Hurry! Turn! Move your feet! Watch the ball! Hit up!
These are catch phrases that so many instructors use that are really meaningless without explanation. Yet they are yelled across the court everywhere as though repeating them over and over will do the trick.
Then, we have an overload of online instruction with enough contradiction and personal touches to confuse anyone. I have people ask me all the time, “What do they mean and how do I know who to believe?”
As tennis players, we are all eager to learn more, watch more and play more tennis and that’s great. We think we understand what we are taking in, but in reality, we typically either misunderstand or don’t understand the full impact of many basic and essential parts of the game. A little detailed knowledge of what you do and what needs to change will do wonders for your game.
Anything done in a general manner, in the game of tennis, is not done well.
We are talking about a very specific set of basics that will determine what kind of player you can become.
Below is a list of things we hear all of the time that really mean nothing to players without knowing specifics. Yet these comments are repeated as though if you hear them enough times, they will solve your problems. One of them is just plain wrong. An entire tennis narrative could be written about each of these words or phrases, but I’ve simply followed up with what YOU, the player, can feel free to ask:
Watch the ball! Watch it do what?
Get your racket back! Just plain wrong.
Hurry! Where? The ball is only four feet away.
Turn! I can’t because I have to hurry.
Move your feet! Where should I go?
Stay away from the ball! I can’t because I hurried.
Hit the ball sooner! I can’t because I didn’t stay away from it.
Rotate! I don’t know what that means.
Follow through! I can’t because I didn’t stay away from the ball.
Bend your knees! Both or one? How much and why?
Let’s find some meaning in the first four phrases (words) above that can change your game in a positive way. You’ll see how to connect the dots and that one thing always causes another. If you need more definitions, please e-mail me and I’ll be happy to provide them.
1. Watch the ball
Watching the ball is really misunderstood. We say it over and over, but it has no meaning. Players “watch” the ball least when they should be watching most and most when they should be watching least.
Solution: The most important time to have an eagle eye on the ball starts when it is on your opponent’s side of the court and they are striking it. Of course, we want to see what the opponent’s relationship is with the ball (are they looking good and balanced with the ball in their striking zone, is the ball slightly out of their reach, etc.) Watching the opponent and the ball strike gives you the first idea of what you will be receiving. Is it coming to my forehand or backhand, was it sent high, is it going to land deep, mid-court or short?
Wherever it is going, we need to watch the flight as we are calculating where, when and just how fast to move. We watch the entire flight, including the ball going down to hit the ground and coming off it and as close to our racket contact point as possible. Keeping the head stationary at this point is crucial so that our cameras (eyes) have the ability to focus on contact.
After that, you will basically stop watching the ball and focus more on the opponent. Remember, you’ll see the ball, but it’s not your main focus. After all, you pretty much have an idea of where it’s going, right? So, you don’t need to inspect it with laser vision as it leaves you. You will see the ball in the big picture, but it is more important to see the relationship that the opponent is creating with the incoming ball. This will tell you tons about what is coming back to you.
Then, you start the process all over. Watch their relationship and strike, watch the flight, watch the bounce, watch as close to contact as possible. Then, let it go. Again and again.
2. Get your racket back
This one is easy. It’s nonsense. This is done with the turn.
Do you run into your forehand? Most everyone does. If you do, then stop hurrying. “Hurry” is one of the most destructive words we use. It tells the player that they need to go, and go fast, to the ball. In reality, we want to move early and efficiently, and sometimes quickly. Hurried is the last thing you ever want to feel on the tennis court.
Solution: As a teaching professional, I spend a good amount of my time helping players see the opponent’s strike of the ball earlier, helping make a proper turn, and slowing down the first movement for better distancing from the ball.
Be aware of when the ball is being struck by the opponent and make an appropriate first movement (turn). Most of the time, this does not include going anywhere. Realize that the average distance to a ball is four to eight feet. Two-and-a-half steps take a player seven to eight feet and the step to the ball, reach of the arm and a two-foot racket covers the last four feet. If one starts early, there should be no hurry. Combine that with a physical “set” of the racket turn as a response to an incoming shot. This will stop the “hurry” and give you time to calculate where to go and how fast.
Let’s talk about a forehand. Do you know how simple a forehand turn is? Turning is problematic because players don’t know how much, how far and with which body parts (feet, hips, shoulders) to turn. A turn is mainly stationary or static, then going into immediate movement. Typically, players take off and run toward a ball without knowing where they are going or how much space to leave between the contact point and themselves. Or, they turn by moving their feet around in small steps which makes weight set difficult, is very slow and time consuming.
Solution: First, turning is used on rotational shots (groundstrokes, serving, overhead). For a forehand, use a simple and compact movement combined with a “set” of the racket. Don’t get excited and start going anywhere. Turn first, move second. The turn happens in response to the ball being struck by the opponent. When you recognize the ball coming to your right (forehand for righty) or to the left (backhand for righty) simply do this:
A. Hold onto the racket with both hands and turn to the hitting side by taking the weight off of the non-dominant foot (do not pick up this foot). Rotate the non-dominant foot so the bottom is flat to the side fence and the knee is bent inward. Let 80 percent of your weight sit on the hit side leg (weight set). Bending this ankle and knee lets the weight load on the hit side leg. Now you are ready to move any direction or take any size step in order to approach the ball.
B. After you have made your preparation and recognition turn, then you can calculate where and when you need to move to the incoming ball. This preliminary move helps you make good decisions, recognize just how much time you have (a lot!) and prevents running into balls.
The job of a tennis professional can be complex, but it is mainly to find solutions to your problems in a simple and understandable way. Exciting descriptions and new and shiny ideas about how to produce a stroke are fun but often confusing and ineffective. Repetitive word use is not helpful. Make it your goal to start making clear sense of the ball watching, hurrying (throw this one out the window) and turning. You’ll improve your game by leaps and bounds. Give it a shot and ask more questions.
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.