamina, and excellent foot movement. You may have a great net game and choose to serve and volley frequently.

2. Commit to your playing style- once you understand your game, you can gain confidence in it and commit to practicing and perfecting it. Knowing your on-court identity will help you weather those games where you are making mistakes and, in the past, doubted your abilities.

  3. Think about tactics, not results (and definitely not mechanics)- many times the score can get in the way of your best tennis. And thinking about the mechanics of a stroke is the kiss of death to fluid, focused play. Think about patterns you want to execute…”get into a forehand, cross-court rally until I see an opening for a short angle or down-the-line winner”, serve to his backhand and charge the net”, etc. It also helps to analyze your opponent’s patterns….”When she’s going to serve out wide, she stands further from center mark”, “when I give him a short ball, he cranks a forehand down the line.” Never think about the actual stroke mechanics, that’s what practice and lessons are for.

Zen tennis involves letting your unconscious mind control mechanics

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”
— Bruce Lee

Zen Tennis

think less, play better tennis

I’m going to tell you the secret to playing great tennis and winning more matches and it’s a simple 2 step process…

1. Get a few lessons, get your strokes perfected, and then practice them until they are consistent and automatic.

2. Turn your conscious mind off and let your subconscious mind control your matches.

putting the pieces together for mental preparation in tennis

Simple, right? We wish! But how many times have you heard a sports announcer say something like, “he’s in the zone”, “she’s playing out of her head”, “he’s unconscious!” Obviously all the pros have done step 1. It’s when they accomplish step 2 that they have stellar performances. We play our best when we turn off the part of our brain that worries about the future or dwells on the failures of the past. Even if it’s the failures of the past 10 minutes. Our subconscious mind has the muscle memory and instinctual movement covered. Ideally, all we need the conscious mind to do is keep up with the score! Actually, a focused, but calm conscious mind can implement and analyze strategy…but you have to be careful. The more input you give the conscious mind, the more it takes over…judging your performance, assigning more importance to outcomes, and generally interrupting the flow of the subconscious mind and body.

Check out our page on Mental Tennis. We will have more next week on the right way to getting your conscious mind involved.

Play the Score

Have you ever heard someone say “play the score”? What does that mean? Play the score means, make your shot selection according to whether you are ahead or behind in the game. Whether you are serving or returning, you need to base your shot on the score. If you are ahead in the game, you can go for a riskier shot. If you are behind, you should choose a safer, more consistent shot. What is safe and what is risky? Let’s take a look.

If you are serving from behind. (ex.15-40)…Play it safe. That means serve your most consistent serve (preferably to their backhand) even if it means hitting your second serve.

If you are returning serve from behind. …Play it safe. Hit your return cross court and get the point started.

In both the above cases, once the point starts, rally the ball cross court and deep. Changing the direction of the ball (hitting down the line) is riskier than cross court, and also opens up the court for your opponent. Let your opponent make the first mistake.

If you are ahead in the game, you can try the risky shot. For example, the big serve down the middle, or the kick serve out wide. You could try a return down the line, a lob, drop shot, or any other type of winner. However, you don’t have to try a risky shot just because you are ahead. If playing consistent tennis has given you a lead, why tamper with success? If you are going to try a risky shot, remember when to try that “winner” that we all love to hit. Play the score.

Tennis scoreboard
Tennis Scoreboard

Joined at the Hip

When you are playing doubles, you and your partner need to move in unison to cover the court properly.

Imaginary rope joining doubles partners

To accomplish this, pretend you are “joined at the hip” by a rope eight to ten feet long. If you move to one side of the court, obviously, your partner has to move that way too, or risk “breaking” the rope. Breaking the rope creates an opening between you. This is especially important when you are both at the net. Good spacing will make your opponents try risky down the line shots or lobs and that can create opportunities for you.

So get attached to your partner and cover the court!

“Master” Match Pressure

Tiger Woods

Many of you are watching the golf Masters tournament in Augusta, Ga. One of the things that strike me about golf is the tremendous mental pressure on the professional golfers as they calculate the next shot, gauge their competitors, and deal with the logistics of spectators, sponsors, etc. Through it all they must keep mental focus on their shots and strategy, while forcing out the doubts and stress that can break down their game.

Tennis is also very much about “mastering” the mental pressures in a match. Shots that flow in practice, or “fun” matches with friends, break down under the pressure of a “real” match.

One way to help you learn to deal with match pressure in tennis is to mentally make every point in practice important. Here are a couple of ideas to help you work on your mental focus in practice.

  •    Play a set or a whole match with a friend, starting each game at 30-30 and use no ad scoring. This helps you treat every point as a big point.
  •   If you have trouble closing out games, try a game called Back to Love…Whenever you have a game point that you don’t convert, your score goes back to love. So if you’re ahead 40-30 and lose the next point, the score becomes 0-40. 

Using these techniques and purposefully using practice matches to strengthen your mental game, can make you a tennis master.

Be a Closer at the net

A sure way to win more doubles matches is by closing in to the net so that you can finish(win) points by hitting un-returnable angles. By moving forward, racket up and ready, you can volley the ball from a higher point, producing better angles. When done correctly, your volleys will be off the court before your opponents can make a move for them. The best news is, that the closer you are to the net the less you have to swing.

I had the pleasure of watching Dennis Van Der Meer demonstrate this principle in a most unique way at one of his tennis facilities in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. It was an amazing site, especially since he was winning points at the net against a high level junior player…WITHOUT A RACKET. Van Der Meer grabbed the lid from a water cooler, held it in front of him and had the junior player blast ground strokes at him from the baseline. He stepped diagonally forward, pointed the lid in the direction he wanted the ball to go and proceeded to put away volley after volley! By meeting the ball at a high point, in front of his body, close to the net, he was able to hit the ball at an angle that was off the court, into the fence in many cases, before the other player could move.

   Of course even with perfect technique, success also depends on your opponents trying to hit passing shots, not lobs. If your opponents have good lobs, or exceptionally good passing shots(low and/or away from you), you may have to adjust your court position/strategy.

 Generally speaking, the doubles team that can close in on the net and create winning volley angles, wins the match. Practice this strategy with your partner and watch your winning percentage grow

Tennis Volley form

keep a ball up your sleeve to help

  Keeping your upper arm close to your body is important for a good volley. It keeps the shot compact and stable. A  good way to practice this is to put a tennis ball under your arm pit and hit a few low volleys. If the ball falls out, your arm is moving too far away from your body.

This exercise also emphasizes another aspect of good volley form. It forces you to generate power by stepping diagonally forward with your body instead of swinging. Spend a few minutes fine tuning your volley form with this exercise and watch your volley consistency soar. Spend too much time with this exercise and watch your arm pit “sore”.