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The Left-Hand's Role on the Serve
Don’t let the title of this article fool you. This is not for or about left-handed players. Nor is it exclusively for right-handers. The word left is being used to replace non-dominant. In other words, right-handers should read this article as it’s written, while left-handers should substitute left hand with right hand, or their non-dominant hand. Few players switch the racket from hand to hand; in other words, hit forehands off either side. If you do, stop reading, as this series is not for you. All others, please continue if you want to improve both your game and your understanding of how to more efficiently and effectively play tennis.
The four topics that will be covered in this four-part series are: serve, forehand, backhand and volley. Clearly, the serve is the most important of all strokes in terms of shot frequency, so we’ll start with it.
My 10-year-old daughter played in a recent novice junior tournament in Dallas, Tex., and I charted a handful of matches to learn the following. The average set consists of 55 points (nothing new there). And the average point lasted three hits, including the serve (nothing new there either). The news was what percentage of all shots hit by each player was their own serve: an amazing 45 percent. Yes, 45 percent, which includes both first serves missed and the subsequent second serves. Without question the serve is the most prominent shot in the game. Does this astounding statistic only hold true at novice levels? No, even at the pro level the statistics are very similar.
The roles or functions of the left hand on the serve can be divided into four categories: relaxation, toss, counterforce and next shot preparation.
Before discussing how the left or non-racket hand needs to promote relaxation, we need to identify the key link in the service motion. You can do everything right, the stance, the toss, the preparation, the swing, the follow-through, etc., but if you do not have a relaxed racket-hand wrist you will have a lousy serve. To test this theory, just throw a ball. First, with a normal relaxed wrist. Then, lock your wrist to understand how a firm wrist will prevent a natural and effective service motion.
Although most players know the wrist must be loose and whip-like to snap the racket head into the ball, a surprisingly large number of players begin in a moderate to extremely tense ready position. (See photo #1.)
The left hand has a major role to play in starting the racket off in a totally relaxed position by supporting the weight of the racket. (See photo #2.) This makes sense. Start relaxed and the racket-hand wrist has a good shot at remaining relaxed. Start tense, and chances are it will remain tense. Remember, the wrist provides the final link that accelerates the racket. Without a relaxed wrist that can move in a full range of motion, there is little potential for anything better than a powder-puff serve.
To see if you are properly relaxing your racket hand at the beginning of the serve, try this simple two-step test after starting in the ready position as shown in photo #2. Step one: Take your right hand off the racket. If done properly, the weight of the racket should be entirely supported and balanced in your left hand. (See photo #3.) Step two, again in the ready position: Take your left hand off the racket. If you are fully relaxed, gravity will simply cause your racket hand and racket to fall downward. (See photo #4.)
Another key to this range of motion is the hand position on the grip. I advocate as close to a hammer or Continental grip as possible. A Western or frying pan grip offers a range of motion in the wrist of little more than 90 degrees. But, with a Continental grip, the range of motion literally doubles. This is a simple point that makes a profound difference.
The second major role of the left hand on the serve is, of course, the toss. Before starting to serve, or to fix a consistently erratic toss, try the following three-step process: Start off by reaching upward to the point of contact to actually see where you are going to strike the ball. Then, think for a few seconds about the fact that you must toss the ball there. Finally, toss the ball while your racket is being held in that extended position and check to see if your toss is close to your intended point of contact.
Other keys to a consistent toss are releasing the ball with your hand extended, starting off with your body weight on top of both feet in a balanced position (if you rock backward while tossing, the ball will inevitably go backward over your head) and placing the toss softly into your strike zone with little spin (instead of throwing it skyward to imitate a bird in flight).
To test your toss, you can place a target such as a 12-inch diameter spot or another racket on the ground, slightly in front of the baseline and also a few inches to your right if you are right-handed.
The third major function of the left hand on the serve is that it acts as a counterforce as you tuck it against your stomach just before hitting the ball to aid in racket head acceleration. (See photo #5.). This comes naturally to anyone who grows up throwing a baseball or football. But, if throwing skills are not natural, you can remember this three-step process and just repeat it until it becomes natural: Toss the ball, tuck your left hand, and reach for the serve with the emphasis and acceleration focused on reaching to hit the ball. In short, think: toss, tuck, reach.
Next Shot Preparation
The final function of the left hand is the one most often overlooked. It’s important to hit your serve in the box, and it’s equally important to recover and be balanced and in proper court position to prepare for the next shot. After all, the job of your opponent is to get you and keep you off balance. The left hand or non-racket hand has an important role to play in this situation as well. Take a look at photo #6. On the baseline, the left hand helps relax the racket and will play an active role in preparing the racket for the next shot.
Practice these roles of your left hand on the serve and witness the improvement. Next issue: the non-racket hand’s role on the forehand.
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Why there are No Great Net Rushers
The general consensus is that racquet technology has made it close to impossible to consistently win points at the net. This is partly true. Coming to the net against Nadal's passing shots is a challenge, to say the least. New Technology allows players to hit with more power and spin, therefore creating angles and getting the ball to dip below the height of the net, forcing players to hit very tough volley's. But that is only part of the story. Tom Allsopp delves a bit deeper, way down to the junior levels.
Jack Broudy and the Non-Linear Game
There's a science called projective geometry, and one called non-linear geometry, yet and another called spatial dynamics. Interesting, maybe, but what does any of this have to do with tennis and the ability to hit a solid, repeatable forehand? Well, over the last twelve years, Jack Broudy has combined these sciences so that they apply and make sense in the tennis world. We don't give it much thought but there is a place for physics on the tennis court and it just might help your game.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Xavier Malisse Forehand
Journeyman, Xavier Malisse of Belgium has never fulfilled the promise that his early junior career showed. Considered one of the more talented and athletic players on the ATP tour, Malisse has only reached a ranking high of 19 while floating around the top 50 for most of his fourteen years on tour. Malisse brings a lot of color to the game, exhibiting not only some terrific shot-making, but a lot of emotion at times. A solid two-handed backhand complements his fluid forehand side; his first serve is as big as his kicker on his second serve. 2011 seemed to be a productive year for the Belgian, especially in doubles where his ranking has climbed to a top 30 spot for the first time in his career.
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