There’s always the bleeding edge, what you are reaching for and hope to stabilize, and then there’s what you can actually do on court. What works against the wall or the ball machine doesn’t always directly translate to game play, due to the entropy inherent in the latter. There are two kinds of players, people who won’t hit the ball to you and people who can’t hit the ball to you. Either way you are usually on the run.
With the ball machine you are spoon-fed balls in the same place and speed. During a match there is no spoon, no feeding, and the beautifully grooved Gerby Baby food supported forehand is suddenly distorted and modified, sometimes unrecognizably. The beginning player has 87 shots for 87 incoming balls. The pro player is hoping to reduce that to perhaps three (baseline) shots on each side. What that means is hitting the same shot over and over, which requires sophisticated anticipation, footwork and getting into a position to hit the ball that is more or less identical every time.
With all that in mind, the following discusses what I can do and what I’m reaching for or hoping to grow into with each shot, as of today.
I do have one point that I’m working on with groundstrokes and volleys, which is to take the split step when they start their swing.
I’ve been working recently on timing, to synch my shot with the flight of the incoming ball. What that means is lifting my racket when their ball is rising and then having my racket at its lowest point when the opponent’s ball lands. In theory that should enable me to never be late on the hit, and to hit up (for topspin) on any ball. It’s a fascinating study and quite effective at times, especially on service returns (more on those below).
On the other hand I’ve become concerned that even though my racket is being prepared low I’m not getting a fully completed extension at the end, and therefore not getting enough topspin and barely clearing the net.
If you watch Daniil Medvedev’s forehand you will see that on the forehand his racquet wraps completely around his neck, such that the butt cap of the grip is pointing at the left side fence.
To give my shot a higher finish, my “reach” goal is to have the butt cap at least finish by pointing at the opponent. Try it and you’ll see how far up the finish needs to be to get that done.
My topspin backhand has the biggest gap between ball machine and game play, and many times it seems that I simply abandon it under stress and fall back on the slice.
But I dream of deploying my somewhat Wawrinka-flavored shot more frequently.
My reach goals on the backhand are to consistently throw back the left hand along with my (right handed) backhand to counteract opening up the chest to face the net, and to finish with a loose wrist and grip such that the butt cap again points at my opponent.
I’m working on (but not yet full executing in match play) a split step followed by the nearest leg stepping in the direction of the ball, and if time allows, stepping forward with the other leg as the shot moves through the ball. That creates a crisp shot. All of the other guidelines stil apply, e.g. –
- Continental grip
- Create a V with your racket and arm and keep the point of the V below the ball
- For a shot at the service line aim for an air target at least two racket widths above the net
- Closer than that aim for a one racket width air target.
This shot has the same footwork as the volley and as described earlier benefits from getting the racket to it’s lowest point of the stroke when the ball bounces.
I try to think of the ball as a face and that for this shot (and for all groundstrokes, actually), you try to hit the ball on the chin. I also sometimes think of planning to hit this shot at half of the height of the ball. If I plan to intersect with the incoming serve lower, it often means I’m getting under the ball and not blasting it long. If I try to hit it on the nose, I have less control, and no top.
Another thing that I think of is that if the first serve is incoming at a speed of nine out of ten, I only have to hit a return at a one in terms of pace. If their service is a five then I can hit a five return. All of this in counterintuitive in some ways, because we tend to think that we have to meet a hard serve with a hard return and it’s actually just the opposite.
Another thing that is helping me is to loosen up the wrist because that enables me to get a little more racket head speed and get under their shot/create topspin.
It’s an ongoing competition between the pinpoint and platform stance, with no clear winner in sight. There there’s so many moving parts here but what I mostly focus on is tossing the ball off my fingertips, a deep knee bend, having my left hand and the racket tip pointing at the ball at the height of the toss, while also remembering to pronate. I’m also intrigued by the concept of a last-second acceleration before hitting, which actually applies to all other strokes as well.
I have what I think is a uniquely effective overhead, which combines preparing for the shot as if you are going to catch the ball with the left hand while the racket tip points at the ball (like the serve), coupled with a last second torso rotation and pronation on the hit.
This is a very compact and powerful shot. If you prepare the left hand and racquet configuration as I’ve described as soon as you detect a lob going up and then move your body into position as described, you can hit an amazing overhead.