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Tips from the Legends

Five Steps to Better Footwork

“Float like a butterfly … sting like a bee.” Muhammad Ali’s popular adage wasn’t coined for the game of tennis – but the applications are there.

Good footwork is the prerequisite everything else in tennis. If you can’t get to the ball, your fancy strokes won’t help you at all.

There is a science to footwork that every aspiring player must understand and put into practice. The following five clues will improve your footwork and move you a few rungs up the ladder.

Hitting a tennis ball is analogous to hitting a golf ball. It helps to be on balance. Have you ever mis-hit a ball, shanking it on the throat of the racquet? Of course you have. One of the reasons this happens so frequently is because you are not set comfortably at the point of contact. Your skills improve when you make contact on balance, flat footed, front knee slightly bent, with your head motionless. Your footwork helps you reach this balanced positions.

In between shots … don’t stand around flat-footed. All good players use the bounce step to keep poised and ready to spring into action. The message gets from your head to your feet faster if you get the balls of your feet, flex your knees a little, and bounce rhythmically between shots.

Shuffle step to the ball. Don’t walk to the ball – shuffle. Many small steps are preferable to a couple long steps. Unless the ball is wide (in which case you have to pick up your feet and run) good footwork means taking a number of shuffle steps to the ball so you can easily make an adjustment and be on balance.

Stride into the ball. Many players make the mistake of moving sideways or parallel to the baseline to play the ball. Move back to move forward! Shuffle step back so you have room to take a long stride into the ball. Step forward into the court. Collapse your front knee prior to the hit. “Shuffle… step… hit.” Your knee acts as a shock absorber for your forward step. Keep your poise.

Slide-step back into position after making the play. If you cross your feet or turn your back as you return to the centre of the court, your opponent may hit the ball behind you. To keep that from occurring, move back with your shoulders and feet parallel to the net. If, however, you find yourself out of the court after hitting the ball, then forget about sliding, put one foot in front of the other and run!

Stand behind the baseline with your body sideways to the court. One foot should be ahead of the other. Your weight should be on your back foot. The ball in your tossing hand should be resting against the racquet strings. Keep your left foot pointed towards the right-hand net post. Your left hand is holding the ball and will be raised into an upright position to release the ball above your head – a good height to throw the ball is about 18 inches above your normal reach. Make sure you don’t release the ball too soon – it will fly at an angle towards the net and force you to lean forward to hit it. Ideally the ball should be thrown about 1 foot in front of your left foot.

Raise your racquet behind your head. While the ball in the air you need to bring your racket back and up towards the throwing action you will use to hit the ball. You should be ready to hit the ball at full stretch, with your racket arm straight, at the highest point you can reach it. At this stage you are switching the weight of your body from your back foot to the front one to give added strength to your shot. Begin transferring your weight to your front foot. Your hips should be pushing into the court. Let the speed of the racquet head overtake your wrist as you hit the ball. Use your ball arm to keep your balance as your body twists.

Make sure that you hit the ball with an “up and over” action – as if you were throwing the racket at the ball. After you hit the ball, follow through with your swing and let the racquet come around your waist. Keep your eye on the ball and watch where your opponent hits the return.

Once the serve is successfully hit, the play continues with a variety of different shots. The most common shot you will play is the ground stroke (the name given to a shot that is taken after the ball has bounced once). These can be broken down into the forehand (made with the face of the racket, with the palm of your hand facing the ball) or the backhand (made with the reverse side of the racket, with the palm of your hand facing away from the ball).

Hitting these shots successfully very much depends on how you grip the racket. There are two distinct grips for the two distinct shots in tennis – the forehand and backhand – so it important to learn each one to play the shot well.

Tennis is a game that is easy to pick up and infinitely hard to master. Among its subtleties are shots that can confound an opponent merely because of their variety. Indeed, a mixed repertoire of shots is essential to good tennis playing.

As a general rule, adopt the eastern forehand for the serve and overhead smash, as well as the forehand ground stroke. For volleys (made when you hit the ball without letting it bounce first) simply adopt the forehand or backhand grip, depending on the direction of the volley.

The most common grip in tennis is the eastern forehand and the one you will use for your forehand drive and the majority of your shots. It has often been dubbed the “shake hands” grip because you take the racket in your hand as if you are going to shake hands with it. To ensure that you have the correct grip, it’s a good idea to place your hand flat on the racket strings, then slide your hand down to the handle. Now wrap your fingers around the racket and keeping tension out of your fingers. Your first finger should be forward slightly as if your were holding the trigger of a gun.

For play on hard courts, players have developed a western grip and it is good for those high bouncing balls. For this grip, move your thumb clockwise on to the top of the handle and your palm will slide under the handle, making it easier to play waist-high shots.

First adopt the eastern forehand, then move your hand anti-clockwise around the handle, tucking your thumb underneath and making sure your palm is more on the top. Wrapping your thumb around the handle like this, allows the grip to be more firm. However, you must make sure that your fingers are not too close together.

Many players adopt a two-handed backhand for extra strength. Adopt the same grip, bracing your second hand adjacent to the first.

Of all the shots in tennis, the slice backhand is one of the most useful. It is a shot that is easily disguised and executed, and that can be extremely well placed and extremely difficult to return. The optimal time to attempt a slice backhand is when you are returning a ball that is high and to your backhand. Executing the shot should proceed as follows:

Raise the racket above the level of the ball on your back swing, and let the racket face open up at about a 45 degree angle. Also, turn your shoulders on your back swing. Then, come through the ball with a swift and sure motion, brushing downward so that the ball has under spin. The exact trajectory of the swing will vary with the height of the ball that has been hit. Your follow through should be an extension of your swing, and will end up lower than a normal backhand follow through.

When hit correctly, the ball should have a downward or flat trajectory as it goes over the net. It should skid a bit after its bounce, and stay low to the ground after its bounce. Both of these elements make it a difficult shout to return.

Another great thing about the slice backhand is that the preparation for a slice backhand and for a backhand lob varies very slightly. A slight change of motion and a flick of the wrist at the last moment can turn the slice into a lob and confound you opponents. But this only works if you have already demonstrated to your opponent that you can hit the slice.

Topspin is the name of today’s game. By adjusting the amount of spin, this versatile stroke can be used defensively, setting up the ball for an aggressive opportunity–and then to finish the point with an outright winner.

However, there are occasions when the use of underspin is necessary, and every player should have a full arsenal of shots where the racket meets the ball with an open face.

There is really a family of underspin shots starting with volleys.

A good addition to your game would be a chop shot. This stroke is played by cocking the racket head above the wrist and punch down very sharply from the elbow.

The stroke will give a low skidding shot to the opponent giving you breathing space if you were on the defense, or you can improve your position in anticipation of a weak return from your opponent.

If you’re having trouble closing out points in your matches maybe you should think about your court positioning. So often I see players hit a terrific shot deep to the corner and then just stand there admiring their shot. Hey, wake up! Good shots do come back, but they aren’t very strong shots. When you’ve hit that penetrating, deep corner shot then get on your horse and get to the net. The shot that’s coming back is going to be hanging up high begging for you to knock off a winning volley.

Get to the net behind your kick serve or chip return. Doubles matches are won at the net, not in the one up one back formation. Get to the net when you’ve hit a good deep lob forcing your opponent back behind the baseline. Make him hit the winning passing shot or lob.

There’s just one catch to this tip. You must have a volley and an overhead to be successful. Strategy is only as good as your ability to execute the shots. You have at least 150 degrees of angles to hit your volleys at the net as compared to around 25 degrees of angle from the baseline. Agressive netplay will add another dimension to your game. Practice the necessary shots to make this happen and get to the net.

Experience what it is like to emotionally hit a great return before you do it.

Position yourself to cover all the possibilities.

Experiment to find the best spot according to your reflexes to cover fast serves down the middle and to keep someone from slicing you very wide.

Watch the ball in the toss as it leaves the server’s hand.

Do not try to beat your opponent with uncontrolled offense. Instead, try to keep from being beaten by controlled defense.

In the beginning, concentrate on getting your returns back. You can often win points by the error of the other player.

Move into the ball when returning, this gets more weight behind the ball.

Turn your shoulders to return, this is one of the most important aspects of returning serve.

The size and height of the backswing depends on the height, length and speed of the ball you are trying to handle. Shorter backswings on fast serves, longer backswings on slower spin serves.

Don’t panic when returning. Shorten your backswing and keep a nice smooth tempo.

Against a net rusher return low and short. Against a baseliner return deep and softer.

Don’t push your return, stroke it back. Make the server think about what you might do next.

When playing a serve-and-volleyer keep your returns low and dipping by hitting fairly flat or with moderate topspin.

On 30-40, second serve, try standing in the doubles alley for the return. This will create an element of surprise for the server and may force a double fault.

Play the ball not the opponent.

Try to win the points on the first court (forehand side), this will keep you in front and put pressure on the server.

There are hundreds of individual ways to serve and some how players have found a way to customize the basic service motion to one that works for them.

Sometimes there custom jobs look rather bizarre but if it works why mess with it?

But there is one “don’t” that will never let the player serve well. That is the position of the ball tossing hand before raising it upwards to release the ball.

In an orthodox serve the left hand always stays to the right of the left leg. This enablesthe body to rotate toward the right for the left shoulder to raise upwards, and the right arm to cock in a position similar to a throwing action.

A “don’t” is when the left hand goes to the left of the left leg on the downward swing. It is now impossible to get into a throwing stance from this position.

You look like you can fly but you sure can’t serve. To extricate yourself from this mess you have to contort your body, maneuver your feet to get your balance and finally you are ready to hit the ball.

Yet the correction is amazingly simple. All you have to do is to cross your left hand over your racket. Let the two go down together but keep the left hand to the right side of the body.

The first few attempts will feel a bit unfamiliar but then the correct service rhythm will appear almost as if by magic.

When the left hand goes to the left of the body a normal serve is impossible. A very simple trick is to cross hands. The left hand must stay on the right hand side of the body at all times. Now it is very easy to get the arm in the cocked position.

The key to power shots is to ‘go for it’ when the opportunity arises.

Don’t go for shots you are not qualified to make. Often it is not a matter of shot production, its’s a matter of trying to do too much.

Against a serve and volleyer, try to get to the net ahead of him. Let him worry about you.

Stay basic, KISS Keep It Simple Stupid.

Don’t take a full backswing on a smash, take the racquet straight to the back of the head.

Some players achieve great success despite of their unorthodoxy, not because of it.

Never take the approach shot and only half hit it, hit it crisp and place it.

Hit it low and harder.

The smart tennis player always gives the opponent more chances to make an error than he gives himself.

Make your first volley at the ‘T’ and you have 50 percent chance of winning the point.

Make the first volley 3 feet from the net, and your chances of winning the point increases to 90 percent.

The volley is a positioning shot. Don’t go for too many outright winners. You will get your share with good placement.

On hardcourts and clay, if you can’t put your first volley away, it’s better to volley back down the line. If you volley crosscourt, there is a good chance you will get passed.

The more you hit through a power shot, the more apt you are to keep the swing true.

If you have built your game around one outstanding shot, don’t overlook that shot in practice and only practice your weaknesses.

If you practice for two hours, spend one hour on your power shot, and the other hour on the rest of your game. Remember the power shot wins your matches.

When volleying keep moving forward, don’t make the first volley and then stand and watch.

In a high level of tennis, players try to avoid playing backhand smashes whenever possible. Fast side stepping, footwork or even meeting the lobbed ball somewhat to the left of the body is usually preferable because most players believe that they can blast the ball away more easily, albeit from an awkward position, than to try a backhand winner.

However, there is a great deal of latent speed in the backhand smash. All that is needed is to follow these series of USPTR Standard Method progressions to acquire a devastating backhand smash:

First, the player has to become familiar to jumping for power. To practice this the coach feeds lobs wide and high to the player’s backhand side. The player hits the ball on the run, trying to jump as high as possible when making contact with the ball.

Second, the player makes a determined effort to keep the hips sideways because the de-accelerating of the hips will help to increase the speed of the stroke.

Third, the player here adds more “snap” to the stroke using the shoulder, elbow and wrist as a series of accelerating levers.

The last addition to the stroke is to snap-turn the head away from the net just before the moment of impact to allow an even faster racket head speed.

With practice many players become so adept at the stroke they can actually generate so much power to be able to bounce, on occasion, the ball over the back fence. Once this skill has been acquired there is no longer any need to avoid the backhand smash.

The Secret to Great Returns

Tennis has gone through 2 extreme stages. Years ago, players were told to turn sideways then step forward with the left foot. Of course, the instructor was hoping that the student would be stepping towards the net, but because the player had turned totally sideways the forward step was then taken parallel to the baseline.

Modern tennis is the other extreme. The instructor says “don’t turn sideways, just get your racquet back” and assumes the player will at least pivot and have a shoulder turn while taking their racquet back.

Good players do just that, but the club player does not. When he or she hears the word “racquet back”, they move the racquet without a shoulder turn. The result is that the stroke is then played only with the arm instead of also having the windup of the trunk.

To overcome this problem, while in the waiting position, hold close together a racquet in the right hand and another racquet in the left hand. Now take the racquet back.

Without a shoulder turn, the racquet in the right hand will separate from the racquet in the left hand (photo right). It will be clearly obvious that there can now be no power in the stroke because there has been no initial pivot.

To overcome this flaw, take your racquet back, but do not separate the 2 racquets. At this point, the shoulders turn sideways. You now have a power base for an aggressive forehand return. Try this a few times then lower the 2nd racquet. You should be in the ready position.

Now that you understand the concept of a “unit turn”, your stroke will become a “great return”.

The quality of a player’s game can be judged on how she or he handles short low balls. One would think that when the opponent gives a player a short low weak return, or a low dropshot that can be run down quite easily it would lead to an easy put-away.

In actuality it is a very difficult shot to make. The player is moving forward, the ball has no pace and is below the height of the net and yet everyone expects an easy put-away. Unfortunately this situation brings many fluffed shots.

With so many options there is one key ingredient that is often over looked and that is to get down low. If the player forgets to do this the only way to hit the ball with any pace is with a wristy kind of shot which produces many errors.

If the player remembers to get down low the racquet will be aligned with the ball; the balance will be much better and the player will be focused on playing the ball. The result is likely to be an easy winner.

Correcting A Service Problem

Many aspiring tennis players are trying to copy the unique world class serving style using the extreme knee bend. It takes quite a bit of athletic talent to serve successfully with a deep knee bend, high toss and extreme body rotation.

Many people just don’t have this skill and end up with a “potty serve”. Instead of bending the back as the knees kick outward in the bend, players dip their knees with the buttocks stuck out. The result is an ineffectual push at the ball. To correct this, the player must go through a remedial style of serving with the knees absolutely rigid.

As soon as any tendency of a dip has disappeared, the player is now asked to continue serving with stiff knees, but to bend the back. Of course this is impossible! As the player tries to bend the back, the knees will start to kick out in a proper bend, which is exactly the desired technique.

The world class players knee bend. The club player “potty” serve.

Though you may not be familiar with the windshield-wiper forehand, you’ve probably seen it countless times if you watch professional tennis on TV. So named because the motion of the racquet resembles the movement of wiper blades across a car window, this stroke is commonly used by advanced players to handle short balls.

When to hit it: Unlike the regular forehand, this shot doesn’t produce deep, powerful drives. Instead, it’s used to hit heavily spun, controlled shots when you’re close to the net. This makes the windshield wiper the perfect choice when you have a short, high sitter and you want to be certain not to hit the ball beyond the baseline. It’s also useful for hitting sharp, crosscourt angles.

How to hit it: Prepare using an open stance. If you’re right-handed, start with the racquet on your right and pointed to the right side (there’s no backswing on this shot). Then take your racquet and mimic the movement of a wiper blade, making a 180-degree arc until the frame is pointed to the left side. There is only a small forward movement of the racquet. Try to strike the ball when the racquet is at or near the top of the arc with a slightly closed racquet face.

Keep the racquet head up about chin level in the ready position.

Keep your elbows in front of your body. It’s hard to be late on a volley if you do this.

Don’t take your racquet back on a volley. Use a forward punching type of stroke.

Look through the racquet at the strings on contact.

Stay on the balls of your feet just before your opponent hits the ball. Now you’re ready to move.

Reach forward as if you were catching the ball on the forehand volley.

Snap forward from the elbow to contact the backhand volley out in front.

Step and punch the ball simultaneously for optimum power.

Use the crossover step for a longer reach on wide shots.

Bend the knees, not the waist on low shots.

From Tony Lance, of TENNIS Magazine (

You’ve played the same player a dozen times. At first you won most of the matches, but now your opponent has pulled even and even started to gain the advantage. Although neither of your games has changed significantly, there’s been a shift in the balance of power and you’re not sure why.

Most likely, your opponent has figured your game out and you haven’t adjusted. When you suspect that this is true, it’s important to:

Recognize your own patterns: If your backhand always goes crosscourt and your second serve unfailingly lands in the same place, you’ve become predictable to your opponent. Identify the plays that you use over and over again.

Change things up: Once you’ve identified your patterns, change them early in the next match. For example, instead of hitting your usual attacking forehand down the line, try a short-angle putaway or a drop shot (particularly if you’re ahead in the game). And rather than aim every volley crosscourt, hit behind your opponent a few times to throw off his anticipation.

Have you ever wondered how Pete Sampras got so good at the running forehand or how Andre Agassi can return serve so well? How does Monica Seles get such great angles off her groundstrokes? Believe me, they were not born with these shots. They earned them, the hard way. Practice and drilling got them where they are now.

When you practice make sure you’re hitting for accuracy before power enters the picture. Set up targets to hit for all of your shots including volleys, serves, overheads and groundstrokes. After your shots become consistently accurate, start practicing them with more and more movement to the ball. Learn how to hit on the run, accurately. After all, nobody’s going to hit the ball right to you in a match.

Build a dependable arsenal of shots that will help carry you to the next level of your game. Nobody can give you these shots. Go out and earn them!

We’re all capable of losing our cool on the court. But smart players know how to keep it from costing them the match

Play tennis long enough and there will undoubtedly be a time when you throw a fit on the court. You don’t have to be a violent person or a hothead to have a McEnroe moment—it can happen to anyone. But the negative effects of on-court anger can be minimized if you come prepared to handle these situations.

First, identify and list the factors that have frustrated you in the past. It may be line calls, players on an adjacent court, a blister, anything that has made your blood boil. This will help you figure out, pre-match, the things over which you have little or no control. On court, you can eliminate those things from your thoughts and concentrate on the one element of the match that you can control, namely, your play.

Still, it’s inevitable that at some point your game will falter and your temper will get the best of you. Once the frustration starts, you need to realize that you’re having a meltdown. Too often, players don’t even know they’re losing it. Obvious behavioral outbursts such as racquet abuse, shouting or negative self-talk, excuse-making, and arguing with your opponent are all indications that it’s time to cool off. If players continually fall victim to their emotions during matches, they should be videotaped and made aware of the warning signs. Also, coaches should stop play during practices and point out such emotional-control problems to their players.


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