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Approach Shots

Q. I often hear the difference between a good player and a great player is early preparation!! Is this true? How does one learn to prepare early? How early should you start to take the racquet back?

A. I have heard this same exact message thousands of times. I was always taught to take my racquet back early blah blah blah. The constant advice was to have the racquet back and waiting before the ball bounced on my side of the net.

However… when you watch the best players, and those with the “best” technique, it is apparent that they take the racquet back LATE. Generally for a groundstroke, the racquet is in front of a player’s body as the ball is bouncing. That, it seems, still leaves plenty of time for a “unit turn” while you loop the racquet in one continuous motion on the backswing and then to really accelerate on the forward path. The problem that players find with early preparation is the waiting. By getting the racquet back early so that you are poised and waiting to hit the ball, it eliminates the momentum you created.

There needs to be a balance, and that comes with experience. Obviously when a ball is coming fast, there is a greater premium on quick preparation (and probably an abbreviated backswing as well). Many coaches and teaching professionals observe errors committed against fast, hard balls and therefore urge students to “prepare early.” The early preparation helps in some cases, but may hurt the player when readying for a slow- or medium-paced shot. To find the optimum speed(s) of racquet preparation, I would urge you to experiment. Try to take the racquet back at the last possible moment. If that is not successful, then go earlier until you find the best formula for yourself.

Q. When hitting a forehand or a two-handed backhand, is it better to take a loop backswing or take a very short backswing with no loop? What shots should you take a loop on?

A. Most players utilize a “C-loop” backswing on their groundstrokes because it creates a rhythm and makes it easier to generate racquet head speed through the forward swing.

If the ball is coming slowly, take a longer loop (a capital “C”). If the ball is on you in a hurry, then take a shorter (a small-case “c”) loop.

Some players take no loop at all, although this has become increasingly rare.

Q. In regards to the question about PTR or USPTA instructors not teaching the "modern way" (10/25), it raised a question. Does the "modern way" require a higher level of skill in order for it to be performed properly? I remember a study done by Vic Braden on Agassi's forehand. Andre swore he used his wrist, but the study showed in fact he did not. It seems to me that the techniques required in the modern way could be easily misunderstood or applied resulting in poor execution, even with an instructor’s help (i.e., watching a player like Agassi and seeing him use his "wrist"). I wondered if teaching the student to get the racquet back early while turning the shoulders and keeping a firm wrist would be a better approach and could be used as a jumping off point for the "modern way." What are your thoughts on this?

A. I actually believe that utilizing the “modern” techniques makes it EASIER for players to learn how to play well more quickly. It saves steps on the court, it is easier to track the ball, and there is more emphasis on turning through the shot (and thus less stress on the smaller muscles of the arm). Every player is different, though, and you should tailor your coaching to accommodate the physicality (not to mention goals and expectations) of your student. Generally speaking, I advocate taking the racquet back “late” for most groundstrokes. To be specific, a player is usually best served by turning as the ball bounces so that the racquet stays in constant motion (as opposed to “back early,” then “wait,” and then start the racquet forward). This method allows the racquet to stay out in front and for a greater reliance on the unit turn.

Many players associate a “firm wrist” with squeezing the racquet handle too firmly, and this is not ideal, so I am careful about ever offering that suggestion. The study of Andre Agassi’s own perception of his forehand is interesting. He certainly cocks his wrist back before contact (putting his forearm muscles “on stretch”). After he finishes the follow-through, Agassi’s wrist is inarguably in a different position. His logic is easy to follow: that the wrist “snaps” through the hitting zone. Vic Braden was able to break down that Agassi’s wrist was, in fact, still (if not locked) throughout the milliseconds of contact during the forehand. However, if you were trying to teach/coach the Agassi forehand and were to insist that a student keep his wrist firm throughout the swing, then it would not likely look at all like… the Agassi forehand.

Q. When hitting a ground stroke shot, when should you aim at an area of the court where you want the ball to land and when should you aim at an area above the net where you want the ball to go through?

A. I believe that this would be a personal preference and not a matter of either/or (aside from when executing a passing shot, where you generally prefer for the ball to dip low across the net). Over hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours on-court, good players learn to “see” where they intend to hit the ball before they even hit it. This would be an example of honing your “Tennis IQ” skills. Some deep balls are hit low and hard and some are hit high and loopy. The same range applies to short or angled balls. It depends on the situation and your specific abilities from various areas of the court.

In the meantime, to find which method works better for you, try them both.

Q. What can I do or say to get my son to move his feet properly to set him up for groundstrokes on the run?

A. Have you tried electro-shock therapy? Just kidding. Actually, when he is on the run it is always difficult to have fundamentally sound footwork. As long as he maintains balance and is able to recover quickly, then he will be fine.

Hitting on the move is different than hitting “on the run” though. You might suggest that he practice playing most of his moving groundstrokes with an open, or semi-open, stance. This will likely help him to maintain better balance and recover efficiently. Hitting with an open or semi-open stance also allows him to watch the ball with both eyes and to rotate his hips and shoulders more freely.

Q. Every time I go in for an approach shot It winds up going out. My coach tells me to put topspin on it, but still I hit it out. Do you have any suggestions?

A. Play the approach or transition shots more conservatively until you can harness your power. If you have played well enough to force a short ball from your opponent, then you will want to capitalize by making them hit a difficult passing shot. Naturally when you miss these mid-court balls it takes all of the pressure off of your opponent.

Hang in there. We all struggle with certain shots. Just keep practicing and be mindful of good shot selection.

Q. Where should I hit a backhand approach shot when my opponent has a great forehand and a down the line backhand?

A. Players in my generation were encouraged to approach deep and down the line. If you executed an accurate shot with depth, it was hard for players to hit passing shots. This has changed considerably because players are much stronger today, technique on the groundstrokes has improved immeasurably, and- not least- racquets are much more powerful.

If your opponent has a strong down-the-line passing shot off the backhand but does not play the crosscourt well, I would approach mostly to the backhand side and then cover the line. If he goes crosscourt, then you can react to it and simply block the volley into the open court. If your opponent hits good passing shots from all over the court, then you might try to play short, low approach shots. Make him move and then hit up on the ball, and you will get a good look on your volley.

Experiment with what works best for you. Martina Navratilova used to say that if you are not getting passed at the net occasionally then you are not coming forward enough. So, be patient with the process.

Q. I sometimes find that I don't have enough time to step into a shot when it has been hit to me with more pace and depth (either on the volley or groundstroke). It seems as though I get a good result by ensuring my feet are stable and firmly planted on the ground (sometimes even with just an open stance) more so than stepping into the shot. What is the current coaching approach to the traditional need to step into shots?

A. From your description, you are doing EXACTLY what the “current” coaching approach has become regarding handling fast or wide balls.

In fact, I have been teaching students a rule of thumb for playing with an open stance for years. The singles court is twenty-seven feet wide and I encourage students to play balls that land in the outer thirds (the nine feet closest to the sidelines) with an open stance on their groundstrokes. This technique enables them to comfortably rotate their hips through the shot and to assure a faster recovery after the hit. On return of fast serves, players rarely ever have time to “get sideways.”

Again, according to your message, you are definitely on the right track. Keep it up!

Q. Sometimes after a really good first serve, my opponent will make a fairly short weak return that lands inside the service box. I then, more often than not, mess up what otherwise should be a fairly easy put away by hitting my shot way past the baseline. What kind of adjustment should I make with my swing so my shots don't go sailing out? The pros seem to thrive on that shot.

A. Professional players do attack mid-court balls effectively. They tend to get up to the ball really quickly. Of course, they are speedy and athletic, but they also anticipate shots well.

When you recognize that your opponent is late or rushed on a shot, edge forward. The most likely response from them will be a short ball, and you will be better prepared to end the point decisively if you get to the mid-court ball early.

Improved movement is probably more crucial than adjusting your swing, but you might shorten your backswing a little as well. If your shots are "sailing out," as you write, then you might aim a little lower or hit with a bit of topspin.

Good luck!

Q. When is the best time to come up to the net?

A. The best time to approach net is when you have hurt, or know that you are about to hurt, your opponent. When your opponent hits a short ball that you are confident that you can handle aggressively, then you should take advantage of this opportunity by following your shot to the net.

If you should recognize that your opponent does not like it when you are at the net, then come in more frequently. Many groundstrokers prefer it when they have additional time to set up for their shots. By coming to net, you disrupt this timing.

Lastly, if you are a net rusher, come in a lot! As Martina Navratilova once said, if you are an attacking player and you’re not getting passed, then you are not coming forward enough.

Q. When my opponent’s shot lands shallow near the service line, 1) When and how do you go for a put-away shot? 2) When and how do you go for an approach shot?

A. Traditional thinking on the approach shot has changed dramatically over the years, so yours is an excellent question.

A simple answer: If you can put a mid-court ball away comfortably, then you should do it. Don’t give your opponent another ball to play! Given how well so many players hit groundstrokes these days, you should be reluctant to simply allow them a good look at a passing shot.

But, an effective alternative to going for a winner on a mid-court ball is to hit an approach shot very low, using this as the “set-up” shot for a winning volley. By hitting flat, or with a little backspin, you can accomplish this. Also, you should consider playing your approach shots a little shorter (but still low), in contrast to the “old school” method of always aiming for depth. By forcing your opponent to move diagonally (and maybe even a little forward), this is often more effective than simply allowing them to move laterally to play the passing shot attempts.

Use the trial-and-error method, Paul, as you determine what you are most comfortable with playing.

Q. After you have set up and are ready to hit the ball on either a forehand, backhand, serve or volley… do you start the swing with your arm, legs, hips or upper body?

A. The world’s best players all fully utilize the kinetic chain when hitting their shots. That is to say that all actions begin at the ground and move up (progressively, but quickly) to the hitting hand. This is basically the same for all shots.

Q. I get stuck when my opponent hits a low slice that lands about the service line. I can't drive it, and end up floating approach shots that often get me passed. I can't just return it and stay there, either, in no man's land. Any tips?

A. You are obviously playing against clever players- or lucky ones- but, regardless, their tactics are effective for a reason. Players like to come to net on their own terms. When you are drawn to the net unwittingly, it is uncomfortable.

When you get a short, low ball in the mid-court area, consider hitting a short, low approach shot. In other words, make your opponent move forward and then hit up on the ball to pass you. So many players get carried away with the importance of depth on their approach shots. This notion is highly over-rated. In fact, most players in this modern era prefer hitting passing shots when they only need to move laterally along the baseline. For them, these passing shot attempts are high percentage shots. Instead, try forcing them to move diagonally forward and I suspect that you will draw a few more errors and some easier looks at your volleys.

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