Improving Your Net Game

Q. “When I first started playing, I always had a fear of playing the net. Now that I’m more experienced, I have been trying to play more of a serve-and-volley game. My question is: How do I anticipate the ball more and stop running through it?”

From D.Yhale S. (USPTA), Edgartown, MA:

Congratulations on your improvement and adding the transition game to your game. Here are two different strategies to help you improve your anticipation on the volley. As a general rule of thumb, your "Balance Step" is a necessity.

Singles: During your singles matches, where you place your serve is most important on determining when and where to attack. Your ability to navigate your serve will increase your volley success a higher percentage of the time. Practice serving out wide, center and to the body of your opponent to ensure easier volleys and improve your transition confidence.

Doubles: During doubles, you can serve and volley both first and second serves. Utilize your spin serve for quicker transition toward the net.

Good luck on improving on your serve-and-volley game.

From Eric R., Mill Valley, CA:

Did you ever play hopscotch as a girl? Do that same split step, and hop to a stop just before you have to volley.

If you hit a topspin second serve, then you may split step around the middle of the court. If you lean into the court on your serve, that will give you momentum that will increase your speed in setting up out of "No Man’s Land."

Being in good bent knee balance is more important than rushing a step closer to the net.

From Jesus:

Tabitha, first look at your grip. Your preparation is important, so look where the racquet is right before hitting the ball. It should almost face down to the court until contact. If you watch pros slowly, this is how they hit. Get used to terms like "brushing," which helps you get a visual of how to hit. Also, make sure your arms aren't straight when you begin to hit the ball.

From Ron D., West Hartford, CT:

Go on a racquetball court and practice hitting up close against the wall to create quicker reaction response time for yourself.

From A.M., Oakville, Ontario, Canada:

As someone who loved the net long before I had decent groundstrokes, here are the two easiest tips I've been given:

1. Think of it as serve and move forward. Too often, we are caught up in the need to immediately volley and are rushing forward to get to a spot near the service line on the court without considering the speed and or placement of the return. Sometimes you take a high, deep return out of the air with a swinging volley, sometimes it's a half volley, sometimes it's a groundstroke, and sometimes it's a slow enough return that you can move forward and be close to the net off the return. But with today's return game being so strong, more of your first volleys will happen mid court.

2. That old standby, "Stop/split step when your opponent hits the ball" no matter where you are on the court. Throw out the fear of being caught in no-man's-land.

From Lindy Lou, Bensalem:

The best way to work on your serve-and-volley game is to play lots of matches and practice sets. Also, work with a pro to make sure you have the timing right. You also could try getting to the net with a chip and charge or good approach shot. If you play doubles, play the ad side to get more net experience. Remember that a slower serve allows you more time to get to the net and get into position.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

It is funny how the touring pros around the world have mostly given up on the serve and volley. It’s a sad, lost art of McEnroe, Edberg, Sampras, etc. Always coming in is not smart, but coming in on a well-placed serve or a good approach shot cuts off the court and makes it easy to win a quick point.

As I get older, I see the importance of coming in on a good serve or approach; underspin works well on the forehand and backhand. If my volleys are in good practice shape, I should be able to hit a volley winner or get a second quick winner volley, or overhead. You need to practice your volleys, making sure the shot is in correct form. Don't swing at volleys. You need to be on your feet, racquet in ready position, and concentrating on what shot the returner will hit.

Split step is one method used a lot. Sometimes it’s a guessing game, or you have to dive for the ball, like Becker used to do. The swinging approach shot volley, used by Agassi and Sharapova, is a very tough shot, so work on it in practice before using it in a match.

In singles, you really don't play a side at the net, but, when coming in, stay ready for anything. Serving and volleying needs a good well-placed serve. If it is out wide to the deuce court, probably expect a shot down the middle or down the line. On the ad side, a serve out wide will again probably force a down the line or down the middle return.

Mix up where the serve is hit, and don't come in on just everything. I would love to see more serve-and-volley play by the pros. The ITF and USTA are trying to get the top players to play doubles. Maybe this will lead to a return of more net play. Federer, Roddick and many other top pros do still go in, but there is still not much serving and volleying. Why, I’m not sure.

In doubles, cover your alley and side, and cross over at a risk or with a plan with your partner.

Good luck at the net, and hope we get more top pros playing doubles.

From Huntley M., St. Louis, MO:

One feature in tennis that is not being used and, to me, is one of the most important plays for every shot in the game is the "split step." This is the most under-used function and reason why so many shots are being missed and for players "running through" the balls.

The best way that I explain this step to my students is by reminding them when they were young, most kids played "hopscotch." Hopscotch is a continuous moving game, planting both feet, then moving forward. Split steps is the done the same way.

When do I split? In your forward movement towards the net, as soon as your opponent strikes the ball, you split then explode (step) toward the direction the ball is coming. All this is done in very quick succession, with no stopping between your splitting and stepping towards the incoming ball. Some players have a problem splitting; I tell them to shuffle, then step.

What both spitting/shuffling does is for you to quickly get your balance, which enables you to change direction and stay in control. It is an ugly sight seeing a player rushing towards the net, then lunging to reach a ball that is passing by. Have your pro work with you on your split steps.

From C.A.Reid, II, South Portland, ME

When you start moving toward the net, the first one to five steps should be a full sprint (depending on time and the length of your gate), but after that, you should be using small adjustment steps that let you maintain the best balance and body position for the volley.

As far as anticipation, study your opponent by hitting the shot that you want to come in on a few times early in the match and in warm ups. See how they react. This doesn’t mean they can't hit a different shot, but you can see what their normal body flow is for that setup.

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