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Coaching Tips - Volley and Smash

Keep it solid!

Why can't I control my backhand volleys?

You may be using too much wrist. It's quite common for players to make contact with the ball too late and flick the wrist in an attempt to generate pace.

Step in and meet the ball in front of your body, ensuring that your wrist, arm and shoulder move as one firm unit. Keep the racket head slightly above the height of your wrist as you prepare for the shot. Turn your chest, move your face towards the ball and step in. Use a punching/blocking action of the racket head, keeping a firm wrist. Avoid chopping down too much on the ball - hit out and through it while your non-racket hand moves in the opposite direction.

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Ahzah! I've got a black belt in volleying!

How can I stop swinging on my volley?

Players who possess a powerful swing on their groundstrokes often find it difficult to avoid swinging on the volley. Try using the concept of a karate jab as part of a transition stage towards becoming a more efficient volleyer. Holding the racket out in front of your body, move your face towards the ball, step in and deliver a firm, crisp, karate jab with the face of the racket.

Avoid flipping the racket head at the ball. With your hand, wrist, arm and shoulder working as one synchronised unit, hit the ball with a short, sharp action (your racket should "freeze" after you strike the ball).

If the karate idea doesn't work for you, have a look at this animation. Maybe you had one of these when you were a kid? You don't need any more backswing or follow-through than this.

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Cross-legged volleys?

I don't seem to reach wide volleys. Why?

Tim Henman Be sure you use a crossover step to reach a wide volley. In other words, if you're right-handed, step forwards and across with your left foot for a forehand volley.

Step forwards and across with your right foot for a backhand volley.

It might seem strange, but this gives you a much greater reach!

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Follow this recipe for a more powerful overhead!

How can I really put the ball away with my smash?

If you feel you're not punishing your opponents enough when they send up lob after lob, you'll need to beef up your overhead by mixing in plenty of wrist and hand. Add quick footwork, a pinch of forward weight transfer and a dash of arm and shoulder action and you'll be really cooking!

Those are the basic ingredients. You need to prepare them by getting sideways straight away and by pointing your non-racket hand at the ball, keeping it just in front of you.

The recipe works if you get this part of your technique right - flip the racket head up and over at the ball (rather than just swinging through it or pulling it down). Imagine there's a face on the ball glancing down at you and hit it on the forehead, flipping the racket head so that the back of your hand faces the sky immediately after impact and your racket starts to point to the ground.

Keep your body straight and your head steady. Technique is the answer - not brute force. Follow the recipe for some really tasty overheads!

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Anyone for hopscotch?

I volley well in practice. Why do I lose control in matches?

If it's not a mental thing, then it's probably a footwork thing! Standing at the net and hitting volleys in practice is one thing; hitting a serve or a return and moving in behind it in a competitive situation is quite another. If your shot mechanics are basically ok, focus on your positioning and your balance.

Sometimes we can get carried away with being aggressive and getting right up to the net and we can forget a most important feature of successful volleying - balance. Balance is achieved by hopping into a ready position as your opponent is about to hit the ball. It's similar to the little hop children use when they're playing hopscotch (feet apart, knees slightly bent, holding the racket out in front of you). Exaggerate it when you're learning the technique. As you improve, you'll modify it so that it becomes a barely perceptible pause before you move forwards again to make the volley. It's sometimes referred to as a "split step".

If you've not been using it before, you will find that you sacrifice a bit of distance, i.e. you won't get quite as close to the net as you did before, but having good balance is much more important than being close to the net.

Well, I think that's enough now - hop it!

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May the force be with you!

Why is my racket always in the wrong place when I'm at the net?

Do you remember Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader duelling with light sabres in the Star Wars films? Well, that's pretty much how you hold your racket at the net. Racket head up and out in front of you. Use both hands to hold it - although your non-racket hand need only support the throat of the racket.

Volleying involves a short blocking or punching action with your contact point just to the side and out in front of you, so you don't have to recover the racket from a follow-through. If you can keep your volley action short, sharp and compact, the racket head should not have to travel more than a couple of feet from ready position to contact and back to ready again.

The shot is executed with a cross-step towards the ball. So again, just one simple step is enough to recover to a balanced ready position.

Some players are worried about being hit by the ball when they're at the net. If you fall into that category, here's some special advice for you. When a ball is coming straight at you and you've got no time to sway to one side, the correct shot is a backhand volley (you have to be a bit of a contortionist to execute a forehand volley!). Until you build up your confidence, always expect to play a backhand volley when you're at the net. That way, you'll be better prepared to defend yourself on the odd occasion when somebody aims a ball straight at your midriff.

In general terms, you have less reaction time when you're at the net. So the less you do, the better! Just make sure that the little bit you do is done very positively! Good luck with your light sabres, er, volleys! If you try and breathe kind of asthmatically as well, you'll be even more formidable - only kidding!

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Cliche time!

Why do I always put low volleys in the net?

Once the ball is below net height, you're in defensive mode with the volley. Don't try to be aggressive with this shot. Just get it back - deep if possible.

If you play club tennis, you'll know that the most common piece of advice you get is to "bend your knees". It doesn't matter what shot you're trying - if it goes wrong, someone will tell you to bend your knees! Well, executing a low volley does require bending at the knees.

Keeping your back fairly straight and your feet apart for balance, bending at the knees enables you to lower your centre of gravity. Move your face towards the ball and open the racket face to impart a bit of underspin.

Yep, it's cliche time - BEND THOSE KNEES!

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Eyes down and look in!

How do you hit a successful half volley?

The half volley is a shot that's forced on you - you're close to the bounce of the ball but not close enough to play a volley. Your leading leg should bend deeply (try to get your eyes as close as possible to the contact) and your backswing should be shortish. Aim to hit the ball level with your leading foot with your wrist locked. Keep your centre of gravity low and your weight forwards. Try to get a firm contact, but not too aggressive - you're usually looking to go low over the net but with some depth. Follow through forwards and upwards.

Practice with a partner with both of you positioned around the service line. In matchplay, only play half volleys when you're forced to!

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Drop it!

Can you suggest how I could practise playing drop volleys?

Your partner feeds a ball (from the baseline) to you at the net. You play a drop volley, your partner moves in and you play the point out.

Using a fairly open racket face, let your forearm and wrist relax on contact, cushioning the impact. Make the ball land as close as possible to the net.

Your partner should feed alternately to your forehand and then to your backhand for six points and then feed randomly for a further six points. After twelve points, change roles.

Make sure you're both well warmed up before starting this drill! Playing the point out is important, because it allows you to assess the quality of your shot and allows the feeder the valuable opportunity to practice how to deal with drop shots.

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Time to split!

What is a split-step and when should I use it?

What The split-step is a balancing step giving you a base from which you can move quickly for your next shot. Coaches sometimes refer to it as "unweighting".
How Take a small two-footed hop, setting your feet a comfortable shoulder width apart. Lean forwards slightly so your weight is on the balls of your feet. Keeping your racket out in front of you, quickly bend your knees to balance, allowing for rapid movement in any direction.
When It allows your leg muscles to store elastic energy, enabling explosive movement after landing. So timing is crucial. At first, you should try to split-step as your opponent starts his or her forward swing. Performance players may time it a bit later - try to find what works for you!
Why You can improve your balance and movement significantly with proper use of the split-step. It's important for all shots in tennis, but particularly when you're at the net and reaction time is reduced.

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How do you volley a ball aimed straight at your body?

If you get jammed and you haven't got enough time to step into a volley with your normal technique, you need to adapt.

My apologies to left-handers - you must do the necessary conversions when reading this!

Fancy footwork is out of the question - you've got no time! But you've got to get your body out of the way somehow, so let's work out how you can do it, starting with the forehand side. Simply TURN your right shoulder backwards and SWAY to your left. To play a backhand, TURN the left shoulder backwards and SWAY to the right.

Practise this technique by having someone stand on the service line and throw balls straight at you.

If you haven't even got time to turn and sway, it's self-defence and it's got to be a backhand volley! It just isn't possible to play a forehand volley if the ball's heading straight for your midriff. Try it - you'll see what I mean!

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Set up for the kill!

I normally volley ok. Why do I make so many errors when I follow my serve in?

Players often come to grief when they try to do too much with their first volley. You often see serve-and-volleyers hitting aggressive volleys while they're still running in towards the net.

There are occasions when you get a really weak return and you can move in and win the point outright with the first volley, but usually you need to adopt a two-shot mentality: a "set up" volley followed by an angled "put away" shot.

In order to execute a solid "set-up" volley, you need to move in, balance and go for depth and accuracy. Make a ready-hop (a kind of two-footed split-step) just as your opponent winds up to make the return. Obviously you want to get as close to the net as you can, but it's much more important to be on balance, so don't worry if you're still in 'no-man's land'. If your serve is pretty fast, you may only have time for two or three steps in before you have to make your ready-hop. A slower serve may allow you time for four or five steps. The main thing is to ready-hop in time and then aim deep.

Once you've played your first volley, DON'T STAY THERE! Move forward again to a strong position at the net.

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Run like a crab, swoop like a hawk!


Why do I struggle to get behind the ball for my smash?

The overhead is one of the most satisfying shots in tennis. Watching someone like Pete Sampras rising up imperiously to despatch a powerful overhead for a winner is a great sight.

But when you think about the technique that goes into it, it's like the swan gliding effortlessly on the surface of the water - underneath, out of sight, there's a whole lot of furious paddling going on!

As you start to track the lob, make a big shoulder turn and put one foot behind the other. The mistake a lot of people make is to move backwards while facing the net - the footwork is hopelessly inefficient and the shot has no juice on it whatsoever. So when the lob goes up, get sideways - think CRAB! Use your non-racket hand as an antenna to track the ball.

If you want to swoop like a hawk on your overheads, be prepared to run like a crab!

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Put on the handcuffs for an arresting volley!

How can I put a bit more bite into my forehand volleys?

If you've got a firm grip and reasonably quick reflexes, all you need is the confidence to attack. The forecourt is no place for the timid. Aim to play your volleys close to the net - the closer you are to the net, the more you can punch down on the ball.

You don't need to take the racket back, but turning your shoulders sideways-on to the net will help produce the extra bite you need. Imagine you're wearing handcuffs when you prepare for a forehand volley. The position of your non-racket hand will ensure your chest has turned towards the ball. Move your face towards the ball. Transfer your weight into the shot, stepping across and landing your foot just after the contact which should be out in front of your body. Attack the ball with a short, slightly high-to-low block, keeping the racket face slightly open.

Positive volleying requires a positive attitude. Don't be nervous when you're at the net. Go looking for your volleys! It's no good wearing handcuffs unless you're some sort of threat, so be prepared to live dangerously!

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Your nemesis hasn't been born yet!

How can I do more damage with my volleys?

Okay, let's start with the technique - it won't take long - then we'll move on to the really important stuff.

First, try and use a grip that's right between the standard eastern "shake-hands" forehand grip and an eastern (palm-on-top) backhand grip. People refer to it as the continental grip - just pick up the racket like you're going to chop wood with it, then spread your fingers a bit. You can use this grip for forehand and backhand volleys.

Continental grip

Continental grip

Turn your shoulders at right angles to the net. Your elbow should be slightly bent and then kept at that angle throughout the shot. Good players volley from the shoulder, not the elbow - and certainly not the wrist! Move your face towards the ball. Setting the racket slightly above the ball and aiming for contact out in front of your body, strike down and through the ball with a short, sharp action, maintaining a slightly open racket face right through the contact in order to impart some slice. Using slice keeps the ball low, making it difficult for your opponent to pass you. Rolling the racket face produces unpredictable results, so it's important that you try to keep your hand steady.

On your backhand volley, your non-racket arm should drive back as a counter-balance. This helps to keep your shoulders sideways, preventing the natural tendency of the body to rotate around during contact.

When you're at the net, there are more spaces to aim for. Hit the biggest space, or look for wrong-footing opportunities (playing the ball back behind your opponent) - if he's on his butt, he isn't going to hurt you!

When it comes down to it, successful volleying has a lot to do with your attitude. Shrug off the odd dud and resolve to put the next one away. You've got to be really, really positive about it. To paraphrase Muhammed Ali, the player that beats you when you play your net game is fast, he's smart, he's got incredible passing shots and lobs . . . and he hasn't been born yet!

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A turning point!

What's the correct technique for an overhead smash?

The overhead smash is very similar to the service action, but with a shorter take-back of the racket. The other main difference is you don't get the chance to place the ball up for yourself. Your opponent does it for you and makes it as difficult as possible for you! The challenge is to get yourself positioned correctly in time.

As soon as you realise your opponent has sent up a lob, put one foot behind the other to get yourself into a sideways position and, using a continental grip, draw your racket straight up behind your head. Use rapid side-skips to adjust your position until you're under and slightly behind the ball. If small skips won't get you there in time, use crossover steps. Tracking the ball with the fingers of your non-racket hand, keep your head and eyes up and strive for full extension as you transfer your weight from back foot to front foot and swing your racket up to the ball. Snap your wrist forwards just as you make contact.

The most common problem involves dropping the head and collapsing on the shot. This is easily remedied by tracking the ball for as long as possible with your non-racket hand.

If you're forced to hit a ball from a deep position in the court, sacrifice some pace and just try to direct the ball as deep as possible.

To practise, position yourself at the net as if you were going to play some volleys and get your partner to send up some lobs. At first, do everything described above - except for hitting the ball! Instead, try to adjust your position so that the ball lands in your non-racket hand. Once you've mastered that, progress to hitting the ball. And then, when you feel you can cope with a bit more of a challenge, move forwards and touch the net after completing each shot (this will help you develop your movement and recovery).

Practise accuracy by getting your practice partner to feed you balls from the backhand corner of the baseline for you to hit into the open forehand court. After ten or so attempts, your partner feeds from the forehand corner and you hit into the space on the backhand wing.

So remember: turn and point, use skips and crossover steps and reach up for a high contact - and this could be the turning point to cross your game over to a higher level!

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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