Tennis is a game that is played by pattern. Strokes are patterned and so are points. It’ s very organized and orderly, so we should experience very few random moments. We construct strokes and techniques to correspond with point of contact and we construct points for high percentage play. This could be very interesting news to you and news that can be a game-changer.
When thinking about point construction, one major problem exists: We think we have a lot of choices when it comes to where we want to hit a ball. In actuality, there is always one “best” choice, which is called a high percentage shot. Everything after that becomes more difficult, and therefore, less likely to succeed and is called a low percentage shot. Unfortunately, players don’t really know what that high percentage shot is, so they keep trying to hit a shot that is ultimately likely to fail. Random shots end points that could be played out longer and more effectively.
When considering strokes and technique, we also wrongly think we have options about how we will get our ball to a certain location. Simply stated, we make up new ways to hit the ball out of convenience instead of staying within the guidelines that our stroke technique dictates. Staying with your technique and striving to gain good position to the ball is the name of the game. There is nothing more important than a consistent and clear point of contact.
Let’s think specifically about combining high percentage serve technique and high percentage serve location. Technique always comes first. With technique comes the ability to vary spin, speed and direction. You can only successfully, consistently and effectively hit a ball to a location with solid technique. You cannot do one without the other.
Think of the service motion as this: The arm and racket move in an identical, pre-determined path every time. The ball toss is then placed so that it sits still in the way of the racket head’s path. That’s a pretty simple concept. An easy comparison is a train on a windy track. There is a penny sitting on the track a little way off. The train will hit the penny every time because its movement is always the same and the penny is sitting, waiting to be hit by the accelerated force.
Remember, when developing a patterned and efficient service motion you must use a Continental Grip. Your hand placement on the racket dictates how the wrist, elbow and shoulder can move. If the hand is in the wrong place, your joints will not be able to move the way they are intended to. Anything less than using a Continental Grip is just not good enough. The same technique for the motion is used each time you serve. Variations in serve come from changes in grip and ball toss location. In this way, the hand, wrist and forearm can act differently when sending the racket face to the contact point, while still using the same technique leading up to the hit.
A patterned service motion will give you the following benefits:
►Simplicity in developing a variety of serves (flat, slice, kick) by simply moving ball toss location with a corresponding grip change
►Confidence to swing the same speed (or harder) on a second serve as the first
►Improvement in serve percentage
►Stress reduction when under pressure
►Consistency and placement for first and second serves
►More free points and weak returns
►Power generated from being relaxed and letting the racket head go (racket head speed)
►Understanding that the looser you are, the better you will serve
If you have a patterned motion that gives you all of the benefits above, we can see how this directly translates into success in landing the ball where you want. It won’t take much convincing to get you on board.
Here is one example of what works and what does not work:
This works: A slice serve wide to the deuce court playing singles.
A right-handed player’s slice always curves from right to left. In order to hit a slice, you must have a Continental Grip and toss the ball slightly further to the right. When playing singles and serving from the deuce court, you can use this type of serve to swing your opponent off the court to their right. Since the ball is curving on the flight, it will cross closer to the center strap than to the higher outside of the net.
The spin slows the ball down, giving more margin for error. The target zone for landing is a long distance out of bounds.
In a nutshell, this is a serve that crosses a low part of the net, curves away from the opponent, travels a long distance to the boundary and has spin that gives margin over the net. That’s all extremely positive and makes the slice a high percentage choice for where you want your ball to land.
A final perk: Hit the same serve to the T on the add side. Now you have one serve for two locations.
This does not work: the same serve attempt will not work well with a flat grip (forehand grip).
No serve works well with a flat grip, so I suggest that you never use it. Serving with a flat grip inhibits the natural movement of the joints and creates a ball traveling on a straight line. Aiming out wide takes the ball over a high part of the net to a short distance to out of bounds. This flat serve also travels faster, so you’ll spend a lot of time hitting the net top or hitting too far wide. This makes it a very low percentage shot for where you want your ball to land.
This information goes for every shot in the game of tennis.
For groundstrokes, cross-court is the high percentage shot because you are hitting the longest distance to out of bounds and over the lowest part of the net. Down the line is a more difficult shot for a number of reasons, but the main concern is that you are hitting over the high part of the net to a shorter distance to out of bounds. Hitting topspin will raise the percentage, because it gives more net clearance than a flat ball.
Volleys hit with underspin are higher percentage than flat or topspin volleys. Underspin gives control of speed, spin and direction. You can hit an effective underspin volley from anywhere on the court, whether you are on the move or more still. You can hit speed, angles, touch and depth. You can also have a high rate of success receiving all types of balls: Flat, topspin, underspin, hard, soft, etc.
Flat, hard volleys fail unless you are very close to the net so they can be used only in certain situations. Like a flat serve, I suggest never hitting a flat volley. Topspin volleys should be chosen carefully. For any decent rate of success, players need to be receiving a floating ball inside of the service line and at shoulder height.
When you discover the power of the high percentage shot, you will have a better understanding of patterned play. If a shot is high percentage, why wouldn’t we choose to do it over and over? Well, the best players play this way. Watch a professional match and you’ll see, for example, patterns of multiple cross-court balls before one of the players takes a bigger risk by changing direction of the ball. It happens over and over again.
As we strive to improve our techniques, we will begin to play high percentage tennis. When we make fewer impulsive choices and play by pattern, amazing things happen on our tennis court.
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.