| By Lisa Dodson
Photo credit: Thinkstock Images

Keep your head up! You’re late! Snap your wrist! Watch the ball! These common tennis phrases are actually meaningless on their own, but we hear and use them all of the time. A book could be written about each one. The most abused phrase shouted by pros and used by players when failing is, “Watch the ball,” but what does that actually mean?

Most players think that you are supposed to watch the ball at all times when it is in play, and most pros actually reinforce this behavior. It is simply not true. In fact, visually letting go of the ball is a skill in itself that must be learned and practiced.

So what’s the real scoop? When do we watch the ball? When do we visually let go of the ball? Let’s break it down into some hard facts:

When TO watch the ball
A player needs to see the origin of the hit. This is the opponent’s strike of the ball on their racket. They need to follow the ball on its trajectory over the net to the bounce on their side (for a groundstroke) and as close to point of contact on their racket as possible. This seems simple, but due to many variables, few of us actually do it. We don’t see the origin of the hit and begin reacting “late,” which gives us less time for movement and preparation to strike our own ball. Then, the ball is watched part of the way to the bounce and is lost. We try to pick up sight again somewhere after the bounce to contact point. We may as well have our eyes closed when the opponent is striking the ball, open them for part of the flight, close them again when the ball is bouncing and open them for contact.

When NOT to watch the ball
After you have struck your ball and it is on its way forward, you STOP watching it and start watching your opponent. You are hitting the ball with intent, direction and purpose so you generally know where it is going. If you follow your opponent’s movement, they will tell you where your ball is by moving to it. In this way, you can gather information about their balance, position to the ball, racket position and shot selection. This visual information will give you what you need to respond quickly and to the best of your ability.

The most critical point in time concerning judging what a ball is going to do, how it will travel and how it will act when it hits the ground comes from seeing the opponent. It is generally said that one needs to “read the ball” which is a very complex task. The “reading” starts from visual information available at the opponent’s hit, not from seeing the ball flying towards you and magically being able to see what it will do. If a player is still watching the flight of their ball and where it is landing, they miss all of the critical information that the opponent is giving them. Players need to watch everything about the way their opponent approaches a ball, and how their racket is prepared to gain information about the hit.

Let’s look at three common point play situations and general responses to them. If you are watching your ball bounce and not your opponent, you will miss seeing the clear signs that will help you handle these balls:

1. If an opponent is running laterally or forward and is reaching and stretching for a ball, it will not have power. This fact tells us that we should start taking a few steps forward to be able to easily handle the short ball. What it won’t tell us is exactly where it is going: Left, right, high or low. If you are headed forward, you’ll be able to handle any ball that is coming.

2. If you hit a high deep ball, the opponent is backing up and on their back foot you can probably expect an attempt at a high return. In this position, they cannot drive, so their ball may be weak or they may get lucky and launch a high one. In either case, this information will help you to respond.

3. If the opponent is setting up for a forehand or backhand and looks balanced and calm, you should be prepared for their drive. If you’ve been paying attention, you will have seen what their “best” strokes look like and what type of shot to expect. You may not know exactly what the ball will do, but you’ll prepare to receive a drive. You will know nothing if you don’t see the position of the opponent.

The bottom line is this …
Watch the ball fully and accurately for 50 percent of the point play. Watch it as carefully as you can when it is traveling towards you from the opponent’s hit, through the flight, to the bounce and to your contact point. Visually, leave it alone after you have hit it and shift your focus to your opponent. You can then begin to gather information about what your opponent can and can’t do, or what they are attempting to do. You will still see the ball in the “big picture,” but it will not be your focal point. If you are watching your ball travel from your hit to the bounce on the opposite side, you are not seeing what is important: The balance and position of the opponent, their physical relationship to the ball and the position of their racket. Test this out yourself next time you are on the court.

Discover what you REALLY do. Make massive improvements in your game by changing your visual focus, not your strokes.

Lisa Dodson

Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.