Chapter 15: Special Shots

Backhand Slice

The backhand slice, whether one-handed or two-handed, is a backhand swing hit from high to low with the racquet face sharply opened. It is similar to the backhand volley, except that you accelerate from the ball forward, continuing well past the ball, while in the volley you stop as you hit.

By hitting down and forward, and leading the stroke with the bottom edge of the racquet, you brush underneath the ball and make it spin backward.

This is the opposite of topspin, and is called underspin or slice.

This spin creates more air friction at the bottom of the ball than on the top, keeping it in the air longer. The ball tends to fly more nearly parallel to the surface than on a pronounced downward curve as in topspin shots.

To compensate, slice groundstrokes have to be aimed lower than topspin shots, with a smaller clearance over the net or they will go out of bounds.

Professionals with one-handed backhands usually return fast serves with this slice backhand because it can be shortened, blocking the return, and still get ball speed and accuracy. You can also keep the ball low and get some depth, which makes this slice return effective whether your opponent serves and comes straight to the net or stays back. Two-handed backhand players use the slice for emergencies, such as the ball being too far for their two-handed reach.

If the serve comes to your forehand it is a different story, because you can hit a forehand hard with topspin with no preparation. A very hard return will give your opponent trouble even if it doesn’t go very deep.

This is also true for the two-handed backhand, which doesn’t need any preparation prior to the hit. You jump at that fast serve and follow through hard, up and over the ball.

On the one-handed backhand return you need more preparation, such as a shoulder turn and a backhand grip, to drive through the ball.

A top pro may wait for a first serve favoring his one-handed backhand side, and slam a hard flat or topspin backhand return, surprising his opponent on his way to the net. But it is a risky shot that requires tremendous skill and precision. You can’t muscle the ball as well as with your forehand or a two-handed backhand. If you are a beginning or intermediate one-handed player, your safest choice for a booming first serve coming to your backhand is a blocked slice return.

While rallying, a slice backhand hit low and firm can give trouble to your opponent by skidding and staying low. It all depends on your opponent’s adjustment to different strokes. Some players like to hit their groundstrokes with the ball low, others higher.

You may prefer one style of backhand over the other. If you feel that you can do better with just one type of stroke, I wouldn’t disturb that feeling. Your confidence depends on what you feel about your game, not what others think about it.

On the other hand, adding this slice stroke to your repertoire will make you a more complete player, helping you vary your strokes when needed, mixing up slices with topspin strokes.

Personally, I consider this backhand easy and effective. Many of my students, taught flat one-handed backhands, have drifted naturally towards a slice stroke.

Learning this stroke is easy. To start, you only have to point the butt of the racquet at the incoming ball to be ready, the racquet face as shown in the first picture below.

This will automatically change your grip to the backhand. The grip change doesn’t need to be as pronounced as for the topspin one-handed backhand. Your fingers stay spread apart, as in the forehand grip. The main change occurs at the bottom of the hand, which gets slightly mounted on the top bevel of the grip.

The best way to cause this grip change is to pull from the throat of the racquet with the left hand while pointing the butt of the racquet to the ball. This brings the racquet to a position closer to perpendicular with your right forearm.

On a fast incoming ball, this is all the backswing you need, pulling the racquet with your left hand toward your left side. You’ll be able to block the ball instinctively with a short stroke.

Your elbow needs to separate from your body. On the easier or slower ball, when you are preparing for a longer stroke, the arm is usually bent at the elbow, and the stroke is done by extending the arm past the contact with the ball.

In the beginning, it is a good idea to point both the butt of the racquet and your elbow to the incoming ball, while still holding the racquet with both hands. Then straighten your right arm at the elbow, putting separation between the arms. (See picture sequence above)

Your shoulder blades pull towards each other, resulting in your right hand moving forward and across in an arc. The racquet face closes intentionally and firmly from forcing the butt of the racquet to lead the effort across the arc, giving your shot some backward spin, and great power and precision.

Mastering it is a simple and easy art guided by feel and instinct, while waiting initially uncannily to let the ball get into your racquet past your hand and the butt of the racquet before powering the shot with your shoulder blades.

The left arm should stretch back to keep your balance and to prevent you from turning too early to your right, which could vary the shot direction from your intended aim. Your best finish would be holding your shoulder blades almost touching each other while turning your body around to cover the open court.

The height of your shot will depend on how much your racquet face is open. While learning, keep the racquet face angle quite open and hit down on the ball. Make it very different from your topspin stroke, so you do not get them confused.

Two-Handed Slice

If you have a two-handed backhand and also want to slice the ball using both hands, simply open the racquet face, find the ball well, and hit from high to low.

Practice will tell you all the refinements as to racquet angle and spin. There are no complications or secrets. On your topspin, close the racquet face and hit up. On your slice, open the racquet face and hit down.

Many of the top pros have a two-handed topspin backhand but use very efficiently a one-handed backhand slice. They too induce this shot by pulling from the throat of the racquet with the left hand as they turn to the left, with the right hand pushing away from the body, pointing the butt of the racquet to the incoming ball. This will automatically get the backhand slice grip (fingers slightly spread) in the right hand, and will also give more firmness to the slice stroke than keeping the forehand grip.

Even if you are strictly a two-hander in your backhand, you should practice the one-handed slice. In some situations it is very difficult or even impossible to get to the ball with both hands on the racquet. If you have practiced a one-handed backhand slice, you’ll instinctively reach for the ball this way and possibly keep the ball in play, saving you from a certain point loss.

To develop this stroke, do the drills shown in Chapter 9 on the one-handed backhand.

High Backhands

Most one-handed players have trouble when the ball comes high to their backhand side. Two-handers can put a bit more force on a high-contact-point backhand than can a one-handed backhand. Both can drive the ball back hard if they catch it before it goes up high, or may back up to let it come down to a height where they can drive it.

One-handed players don’t have much power when hitting a high ball to their backhand, and usually hit a weak return on that shot. But if you have a backhand slice, there is a simple technique that allows you to put power and depth into this shot.

First, with the racquet still in both hands, point the butt of the racquet to the incoming ball.

When the ball gets close to you, extend your arms and let the right arm turn, bringing the head of the racquet to meet the ball. Follow through strongly from the ball forward, until your arms are fully extended and the racquet is pointing up and perhaps a bit to the right.

The resulting shot is between a flat and a slice, and the ball carries height and speed to make it go deep.

You may use your body to add power to this shot. It actually depends on the particular situation. This shot needs to be practiced to develop the feel for it, as well as to strengthen your shoulder and back muscles.

Lob

The lob is a ball hit high to send it above the reach of a player near the net. With the type of topspin strokes you learned earlier, you just need to lift the ball higher to get a good lob. Open the racquet face, still hitting with topspin, and lift the ball fifteen to twenty feet over the net.

Although the ball may be slower than a hard groundstroke, you still need plenty of racquet speed and a lot of topspin. This will make the ball bounce past your opponent’s service line.

The topspin will help get the ball down sooner and faster and make it jump toward the back fence. It will then be difficult, if not impossible, for your opponent to get to the ball.

This shot was very unusual some twenty years ago, but today it is very common among the top pros.

Another way of achieving a lob–very useful when reaching the ball with great difficulty–is simply to open the racquet face under the ball and hit it up. It will probably be a slow ball, but if you hit it 25 feet or more in the air and deep into your opponent’s court, it will give you time to get back to a more comfortable position in your court. This shot is usually called a “defensive” lob.

The deeper you hit a defensive lob into your opponent’s court, and/or the more to his backhand side, the more difficulty he’ll have in handling it and smashing it back.

Half-Volley

The half volley is not really a volley, but a short topspin groundstroke hit immediately after the bounce of the ball.

It is a delicate shot, but necessary when you are caught near the bounce of the ball and can’t volley it on the fly.

If the ball is about to bounce close to you, get your racquet behind the bounce and time your hit to start with the bounce, practically from the ball forward, with no backswing at all.

Finding the ball is done at the same time you accelerate your hand with a lift. Hit upward, letting the racquet flow naturally and over the ball, slightly covering it with the racquet face. This will keep the ball low and quick, preventing it from shooting up and giving your opponent an easy set up.

The most critical thing here is the timing and the racquet angle. Feel that you are coming off the ground together with the ball and that you brush up on it, covering the ball as if you had your hand slightly over it.

You can either finish the stroke as usual or make a much shorter motion. Either one will work as long as you find the ball perfectly with a pick-up action, your body timed to come up at the same time.

For both the forehand and the two-handed backhand half volleys, hit the ball close to your side, rather than well in front. On the one-handed backhand, hit it more in front.

Drop Shot

The drop shot is a ball that you direct to a point near the other side of the net, to put the ball out of your opponent’s reach, to force him to make an error, or to get him out of position so that you can hit a winner past him.

To keep your opponent unaware of your drop shot, fake it, as if you were about to hit a groundstroke. Just when you are about to make contact with the ball, change it to a drop shot

The drop shot is a delicate move, more like caressing the ball than like striking it. In essence, there is no backswing to the drop shot (except to the extent that you do a fake groundstroke-backswing), but a very sharp opening of the racquet face, while advancing the racquet across the bottom of the ball, gently touching its back and underside.

Follow through across, well past the ball. Make the ball underspin (backspin) and curve over the net, just enough to clear it. It will land softly on the other side, and the backspin will make it stop quickly, usually with a short bounce.

The drop shot feels the same for the forehand as well as the one-handed and two-handed backhands. Your grip on the racquet has to be softened during the impact depending on your distance from the net. The closer to the net, the softer your shot needs to be.

The ability to hit soft shots is called a player’s “touch,” usually developed with much practice and experience. The better you find the ball, the more touch you’ll develop.

Stop Volley

The stop volley (or drop volley or touch volley) is a volley hit softly, stopping the ball very short and close to the net in your opponent’s court.

It is a great shot to hit when you have your opponent deep to one side and you are at the net. Delicately touch the ball in the other direction and he will never get to the ball.

You can disguise it as a regular volley and at the last possible moment open your racquet face sharply, as in the drop shot, and soften your grip, and, optionally, move the racket-face slightly downward and forward to impart more underspin.. The ball will not gain any momentum and will bounce softly off your racquet, curving over the net, and “dying” in your opponent’s court.

Feel that you stop your hand, right at the impact, and in that minuscule instant advance the butt of the racquet across, while your racquet head drops, face opening, touching the underside of the ball. It is like the drop-shot action, with practically no follow-through.  Also, skillfully making the stroke longer may add to the sidespin and underspin.