Let’s say you are on a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve already done the coordination drills, and you are satisfied with your control of the ball. You also went through the chapter on basic grip and racquet position and you should feel comfortable about that.
You brought a friend with you who is good at tossing the ball and you also brought a bucket of balls. A minimum of fifteen new or used balls would be good.
How Long to Play
You are about to learn your first stroke, the “forehand,” through the ten drills in this chapter.
With some well-coordinated teenagers and adults, I have gotten through these drills in as short a time as thirty minutes. For others, it took well over an hour. Sometimes I would fit these drills into several half-hour lessons, done on different days.
I adjusted the lessons to the students’ stamina, their physical conditioning, and the weather conditions.
You also need to manage your time on the court. Overdoing your first lesson could turn you off to tennis.
My suggestion is to spend one hour on the court at most the first day. For some very young children and unprepared adults, twenty minutes to half an hour would be enough.
When you come back on the court the next time, you can check back on some of the drills you did. Then proceed with the next few drills and so on.
How Long Should Each Drill Be?
Each student has a different speed of learning. You just have to do a drill until you are getting all the balls where you want and you have gotten the feel of the swing. In other words, do each drill until you are sure that you can repeat the swing at will and get the same results.
This is the moment when you are building those habits that will last for life. This book will tell you which things you need to focus on. Do nothing else, no matter how good somebody else’s suggestions may seem at the time.
Most people are very generous with their advice, but they are not really knowledgeable about how to teach someone, no matter how well they play themselves.
With these methods you can learn in hours what it usually takes months to learn. But if this learning process is tampered with by introducing additions, your focus may change, and it may eventually disrupt your feel for the ball.
An Easy Way to Start
There are two ways you can start. One is with the racquet full length, with the hand in the normal grip position, as shown in the previous chapter. The other option is shortening the racquet by holding it from somewhere in the throat, as shown below, sticking your index finger through the opening in the racquet’s throat.
This is also called “choking” up on the racquet, and the position of your hand may vary according to your liking, and would be dependent on your success in controlling the ball.
The shorter you hold the racquet, the easier it is to control the ball when you are totally new to this sport. There is less of a tendency this way to “swat” the ball, but as soon as you are hitting okay from one position you can slide your hand back, gradually getting to the normal grip position you learned in the previous chapter.
On the other hand, good athletes and well-coordinated people can move quickly to the normal grip position, but swinging slowly, avoiding wild hitting and slapping the wrist.
Children should start with light racquets, much shorter than those of an adult. You can get further information on shorter racquets in Chapter Eighteen.
First, for the sake of knowing how the ball bounces on the type of surface you are on, toss the ball back and forth with your friend, letting it bounce once each time. Then play it bare-handed over the net a few times, just like in the coordination drills in Chapter 5.
Now, having done all that, grab your racquet, centering it at your bellybutton or by your side as described in the last chapter. For an easy start, slide your right hand up on the racquet.
Get in the middle of the court, six to ten feet in front of the service line, facing the net. Have your friend stand in the opposite court, near the net and to your left side. He should leave the middle of the court open for you to hit balls toward. (Note: Start young children much closer to the net.)
DRILL #1: Your friend feeds (tosses) a ball gently toward your right side. The ball should bounce well before it gets to you, allowing you plenty of time, just like in the hand drills. Wait for the ball to come near you, adjusting your body if necessary. Find the ball slowly and to your front with the bottom of your racquet strings (more feel and more spin). Accelerate your right hand and racquet up and across your body until it touches the upper part of your left shoulder (relating this finish to the placement of your shot).
Do this with a gentle upward pull as you touch the ball, creating the momentum of your arm from the ball forward, rather than prior to the contact with the ball. It should feel like you pushed the ball up and over the net.
First, find the ball well, as if you were going to grab it. As you touch the ball, accelerate your hand and racquet mostly upward, bending your arm toward your left shoulder.
Your racquet face is slightly open when you touch the ball, but you lead the swing with the upper edge of the racquet, so that it goes up and over your left shoulder. This will propel the ball at about twenty mph, two to four feet over the net, in the direction of the open court. If the ball goes too high, tilt forward the racquet face a bit for your next shot.
DRILL #1A: Hit forehands while walking backwards, from near the net to further back than the service line.
DRILL #1B: Hit forehands while walking forward, from somewhere behind the service line towards the net.
(You can mix Drill #4 and Drill #5, all of which make your stroke independent from the body’s moves)
Do these drills fifty or sixty times starting from the racquet in the bellybutton position described earlier. After a while you’ll start noticing that the ball has a slight forward rolling action after leaving your racquet. This is called topspin. The more you lift your arm, the more topspin you will get on the ball. Just two or three rolls of the ball until it bounces in the other court is enough topspin for you at this stage.
Again, be gentle. Do not take a hard swing.
You can start to slide your hand toward a normal grip position, but keep the finish over the shoulder, whether you are “choking” up on the racquet or not.
How far to “choke” up on the racquet depends on the person’s strength and physical ability. Some people like to start with the hand closer to the throat of the racquet, some others midway, and others would rather play with the hand on the racquet’s handle. It should be left to the student’s discretion. A few tries, and you will know what feels best for you at the stage you are in.
Some people go through all the drills in this chapter gripping the racquet short. This is perfectly all right. Confidence is built by success and the person knows instinctively what his “safety needs” are to get the ball on the racquet and then into the other court.
Do not “break” your wrist. It can drastically affect the direction of your shot. The wrist is slightly laid back, with the racquet’s upper edge moving upward together with your arm.
Keep your focus on finding the ball and getting it over the net. Everything else will fall into place naturally as you do the drills in this chapter. You want to feel the ball on your strings as long as possible, and then to feel the finish of your stroke, as if these were the only important things to do.
Don’t worry about the position of your body. Do whatever is comfortable for you. The less you do, the better. It’s okay if your body faces the net, or if it’s slightly turned. Just get those easy balls gently over the net, ending with your right hand over your left shoulder.
Many people make hitting the ball harder for themselves because they are also concentrating on the position of their feet, their balance, weight transfer, whether they are sideways to the net, their racquet preparation, etc.
Your focus needs to stay on finding the ball and then the same finish only, even while you are running around. You could think of all the other things and then look uncoordinated, like trying to walk using four or five crutches at the same time. You’ll end up with the ball getting by you or hitting you on the head.
DRILL #2: When you are comfortably hitting every ball over the net and into the court, have your friend vary slightly the height and speed of his toss. By now you may move back, closer to the service line.
Have your friend toss some higher balls, too. As much as possible, let the ball slow down and come to a comfortable height by staying away from the bounce. Let the ball curve fully after the bounce, up and then down below the waist level, where it is most comfortable to hit with a lift.
If this is not possible, it is because your friend is tossing the balls too fast or too close to you. Have him adjust his toss to a gentle one, a little to your right side. At this stage your friend needs to make things easy for you, not difficult. You want to learn to find the ball and to work out how close to the ball you would start the acceleration of your hand and racquet. You want to learn control for the rest of your life, rather than going for speed and power first.
Taking the racquet back to get more power is also called the backswing. It is something developed personally, by yourself, without even thinking about it. No one should try to help you by telling you to take your racquet back or showing the backswing to you. You’ll develop it gradually and naturally when you start increasing the power in your shots.
Be economical in your moves, slow and deliberate in your swing. If you do a lot of fast moving at these low speeds it may trap you later. Can you imagine how much faster you would have to move at the higher speeds? If you rush on a slow ball, you’ll probably panic on a fast ball.
Practice the other way around, doing things as slowly as you can. Once you groove-in a slow motion for a slow ball, you’ll do things instinctively faster for a faster ball.
The more you wait for the ball and keep your cool in these learning stages, the better you’ll learn to use your time.
Work out your own timing, depending on the speed of the ball coming to you. Wait until well after the bounce before swinging. Don’t let anyone rush you. Many people like to help by urging you to prepare or to swing. This will only interfere with your own computations. You need to work this out by yourself, from your own viewpoint.
You will definitely notice if you are late in your swing. You have all the data now, and the quieter the world around you, the better you can do.
The best help you can get from your friend is gentle advice, “wait for the ball,” or “don’t rush.”
Pretty soon you’ll start getting the feel that you are accelerating from the ball on. If you get your racquet close to the ball before you accelerate, you will have control. If you rush your stroke and strike too early, the ball may come out too hard and without control. That is why I say touch the ball, or push it. When you push something, you touch it before you put your force to it.
In tennis this is done by accurately finding the ball, then accelerating from very close to the contact point on. You can develop this feel easily. Just feel that you touch the ball before you hit. Slowly you’ll realize how soon you can accelerate without losing your control, and you’ll develop a stronger and stronger push.
Waiting for the right moment to swing is probably the most delicate part of the game. Almost every human being tends to overreact. Over 80 percent of the mistakes made by professional tennis players are caused by starting the swing too early, rather than late.
A word of caution here. Starting to swing too early, then slowing down at mid-swing (sometimes unconsciously) to compensate, and accelerating again, feels like a late swing, when, in reality, it was too early a start.
Leave your right hand touching your left shoulder at the end of your swing, until you see where the ball has gone. After that bring it back to your bellybutton. By doing this you create a relationship between the end of your swing and your placement. This finish could be also described as the butt of the racquet pointing to the direction of your shot.
That is the only mental image of “position” that you need to keep. This will help you complete your stroke 99.9 percent of the time, no matter what is happening to your body and balance, or how difficult the situation may be. Just like the pros, you’ll never forget to finish your swing.
DRILL #3: Slowly you’ll start noticing that the height and direction of your shot depend only on the angle of your racquet. The swing feels the same all the time. It ends the same whether the ball is lower, higher, further away, or closer to you.
If you angle your racquet slightly to your right when you touch the ball, the ball will go to your right. If you angle your racquet to your left, the ball will go there, as shown in the following pictures:
Practice this in the drill. Aim some balls to the center, some to your right, and some to your left, taking care not to hit your friend.
In all three instances you would continue the swing toward your left shoulder, finishing the same.
DRILL #4: If you open the racquet face, the ball will go higher up. If you close the racquet face a bit, the ball will go lower over the net, as shown in the following pictures:
This closing or opening of the racquet is done with a little turn of the forearm prior to the swing and kept throughout. The grip always stays the same. Lifting your elbow will also close the racquet face.
Practice this. Hit some higher balls and some lower ones by slightly varying the opening of the racquet, without disturbing the path of your stroke.
If your friend is a well-coordinated, athletic person, and you succeed in hitting the ball gently in his direction, he can catch it and keep tossing you the same ball over and over. This is particularly good when you only have a few balls. Otherwise you must have a good supply of balls, so that there aren’t too many interruptions to these drills.
DRILL #5: Have your friend toss slightly shorter balls, so that you have to move forward to stroke them. Touch them and touch your left shoulder again. This is your swing, whether you are on the move or stationary. You can add momentum to it when you wish by slightly increasing the acceleration during the impact. Just be careful not to disturb the racquet angle very much.
DRILL #6: Start from the left sideline, just in front of the service line. Turn to your right, and start to walk parallel to the net. (Young children should be much closer to the net, according to their build, age, and coordination.)
Have your friend toss the ball a little in front of you so that you’ll hit it while walking forward. You don’t need to stop to hit it. Walk very naturally, as if you were going down the street, all the way to the right sideline, hitting four or five balls in between. Your friend also walks across the court, a little behind you, on his side of the net, leaving an open court for you to hit to.
DRILL #7: When you get used to hitting balls while walking forward, hit forehands while walking backwards, from the right sideline to the left one. Your friend can toss the ball close to you so that you have to move back before hitting each ball. This will teach you to put some distance between you and the ball when it is coming too close or right at you.
You can actually combine these last two drills, hitting four or five balls while walking forward, then four or five balls while walking backwards.
You will also learn to walk slower or faster to find the ball. It will all depend on the speed and placement of your friend’s toss, and the place where you want to meet the ball. It is always like catching the ball, whether you have to run to get it or not. Always find it first, and again, don’t rush the stroke. This teaches you to hit the ball on the run as well. If you prefer to get to the ball and turn into the open stance to hit, then turn again to continue across the court, this is a good place to do it. It would be more of an advanced drill, but do as you please.
DRILL #8: Put a can of balls in the center of the court, in front of the service line. Stand right in front of the can. Your friend tosses a ball to your right side, a few feet from you. Get to it and hit it. Turn to your left and come back to the center. Round the can from the backcourt, turning to your right, while your friend tosses another ball to your right. Get to it and hit it, get back to the center, rounding the can again, and so on.
This will teach you “pivoting,” that is, turning to go in one direction, then turning to go in another direction. Always walk or run forward in this drill, not sideways or backward. Do this naturally, turning and turning again.
Don’t turn your back toward your friend or to the net at any time during this drill. You must always go around the can from behind. This way you can see your opponent’s court at all times.
Synchronizing the body to the strokes is really an instinctive process that you develop with the drills in this book. Sometimes you’ll need to hurry, just like when the pedestrian light starts blinking and the traffic begins roaring to a start. But the more naturally you walk, as if you were walking down the street or window shopping, the better you’ll learn to play.
The tennis court is quite small, three or four steps to each side, a few more forward. But you can’t lose time preparing your shot before you get somewhere near the ball. Many people start their swing before they run. They lose valuable time that could be used to get to the ball. The shot preparation occurs when you are getting near the ball, or the ball is getting near you.
With practice you can get to the stage where your arms feel independent of your body position or movement. You’ll be able to find the ball smoothly and move through the swing whether you are on the run, falling forward or backward, or completely stationary and facing the net. Slowly, this feel of your arm will be preponderant amongst all other feels, and will be the basis, as it is for the pros, of your “style”.
Now, as you progress, move the can a little farther from the net. Have your friend toss the ball farther away, slowly increasing the difficulty of the drill.
Always be in control of what you are doing. You may have to do some running to get to the ball, but go slowly toward the middle and make sure your friend doesn’t toss the next ball too soon. He shouldn’t toss the ball too far from you or too fast either. At this stage of your development it would ruin your swing.
If it starts to go bad, go back to an easier part of the drill. The criterion here is that you have to find the ball well and finish the stroke properly. Otherwise the degree of difficulty is too steep and you need to go either to a slower toss or a ball closer to your reach, or both.
DRILL #9: After you have completed Drill #8 forty or fifty times and you feel you have gotten your stroke grooved-in, you can have your friend feed the ball with a tennis racquet. He should do this only if he can control the ball with the racquet. (By now, you may move well behind the service line.)
While doing the drill, run gently to the side where the ball is coming. The ball bounces. Slow down and wait. Find the ball gently, with little momentum in your swing. Accelerate the arm at contact, bending it farther when you touch the ball. Finish with the right hand touching your left shoulder. Leave the hand there while you turn toward the middle of the court, seeing where you placed the ball in your opponent’s court. Bring the racquet down gently to both hands, and your bellybutton, while slowly going to the center of the court. Round the can, and so on, over and over.
You can alternate with your friend, and feed balls to him. Trade places with him. If you are feeding the ball with your racquet, bounce the ball a little to your front and to your right. Using the same gentle swing as in your drills, direct the ball as if you were tossing it to your friend, so that he can hit it comfortably.
DRILL #10: As soon as you feel in complete control of your stroke and the ball, you can get rid of the can. Stand midway between the service line and the baseline, or perhaps closer to the service line, whichever is to your liking. Now you can hit balls back and forth with someone good enough, with your forehand only (and only to your friend’s forehand if your friend is also at this stage).
Hit at a slow pace, a few feet over the net. Always return, at least a few feet, toward the center after each hit. Pivot back and forth, just like in the drill around the can.
When you are able to hit ten or twenty balls back and forth, move further back. Work out the speed gradually to a medium-paced rally.
You’ll find that there is plenty of time between each of your hits. At this pace the ball takes between one and a half to two seconds to go from baseline to baseline, assuming that it cleared the net by a few feet and that it bounced near the service line. Therefore, the ball can take from three to four seconds between the time you strike it until it comes back into your racquet again.
That is plenty of time for you to follow through all the way in your swing, to take a few steps toward the middle, to run again and to go back to hit another forehand.
You can do everything as you did during the drills, without rushing at all. On the contrary, emphasize waiting and moving slowly. Find the ball well and finish your stroke all the way.
Choose whatever feels best, is the least strenuous, and allows you to stay loose. Swing smoothly and firmly, without disturbing the feel of lifting the ball and completing your swing. All the small adjustments to the flight of the ball, body motion and position, distance, etc., will start to occur instinctively. They will all build automatically if you keep your focus on finding the ball and finishing your stroke.
Drifting to the Center
There is usually a four-inch line at the center of the baseline to indicate the center of the court.
While playing a match, or hitting back and forth, you don’t need to get to the middle of the court all the time. After striking the ball, drift slowly toward the middle. Then if you see your opponent hit the ball behind you (the place you just left), turn right back to get the ball.
As you watch a professional match, you may see that players sometimes skip sideways toward the center, usually after they hit a crosscourt shot. Moreover, professional players do it without covering too much territory. They are just staying in the vicinity of their opponent’s highest percentage shot, which would be another crosscourt. If there is any kind of pressure, or they need to cover more territory or to get somewhere fast, they pivot for their run.
This pivoting is common to many sports and a very natural thing to do. You see kids of a very tender age turning in whichever direction they want to go. As a matter of fact, they do that before they learn to walk.
In order for you to learn to play naturally and efficiently, even under pressure, you need to groove-in your pivoting from the start. The drill with the can of balls is the best way to get used to it. From my experience with students, learning to sidestep at this stage just impairs coordination and timing and severely complicates the whole learning process.
The most common error is to rush arm movement, which destroys your feel of the ball. Sometimes it pays to wait too long when you are learning or practicing, because this way you’ll find out exactly how long you can wait. If you get used to rushing, you’ll never know how long you could have waited before swinging. The compensations players create to make up for being early usually hide the perception of this error. The difference may be in the one hundredth of a second, but it will affect your play.
Focusing Your Attention
Introducing additions to the techniques, like worrying about your steps, your body position, and the like, may complicate your learning process. There is a difference between focusing your attention and just being aware of something while focusing on something else.
Good concentration is focusing all your attention into one thing. The more you isolate that particular thing from the rest, the better your concentration is. Here in tennis is hand-eye-ball above all!
Human beings tend to lose their concentration easily. Top pros don’t. Not all pros act the same between points, but, while the ball is in play, there is nothing else in the world to the pro but finding it and getting it back.
Of course, they are aware of other things. But, again, their focus is directed toward the feel of a very few important things that are clearly explained in this book.
Students who have their whole attention on the feel of the ball and the finish of the swing look very stylish and coordinated. On the other hand, those who pay attention to their feet usually look stiff, unnatural, and sometimes plainly uncoordinated. The reason behind that is that they focus their attention on things that need to happen naturally, taking valuable attention away from the most important thing, which is finding and feeling the ball.
A beginner should never be told, as stressed in most conventional teaching techniques, to take the racquet back. Taking your racquet back early, or hard, or fast, separates your hand from the ball. You won’t find the ball well.
There is no early, separate backswing in the greatest strokes in the game. There is simply a movement back and forth where the player is generating momentum according to the power he wants in the shot, while still carefully finding the ball.
In modern forehands this momentum is generated mostly by a turn from the waist up. It is like a twisted spring that will come back with force. The right hand also goes back and forth just prior to the hit, but the player feels that the hand is still near the ball, therefore “finding it” well before exploding from the ball forward.
If you are a beginner, let it be a gentle, slow movement at first. Keep in mind that you are learning control first, before you hit as hard as a pro. You want to find the ball perfectly and smoothly and to feel the impact as long as you can.
Your backswing may be circular or straight down and up. It may be almost nonexistent at first. As long as you find the ball well and you don’t disturb your racquet angle, there isn’t much difference between the two. This part of the swing is peculiar to each player and shouldn’t be disturbed. It is the way a player “finds” the ball.
Do not fear hitting high over the net. Many people have the idea that they need to hit down to get the ball to drop in the court. From baseline to baseline the distance is 78 feet. Your slow backcourt groundstroke has a mathematical and physical impossibility of clearing your opponent’s baseline, no matter how high you hit the ball, unless it is carried by the wind. The same goes for a medium-speed shot hit with plenty of topspin.
One very common error is to hit the ball very low over the net. This causes more errors than hitting safely over the net. I remember a stage in my life when I lost more matches to the net than to my opponents.
While practicing groundstrokes, put a string two or three feet above the net and hit over it. Many pros follow this rule, especially the topspin players, who get depth in their shots either by hitting very hard or hitting high over the net, or both.
“Breaking” the Wrist
Do not snap your wrist forward as you hit. It causes you to lose control and possibly strain your arm. Bending the wrist forward is usually a compensation for hitting too early. The player is swinging and the ball isn’t quite there yet. He looks for it with the tip of the racquet, and the ball often ends up crosscourt.
It is your hand that moves, not just the racquet. The racquet head is actually slightly behind the hand when you are finding the ball. For a topspin forehand, you should actually be able to see the back of your hand throughout the whole shot.
Forearm rotation helps to lift the ball and rotate it with topspin. The following picture sequences show this windshield-wiper rotation of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer:
Dropping the racquet Head
You can let the racquet head drop as low as you like below your hand and below the ball before you hit. This will help you to lift the ball and put topspin to it. Keeping the head of the racquet up all the time, as recommended by many tennis teachers, will not only stiffen your swing but also strain your forearm. It is one of the primary causes of “tennis elbow”, a chronic pain at the outside of the elbow.
Lifting the Body
Your body will usually help to lift the ball by pulling up. This is a very natural thing to do. The more topspin you hit, the more your body needs to help the lift. To stay low throughout the shot can dampen your feel of lifting and stand in the way of developing a great topspin stroke.
To handle topspin balls coming at you, you may need to move back to get away from the bounce. This way you let the ball lose some of its sting and come to a comfortable height where you can also hit it back with topspin. The most comfortable height to hit a groundstroke with topspin is usually between knee level and waist level.
“Hitting on the Rise”
Attacking a high topspin ball is delicate and risky. The best place to attack such a ball, other than to volley it before it bounces, is to hit it right after the bounce, with the ball at knee level or below. With the ball rising, you need to close fairly well the racquet face. This takes great timing and touch (perfect contact between racquet and ball) while the ball is still going fast. It is best to leave that until you are very experienced in the game. During your early tennis development stages, use the safest and most consistent option, which is to let the ball slow down by moving back. Let it come down comfortably, and hit topspin back.
Not all topspin shots are high. You’ll see the pros hitting hard topspin shots low over the net for sharp crosscourts or forceful passing shots.
On a topspin crosscourt shot you can achieve a greater angle than with a flat stroke without having to slow down your shot.
On a topspin passing shot, your opponent has more difficulty handling your ball because it drops much more quickly after crossing the net. (A passing shot is the shot that you hit with a groundstroke to pass an opponent who has come to the net and wants to volley your next shot.)
There are so many advantages to topspin on groundstrokes that they are still being discovered by many of the top pros.