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Developing A More Balanced Game

Q. "I just started tennis as a high schooler. As a runner, I have good speed on the court, but my positioning and footwork is rather poor. I also have trouble with consistency. I often can't decide whether to go for a winner or to hit it lightly and cautiously. My aim is also lacking. Finally, my first serve is pretty fast and hard, but I can only get it in about one-third of the time, and my second serve is very slow and ineffective. Could someone give me some general tips on running on the court, consistency and balanced hitting, aiming and serving?"

From Scooter M., Park City High School tennis coach:

As the coach for a high school team where players are in your situation, I have found that the best and really the only thing to do is to keep playing.

I have also found that if you hit against a wall in your spare time, you might find that your game will improve on its own. A wall gives you the opportunity to play your own game without the inconsistencies of another player, so try that.

Also for your serve, warm up by throwing a football around with your friends. Loosen up first, always important.

From Dolores B., Yorktown Heights, NY:

You sound like you are a very good athlete. I firmly believe that you need to seek out a good certified pro in your area who will help you with the footwork.

Also, many of your concerns about what to do with the ball will come from having a better understanding of positioning, how to set up for the ball with good footwork skills and a sound racquet technique. Good luck!

From Walter S., Trenton, NJ:

Having dealt with, and still dealing with, this issue, I know exactly how you feel, and I'll share the adjustments I made and the improvement it's given my game.

Your inconsistency in shot decision could be improved by deciding where you're going to place the next ball before you have to. I generally like to keep a rally going until an opportunity arises to hit a winner, but I'll try to work the baseline corners and slowly make the opportunity available for a winner. I find that if I try to hit winners too early, they tend to go out.

Aim is one of the easiest things to work on. I've improved my aim and consistency on my backhand significantly within the past few weeks since finally switching to a backhand grip instead of using an eastern forehand. All I did was take some balls to the tennis court, laid my racquet case on the opposite side of the net on a spot I wanted to hit my ball, and bounce hit backhands to that area. I did this down the line and crosscourt in both the ad and deuce court, and now I have really good control of my backhand – and I'm sure the same would hold true on the forehand side.

Another idea, which I don't like as much, is to find a practice wall and find one spot on the wall and try to hit that spot all the time.

Your serve sounds a lot like mine, as well. I could crush the ball on the first serve but would have about 20 percent of them land in. I had someone tell me to switch from using the eastern forehand to using a continental grip. It took some adapting to because of the new motion, but now I get about 70-75 percent of my first serves in, and they bounce deep. I even use it as my second serve so it's less attackable. It's not a crushing ace serve, but it gets the point started without immediately playing defense.

So all in all, I say check to see what grip you are using and, if need be, adjust it until you find one that works best with you while still giving you control of the ball. And, always, be patient.

From Bill K., Birmingham, AL:

That’s quite a mouthful. Being that you just started playing tennis, you cannot expect to be consistent with your first serve and groundstrokes. Speed is important but properly judging the trajectory, speed and spin on the ball will develop with experience.

It would be very helpful to take a series of lessons from a pro in your area who has a good reputation of working with juniors. He will make adjustments to your mechanics to improve your first-serve percentage and also develop a spin second serve that you can depend on, as well as having a little kick to prevent your opponent from teeing off on it. Groundstrokes, footwork and strategy are all part of the package that he will help you develop.

After you get the mechanics straightened out, you will need to hit a lot of balls to get in the comfort zone. This will build up your confidence to help shot selection. Tennis is a continuous learning process. It’s important to get the basics down first so that you can build to higher levels. Also read Tennis magazine, and watch your peers, as well as the pros, to get tips that will help your game. Good luck, and be patient.

From Lindy:

It sounds to me as if you are trying to do too much too soon and you are putting too much pressure on yourself. I am the mother of a state champion, and my daughter is now on a full college scholarship at a Division I school, and here is what I would recommend.

Take a lesson once a week from a certified pro. This could take awhile to find the right person but is well worth the search. Define what your goals are – high school team? USTA Leagues? – and take steps to achieve them. Play practice matches with friends, parents, anyone. Try to play with those at your level – some better and some worse. Play, play, play. This will tell you a lot about your game, and you can take these things back to your pro and work on them.

Keep in mind that if you are just starting, it takes years to get good. But that's the beauty of it because tennis is a life sport, and you have many, many years to develop your game. Best advice – CONSISTENCY wins at all levels.

From Jon, Beaumont, TX:

My suggestion would be to work on developing consistent shots with 75 percent pace. This includes your serve. To do this, either play the wall or get a partner and try to keep the ball going with no mistakes.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

Trust me when you read this. This is my fifth year as a high school tennis coach, and I’ve been there. There is a saying, "Fast feet, slow hands," and this should be your goal. Most new players swing fast due to being late getting into position to play the ball.

Getting there is half the fun. Get yourself a large plastic cup, and punch four holes at the bottom to form a plus sign. If you are looking at the bottom of the cup, make a hole at 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Then thread a pair of shoe laces through the cup to each opposite hole, take your racquet, and tie the cup to the sweet spot. This will stabilize the cup on mis-hits.

Ask a teammate to underhand pitch you a few balls on a bounce. Start with a short backswing, swing to the point of contact and catch the ball. Do this several times, and you will see how quickly your footwork improves. Then increase your backswing as you get the hang of it.

Remember, big steps are to get you close, and small steps are to get in position to hit the ball. You can do this for all your strokes -- forehands, backhands, volleys and the serve. You will immediately see your error, and by swinging to the point of contact, your brain will automatically figure it out. The cup will be pointed to the target, or like your extended hand, as some think. It’s called bio-mechanical feedback. Once you have stopped chasing the ball on your strokes, take the cup off. Hit a few balls with a slow swing up to the ball, at first stopping at the contact point.

Wow, the ball will jump off your strings now that you have found the sweet spot. Add a smooth follow through until you are comfortable, then start to accelerate through the ball. Do this progression on all your strokes, and you will see improvement shortly.

As for your first serve, remember tennis rule No. 1: Put/keep the ball in play. Serve to your opponent’s body at ¾ speed until you get better at it, and always remember rule No. 2 : Never forget Rule No. 1.

From Anonymous:

Tennis is not some easy sport that you can pick up in a season. I've been playing for three years and still have problems with my serve and consistency. There is no special advice anyone can give you to magically make you better. My advice – and the best advice I've ever gotten – is to practice, practice, practice!!!!

From Coach Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

As a good athlete, you have a good start at becoming a good tennis player. It sounds like you need to work on the basic fundamentals of your strokes. Watch some pro tennis on TV, and watch how they hit the ball in the hitting zone, not too high or too low. Watch how the forehand and backhand are basically starting low, and a smooth swing up and forward towards the other side. Visualize this in your mind, and teach yourself how to have proper form, which will take time.

On your serve, keep balance. Don't fall forward before you hit the ball. Other big mistakes are a BAD BALL TOSS and going for too large of a serve. On your second serve, at least you're not double-faulting much.

You are a rather new player to tennis. When you are on the court, focus on learning the basics of your shots, don't swing at volleys, don't fall backward on groundstrokes. You might need help from a tennis pro, but learning on your own is very possible. Just watch, listen and learn the proper ways of each shot!! Good luck!

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