Hitting on the Rise, Taking the Ball Early,
Playing the ball on the rise, as it ascends after the bounce receives much air time from the professional commentators. Whether describing Federer’s forehand from inside the baseline as the absolute best shot in tennis (and when inside the baseline he is taking the ball on the rise), comparing the court positioning of Blake and Nadal at the recent Pacific Life Open (where Blake was on or inside the baseline playing the ball generally much earlier than Nadal who was generally behind the baseline), or the recurring lament about our Andy Roddick’s woefully deep court positioning (where either he repeatedly chooses or is caused to play the ball on the descent).
But somehow, this same issue is not really understood at the recreational levels, and whether it is ladies 3.5, high school junior varsity, or even many tournament players, I don’t really see many people willing, able, or even interested in playing the ball early. So what follows is more tactical than technical, more about opportunity than playing it safe, and at the end of the day about a willingness to explore the generally unexplored.
Read on, only if you dare.
In discussions with my fellow tennis teaching colleagues, the general lament concerns how difficult it can be for players to make genuine improvements. It can be truly daunting to adopt a foreign grip, and spend the time and effort to work through the painfully slow learning process. In some instances, there may be a fear that the change will make things worse, or that even the pro may have suggested something unsuited to the skill level and aspiration of the student. So that, at the end of the day, players tend to remain at their USTA level.
But what about improving one's tactics, one's positioning, picking one area of the game where you will impose yourself, one area where you can readily practice this skill against practice partners or even the ball machine.
Position inside the baseline and prepare before the bounce.
Prepare before the bounce. Nothing about taking the racquet back. Nothing about stepping in early. Nothing about spin, grip, or follow through. Simply prepare before the bounce. We are often learning topspin groundstrokes very early in our tennis development. And these topspin strokes are most easily hit (when learning) as the ball descends. Read again (Andy), these strokes are most easily hit when the ball descends. And in this all too common recreational scenario, one can truly prepare after the bounce because there is so much darn time to hit the ball. But an alternative tactic (Andre Agassi) is to play the ball as it comes up off the ground, somewhat of a quick hit, and in this instance not at all in reference to topspin, but simply hitting the ball sooner. Sooner is the key. Timing on the descent feels like “bounce–da-da-da-da-hit”, on the ascent it feels like “bounce-da-da-hit.”
Agassi, moving forward, playing the ball when it is still up. Roddick, well behind the baseline, letting the ball drop.
But if Agassi, McEnroe, and Federer are paid such dividends by this technique, why don’t more of the pros take the ball early? And by extension, why don’t you and I take the ball early? My guess, simply habit and initial exposure. On day one, if your teacher or friend encouraged a low to high stroke with the racquet finishing well over the shoulder, then either you found this stroke as the ball descended, or perhaps you gave up the game if you were trying to time this stroke on an ascending ball. So nearly everyone learns the mass produced low to high over the shoulder butt cap pointing forward forehand. And now, inadvertently, your focus has become one of technique rather than tactic, about follow through rather than timing. But there is an alternative.
We practice the following with our super senior men’s team, with our ladies 3.5 team, and with anyone willing to try something a little different. The ball machine is set to deliver a ball to the back of the service court, that could be hit perhaps 10 feet inside the baseline, but only if the player times the ball early, on the rise. No words from the coach about technique. Often with enough repetition they can capture the feel for this hit without extraneous instruction. Repeat, again, again, and again. Bounce-hit. Early. Sooner. Now experiment. Early, sooner, try the drop shot. Early, sooner, try the drive. Early, sooner, try the lob. More repetition.
Then, if they or perhaps you were to ask, “This is great, but when can I expect to be in this position?” The answer, “On nearly each and every second serve from the opponent!” And now a new tactical world opens for you (and I). The second serve is the opportunity. Eureka! And you and I receive so many darn second serves; imagine a world where your best and most trusted tactic was taking the ball early. In that world you might actually be most competitive when returning serves, and by extension you might actually be most dangerous against your opponent’s weakest shot. If this is not an advantage, then I am not ever sure what would be.
I welcome reader’s feedback from those of you who are attempting to learn this, from those of you who have mastered this, and equally from those of you vexed by this. I do respond to email (generally quickly) and would enjoy a dialogue. I will write more about this in subsequent newsletters and will include some of your responses.
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