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When Players Miss
David W. Smith, Senior Editor TennisOne
Watch club players at your local court and you will often see a phenomenon that is repeated by a great number of them after any given miss: They will shadow-swing the stroke they missed.
This action can be seen even among some of the more skilled players, and can be interpreted as the player believing the miss was a result of a poor stroke – a break down in technique, if you will, that caused the ball to misbehave.
While stroke mechanics can indeed break down and cause mistakes, in more cases than not, there can be other, more significant mistakes that the player is not recognizing or acknowledging.
As most tennis players know, footwork is a serious part of any successful tennis point, and also an important part of a successful tennis stroke. It has always amused me that students, during a tennis lesson will often miss a ball and immediately associate that miss with a stroke-mechanic failure.
While technique is important, more often than not, the root cause of mistakes can be traced to footwork issues. Quite simply, the player did not position himself so that he could optimally strike the ball.
This simple and obvious conclusion can be evaluated within the observation of a player taking a lesson or clinic, and the same player playing a competitive match. In most lessons, the pro is hitting balls and setting up drills so that the player knows what balls are coming and where they will be. In other words, teaching pros hit balls so that the player is often in good position, even without having to reposition much, to optimally strike the ball.
Compare this to the uncertain shots a player must respond to in a match. Here, an opponent is hitting shots intentionally away from the player – trying to get place him in disadvantageous position. In contrast, the pro is intentionally hitting shots to the player so that he can best grove his stroke. If a player does not train to set up for shots properly when faced with balls hit with a variety of speeds and spins (intentional or otherwise), he will often find himself hitting balls in less than ideal” locations.
We have mentioned in several articles that the typical professional tennis player takes an average of 10 to 12 steps between hits. Compare this to the club player who might take as little as 4 to 6 steps. This comparison alone should be pretty revealing.
There are two statements that we can make when observing professionals play tennis:
- Similar strokes by the same player look nearly identical from just about every position on the court.
- Pros seem to have much more time than club players to set up and hit even though the ball is traveling much faster.
Click photo: Kim Clijsters is one of the best movers on the tour. Count the number of steps she takes
These two statements can be directly attributed to footwork. Because pro players move so well and take so many steps between shots, they can get in optimal position for each shot more often. The result of this constant movement is that most balls are struck in the ideal hitting window. Also, because pros are in constant motion, seldom off balance, and much quicker to the ball, they seem to be ready to hit each shot earlier. This is essentially why they appear to have more time to hit most shots.
This early preparation allows pros to dictate the shot’s direction with greater control. In other words, they are not controlled by the ball; they control the ball. Club and recreational players are usually out of position so often, they literally have to swing at the ball as the ball dictates.
Obviously, the club player can work on this practice by simply training himself to take more steps to set up for each shot. Literally counting each step and making sure to take at least 8 to 10 between shots is a simple drill to work on. (Obviously, you won’t always be able to take this many steps for each particular shot. The idea is to be conscious of taking more steps than you are comfortable taking until taking that many steps indeed becomes comfortable!)
Another drill is to see if you can get into position to hit an ideal shot (whether it be topspin or a slice) before the ball bounces on your side of the court. This is a great drill and is a different mind-set to simply counting the number of steps you are taking. Both are tools to improve your footwork.
One caveat here. The pros are in incredible shape and, for the club player, taking ten or twelve steps between each shot over a three set match can be physically demanding, so you need to put a concerted effort into training.
A great many times, a student will hit a ball with a perfect stroke, good footwork, and proper execution, only to hit the ball into the net, long, or wide. Typically, the first reaction is that they did something wrong within the stroke. (Hence, the phenomenon mentioned before, “shadow-swinging.”) However, the may have just aimed poorly. I use an analogy to bring this to the attention of my students.
Let’s say a guy has a rifle and it shoots perfectly straight every time, and he can hit the bull’s-eye on a target on each shot. He is standing there shooting bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye. However, the target is moved twenty feet to the right. If the guy doesn’t adjust his aim for the new position of the target (and continues to shoot where the target was), is it the rifle’s fault? No, the guy didn’t adjust his aim.
This story hits home with a lot of players because they begin to realize they can hit with a perfect stroke but still aim poorly. I hammer this home with students by adding, “Does Federer change his stroke if he misses a shot? Of course not. He changes his aim on subsequent shots.” Players need to realize this and not berate their strokes when their strokes may not have been the reason for the miss.
Repeatable Swing Pattern
I’ve mentioned this phrase several times in articles: Players need to develop a repeatable, reliable swing pattern. When this is accomplished (no matter what form they are using), the ability to aim is greatly increased. If the stroke is different each time, then the aim can’t be developed. The only thing a player can work on in terms of aim, when using an inconsistent swing path, is the timing. Good days are when the player has good timing. However, when a player has a repeatable swing path, timing is not nearly as critical and the player can hit reasonably consistent even on so-called bad days.
However, the ability to create this effective repeatable or reliable swing path is still dependent on the player’s ability to get to the ball in a balanced and position to repeat the swing. If a player fails to get balanced or get to a ball in good position, the swing will usually change (based on the ball’s location and our proximity to the ball for the shot).
When players put all these parts together (balance, position, reliable swing path, and an ability to know where they are aiming), the player has the best chance to execute shots. When this occurs, a player takes total command of the ball–and usually a match!
Toying with your Opponent
Click photo: Andre Agassi liked to hit ball after ball, literally toying with his opponents.
Many players have either toyed with an opponent or have been toyed with by an opponent. The concept is to control the ball in such a way so that you can force your opponent do what you want him or her to do. On top of this, toying with an opponent creates the concept of complete control, like you don’t have to hit a winner at any given time. A person toying with another is usually biding their time, enjoying watching their opponent run all over the court, and then, finally, after a number of shots, simply puts the ball away with an easy, open court winner. Sound familiar? That’s the way tennis legend Andre Agassi approached the game.
This concept of toying with your opponent is due directly to a player completing the elements mentioned in this article. Confidence grows when you know you can place a ball well, when you can hit different shots on command, and when you know where to hit specific shots to create the weakest response (or miss) by an opponent.
Work on developing your footwork, balance, and stroke reliability and you will be on your way to having a great time on the court!
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
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One of the things that make Roger Federer such a great champion is his uncanny ability to keep his head still and his eyes focused on the contact point, before, during, and after the ball leaves his strings. It sounds so simple but this is actually a big problem for recreational players and even some pros, especially on the forehand side. Here, former touring pro, Jeff Salzenstein, talks about this issue and provides some drills that just might keep you more focused on your own stroke.
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Watch Federer or Murray glide around the court – they are rarely out of position and they make it look so effortless. But the reality is, they worked relentlessly on their foot work and you should too. At the club level, more shots are missed because players fail to get the ball into their optimal hitting zone then for any failure of technique. If you want to be a better tennis player, it all starts with better lateral movement. Pat Dougherty
ProStrokes 2.0 — Andrea Petkovic, Serve & Net Game
Andrea Petkovic is a Bosnian born German who has risen the #9 spot on the WTA tour this year. Andrea didn’t join the tour until 2006, the year she graduated from high school. She loves her forehand and uses it to set up points with depth, pace, and angles. She does not hit her two-handed backhand with as much authority but consistently keeps the ball deep waiting for opportunities to attack with her forehand. Her serve can be a weapon, not so much for pace but for her ability to keep serves deep and placed well. Not afraid to attack, Petkovic will follow shots to the net and she covers it well. New this issue, Petkovic's serve and net game.
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