Tennis Tip: Take a Snapshot Before Impact

I often draw analogies between tennis and golf, but today’s tip comes from football.  I once heard a pro receiver say that they were coached to take a mental snapshot of catching the ball just before it arrived.  The idea was to reinforce whether it was a hands or body catch, proper body position, keeping feet in bounds, etc.  Once the mental snapshot was taken, they were supposed to duplicate the snapshot with an actual catch.

I’m just starting to hit right-handed again afer a few months layoff.  One of the early challenges is getting my timing and sense of racquet control back.   I’ve used this technique in practice in order to help reinforce proper racquet position at impact when working the ball.  I try to think of the part of the ball I want to strike as being highlighted and how I want the racquet to look at impact.  Then, I try to put the racquet in the exact position as my mental snapshot.  In order to do so, I have to have good footwork and body preparation in addition to proper racquet motion.

Take advantage of practice time by not just hitting aimlessly.  Try cross-court and down-the-line rallies.  Try to keep the ball inside the doubles alley.  Think about where you need to impact the ball and mentally higlight that part of the ball before impact.  Mental visualizations are always a bit tricky at first.  When I first tried this technique, it seemed a bit strange. After a couple practice sessions, I became comfortable with its application.  Iv’e found it helps a lot in terms of proper setup and stroke motion.  You may also find that it helps you in another important area which is focusing on the ball through impact in the first place.  Yes, we all want to look up too quickly to see where that great shot went.

Directional control based on compensations translates into inconcistent play.  Muscle memory never gets to work in your favor as the compensations are different every time you play.  Practice proper technique and then muscle memory starts to work in your favor.  Good luck with the game!

Tennis Tip: A Great Use For Old Overgrips

This tip is a modification of a suggestion given to me by my instructor.  One afternoon, he tied an old overgrip onto the top of his racquet and took some practice swings.  The idea was to show that with a smooth swing (no pauses), the overgrip should not fall towards the ground.  Same thing with the serve; no pause at the top of the motion means the overgrip should not fall (due to gravity).

I’ve mentioned before that I’m learning to play left-handed while rehabbing my right shoulder.  I thought it would be fun to learn how to serve left-handed (kind of a Luke Jensen wannabe).  I was really having trouble getting a good ‘snapping’ motion going into the ball.   One of the items I had been working on right-handed was getting more wrist motion and arm break right after impact.  Look at photos of Sampras just after impact on his serve.  The wrist has moved so much through impact that the racquet is pointing downward and this motion is supported by the arm bending at the elbow.

Now, you can naturally achieve that kind of motion by cracking a bullwhip in the air, pointing it to some imaginary point beyond the serve’s anticipated impact point.  However, I don’t want to buy an Indiana Jones bullwhip and I’d rather do drills that involve an actual tennis racquet.

I was thinking back to Tom’s tip about the overgrip, so I tried it with the service motion.  I treated the racquet as the ‘handle’ of the bullwhip and the overgrip as the actual whip.  With that mental visualization, it was easy for me (even left-handed) to get a smooth, natural snapping motion through impact.  Just try to hit some imaginary point in the air with my modified ‘bullwhip rig.’

Once I start practicing right-handed again, I’m anxious to try this drill at home and see how it translates to racquet-head speed through impact.  Mental visualizations are always tricky; what works for one person may not work for another.  It does seem, however, that I’ve found a new use for old overgrips and I am a big fan of recycling.  Hope this one might have some benefit for you.

Good luck with the game!

TennisTip: Train Like a Boxer For Better Footwork

In the previous tip, I alluded to ‘hearing’ your feet while practicing as a means to produce fewer steps and more adjujstment in setting up to hit the ball.  It’s very difficult to hit a good shot without the body being in proper position.  My biggest footwork issue is taking too few steps and getting in position early.  Instead of stepping into the ball as part of the stroke, I’m already setup, so I have to ‘muscle’ the ball with my upper body and arm.

In searching for a drill to help alleviate this tendency, I looked at other sports where the pace of action is fast and footwork is extremely important.  Martial arts in general, and boxing in particular fit the bill.  One of the old-school techniques for teaching balance and footwork in boxing is to tie a string between the boxer’s feet while standing in a ‘ready’ position.  Either through shadow-boxing or moving with a partner, the boxer must quickly move into a variety of positions without breaking the string.  This forces the boxer to make adjustments in small steps, allowing him to more quickly react to an opponent’s move in mid-step.  Not all that different from tennis; making adjustments for wind, ball spin, the ball hitting slick spots on the court, misreading a volley angle, etc.

So, I tried it … at home, of course.  Just hitting a foam ball up against a wall.  Freaking amazing drill.  What I thought was a small step broke the string instantly.  Then, I videotaped myself and saw what I was doing; trying to ‘position’ myself as quickly as possible, then hit through the ball as opposed to a single, fluid motion.  I comapred this to some video I recorded of Federer.  It’s interesting how many times his strokes have been analyzed and I never hear anyone talk about his feet.  His stroke production really begins there.

So, I continued with the drill until I could hit some really basic forehands and backhands without breaking the string.  I try to duplicate this motion when I warm up.  When doing so, I always tend to hit much better than when I warm up thiking only about stroke production in the upper body.

This is a drill that is not easy to migrate to the court, so I typically relegate it to indoor practice when it rains.  Breaking and retying a string is tedious, but don’t use a flexible cord as that could easily induce tripping.   In fact, I would recommend just practice moving into position without hitting a ball at first.   It’s a bit risky, but I found it to be an incredible drill that I can do at home.  If you don’t want to try it, at least have your local USTA pro analyze your footwork with you on video.  The bottom line is to consciously make an effort to keep the feet moving and constantly adjusting to the ball.  Always think of the stroke as starting from the ground; not the hips or the shoulders or the arm.  It’s the feet!

Good luck!

Tennis Tip: Volley Out Not Down

This tip comes from yesterday’s practice session.  I’m learning to play left-handed as I rehab a torn tendon in my right arm.  I was hitting with an instructor at the Hilton yesterday.  After an approach shot, he hit me a half lob to the backhand side.  I was able to get back far enough for a pretty decent swinging backhand volley, which was followed by an even deeper lob to the backhand side.  I was kind of excited after hitting the second one back, especially since the instructor set me up with a shoulder-high forehand volley for the next shot.  I had to stretch quite a bit to get there, but kept the racquet head above the grip, bent my knees, and watched the ball all the way into impact.

As soon as the ball impacted, I expected to hear the instructor say ‘great volley!’  Instead, I was greeted with the sound of the ball hitting the top of the net tape and watched it fall back on my side of the court.   I can’t blame the fact I was hitting left-handed.  I had let my arm drop a bit to ‘bring the volley down into the court.’  This is something I’ve even seen professionals do repeatedly.

Psychologically, there seems to be an impression that if the ball is well above the net that we have to ‘work’ to bring it back down or the volley will go long.  In reality, the ball only goes where the racquet head directs it.  If the racquet head is in the proper position and aimed at the desired location in court, that’s where the ball is going.  We don’t have to do anything else to keep the volley in-court and on target.

Did I remember that?  No.  Instead, I let the excitement of hitting back-to-back swinging backhand volleys get to me and missed the easier forehand volley.

When I practice volleys on the ball machine, I always start by trying to direct the volley outward enough to make sure it goes long.  Then, I adjust the impact angle so that the volleys go deep in the court in order to get the proper feel for good depth.  Volleying should be a position of dominance; one where you are in control of the point.  There is nothing more frustrating than being in a position to win the point and dumping the ball into the net.  Often, this is a result of trying to put too much ‘direction’ on the ball to bring it downward out of fear of hitting the volley long.

If you find yourself hitting makeable volleys into the net, then either the impact angle is bad or you may be trying to ‘force’ the ball downward going into impact.   When I warm up at the net, I always try to tell myself ‘volley out not down’ before the first volley.  If only I had kept that thought yesterday.  Hope this one helps you.