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INSTRUCTION: Master the volley
by Tom Gullikson
From the APRIL 2002 issue of TENNIS Magazine
Photos by Fred Mullane
Want to get an edge in today’s power-baseline game? Master the volley. Here are the ABCs.
ne of the toughest arguments to sell an improving player on is that good things can happen when you get to the net. It doesn’t matter that you’ve put yourself in an aggressive position or that all the pressure is on your opponent or even that the volley is a rather simple shot. Most players just feel safer glued to the baseline, where they can use their trusty ground strokes. That’s where they learned to play, and those are the shots they feel most comfortable hitting. Even most of today’s pros have an aversion to the net. Why shouldn’t you?
Well, if more players knew how to hit a volley properly, they’d think differently. Not only does having a solid volley add a new dimension to your game, it’s an absolute must if you want to play competitive doubles. A few fundamentals are all you need. Here’s how to turn your volley from a question mark into a reliable weapon.
Transition Game To hit a volley, you’ve got to be moving toward the net. Sounds simple, but making the transition isn’t always easy. To start, any time you’re moving forward, you need to be doing two things before your opponent makes contact with the ball. The first is to split-step. The second is to square your shoulders in the direction of your opponent. This will cut down on the angles you have to cover.
Ready Or Not The ready position for a volley is different from the ready position for a ground stroke. At the baseline, players tend to have their arms hanging down loose and relaxed, the racquet at waist level and its face even with their wrist. At net, I like to see players with the racquet face above the wrist, at chest level directly underneath the chin, pointing straight ahead. Hold the racquet with a relaxed Continental grip, keep the hitting elbow in front of the body, and give yourself support by placing the fingertips of the non-hitting hand on the throat. Bend your knees a bit and you’re ready to move for a forehand or backhand volley with equal efficiency.
Setting the Table As soon as the ball comes off your opponent’s strings, “pop” your shoulders. That’s what I like to call the little bit of shoulder turn you take to get the strings in line with (not above or below) the flight of the ball. Too many players stay open on the volley, especially on the forehand side. They don’t turn, so they end up swatting at the ball.
If the shot is coming to your forehand side, turn your non-dominant shoulder toward the net just slightly (do the same with your dominant shoulder on a backhand volley). Don’t take the racquet back any farther than that. When learning to volley, it’s important to remember that you don’t want much of a backswing. You want to keep everything moving forward. Start to think about taking the racquet back on the volley and you’ll be stuck with a big backswing and bad timing.
When preparing to hit a backhand volley, use your non-dominant hand as a guide to help get the racquet in line with the flight of the ball. You can practice this by holding the throat of the racquet with your non-dominant hand and having a partner hit feeds so that you can line the racquet up behind the ball. This will show you exactly what the non-hitting hand should be doing during a volley.
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The flick of the wrist
The grip upon impact
lay tennis long enough and there will undoubtedly be a time when you throw a fit on the court. You don’t have to be a violent person or a hothead to have a McEnroe moment—it can happen to anyone. But the negative effects of on-court anger can be minimized if you come prepared to handle these situations.
First, identify and list the factors that have frustrated you in the past. It may be line calls, players on an adjacent court, a blister, anything that has made your blood boil. This will help you figure out, pre-match, the things over which you have little or no control. On court, you can eliminate those things from your thoughts and concentrate on the one element of the match that you can control, namely, your play.
Still, it’s inevitable that at some point your game will falter and your temper will get the best of you. Once the frustration starts, you need to realize that you’re having a meltdown. Too often, players don’t even know they’re losing it. Obvious behavioral outbursts such as racquet abuse, shouting or negative self-talk, excuse-making, and arguing with your opponent are all indications that it’s time to cool off. If players continually fall victim to their emotions during matches, they should be videotaped and made aware of the warning signs. Also, coaches should stop play during practices and point out such emotional-control problems to their students.
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Roddick can crack a serve 140 m.p.h., but he knows he has to get a lot stronger. “I’m not even close to where I need to be,” he says.
He may be closer than he thinks. At 19, Roddick is the most promising young American player since the Agassi-Chang-Courier-Sampras juggernaut of the late 1980s. While many compare Roddick to Sampras in terms of athletic ability, the teenager is trying to develop Courier’s stellar off-court work habits so he can fully capitalize on his talent. Roddick’s coach, former pro Tarik Benhabiles, designs his charge’s workouts. Together, Roddick says, they’re trying to “bring out my athleticism on the court” and make his body “more solid.”
“At home in Boca Raton [Fla.], my first practice is at 10 A.M. on the court behind my house,” Roddick says. “Tarik runs me around, hitting balls into the corners and up around the net. Then we’ll hit crosscourt for a while and do a couple of approach-shot and volley drills. I’m more of a baseliner now, but I’ll be coming to the net more and more.”
After 90 minutes they break for lunch, which usually means a trip to Subway for a Subway Melt. “I’m a big sandwich eater,” Roddick says. Afternoon practice begins at 2 and runs for 90 minutes. “I’ll play sets with different guys in the area,” Roddick says. “Tarik makes it where I’ll have to serve and volley on both my first and second serves. It makes it tougher this way because my opponent knows I’m always coming to net.”
Roddick and Benhabiles then head to a soccer field, where Roddick runs sprints of 20, 30, and 40 yards on the grass. “It’s not so hard on the knees,” he says. They’ll also do a series of sprints in which Benhabiles will point in different directions and Roddick must run or sidestep to the target areas.
YOUR TURN: Try these running drills on court. For quickness, do suicides. Starting on the doubles sideline, sprint to each line on the court, touch it, and sprint back. Touch the nearest singles sideline first, then the service T, then the far singles sideline, and finish with the far doubles sideline. Focus on getting good first steps and maintaining top speed throughout the exercise. Do three sets.
Now try Roddick’s drill for changing directions. Stand at the service T in a ready position (without a racquet) and have a partner stand at net and point in various directions. Move to each intended spot just as you would during a match—side-step, backpedal, sprint forward. Have your partner vary the length of each run.
AFTER 30 MINUTES OF SPRINTING, Roddick and Benhabiles work on strength training for 45 minutes. “Every workout, I’ll do exercises for my abs and back muscles,” says Roddick.
He lifts with free weights, machines, and exercise bands, targeting different muscle groups each day and doing four or five sets of 15 reps. Shoulders and quads are both high on Roddick’s priority list. “I’m not much on the bench press,” jokes Roddick. “Compared to Jan-Michael [Gambill, Roddick’s doubles partner], that is.”
The workout concludes with 25 minutes of stretching. “I do the usual hamstring and butt stretches,” says Roddick, “and a lot of shoulder and arm stretches. I pull my arm across my chest. I’ll put my wrist on the side of my hip and pull the elbow in toward the chest, and I’ll do a triceps stretch where I pull my elbow up over my head.”
YOUR TURN: It’s important to take a few minutes to stretch after you work out, when your muscles are relaxed and pliable. You can also stretch before a workout—just make sure you’ve warmed up properly by jogging, jumping rope, walking briskly, or playing mini-tennis for about 5 minutes. Tennis players should always stretch the hamstrings, calves, quads, shoulders, and back. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, then relax and repeat, trying to go a little deeper into the stretch the second time.
RODDICK WRAPS UP HIS TRAINING DAY AT THE dinner table, where, he says, “I eat a lot of food.” The kid has been around the world, but his favorite restaurant is in Boca Raton. “Baja Café has the best-ever Mexican food. I like the chicken enchiladas.” One day, Roddick hopes, it’ll be the food of a Grand Slam champion.
Ages 14–15: Now’s the time to start improving flexibility and building strength. Think yoga is only for old folks? “No way,” Patton says. “If you start doing flexibility work in your early teens—and yoga is ideal—you’ll be ahead of your competitors in the future.” Be diligent about stretching for 20 minutes after every workout and match. This is the age when both boys and girls can begin doing some strength training. Body-weight exercises (squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, crunches) or light weights with lots of reps are safe for the middle teen years. “You’re still growing, and you don’t want to risk damaging your body by using heavy weights,” Patton says. Also, try a weekly plyometric workout to build explosive strength (for a plyometric routine, see our April 2001 issue). Interval work is equally important, but rather than running sprints on the court, try some frisbee in the park. “The important thing is to make it fun,” Patton says.
Ages 16 and up: Get serious. Now that you know tennis is the sport for you, it’s time to accelerate your training. “Find a qualified fitness coach who’ll start you on a program specifically for tennis,” Patton says. But, he adds, “running six miles and bench-pressing your max aren’t going to help you.” Match-play stamina and anaerobic fitness (using quick bursts of energy) are what’s important. You should also begin training in cycles. “Work harder during the off-season,” Patton says, “and taper off when match play begins.”
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fter playing the game for 25 years, the last 11 as an ATP pro, I still look forward to hitting the court. I love tennis, and my passion keeps getting stronger.
For this, I have to thank the instructors I’ve had over the years. One of my first, Rick Ferman, taught me the fundamentals and helped me progress into more sophisticated areas, such as movement and balance. Later, Rick encouraged me to embrace Jose Higueras’ teachings. Jose, one-time coach of Jim Courier, opened my mind to new concepts and polished some of my rough edges. And now? At the ripe old age of 31, I remain a work in progress, fine-tuning my game with the continued help of Rick and Jose as well as my full-time coach of six years, Dean Goldfine.
The key to my success has not only been that I’ve had the privilege of working with extraordinary instructors, but that I’ve learned the game in a progressive manner. My teachers always understood that even though they had more knowledge to impart to me, it would be beneficial to expose me to other qualified opinions.
Under the current system, two teaching organizations, the U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) and the Professional Tennis Registry (PTR), certify pros to be jacks-of-all-trades who can instruct beginners, intermediates, and advanced players. That’s useful, but there needs to be more emphasis on helping instructors recognize the appropriate next step in a student’s development. Does the player need work on the transition game? Passing shots? Slice backhand? Court awareness? Realistically, instructors can’t be expected to teach effectively at every level. That would be like asking someone to teach kindergarten through graduate school.
But we can insist that instructors have the foresight to know when it’s time for their students to receive additional input, and which pros would be best suited to contribute their ideas.
Toward that end, we should establish a specialized teaching infrastructure that would provide a better educational ladder upon which junior players could climb. Pros would be accredited in specific areas of expertise. We could have specialists in basic strokes, others who are proficient in movement, balance, strategy, and doubles tactics, and still others who focus on the art of competition and the mental game. We could even train Ph.D.s of tennis to tackle the nuances of the sport for top juniors.
Some of our most respected teachers already practice a progressive approach. Robert Lansdorp, whose specialty is ground strokes, has worked with Pete Sampras and Tracy Austin, among others. After his students learn the baseline game, he directs them to other experts, like Higueras. What makes Jose special? He knows that an integral part of elite training is understanding an individual’s style of play and how that affects one’s ability to recognize opportunities to be offensive and defensive.
By standardizing this progressive approach, we’d ensure that all kids get a sense that they’re improving—graduating, in a way, to the next level. And this is key, because we all know that tennis has a steep learning curve, and if you don’t feel like you’re making any progress, it’s easy to simply throw in the towel.
The time for action is now. Let’s start by getting more of our best tour players (retired and active) involved in player development and asking our most successful teaching pros to share their secrets. We also need to encourage the powers that be to scrap the way we do things and adopt a progressive system.
I’ll always be grateful to my teachers for the lessons they taught me and the way they helped me maintain my devotion to the game. I wish the same thing for all the youngsters picking up racquets for the first time, for the teenagers competing in their first tournaments, and for those who aspire to a career in this wonderful sport.
|English translation:Can we help you?|
Gaston, do you need help translating this? If so, feel free to post it as a translating job, and any number of qualified professionals will be glad to help you. :-))
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