Volleys

Q. What are the things to keep in mind to be able to hit swinging volleys well and consistently? Usually when I try to hit them, they wind up going either long or down into the net.

A. The swing volley is here to stay. The best advice that I can offer regarding this modern stroke is to define your “strike zone.” For example, on the forehand side, you may be able to handle balls easily between your waist and chin. If it is below, or above, that level, then play a more conservative volley. But… if it is in your “strike zone,” then nail it.

Q. Please advise the correct positioning of the racquet (stance, arm and wrist position, grip, etc.) for the basic backhand and forehand volleys. I know the racquet is supposed to be out in front of the body but have difficulty keeping it "square to the ball" especially on backhand volleys.

A. There is no One Correct Way to hit any shot, especially the volley. There are three volley attempts that are most common though.

1. The “punch” (or “push”) volley, which is played against routine balls. Get the racquet head up above the level of your wrist and accelerate through the shot with the bottom edge of the racquet head leading toward the target as you finish.

2. The “block” volley, which is played against fast shots when you have little time to react. There is virtually no swing whatsoever, and your contact point is where you “find” the ball.

3. The “swing” volley, which is played when you get a floating ball to attack. This can be a full-bore, groundstroke-style swing or- more commonly- a traditional volley with a longer backswing and a longer finish.

I did not include the touch shots, including drop volleys, angled volleys, float volleys, and lob volleys (common in doubles). Learning when to hit these touch shots is as important as how to hit them, and this comes with experience.

Lastly, with regards to your question about how to get the racquet face “square” to the ball, you might re-examine your grip. I would not advocate One Correct Way to hold the racquet for volleys. Typically, I encourage players to use the continental grip but some players do better with eastern forehand and backhand grips. In fact, the best players often “float” their grips a little, holding the racquet differently depending on the shot that they need to execute.

Get a practice partner to hit some balls to you, at all sorts of speeds and heights, and you will learn to adapt. Good luck!

Q. How can I actually learn to volley? I am not tall and when I get up to the net I feel the whole court is open for my opponent to make an easy winner. Plus, my reflexes are so bad. If I miraculously get it, I bury it in the net or the racket head turns upwards and the ball sails way out.

A. If you want to improve your volleys, then here are some sound principles:

1. Find a qualified, certified teaching professional to help make sure that your technique is fundamentally sound.

2. Practice. Practice a lot.

Now, once you do those two things, you will be on your way. Next, I agree that some players are more predisposed to being successful at net. They might have superb reflexes, a fearless attitude, and enough quickness and strength to manage the difficult shots that one encounters in this area of the court. But the same can be said for strong servers and consistent or powerful groundstrokers. Rarely, if ever, is a player a master in every phase of the game. A big key to your development is to understand your strengths and utilize them, but also to define your weaknesses and to guard against having to rely on these to win matches.

How does this apply to your uneasiness about being able to volley effectively? Well, if you are less comfortable at the net, then be sure to come forward behind penetrating shots. By world-class standards, Andre Agassi does NOT have particularly good volleys either. But when Agassi does approach the net, he has typically gotten his opponent out of position and on the defensive. He never rushes forward indiscriminately. By using this style, Agassi does not need to volley like a Tim Henman or Roger Federer, and neither do you.

Q. How can I become better at placing or putting away a volley?

A. The following are a few pointers that might help you become more potent around the net with your volleys:

1. Move forward! When you see the ball coming, close in and get it. By moving closer to the net, you will be able to create more angles on your volleys. You will also enjoy having some forward momentum, so that you will not need to do as much with your racquet.

2. Vary your technique depending on the ball that you are about to hit.

a. If the ball is moving toward you slowly, then lengthen your swing.

b. If the ball is coming a little faster, then shorten your swing to a “push” or “punch” motion.

c. If the ball is coming really fast, then simply block the ball with virtually no backswing or follow through.

3. When you finish making contact with the ball on a typical volley, the bottom edge of your racquet frame should lead toward the intended target. This will help assure accuracy and a proper finish.

Q. I am a 3.5 league player and have trouble hitting balls that are about at the service line and are hit high, but not high enough to be called an overhead. They are about a foot above my head or head height. I seem to miss by hitting them into the net using an overhead hit. Do you have a better suggestion?

A. Those “tweener” balls can be tricky. You’re not sure whether to attempt a high volley or a low overhead, and both shots can feel risky. Have you developed the ability to play a swing volley yet? If so, then you ought to consider playing that stroke on those balls.

The swing volley was once considered taboo. Coaches would admonish any player for even attempting it. Gladly, we have moved into the 21st century, and the shot is actually being coached. Take a healthy backswing, like you might on a groundstroke, and really accelerate on your forward swing through the ball. Hit the shot with topspin, as this will provide some margin for error.

One of the biggest keys to playing this shot effectively is deciding when to hit it. This process is called shot selection. The sooner you can decide, the better. Also, define your best strike zone and then move into position so that you are playing the ball in this range. If the ball arrives above or below where you are comfortable hitting it, then play the shot more conservatively. If it is where you like, then just rip it.

Get out on the practice court and play this shot a few times before attempting it during a match. I suspect that you will be pleased with your results.

Q. I have been reading your articles and was wondering if you could help me. At my tennis club I am pretty good at the net, getting to and putting away volleys. However at tournaments I have trouble because the players are more experienced and can hit the ball pretty hard, making me tend to volley the ball long. I am used to punching it back with decent form so I’m not just blocking it back, but when I try it against a hard hitter my volleys bounce off long. What should I do? Get more underspin? Or then would I be cutting instead of punching.

A. As you become more experienced at the net, you will realize that there are at least three ways that you need to know about how to play a volley.

1. If the passing shot is hit hard, then you should tend toward blocking the ball back. In fact, learn to use your opponent’s pace and try to angle the “block volley” away from him.

2. If you have a little more time, then you can “punch” through the volley, finishing with the bottom edge of your racquet face leading toward the target to assure that you get that moderate amount of underspin that you wrote about it.

3. Lastly, if the ball is floating, and especially if it is above shoulder height, you can and should take a larger backswing. This “swing volley” is a forceful shot.

The first step is to learn how to hit each of these shots. As you begin mastering HOW to hit the various volleys, then an equally important key is to know WHEN to play each of these shots. If the ball is hit hard at you and you attempt a swing volley, it will likely result in an error. Similarly, on a floater, if you simply block the ball, then it will not penetrate through the court.

The best way to learn is to get up to the net and volley, volley and volley some more. Eventually, the quick decision-making will become second nature to you.

Good luck!

Q. How can I manage to volley balls in the middle of the court? I always find it difficult, even if it is just a weak return!?! I believe my volleys are so bad!

A. Be positive, Huynh! I would make two recommendations on how to handle weak, floating balls out of the air in the mid-court area.

1. Take an abbreviated groundstroke backswing, but then play the ball out of the air as a swing volley. Andre Agassi popularized this shot, and the Williams Sisters use it so effectively as well.

2. Really move your feet through this volley. The retired Patrick Rafter and the great Pete Sampras are absolute experts at this technique. They “glide through the shot” as they aggressively “close” in on the net.

Q. My girlfriend has an effective two-handed backhand, but when we practice volleys, she always hits them with one hand. However every time she is in a match, she hits the volley with two hands, and most times does not even realize she is doing it. She wants to hit a one-handed backhand volley. How do we change this?

A. A stubborn girlfriend! You’re asking ME how to handle that situation?!? Just kidding.

I would urge you to have her practice the one-handed backhanded volley on soft shots until she masters it, next increase to medium-paced shots, and then lastly, as she becomes confident, hit at full-speed with her.

Generally, the switch from two-handed volleys on the backhand to a one-hander can be difficult because of strength, or lack thereof. When a player is used to hitting with two hands, it will feel more stable than when using one hand. This challenge can be overcome with proper technique. Remind her to really move her feet to get into good position (hitting elbow near the body before contact) so that her body can absorb more of the impact of the incoming shot. When she does that, hitting a one-handed backhanded volley doesn’t require nearly as much strength.

Undoubtedly, she reverts back to what is most comfortable to her during match play. Remind her to be patient as she is adjusting her game. Feeling at ease when you have altered a stroke can take a while.

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