| By Lisa Dodson

Can you really make huge strides in your game in just one hour? Absolutely. The key is to be organized, have a plan and don’t waste time. In this article, I am going to provide a foolproof workout that, done regularly, will make you a better player in a very short period of time. It may be tough going at first but you will soon find improvement. First, let’s consider a few concepts and ideas that will make the workout effective and something that you like and want to do.

Most players, whether “social” or competitive, do a combination of hitting, drilling and playing for practice. We’re going to merge hitting and drilling and call this Zone Practice. Why? Honestly, just hitting the ball with no purpose represents random hitting and is a huge waste of the time that players spend on court. “Drilling” sounds like a chore and is often not successful so players give up and don’t do it. Zone Practice is user-friendly and can be done with a ball machine, practice partner, feeder or tennis professional. Practice doesn’t have to be a chore or boring if you know what to do. Intensity, variety and a constant challenge are key to improvement.

Take a few seconds to digest this statement: Tennis is NOT a random game. The sooner players understand this fact the faster they will improve. Every hit potentially causes a certain response or at least narrows down what can be hit in return. If your hits are random, then you will find no pattern in response and you will have no understanding of whether the shots you are choosing are easy, difficult or impossible (known as playing percentage tennis). You will also continue to make the same mistakes over and over again without understanding why. Consequently, Zone Practice and patterning are essential to success and to attaining our personal goals on the court.

Tennis demands physical, mental and emotional skills. Zone Practice and goal-setting develop all of these factors. Physically, we need to pattern our body into specific stroke and footwork patterns and we need to develop strength and endurance. Mentally, we need to lengthen the time that we can stay in a point and not be impulsive. We need to be able to think on our feet and make good shot selection decisions. Physical and mental aspects combine to create a strong or weak emotional balance. For example if you get tired (physical) you make sloppy errors (mental) which makes you sad, angry or want to give up. If you are fit, you can focus more on how to play the game than how to hit the ball. You will be happier and more confident and win more matches.

Why is it important to hit to Zones?
In order to play good tennis, you have to be able to hit certain areas of the court consistently. Certain areas are more important than others. If you can hit those zones better than your opponent can, then you will win. When you are hitting to a zone, you are aiming for a specific target area. Practice should ALWAYS be done with targets. A player’s perception of where a ball lands may be vastly different from where it is actually landing because of the visual distance between the hitter, the ball and the lines on the opposite side of the court. For example, a cone line that is 6’ inside the opposing baseline looks like 2’ from the hitter’s baseline. So, a ball that lands 12’ from the baseline looks like 6’. We think we are hitting with depth, but we’re really hitting a non-forcing and attackable ball.

A specific place to aim for will tell your body what modifications it needs to make in order to actually hit the zone. It’s amazing how intuitive your body can be in its ability to make adjustments given the chance. If you can hit zones at will you will be in command and control of play. That is the ultimate goal of playing tennis.

Why should I set a goal?
If you set goals with Zone Practice, you’ll be able to measure your improvement and dramatically strengthen your concentration and focus. In order to understand what focus or concentration is on the tennis court we must be able to measure it. For example, if you hit three balls in your target zone and then miss, you might find that you were thinking about what to have for lunch instead of what you are doing in the moment. Or if your goal is 10 hits in a row and at the eighth ball, you start hoping you won’t miss, you’ll realize that you were focusing on not missing and not on succeeding (commonly known as fear). Focus and concentration need to be practiced as much as strokes do. Sometimes the best way to find focus is to understand our lack of it.

The One-Hour Zone Practice Workout … keep it simple!
Zones 1 & 2 form a square with cones in the forehand and backhand corners. For singles, make the square 8’x8’ inside the baseline and inside alley lines. For doubles, make a 12’long x10’deep square inside the baseline and outside alley line. Zone 3 is the deep space between zone 1 & 2. This is always a safe place to hit.

With a feeder, pro or ball machine:
Set a realistic goal for the number of consecutive hits in target area. Score a point for each time the ball lands in the confines of the zone or hits a cone marker. Start over when you miss. Lefties need to reverse some of the information.
►Ten minutes: Crosscourt Forehand: Hit from crosscourt side to Zone 1
►Ten minutes: Crosscourt Backhand: Hit from crosscourt side to Zone 2
►Five minutes: Inside Out Forehand: Hit forehand from backhand side to Zone 2
►Five minutes: Crosscourt Forehand Volley: To Zone 1
►Five minutes: Crosscourt Backhand Volley: To Zone 2
►Five minutes: Overhead to Zone 4 & 5: Concentrating on hitting the top of the ball.

Progress to hitting deeper into court to Zones 1, 2 & 3 and replace with extra serving if using a ball machine.

The Set-Up Serve
Zone 4 & 5 is formed by placing a line 2’ inside the service line.

►Fifteen minutes: Serve for depth and concentrate on direction later. Aim for the area between the 2’ line and the service line. Depth is primary for success of the serve. Even if you cannot place the serve in various parts of the service box you will always be safe with a ball that lands deep in the box.

As you practice and improve make the baseline zones smaller by 1 ft. increments and narrow the serve box zone by a few inches at a time. When you are finding success stay with it until you have mastered the area before you increase the difficulty.

This is actually a 55-minute workout which leaves time for ball pickup, rest and water. If you are working hard, you will need a few short breaks between sections.

With a practice partner:
Set up zones as above on both sides of the court. Now you are playing a live ball from an unpredictable source. Your job is to do YOUR job. Get the ball to your intended destination while working WITH your practice partner. HINT: The longer you keep a ball going the less you have to pick up!

The drills are basically the same, but we will add a few things:

►Five minutes: Short Court: Use the service boxes for controlled under spin and topspin rally. Concentrate on footwork, movement, compact swing & longevity of rally
►Five minutes: Close Volley: Start inside the service line and keep continuous volley going. The ball must remain in the air, no swinging.
►Ten minutes: Crosscourt Forehands: To Zone 1 playing a live ball
►Ten minutes: Crosscourt Backhand: To Zone 2 playing a live ball
►Five minutes: Inside-Out Forehand: To Zone 2 playing a live ball
►Ten minutes: Overhead/Lob Drill (five minutes each player): Player 1 stands on crosscourt side and feeds lob. Player 2 hits overhead to deuce court crosscourt direction keeping overhead/lob ball going as long as possible. Switch to ad court half way through. One player lobs for five minutes and the other hits overheads for five minutes. If you are good at this you may need to switch sooner than the five minutes because it is a real workout!
►Fifteen minutes: Serve and Return: This is simply serving and returning. One player will serve for 7.5 minutes switching half way through from deuce to ad court. The returner will hit returns only to Zone 1 and Zone 2. Switch server and returner. Do NOT play out points. Each player hits and concentrates on only one shot.

In summary, even if you have more than one hour to practice, it’s good to get into an organized routine that you can pound out for a complete and thorough workout. Be as productive as time will allow. This goes for ALL levels of play! Play practice matches in equal proportion to Zone Practice and you will begin getting great results! Look for more Zone Practice ideas and how to get the most from your practice matches in the next issue!

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.