Practice Drills & Techniques

Q. I live in New York City, and practice hitting serves and strokes against an outdoor handball court wall. I seem to recall some backboards in the suburbs where I grew up that had rectangular boxes painted on the wall as "serving targets" (if you practiced hitting serves into the target, your serves on a court then would most likely be in). Is this a good practice technique, and if so, would you know what the dimensions of this box is and where on a wall it should be?

Also, I've marked off the distance from the wall (net) to a baseline, and practice forehands and backhands from this point. I've marked the height of the net on the wall with white tape. Is this a good practice technique? Is there an effective practice regimen for hitting against a wall you would recommend or refer me to?

A. Practicing against a wall is an age-old tradition. It never misses. This activity forces you to quicken your reflexes, develop more strength (because the ball comes back as hard as you hit it in the first place), and to become accurate. If you hit the ball four feet to the left of your intended target, then it will angle away from you in a hurry.

Instead of worrying about a formal practice regimen, simply experiment yourself. You will likely hit more balls in fifteen minutes against a backboard then during two sets of a typical hard court match. Most of all… have fun.

Q. I need a drill for my kids who are continually hitting the ball long. What is a good drill to keep the ball inbounds?

A. Create a play-based (aka “games-based”) environment where there are consequences associated with missing shots. An example might be to play half-court baseline games where the winners “move up” and the losing players “move down” a half-court for the next game. Another example would be to create stiffer penalties for missing into the net, long, wide, etc.

An old pal of mine, Jim Poling, who currently is coaching the Army men’s varsity at West Point, used to have his players warming up while using only ONE ball. If you miss, then you need to go fetch it. That forces the players to learn how to value each shot.

Q. I am curious about how a pro like Roger Federer gets his hitting practice if he's constantly going from city to city to play tournaments. Roger is known not to have a coach full-time. His coach Roche rarely accompanies him. Last time I saw him, it was at this year’s Wimbledon. I don't think Coach Roche can hit with Roger.

So who is Roger's hitting partner if he is on the road a lot? Does he practice his groundstrokes using ball machines at local clubs? I don't think his girlfriend can really give him a lot of difficult shots to hit or can keep up with him while he is practicing his groundstrokes. I am just curious because I think he has an amazing forehand, but of course, he has to continue to practice or otherwise his timing will be off.

A. Roger Federer wrote about this awhile back for his web site (www.RogerFederer.com). His philosophy is that good coaching and gaining confidence are far more important than always having “better players” to practice with and against. I choose to mention Federer’s comments to some tennis parents who believe that their kids should always be pushed to a higher level.

Interestingly, Roger Federer spent several weeks in Dubai this summer practicing with Tony Roche. I understand that Federer likes the heat, as he feels it prepares him for the North American hard-court tournaments culminating at the US Open. At this stage of his development, he might spend half of his training time working on building his strength and fitness. He worked daily with Tony Roche on improving some technical aspects of his game. They would also work on how to apply specific tactics.

Tony Roche is an all-time great player. At the age of 61, Roche cannot compete with Roger during sets, but he can certainly rally with him. Roger’s girlfriend, former Czech-born Swiss Miroslava Vavrinec, was an outstanding player who reached a career-high ranking of No. 76 five years ago after reaching the third round at the US Open. Either of them can warm him up as needed.

Q. There seem to be two philosophies about learning strokes:

1. an emphasis on the stroke's technical elements (bend knees, loop racket back, step into ball, etc.)

2. a belief that you learn the stroke through simple observation and repetition ("The Inner Game of Tennis" philosophy).

I'm conscious of "getting in my own way," tightening up, and playing poorly when I focus on the technical, but I don't trust that the less conscious approach will help me fix weaknesses.

What are your thoughts?

A. There is no "one correct" way to learn that would apply to every player. However, I believe that simply observing and then imitating the strokes of accomplished players IS a great way to learn quickly. It is, otherwise, too easy to become overwrought with trying to execute all of the minor nuances for each stroke that you have been formally (verbally) taught.

Q. My sister and I play singles together about twice a week. Would you kindly suggest on a good warm-up routine that we could use before our match?

A. Go through a range of dynamic stretches before you begin hitting balls. Visit this LINK for some examples. Ideally, you should be perspiring BEFORE you begin hitting.

When you start to hit, do so gently at first. Many players choose to begin with some short-court rallies and then slowly work back toward the baseline. Initially, hit balls gently and down the middle. As you gain some feel for the ball, then gradually add more pace and spin to the ball. Be sure to hit some volley and overheads, lastly, hit plenty of practice serves to both the deuce- and ad-court sides before you begin playing.

Q. What are some good drills and or tactics for putting away mid-court shots? In my last match I noticed that when my opponent hit some balls that landed around the service line, my shot in reply seemed to set him up to pass me. From the mid court, I want to at least move my opponent and try to set up a volley closer to the net that I can put away.

A. This is a good question because, while it seems like these mid-court balls ought to be easier to handle, they present problems for a lot of players. Why is that? I believe it is because players practice these shots infrequently, as opposed to backcourt rallies anyway.

When you recognize that a ball will be landing short, move forward immediately and set up to hit the shot quickly. Often this swift movement and preparation will “freeze” your opponent. In contrast, if you arrive late to the mid-court area and are not prepared to play the shot, then usually your response is telegraphed. Further, poor preparation often translates into a rushed attempt.

Another tip would be to play the ball near the peak of the bounce. When you allow the ball to descend after the bounce, then it gives your opponent additional time to get in position to scramble AND it forces you to play the shot from a lower perspective. Instead, play it early and from a high position so that you can pound the ball (down) into the court.

Be certain to practice these shots diligently. As you become more proficient in handling them, it will help you in other areas of the court as well. When you have earned a short ball, knowing that you are in position to finish the point with emphasis is definitely a confidence builder.

Q. I was a club professional for about ten years and then dropped out for awhile. When did this rallying from the service line to warm up before playing start, who started it and why?

And unless there is a really valid reason for doing so... how can we do away with this current day custom. I really can't imagine Agassi and Federer doing this as part of their pre-match routine. PLEASE STOP THE INSANITY!

A. This is a pretty funny note. I am not sure exactly where it started, but I remember seeing European players doing it in the mid-to-late 1980’s and thinking that it was useless. Later, I would play these players and they always seemed to be so comfortable in handling soft, mid-court balls- so I realized that there was some practical benefits to the short-court warm-up. Frankly, I believe that a lot of players do things, such as a short-court warm-up, because they had been advised to do so, with little thought about whether it actually helps their game.

Boris Becker would always play short-court shots for a while when he arrived on a practice court. His premise is/was that it took his big body a long while to warm up, so he would start particularly slowly before progressing to “full” hits. On the other side of the coin, when I see Andy Roddick and/or Andre Agassi practice, I am amazed at their pace of shot from the very first ball. They literally hit at near 100% immediately. It can startle a player who is not accustomed to practicing with them. I asked Brad Gilbert, who of course has coached both of these players, about this. Gilbert indicated that the short-court warm-up is more Euro-centric, and that Roddick and Agassi warm-up before walking on the court and then let it fly immediately. To each his own…

Q. Here in Namibia we don't have tennis ball machines. We can buy them from South Africa, but they are too costly. I'm an intermediate tennis player, 20 years of age and play club tennis with 25 other people. I've been practicing against the wall my whole life, but I'm at a stage where I don't improve. Could you give me a few exercises that I could practice against the wall.

A. Greetings to Africa! Try to work on your consistency. Once you can make several shots in a row, begin working on developing more power. Hit as hard as you can against the wall until you begin missing shots. Maintaining a faster pace will also improve your conditioning. The wall never misses, so your practice time against it will be well spent. Many a great champion has honed her strokes against a backboard. Best of luck!

Q. A lot is mentioned in books, magazines, and other sources about being aggressive in tennis. For example to serve and volley, to attack the net, to attack an opponent's weak backhand, but hardly anything about defensive tennis. What drill(s) do you recommend to improve one's defensive tennis? What to do when one is running from side to side, or a ball is hit hard and deep to their feet or weaker side?

A. Some good “team” drills (with four or more on-court) that train defensive skills are as follows:

1. Team Overhead (one team at net, the other at opposite baseline; net team gets an overhead to start every point, then anything goes; play until net team wins five points, then switch ends).

2. Offense-Defense (full doubles court counts, the object is to get to the net; win a point while at net and it counts for the score, lose a point at net retreat to baseline while other team runs forward to the net; first team to 11 points wins).

Some singles drills that will help develop defensive skills are:

1. Baseline games where players MUST slice their backhands. (like a regular baseline game, but players MUST slice every backhand they attempt; this enables players to attack toward that side and, significantly, learn to defend better with the different slice backhands or against attacking balls wide to the forehand corner; first to 11 points wins).

2. The Spanish Forehand Drill. (this drill can be cooperative or competitive; one player reacts to wide balls being hit side-to-side by returning every shot deep to backhand corner; the other (attacking) player hits every shot with either an inside-out or inside-in forehand (no backhands allowed on THIS side of the court; switch roles after 3 minutes).

Q. I read your comments on teaching players to hit from all places on the court. You discussed the Games Based Approach to learning tennis. Where can I find more information on this? I am a 4.5 player who teaches tennis and coaches a high school girls’ tennis team.

A. It seems to me that most successful coaches today are embracing this concept. Attend any USPTA or PTR conference and you will be sure to see several demonstrations of this style of coaching. A few years ago, the USTA published “The Games Based Approach to Coaching Tennis” which outlines the general concept and offers specific drills, exercises and games.

In this method, players learn to play first and then later develop the technical skills for the tactical challenges that they encounter. This is opposite to the way I learned the sport. Way back when, we were taught how to hit all of the shots before we began playing. The old method is NOT nearly as effective as this modern approach. Rarely does a player get to hit a “standing still” forehand, for example, during a match. Better to have players learn tracking skills, anticipation, shot selection and movement right from the beginning. There IS plenty of coaching that occurs, but a clever instructor allows the players to learn through the method of guided discovery.

Good luck this high school tennis season!

Q. What is the best way to use a wall as a hitting partner? This is often the only time I get to practice my strokes between playing.

A. Ahhh, the Wall... I do not know of a single accomplished player who did not spend a lot of time during his/her formative years hitting against a backboard, the side of a building, a garage door, etc. Just doing it is the “best way.” You will find that you will hone your timing, develop “tennis strength” (especially in your forearms and wrist) and, besides, it is good exercise and fun.

There is a fairly new product, the “Sportwall,” designed specifically for tennis. Visit their web site www.sportwall.com for more information.

Q. I finally have access to a court every day for free! I started to play all day long with a friend of mine, but I guess sooner or later we might get bored of just playing both of us... How can we train or get a routine so we can improve our game? Can you recommend a book or video? I already have read all of your tips and lessons. Can you help me? Thanks a lot and sorry about my English, I speak Spanish.

A. Books and videos might help, but what you and your pal are doing, getting out on the court and playing, is the best possible track to take if you want to get better. This might sound old fashioned, but play sets. Learn to compete, understand tactics, discover what your weapons are and what areas of your game tend to break down under pressure.

Play today the way you will want to play some day. In other words, if you want to become a serve-and-volleyer or an attacking baseliner, then play that way in practice even if this is not yet showing the results that you expect. This takes patience and discipline but if you have a constant practice partner, then you are already at an advantage. Keep playing and your efforts will produce positive results.

Q. So, my big “weapon” is my forehand. But lately it has disappeared and I actually find myself running around it to hit my backhand (sad). Do you have some tips on finding a lost stroke?

A. Practice. Old fashioned hard work.

Go to a quality, certified instructor and get some advice on what has gone wrong with your forehand and then practice what you’ve been taught. Usually a “lost” shot is due to something minor and technical. A good pro will likely sort this out for you quickly. When the correction is made, your confidence will return.

Q. I find that it’s not that difficult to learn how to hit the ball hard, nor is it that difficult to learn to hit consistently. However, the very top pro players seem to be able to hit the ball both hard and consistently, off other hard balls and even when they’re on the move. I realize that it will take thousands of hours of practice to reach such a high level of groundstroke proficiency, if it will ever happen, but can you recommend a good drill or technique that will help enable a player to reach this level in the most efficient way possible? I happen to like the “figure eight” (cross court/down the line) drill the best, but perhaps you have a better idea. Your advice is greatly appreciated.

A. It sounds like you are already a pretty good player. The “figure eight” drill (which I call the “crosscourt/down-the-line” drill is excellent. Try these two out as well. Good luck!

1. Play a full-court baseline game against your practice partner, but only count the points that finish with an error. This will force you to “hit through” each other. To create errors, you’ll need to hit with power, change the pace, or alter the height of your shots.

2. Start with two players at the net while you are at the baseline. Rally in the singles court only with no lobs. Every ball you make counts as one point, every error they make counts as three points, if you hit a winner (very difficult, considering two people are at net covering only the singles court) it is worth five points. For every mistake that you make, subtract three points. Keep playing until you reach FIFTY points. Then rotate positions (as you will be pretty tired by this stage).

Q. What are some good techniques for practicing a good ball toss? I have an effective serve, but usually only when my toss is good, which is not often enough.

A. For a good ball toss when you are serving, consider your tossing arm to be like a pendulum. The tossing arm should go down and then up in a smooth, rhythmic manner. Pivot only from the shoulder, as complications come from involving any movement from the elbow or wrist. When you master this pendulum-like motion, then you simply need to find the correct release point each time to perfect your toss.

This takes practice, of course. My all-time favorite women’s player from the WTA Tour, (the recently retired) Nicole Arendt, used to practice her toss everyday for ten minutes as a junior player. She would just repeat the motion again and again until she had it completely mastered. It’s little wonder that Nicole developed one of the best serves in professional tennis throughout her career.

Q. When hitting a forehand or backhand, is there any wrist motion? And, if so, at what point of the stroke is there a wrist movement?

A. This is tricky because it depends a little on your level of play. Generally speaking, I would say that advanced players are often pretty loose with their grips, but this comes as a result of being very comfortable with the control they possess over their racquet head.

There is a natural wrist action that occurs throughout the swing, especially on a typical forehand. If you watch top players hit forehands, their hand is often laid all the way back at the beginning of the forward swing and fully suppinated by the end of the follow through. So… yes some players certainly use a lot of “wrist motion” throughout the entire shot.

Experiment with this action on your own until you find a range that is comfortable for you.

Q. Warming up for a USTA match, my opponent came to the net and asked for lobs to practice overheads. This would then be my lob practice so I hit good lobs. Rather than back up to be able to hit these as overheads, she yelled that I was not giving her any overheads. I stated that perhaps she should not be so close to the net so she could hit overheads since this was also my lob practice and it did not seem good for me to practice hitting short lobs. She was quite irritated. However, when it was my turn to hit overheads, she hit lobs exactly as I had and there was no problem because I was not on top of the net. Who was right?

It does not seem good practice to try to hit short lobs before a match just so the opponent can hit overheads from on top of the net. Seldom at the 4.0 level will you get a short lob in a match.

A. Actually, I think that you were wrong. Prior to a match, you are not “practicing.” Rather, you are simply warming up. If your opponent asks for a few lobs, as she should, then you ought to feed her some manageable shots. She should in turn do the same for you.

The same principles would apply when you are warming up your groundstrokes. The five-minute warm-up prior to the match is expected to be cooperative. If you decide to simply go for winners, or hit shots that your opponent cannot handle, then it defeats the purpose.

Now, that being said, you should file away weaknesses that you recognize during the warm-up and then try to exploit these when the match begins. By the way, I know a great teaching pro from little Chillicothe, Ohio and I hope that you participate in his programs.

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