I recently recorded a podcast for my show, Prodigy Maker, in which I discussed the topic of Moonballing, especially in junior tennis. The topic got a lot of commentary online and I wanted to share some thoughts from the show with the Long Island Tennis Magazine readership, and my experience coaching many world-class juniors.
Moonballing is a legitimate strategy
In the “Little Mo” Regionals and Nationals there was some controversy about kids moonballing and whether it should be allowed, or if the tournament should try to limit this strategy. The controversy unfortunately flared up online in an ugly way between some parents. From my vantage point, people need to stop complaining about players who hit the ball high up in the air. This is a legitimate strategy, just like hitting the ball very low is a legitimate strategy. Parents—stop complaining. Students— stop complaining. Coaches—stop complaining. Stop whining and start learning how to win. It’s hard and painful to watch a kid lose to a moonballer—or pusher—for that matter. It’s a painful lesson, but that kid needs to learn how to deal with different types of tactics.
Many players, especially young ones, don’t like receiving high balls above the shoulder. It’s foolish to penalize and/or criticize a kid for exploiting this fact. Players who hit moonballs have developed a tactic that is legal and smart. It may not be the best approach for their own long-term development—and I will discuss this below—but hitting the ball high or lobbing the ball can be a very smart play to win.
Don’t complain—improve your brain!
Players who moonball are demonstrating that they have a good brain. They are demonstrating that their tactical computer is turned on, and the kids who complain about it need to try to improve their own brains. They need to learn how to deal with this approach, and learn how to mitigate and counter a high lob; more on this later. Generally the players who lose to moonballers don’t have a great tactical mind and haven’t learned to problem solve.
Pretty technique doesn’t win matches
Some parents, coaches, and players seem to think that pretty technique should earn the win—like a tennis match is a beauty contest. It is not. A tennis match is a lot more like a cage or a street fight. The sooner a kid figures this out, the better. In a cage fight, there are limited rules. In a street fight, there are no rules. Tennis has some limited rules. There is no rule, for example, that limits the height at which you are allowed to hit the ball. You can hit it as high, or as low, as you want. You just can’t hit any obstructions like the roof, of course. Exploring the limits of the rules is good problem solving. If your opponent doesn’t like high balls, by all means, hit them more of those. If your opponent doesn’t like low balls, give them more of those. If your opponent is slow, give them short balls like drop shots. This is just common sense and good strategic play. But for many people, lobbing someone is viewed in a negative way, frowned upon, criticized, and even vilified.
The cousins of the moonball: pushing and dropshotting
The same opprobrium is reserved for kids who use too many dropshots or kids who “push” the ball. I call pushing shots and dropshots the cousins of the lob or moonball. Contrary to what you may have heard, hitting the ball softly is also a legitimate strategy. Some people don’t like soft balls as they can disrupt the rhythm and timing of many players. Dropshots are also a wonderful strategy against players at all levels, particularly those who are not fast or struggle with their fitness or movement. If you want to make yourself or your players dumb on the court, by all means limit the shots allowed to be hit instead of exploring all the variety of shots in tennis. It’s critical to develop the tactical mind of a young kid and experimenting with different effects on the ball is part of good tactical learning and problem solving.
Winning without power in Spain is a badge of courage
Sometimes I think it’s funny when I hear people complaining about how pushers, dropshotters and moonballers win so many matches and tournaments. They win a lot of trophies, but they don’t play “real tennis.” What is real tennis anyway? Tennis shots can be slow or fast. Strokes can be pretty or ugly. With some caveats, what matters is who holds the trophy at the end. There is a stigma in the United States attached to winning without power. In Spain, where I have studied intensively, that stigma doesn’t exist. There, players who run, bunt, lob, dropshot, etc. are praised for their grit and intelligence. But not here. Here in the States, we mock and vilify these types of players—it’s crazy. In Spain, if a player is solid and consistent and wins with endurance, they are lauded, not lambasted.
If pushing and moonballing win so much, how come in the U.S., we don’t teach that as a strategy?
If these slower ball tactics win so many tournaments, why wouldn’t we want our kids to use them. After all, the goal is winning tournaments, not looking pretty, right? I’m all for teaching powerand acceleration. In Spain, the coaches are obsessed with acceleration too, but they also value grinding and soft shots. Toni Nadal has a great saying about the importance of power and touch: “velocidad y habilidad,” he likes to say. I want my players to have big powerful weapons, but sometimes a little knife can be just a deadly as a gun in a street fight. A shard of glass in well-trained hands can be just as deadly as an assault rifle. I want my players to have a variety of weapons and tools to win a match—not just power. A player who wins with all the tools available demonstrates guile and resourcefulness, which are the traits we want to develop, right?
How I teach players to use high balls on the attack
First of all, it’s important to explain to kids the different options available to them when attacking their opponent above the shoulder. For me, a moonball is really high. It’s a very high lob with little spin. My friend likes to call them cloud touches—big lobs that touch the sky. In general, I prefer that my players use spin to hit a heavy topspin ball up above the shoulders. Heavy topspin attacks are high ball attacks with spin and racquet speed. This is my favorite strategy to teach players. Online, it’s sometimes referred to as the Spanish Armada play. Spanish players love to play high and heavy with whip and spin. If my players hit an occasional cloud touch as a change of pace, I’m ok with that, but I don’t really want them to overuse that super high ball strategy. I want that heavy ball, and for that the players needs to have good technique, good acceleration and good footwork and balance. These are the key technical areas that I want my players to develop. If they are sending up high and slow cloud touches too much, I fear they won’t develop their footwork, technique and racquet speed enough. I don’t want my players out there slapping the ball to the sky flat and developing bad habits. That’s a redline for me. But at the end of the day, I respect a kid for understanding that a high ball can win points and disrupt the game of his or her opponent.
How to deal strategically with a moonballer
The best way to deal with a moonballer is to stay calm and take the ball out of the air with a topspin volley. Be patient and don’t let the ball get too high above your shoulders. Other alternative strategies are taking the ball on-the-rise or moving back deep in the court and playing a heavy topspin back to the opponent. I teach all three of these strategies to my players so that they are ready for any moonballer!
Remember that hitting high balls is something we want young players to experiment with tactically. Encourage kids to do it. It’s better for their long- term development to learn to do it using the Spanish Armada style, than cloud touches. That way, players are fostering better technique, footwork and balance, and acceleration. My longtime mentor, legendary Spanish coach Luis Bruguera likes to say, “Don’t destroy your opponent—disturb him, disrupt him.” When players experiment with hitting high balls, they are learning how to do just that. They are learning to disrupt and win without power. It’s an important lesson to learn on the junior pathway. The key is to learn that tactical lesson while not developing bad technical habits along the way.
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.