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Coaching Tips - Groundstrokes

It's what your other arm's for!

I hit a lot of shots off-balance. How can I improve this?

The likeliest problem is inefficient footwork, but we've addressed that elsewhere, so let's consider some other methods for maintaining good balance in tennis.

Try to "plant" yourself at least temporarily when you play your shots and use your legs by sinking a little at the knees then straightening them again through the shot. Practise synchronising this with your hip and shoulder rotation.

What would you do if you had to walk along a log across a ravine? Well, naturally you'd stick out both arms for balance. And it's therefore no coincidence that using both arms is one of the keys to good technique in tennis. It's not just your racket arm that controls the shot.

As you take your racket back for a forehand groundstroke, extend your other arm towards the ball. Your balance will improve immediately and you'll be able to transfer your weight into the shot. Similarly, when you play an overhead, keep your balance by pointing to the ball with your free hand.

If you use a single-handed backhand, keep your non-racket hand on the throat of the racket and don't let go until you're ready to swing forwards - then keep your free hand outstretched behind you for balance.

If you can't think of all this in the hurly-burly of a match, go for the quick fix - KEEP YOUR HEAD STILL!

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Hitting bigger without hitting bigger!

How can I get more power without radically changing my technique?

Roger Federer The power drives of the modern game are produced by adopting a relatively open stance, driving up from the legs and rotating the upper body (hips, trunk and shoulders). Whether or not you're using that sort of technique, you can up the ante on your groundstrokes by:

i. transferring your weight forwards more
ii. swinging faster
iii. hitting more through the ball.

Your technique may or may not break down as a consequence.

But let's try thinking laterally for a minute. Let's assume your basic strokes are sound and you don't want to bin them. Well, there is a way of inflicting more damage on your opponent without muscling the ball. Instead of waiting for the ball as you would normally, step in and take it early - at the top of the bounce or even on the rise. It'll take a little bit of practice, but you should soon become a more attacking player without compromising the aesthetics of your game.

Roger Federer is a kind of predatory player. If he gets a sniff of anything slightly short, he moves up to take it early. That way he adds more aggression to his shots without muscling them. Moving into the court means he has more angles at his disposal and his opponents have less time to react. It's kind of hitting bigger without hitting bigger!

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Shoot the bullseye!

How do you hit down the line?

You can determine the direction of your shots by making contact with the ball more in front of you (for crosscourt shots) or further back (for down the line shots), but I don't recommend it! For the sake of comfort and consistency, you should make contact just in front of your body on all your groundstrokes.

What I do recommend is that you follow through toward your target, perhaps extending out a little longer on down-the-line shots and pulling across a fraction earlier on crosscourt shots. The difference is actually minimal and if you simply think of driving the strings towards your target, that should do it.

If it doesn't, try hitting slightly towards the outside of the ball for crosscourt shots and right on the bullseye for down the line shots.

Oh, and by the way, if the ball comes to you crosscourt and you want to go down the line, make sure you adjust for the angle off your racket!

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On the up and up!

How do you hit groundstrokes on the rise?

There's plenty of good reasons to hit on the rise. What are they? Well, you can hit with more power because your opponent's pace is still on the ball. Also, you give your opponent less time to recover and therefore less time to prepare for the next shot. And the more you move inside the baseline the more you see over the net, enabling you to open up the rally with angled shots. If you like getting into the net, hitting on the rise gives you a better chance of closing in.

So, how do we do it? For one thing, you need to get inside the court during the rallies! Easier said than done - it's a psychological leap because you're leaving that familiar comfort zone behind the baseline - so try it in practice first! The other thing that will take some adjustment is your backswing. There will be less time for it, so you need to make it as efficient as possible - a good shoulder turn will probably suffice. Relax at the knees and stay light on your feet. Start your swing early enough to ensure firm contact just out in front of your body. Although you've had to adopt a more compact backswing, accelerate the racket head and follow through smooth and long and full.

One thing you've got to consider is the angle of the ball as it comes on to your racket - instead of a flat or downward trajectory, the ball will be angling upwards onto your strings. You'll find you won't keep the ball in the court if you use an open racket face. So adjust your grip to close the racket face slightly. It's probably a good idea to brush up on the ball to impart some topspin. This will give you a greater degree of control.

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The Ten Commandments!

How do you hit drop shots?

1. Thou shalt use the drop shot when thy opponent is way behind the baseline (or retreating away from thy target zone).
2. Thou shalt draw a baseliner in to the net - away from his or her comfort zone.
3. Thou shalt tire thy opponent by using the drop shot and following it with a lob.
4. Thou shalt apply some backspin, causing the ball to dip sharply into thy opponent's court and then "die" after it bounces.
5. Thou shalt use the same grip as for thy normal groundstroke (but players using extreme closed grips should change to an Eastern or Continental grip).
6. Thou shalt produce the backspin by using a high-to-low swing (if thou use a high backswing on thy normal groundstrokes, thou shalt develop the art of disguise by preparing thy racket just as thou wouldst for thy normal shot).
7. Thou shalt bring the racket smoothly forwards and downwards, slowing down the swing just before contact, turning thy forearm to open the racket face. The action shalt be like turning a key in a door (clockwise for forehands, anti-clockwise for backhands).
8. Thou shalt strike the ball at the same height as thou wouldst for thy normal groundstrokes - don't let the ball drop too low.
9. After contact, thou shalt continue moving your racket towards thy target area with a smooth and natural follow-through.
10. Thou shalt play the drop shot as an alternative to the approach shot, i.e. when thou art between the baseline and service line, thereby deceiving thy opponent, causing him to blaspheme more outrageously than I have in this article!

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Strike three!

What height should the ball be when I hit my groundstrokes?

When you're hitting groundstrokes, you'll find it easier to control the ball if your contact is somewhere between mid-chest and knee, a comfortable arm's length away from you and just slightly in front of your body. This is your ideal strike zone.

When your opponent hits the ball, it arrives with gradually diminishing speed. It rises after the bounce and then levels off for a moment as its speed dies.

If you can adjust your footwork so that the levelling-off moment occurs in the middle of your ideal strike zone, you've cracked it! Tennis is a breeze!

But it isn't always that easy. Although most balls level off somewhere between shoulder-height and knee-height, sometimes the ball bounces too low or too high. You may have to hurry forwards to short balls and you may have to bend your knees to cope with low balls. High-bouncing balls travel through your strike zone twice - once on the way up and again on the way down, so you have the luxury of a choice.

The face of your racket must be square to the ball at contact. Swing it up through the strike zone from below the level of the ball, finishing above it.

A common mistake is getting in line with the ball, with the result that you get jammed by it. It's okay to position yourself on the tracks, but remember to dodge aside before the train arrives!

The strike zone is important in baseball, too. Rules committees frequently argue over its definition. When the umpires "shrink" the strike zone, there are more home runs and the hitters (and the fans) are happy. But when they allow a larger strike zone, it favours the pitchers and the home runs start to dry up.

Let's apply a baseball analogy to tennis. Let's say you're hitting balls at all different heights, one ball up around your armpits and the next down below your knees. Well, clearly this is the equivalent of a baseball umpire allowing a large strike zone. And your opponent - the pitcher - is just grinning all over his face.

Use anticipation and footwork to shrink that zone and start scoring!

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Good timing is just one puff away!

Is it really possible to watch the ball right onto the racket?

I'm not sure it's actually possible to see the ball when you strike it. Everything's just a blur of hand and ball and racket. No matter how hard you stare at it, you can't see it distinctly. It's less like a ball and more like a dandelion gone to seed.

Nevertheless, it's still good advice to watch the ball right through contact, because it helps keep your head still, which in turn keeps you balanced.

In colloquial English, the sphere of dandelion seeds is referred to as a clock and, according to folklore, you can use it to tell the time by counting how many puffs it takes to blow all the seeds away.

Next time you're on the practice court, try blowing at the "dandelion clock"! It'll help your timing (pun intended!). You'll produce a balanced shot by keeping your head steady. And it's a good idea to exhale as you hit the ball anyway!

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Take a new approach to an old problem!

What's the best type of approach shot?

Your effectiveness as a volleyer very much depends on the quality of the shot that gets you to the net - the approach shot.

A major aspect of this is selecting the right ball to come in on. Look for a shortish ball that lands in one of the service boxes. In fact, one of the best opportunities is a weak service.

The next thing to consider is where to aim your shot. Approach shots should be mostly down-the-line. If you go across court, you open up a lot of court for your opponent to pass you. Most importantly, you leave yourself vulnerable to the down-the-line pass that you have no time to cover. So, most of the time, go down-the-line and follow the ball in. But this is not a hard and fast rule. There are times when a cross-court approach is preferable. If your opponent is out of position, for example, it might be better to attack the space. It's also a good idea to consider attacking an opponent's weaker side.

What about the type of shot? Well, using slice is often favoured because it's easier to play on the move. Your weight transfers into the shot and it's easier to stay balanced as you follow through and move in. Slice also keeps the ball low, forcing your opponent to lift the ball, giving you a good chance of volleying at a comfortable height.

Topspin allows you the insurance of net clearance and dip and it may present your opponent with an awkward ball that kicks up and forwards. The important thing is to keep a topspin approach deep. If you present your opponent with a short, high-bouncing ball, you could find yourself in a whole lot of trouble.

If you find you have to wait too long for short balls, consider using a "moonball" approach. Hit the ball high and deep with topspin so that your opponent is forced to deal with it from way back behind the baseline. Sometimes your opponent will be surprised to find you at the net and you'll get a relatively comfortable volley, but if he or she sees you coming you'd better expect the lob to go up!

So - back to the question - what's the best type of approach shot? Well, if you weigh up all the factors I've mentioned above, you should have quite a few attacking options to work on. At the end of the day, the best type of approach shot is the one you execute best and the one that hurts your opponent most!

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What are all these buttons for?

What are the 'Whys' and 'Whens' of using spin on groundstrokes?

Batting a ball to and fro over a net is okay, but it's very basic. If tennis was a language, we're talking morse code. Once you can master the basics, what you really want to do is make the ball do stuff - you want to make it talk, don't you? If tennis was a TV set, you'd want more than just an on-and-off switch and a volume control - you'd want a channel selector and a brightness control and a contrast control and so on. If you're going to control a rally, you need to control the ball. And that's where spin comes in.

With groundstrokes, your spin options are topspin and slice.

With topspin, the ball dips to the ground quicker and bounces higher than you'd expect from a ball with no spin. It allows you to hit harder - and higher over the net - with less risk of hitting long. It also allows you to dip balls at the feet of an incoming volleyer. Use it as your stock rally ball, but flatten it out a bit to go for winners. Topspin is a player's insurance policy and you shouldn't be allowed to drive without it!

With slice (or backspin), the ball floats through the air longer and bounces lower than you'd expect from a ball with no spin. It allows you to hit deeper and lower, forcing your opponent to hit up on the ball - very desirable if your opponent has an extreme "closed" grip or you're approaching the net for a volley or an overhead. Use it as an approach shot and use it for defence when you've been stretched out of position, because the ball will travel slowly and buy you time to recover for your next shot. A slice backhand is essential to an attacking net game, such as that deployed by Tim Henman, Pat Rafter, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe. It can be particularly effective to combat topspin with slice, since the direction of the spin is maintained rather than reversed, i.e. you're actually adding to the existing spin on the ball.

When you first learn how to play spins, it's okay to experiment and see what you can do. It's like when you get that new TV set and you sit there playing with the remote! Eventually, you'll get familiar with it and just use the controls you need.

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Automatic grip change

What's the most efficient way to change grip between shots?

I wouldn't want to be too prescriptive about how you should perform your grip changes. A lot depends on your confidence and experience and what works best for you.

Ideally, after every shot, you should return to a good position on the court and cradle the racket throat with your free hand. Having read the flight of your opponent's shot and decided whether to play a forehand or backhand, you should then make your grip change by either:

a) turning your racket hand to the required position (while holding the racket still with your free hand), or
b) turning the throat of the racket with your free hand (while keeping your racket hand still).

Try both methods and determine which works best for you.

If you're fairly new to the game, it's probably a good idea to change grip as soon as you read the flight of the ball. But some players are comfortable changing grip a fraction later - during the shoulder turn and backswing.

It's probably not a good idea to hold your racket in an "imbetween" position as you prepare for your next shot, because you'll need to perform a grip-change every single time. Better to wait with either your full forehand or your full backhand grip. That way, you won't have to change grip at all half the time! With experience, you should be able to make this better than 50:50 by using observation and anticipation, e.g. if you're playing someone who nearly always returns crosscourt backhands with crosscourt backhands.

Try to avoid looking at your grip while making the change. You have to get used to doing it by feel. Practise it by having someone feed you balls predictably to forehand, then backhand, then forehand again (then advance to unpredictable feeds). Eventually it will become automatic.

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Six of the best!

Have you got a few simple tips to improve the consistency of my groundstrokes?

Here's half a dozen pointers to help you become more consistent and accurate with your groundstrokes:

1. Focus on the ball. Try to ensure your contact point is always a comfortable height, a comfortable distance away from you and comfortably just in front of your body.

2. Consistency starts with footwork. Use small steps and sideskips ('happy feet') to adjust your position in relation to the ball before finally planting your feet comfortably apart to provide a solid base for each shot. Then recover to a good position on the court ready for your next shot.

3. Play the percentages. Avoid aiming too low over the net or too close to the lines. Go crosscourt unless you're prepared to take a risk.

4. Use topspin so that you can aim high over the net (the ball will dip and is less likely to go long). Sink a little at the knees during your shot preparation to provide some upward thrust from your legs. Imagine there's another net on top of the actual net - make sure you clear both!

5. Use your free hand! Groove your forehand by using your free hand to 'sight the ball' as it comes towards you. Don't leave it there too long though - try to avoid ending up with arms crossed! Clear it away as part of the upper body rotation you use during your forward swing. If you use a single-handed backhand, support the throat of your racket with your free hand while you take the racket back, then extend it out behind you to counterbalance your forward swing.

6. Practise, practise, practise! Use a wall if you can't find a partner.

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Don't be late! Concentrate!

How do you avoid all those mishits?

Many mistiming errors occur when your shot preparation is rushed. The process of getting your racket face correctly aligned with the ball at the right moment during each stroke requires time. You buy yourself this time by developing your anticipation skills and your footwork and movement. Recovering to a good position on the court is a key factor. Small side steps should be used wherever possible and you should endeavour to perform a balancing split-step just a fraction before your opponent hits the ball. The timing of the split-step should usually take precedence over everything, i.e. it is better to be balanced and slightly out of position than running off-balance to the centre mark when your opponent hits the ball.

If you get your body into position in time, you eliminate the mishits caused by rushing. The root cause of other mishits is usually some kind of distraction - a lapse of concentration resulting in an alignment error. For example, something in your peripheral vision (e.g. a stray ball) might compete for your attention or you might be unsettled by an unexpected noise. You might find your attention ambushed by a sudden concern about whether or not the ball has landed out. Or you might be preoccupied with your opponent's movement and your intended target area. These errors can never be entirely eliminated but you can reduce their frequency:

i. mentally, by training yourself to keep an image of the court in your head while focusing your attention on the execution of your shot, and

ii. physically, by keeping your eyes on the ball!

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Revolutions and counter-revolutions!

What exactly are topspin and slice?

The flight of a ball propelled through the air is determined by its initial velocity (speed), gravity and the effects of air resistance. If the top of a ball is spinning towards you as it leaves your racket, the ball has been hit with backspin. The 'leading edge' at the bottom of the ball increases turbulence, causing the ball to rise above the parabolic arc determined by normal gravity. If the top of the ball is spinning away from you as it goes, the ball has been hit with topspin. Topspin creates increased turbulence above the ball, causing it to be pushed downward. In short, backspin reduces the effect of gravity, topspin increases it.

Inevitably, these flight variations also have an effect on the bounce. A ball with topspin descends sharply, but the friction on contact with the ground causes it to accelerate upwards and forwards. A ball with backspin, on the other hand, decelerates on contact with the ground.

Topspin is created by brushing the strings upwards on contact with the ball. Backspin is created by 'slicing' the ball with a downward brushing of the strings.

Using topspin, you can hit harder and higher over the net with less risk of sending the ball long. Using backspin (slice), you can float a ball to a good depth and keep it low.

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Core facts!

Is it safe for very young players to use open-stance groundstrokes?

The game of tennis has changed a lot over the last couple of decades. Open stance groundstrokes allow players to manufacture shots with minimal preparation, produce bigger swings by means of full rotation of the hips and shoulders, recover quickly and efficiently after each shot and to watch the ball more easily with both eyes. It's therefore not unusual these days for coaches to introduce players to these benefits at a very young age.

But you are right to be concerned about the effect of modern techniques on a young, growing body. With all the rotation of shoulders and hips in open stance shots, there is a lot of extra load on the core muscles of the trunk. Taking bigger swings at the ball creates the potential for injury to the shoulders, back, hips and groin, so coaches have to pay particular attention to the development of good core stability when they work with youngsters.

The core muscles are attached to the spine and pelvis, deep within the trunk of the body, acting like a corset, taking the pressure off the back. They must be kept strong to ensure good balance and help control the use of secondary muscle groups.

Core stability can be improved by means of strengthening and stretching exercises and techniques, beginning, for example, with simple push-ups and crunches. But obviously different players have different requirements. So, to get to the core (sorry!) of the problem, you might consider talking to a qualified trainer and developing a suitably customised programme.

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Are low balls getting you down?

How do you play against slice if you're a topspin hitter?

Let's state the obvious right off the bat. Every ball enters your half of the court at a height of over three feet, so you might want to consider the tactical solution of moving in and taking the ball on the volley. Often, however, it's not feasible to approach the net and you have to find a suitable groundstroke instead.

On the face of it, if a ball is going to be at or below knee-height when you make contact with it, it may prove too difficult to drive the ball back with topspin, so the only option is to slice it back. This particularly applies on the backhand wing. Using a continental grip, keep your wrist firm, step sideways into the ball and swing (one-handed) from high to low, making contact with a slightly open racket face. You shouldn't need to accelerate your swing too much. If you find the ball floats or pops up too much, aim for the upper half of the ball.

On the forehand wing, there is a wider range of possible solutions. Topspin hitters are often reluctant to change grip on the forehand. You may manage to generate topspin on low balls with your normal grip by whipping up the back of the ball with a little more wrist than normal. That's fine, provided you can keep the errors to a minimum. Be sure to bend your knees and dip the shoulder of your racket hand. However, if this produces an unacceptable level of errors, you may prefer to change to an eastern or continental grip and slice or "bunt" the ball back. It's an adjustment all players must make when they are at full stretch.

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Horse sense

I've been told my topspin prevents me hitting winners. Should I change to a flatter shot?

If you use a full western grip on your forehand, you may well find it difficult to flatten shots out, but if you use a semi-western grip you should be able to drive through the ball for a more penetrating shot.

When it comes down to it, it's basically a tradeoff : high percentage safety (topspin) versus lower percentage attack (flatter shots). I believe your personality should determine how you approach this. Are you a risk-taker, a gambler? Do you like a flutter on the horses? If so, consider making the technical and tactical changes that will allow you to hit more winners. If you're not a risk-taker and you don't like to fritter money away on the horses, use horse sense instead. Get the ball over the net and inside the lines more often than your opponent - that's horse sense. If you're fit enough and happy enough to work your opponent around the court to win your points, relish the fact that your topspin should significantly reduce your unforced errors. It won't make you better or worse as a player, but be encouraged by the words of WC Fields: "Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people."

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Score with your touchdown!

I'd like to hit topspin drives but I can't stop slicing. What should I do?

Get out on the practice court with a partner and, for a few balls, try simply touching the ground with your racket before you swing. That will get you swinging from low to high. Make sure you're using an appropriate grip (i.e. NOT continental) and get the feel of brushing the strings up the back of the ball. It could prove to be a groundbreaking development in your game.

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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