When a ball comes toward you, either to your forehand or backhand side, you have only three choices of direction in which to hit it back–down the line, crosscourt, or down the middle.
You must also choose to hit it short or long, high or low, or somewhere in between. There aren’t a million choices, so you don’t have to think much. Brilliance in tennis is usually the player’s combination of instinct and experience.
The best professionals, whether intelligent or not, do not rely on thinking while playing but on instinct and feeling. They have drilled or executed their down-the-line or crosscourt shots so many times that it is simple for them to decide where to hit, and to send the ball there.
They instinctively know where to hit–especially if they wait to make that decision until they see how the ball is coming at them, or how it has bounced. The more they delay their final decision on exact direction and height, the better they find the ball, and then, when they have the ball within their grasp, they make their decision and hit it there.
It is almost unbelievable how long you can wait before committing yourself. For example, you can get to the point that you are preparing to hit a down-the-line passing shot, and then, when you are almost touching the ball, change your mind and hit it crosscourt. Your opponent certainly is misguided by your early actions and usually gets caught going the wrong way. This, of course, is at a very high level of play. But you need to be aware from the beginning that waiting is far more valuable than rushing.
Drills are the best way to develop the feel of one shot direction at a time so that you know where your shot is going.
It will also be easier to decide where to hit each shot, as drills let you know your margin for error. For example, you observe in a drill that your forehand down the line goes off a maximum of two feet to either side of your intended placement. In a match you’ll know to aim at least two feet inside the court. The same would go for depth, taking into account that there is less control for the length of your shot than for direction.
In these drills you need another player with good control feeding you the balls. You should have a whole bucket of balls, and have them fed to you in a precise sequence, to simulate playing conditions and avoid unnecessary interruptions.
In most drills your friend will be standing to one side of the court. You have to aim your shots to the open space of the court, not back at your friend. This way you’ll develop the idea of hitting to the open court instead of sending the ball back to where your opponent is standing and making his job easier.
“Down-the-line shot:” A shot hit almost parallel to the sidelines. If both players are right-handed, you hit from your forehand to your opponent’s backhand, or from your backhand to your opponent’s forehand.
“Crosscourt shot:” A shot that you hit across the court. If both players are right-handed, you hit your forehand to your opponent’s forehand, or your backhand to your opponent’s backhand.
“Down the middle shot:” A ball you hit toward the middle of your opponent’s court.
Depending on your physical conditioning and your advancement, hit twenty to thirty balls in each drill. With some advanced players and professionals, I have used up to fifty balls per drill.
All these drills are not meant to be done in one day. If you get tired, stop and come back another day. The idea is to build your conditioning and stamina a little at a time while grooving-in your shots.
The same goes for the degree of difficulty that the feeder creates with a shorter or longer time lapse between shots, as well as with the placement and pace of delivery. The person feeding the balls is really “the coach” and is at the service of the student. He’s helping the player develop confidence and assurance on his shots, not trying to make him miss. Accordingly, he should adjust his delivery to see that the student has a high percentage of successful shots.
Unpredictable increases of pace or difficulty are okay while drilling a very advanced player or a professional, but only after he has mastered the easier stage of the drill.
For the first five drills, use a can of balls or another marker in the middle of the court, behind the service line if you are a new player, inside the baseline if you are an intermediate player, or behind the baseline if you are very advanced. Always round the can from the back of the court and turn facing your opponent’s court.
Some of these drills are explained more extensively in the forehand and backhand chapters.
DRILL #1: Topspin forehands down the line, running around the can after each shot. Turn left after your forehand shot, turn right after running behind the can. The feeder stands across the net to your left.
DRILL #2: Topspin forehands crosscourt, running around the can after each shot. The feeder stands across the net to your right.
DRILL #3: Topspin backhands down the line, running around the can after each shot. The feeder stands across the net to your right.
DRILL #4: Topspin backhands crosscourt, running around the can after each shot. The feeder stands across the net to your left.
DRILL #5: Backhand slice, alternating one shot down the line and one crosscourt, running around the can after each shot. The feeder stands across the net in the middle of the court, behind his service line.
DRILL #6: Forehand topspin inside out (slightly from the left of your court towards the right line of the court), avoiding your backhand and then moving back to the middle after each shot. Start from the middle of the court, without the can. Your friend tosses a ball about three to four feet to your backhand side, at a slow pace. Turn left toward that side, go beyond the line of the ball (the direction from which it is coming), turn toward the net and hit a topspin forehand to your opponent’s backhand court. Turn right after your shot and go back to the middle. Your friend feeds another ball to your left, and so on. The feeder stands to your left, but close to the center of the court.
This is a stressful drill, especially if you don’t turn properly.
The following drills are also done without the can of balls. The feeder will feed balls one to each side, back and forth, but not too quickly.
DRILL #7: Forehand down the line, backhand down the line. The feeder stands across the net, in the middle of the court.
DRILL #8: Forehand crosscourt, backhand down the line. The feeder stands across the net to your right.
DRILL #9: Forehand down the line, backhand crosscourt. The feeder stands across the net to your left.
DRILL #10: Forehand crosscourt, backhand crosscourt. The feeder stands across the net, in the middle of the court, behind his service line.
DRILL #11: Volleys. Get near the net. Hit your forehand volley down the line and backhand volley crosscourt. The feeder stands in front of his baseline and to your left.
DRILL #12: Volleys. Forehand volley crosscourt, backhand volley down the line. The feeder stands in front of his baseline and to your right.
DRILL #13: Smash to the right side. You are near the net and the feeder stands to your left, close to his baseline. He hits lobs to you, and you smash to the open court.
DRILL #14: Smash to the left side. The feeder stands to your right, close to his baseline. He hits lobs to you, and you smash to the open court.
A good variation on the smash drill is to run up to the net after each smash, then run back to hit the next one, and so on.
Overall, keep the ball safely over the net. On the groundstroke drills it is a good idea to hang a string two or three feet above the net. Except for the sliced backhand and passing shots, all other groundstrokes should clear this string. Even hard shots will go down in your opponent’s court if you hit them with enough topspin.
For the next few drills divide each service court in half. Place a can of balls in each half as shown, or any other marker. On a clay court you can mark a line with your foot. This will give you four areas to serve to.
DRILL #1: Serve twenty balls to the deuce court, to your opponent’s backhand (area 2 in the diagram). Use your American Twist or your spin second serve.
DRILL #2: Serve twenty balls to the ad court, to your opponent’s backhand (area 4 in the diagram), using your American Twist or your spin second serve.
DRILL #3: Serve twenty balls to the deuce court, to your opponent’s forehand (area 1 in the diagram). Here, use more of a slice serve to pull the ball and the other player off the court.
DRILL #4: Serve twenty balls to the ad court, to your opponent’s forehand (area 3 in the diagram). Use a slice serve to pull the ball away from your opponent.
I have instructed you to first serve to your opponent’s backhand because that shot is usually weaker than his forehand. It is also your primary choice for your second serve. The placement, speed and kick of your second serve is probably more important than your cannonball first serve. At many important stages in your service games you may want to throw a safe kicker rather than risking a hard serve.
Hitting over a string two to three feet above the net is a valuable practice tool to keep your second serves safe and deep. You’ll learn that serving up with spin makes the ball come down before the service line, while still kicking up high and fast.
One way to jam an opponent’s return is to serve into his body. The exact placement varies with your opponent’s skill. With some players you hit to the body, some to the right hip or shoulder, others to the left. Some are vulnerable to the high kicker, some to the slice.
You can try some different serves in the beginning of a match, then stick to the option that gives your opponent the most trouble. With some very skillful players none of these options to the body are very effective, and you have to resort to placing a high kicker on their backhand as your first serve in the closest scoring situations. Otherwise, should you risk your first serve and miss, your opponent may take command of the point with a very forceful return off your second serve.
Once you have practiced and mastered your second serve, practice your hard serves, mixing them up as you like, to the four areas shown in the diagram.
There are many advanced drills, some of which can be done with someone feeding balls from a bucket, others by simply hitting back and forth.
With someone feeding balls from a bucket, you can do a combination such as an approach shot (to approach the net), then a couple of volleys and a smash off the feeder’s lob. On these drills, have the feeder stand to one side and hit toward the open court.
Another drill is to hit “behind” your opponent, sending the ball to the place your opponent just left. You can do this with the groundstroke drills 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 11, and 12. Hit the ball to the small space between the feeder and the sideline closest to him, instead of to the open court. Your friend should stand a little more toward the center of the court than in the original drill, to leave you a slightly larger opening, depending on how advanced you are. It is best to disguise your shot by “pretending” you are about to hit the open court, then change your aim at the last possible moment and hit “behind.” Disguising your shots will keep your opponent off balance, unable to read where you are really about to hit.
You can also do many drills hitting back and forth, but the effectiveness will depend on both players’ levels of advancement. For example, one of the players can be at net and to his right, covering just half of the singles court, while the other player is back. The volley player hits away from the backcourt player, who has to cover the whole court and hit all balls toward the player at the net.
In the next drill the player at the net moves to the left half of the singles court and volleys from there, while the backcourt player still covers his whole court, and hits back to the player at the net.
To become proficient at the net, have your friend stand in his backhand corner, just behind the baseline, while you cover the whole net and direct your volleys toward your friend. For the next drill, your friend should stand in his forehand corner and you direct your volleys there.
These last drills can be combined with lobs and smashes to get the net player away from the net and then back in for the next volley. Keep a good supply of balls in a bucket by the center of the court. The bucket and the singles sideline will be the boundary of the half court, determining the area where the player at net has to hit all his shots.
One of the most strenuous drills, especially when done between two pros or very advanced players, is with both players back, one in a corner and the other covering the whole court. The player in the corner hits the ball from side to side, while the other player returns everything back to the same corner. It is a great conditioner for the legs and for the lungs, but should only be tried by young tournament players in great shape, and only for short periods of time. As with other stressful drills with one player stationary and the other covering the whole court, you can switch back and forth after each drill to give each other a rest.
The better the players, the more intense and more tiring these drills can be. You can devise other drills in which to practice your drop shot, your half volley, your serve and your service return.
A good way to practice your doubles game is to play points crosscourt, using only opposite halves of the court. You first serve from your right and your friend can only play to your right half of the court, all the way to the doubles line. Likewise, you have to continue the point hitting only to the half court to your opponent’s right. The next point you serve from your left and you both play crosscourt to the opposite side.
Overall, do the drills you like best and that help you the most, depending on your needs and your stage of advancement. Don’t overdo any particular drill.
Keep yourself interested by making your drills as interesting as a championship match.
I usually keep statistics for the drills I do, logging the percentage of successful shots. Or I design a scoring system for the drills where we hit back and forth. This keeps the player interested and trying his best.