“Tennis is a simple game but it's human beings that make it so complex.” These are words that struck me when I heard them from Sven Groeneveld, coach of Maria Sharapova. There is some truth in it. The tennis game is played by 2 or 4 players. They only need to hit the ball over the net and the opposite players need to do the same thing to return the ball.
The whole process repeats. It's that simple.
So, what made tennis game so complex? Well, obviously, it's us who try to make things difficult for ourselves. When we play competitively, we want to hit the ball away from the opponent, so we need to hit with accuracy. We want to take time away from the opponent, so we hit the ball on the rise or we hit with more power. We want to take our opponent out of their comfort zone so we hit with high topspin or hit wicked slices.
All these things make the tennis game fun but daunting for new learners.
In this article, I want to emphasize that I'm not focusing on specific technical skills like forehand or backhand.
What I am sharing are some simple concepts that I have discovered and how these ideas can help you to understand the tennis game better and eventually play the game with more confidence.
What is your intention when you hit that tennis ball?
The first concept that I want to share with you is the idea of intention. Everything that we do in life should have an intention behind it. For example, why do we go to work? Why do we eat? And of course, why do we want to play tennis game? We know reasons for all the questions above. The same thing goes for hitting the tennis ball.
For a beginner, I believe the intention is to hit the tennis ball over to your friend consistently. However, in front of you is an obstacle and that is the net. You need to hit the ball over the obstacle so that it can reach your “goal” (your friend). Human beings are smart animals. When we are presented with an obstacle, we will somehow find a way to overcome it.
For example, if I were to tell you to walk in a straight path towards the corner of the room, you have no problem with that. If I were to place a chair in middle of your path, you will just move around that chair (obstacle) and continue towards the destination.
When the net is in front of you, you know that you need to lift the ball up so that it can clear the obstacle and land on your friend’s side of the court. With that intention, your course of action becomes a lifting action. The arm movement is usually a short and compact lifting action.
When you play more often and find that the lifting action is not bringing the ball nicely to where you want it to be, you feel frustrated. The lifting either causes the ball to go very high or to go short. If you want more pace, you end up hitting the ball out of the court. Not a fun way to play tennis game.
So, you think of ways to fine-tune the shots. Lifting the ball up over the net is only part of the intention. The other part of the intention is to include making the ball land in your friend's court, either towards him (collaborative) or away from him (competitive).
Therefore, your arm movement is now like drawing a semicircle. Unknowingly, you are trying to hit some topspin on the tennis ball. You want the ball to roll over the net and dip into the court and that explains the movement of the arm.
Gradually when you play more or get some tennis instructions from the pros, you learn back swing, contact and follow through and how to make the shot more effectively with proper bio mechanics.
Importance of topspin in tennis. Image Source: Quora
By now, I hope you understand the importance of intention and how it helps you in your tennis game. Let us talk about the different situations that you may face on court.
Facing Different Situations In Tennis Game
High ball and high bounce
This is going to be your “favourite” shot. Your partner or opponent gives you a high ball and it is going to bounce high above your shoulder. You are struggling to return it and most of the time you dump the ball into the net. This is so irritating!
With the knowledge about intention, how should we return the high ball?
Suggestion 1: Move back and hit the ball at normal height
If you have the space and time to move back, you can move back behind the baseline to return the high ball. The intention is to hit the ball at a comfortable height which is around waist height. From here, you should be thinking about the same swing pattern that I mentioned earlier.
Suggestion 2: Hit the ball above shoulder level
If you do not have the space or time to move back and you have no choice but to hit the ball above the shoulder, what would your intention be?
Many players tend to have the “wrong intention,” that of thinking of hitting the ball down immediately. They feel that they are contacting the ball at such a high contact point that their intuition is to whack the ball down. Sounds familiar?
By doing this, you did not consider the obstacle (the net) and you ended up dumping the ball into the net. Then you cursed yourself again.
With the intention of hitting the high ball over, your swing should be a horizontal line to clear the net. Once you have cleared the net, you want the ball to dip into the opposite court. Therefore, your swing path becomes a horizontal path followed by a high follow through.
Suggestion 3: Hit on the rise
The third suggestion to reply a high bouncing shot is to hit the ball on the rise. This is not the easiest shot to hit as it requires good timing and judgement. However, let's talk about the intention behind hitting on the rise.
When the ball comes towards you with a high trajectory, you want to prevent yourself from hitting it above your shoulder. Therefore, you should be thinking of pushing the ball forward the moment it bounces up. Now pushing something doesn't require a lot of take back so your back swing should be shorter than your usual ground strokes. Maintain your balance and push the ball back in the same direction.
Handling different kinds of ball speed
We have discussed the flight of the balls, let's talk about the pace of the ball that is coming towards you.
If your friend loves to whack the ball hard and every shot is like a bullet coming at you, how do you usually react or do you simply not react?
What should your intention be towards fast balls? First, I believe you want more time to react. You can't possibly ask your opponent to hit slower balls to you, so you have got to figure out how to react to their fast balls.
Suggestion 1: Move further away from the baseline
I know many players who have less experience like to just stay behind the baseline to wait for the ball. I guess this is what they are taught during lessons. The coach will say, “Alright, stand behind the baseline and hit the ball over the net.” Then he will feed nice balls for the player to practice.
This is not wrong. However, the player tends to have this habit of staying there when it comes to live play.
So, this is what you are going to do. Next time when you are playing with someone who is a hard hitter, move further back from the baseline. It could be as far as three meters behind the baseline. This is to give yourself more time and space to return the fast balls. Your intention is to buy more time so that you can prepare your swing to return the ball.
Suggestion 2: Have a shorter back swing
My next suggestion is to use a shorter backswing and think of blocking the fast balls over the net. What I'm trying to say is when you are handling fast balls, there is no time to have a big and long backswing. At the beginner’s level, your intention is to return the ball consistently over the net. The best option for you is to pull back the racket slightly and return the ball by borrowing the pace from the fast ball.
You, as the initiator
I have covered how to handle high balls and fast balls. Let's talk about you initiating the shots. What should your intention be so that you have a more successful outcome?
If you are playing a collaborative tennis game, I.e. rallying with your friends only, then your intention is very simple. You just need to consistently put the ball over the net without much power.
If you are playing competitive tennis, then the intention is to really make your opponent uncomfortable. How to do that? Let me share some ideas on how to make them “hate” playing with you.
Identify their strengths and weakness
This is a common strategy that you can use. The intention is to avoid their strengths and exploit their weaknesses. If you have played them before and know their game well then you can derive a strategy easily to play them.
However, if you are playing them for the first time, then you need to quickly recognise their possible strengths and weaknesses during the warm up. For example, do they keep running around the backhand to hit with their forehand? Does it mean that they have a weak backhand and don't want to show you?
Disrupt their rhythms
The intention of this idea is to prevent giving your opponent a nice rhythm to play their shots. Some players love to rally and they seem to be like a wall. If you can throw in slices or drop shots to disrupt their rhythm, you may gain the upper hand.
Playing with different height
You hate high balls? I'm sure your opponent hates them too. I love to play high topspin shots to my opponent's backhand because I have a high chance of getting a weak return. If you have an average player hitting with an extreme western grip, you can throw some low balls at them. If they can't adapt fast, they will very likely shank the ball.
Take time away from them
I mentioned taking the ball on the rise earlier when I discussed handling high balls. You can use this technique to take time away from the opponent. If you hit with the 'normal’ rhythm, I.e. to hit the ball after it rises and on the way down, the timing is very comfortable for the opponent. However, if you step in closer to the baseline and take every shot on the rise, you are going to give your opponent hell. The rhythm is so much faster now!
Andre Agassi is well known for hitting on the rise to take time away from his opponent
Another way to take time away is to use aggressive tactics such as the serve and volley, hitting approach shots or using swing volleys to finish the point. However, do note that these ideas need to be practiced. They are all advanced strategies and techniques.
Make them guess
You probably have heard of different playing styles in any tennis game. For example; serve and volley, all court player, aggressive baseliner, counter puncher etc. Many professional tennis players are well known for their style as well. For example, when you hear of Pete Sampras, you will think of serve and volley. When you hear of Roger Federer, you will think of all court player.
In my opinion, it is good to have your own style of play and master that style such that it becomes your core strength. However, it is also good to occasionally mix up your play to spring a surprise on your opponent.
Federer, for example, used to play a lot of aggressive baseline shots. We have seen many times that on certain occasions, he will use serve and volley tactics to pressure the opponent on the return of serve.
So, I encourage you to learn different styles of play in your tennis game and keep your opponent guessing on what you are going to do next.
This post is not so much about teaching the details of specific technique. I want to let you have a sense of awareness of what you are doing on the tennis court so that your learning and execution in your tennis game becomes more meaningful. If you have benefited from this post, please share it with your friends who are still struggling with their tennis game so that they can enjoy playing better tennis.
Do you always think about the intention of your shots? Let me know by replying in the comment box below.