SOME BASICS FOR EARLY LEARNERS
By TennisTom 2010
▌ © C. Tom Harton 1991-2011 ▐
Here are some fundamental observations which I have culled from four decades of playing, and later instructing, tennis.
PRACTICE. Any tennis is better than none, however unless you practice with mostly correct form at least twice a week, or more, you are getting exercise but may not be improving your tennis skills very much.
BACKBOARDS. I do NOT recommend that early learning students use a backboard or wall for learning tennis strokes. It tends to propagate incorrect form. It’s quite difficult or impossible for a novice to hit against a wall easily enough and accurately enough to allow time to prepare his or her form properly for the next swing. Especially when you are learning, a rushed shot kills your form “dead.” Once you have developed fairly consistent form, feel free to tryst with a backboard or wall if that’s your pleasure.
GOOD STROKES, aka Correct Stroke Mechanics. An indecorous truth: Almost all untrained novice or intermediate tennis students who have been playing a while, even if they play regularly, will never get very much better than they are now, unless they change some of their mechanics to a more "classic," proven style. Building Classic Tennis Stroke Mechanics are always emphasized in my clinics.
“Bad strokes unchanged last forever, with the same mediocre results.”
GROUNDSTROKE FOREHAND GRIP. For early learners I like the “shake hands” or Eastern grip forehand – because the palm of your hand is in the same plane as the racket strings. It requires less wrist oscillation than other grips and it is versatile. To achieve it, lay your palm flat on the strings, bring your hand straight down the racket handle, and shake hands with the racket handle. Beginners should check their grip from time to time; otherwise, if your grip is improper, the instruction you are given may be incompatible with the desired outcome. The way to check your Eastern grip yourself is to be sure that your forehand index finger knuckle pad rests on the rear-most handle bevel which is furthermost from the net. There are eight bevels on a tennis racket handle for a reason: they are there so that you can locate your grip by feel rather than my sight.
READY POSITION. Competitive social tennis can be and often is 100% absorbing. The best players are continually ready for an emergency! ALWAYS BEND YOUR KNEES, which lowers your center of gravity. If you fail to bend your knees, like many inexperienced players, your game will be greatly hindered because you can't move quickly or stay in balance. Put your weight on the balls of your feet so that you can spring off in any direction like the sleeping puma inside you. You’ll be much quicker if you always start from a knees-bent position. Just for laughs, you can try this experiment. Lock your knees so that both legs are straight. then jump into a quick run without first bending your knees. Ha! [For details of the ready position, see my instructional “Ready Position & Footwork Basics.”]
YOUR NON-DOMINANT HAND. Grasp Your Racket Throat Lightly Between Strokes with Your Free Hand. This allows you to quickly change your grip in preparation for a one-handed backhand volley or backhand groundstroke, etc. It allows two-handed backhand volleyers and two-handed groundstrokers to prepare earlier. Also when you take your racket back for a forehand groundstroke, holding onto your racket momentarily with your non-dominant hand causes you to rotate your torso, which is exactly what you should do for a forehand groundie. When you have rotated, immediately release you non-dominant hand and extend it out towards the net. This is for good body balance.
RACKET SWING PREPARATION
GETTING YOUR RACKET BACK EARLY ENOUGH. Newly learning players are often late getting their racket back quickly enough. Starting your stroke backswing late results in a self-created emergency. When this happens, your swing looks like a jerky swat rather than a smooth flowing stroke. Good timing often does not come intuitively. Late takeback can become a habit and cause late hits, so beware of this complication.
FOR GROUNDSTROKES YOU SHOULD HAVE STARTED YOUR RACKET BACKSWING AT LEAST BY THE TIME THE ONCOMING BALL CROSSES THE NET. For closed groundstrokes, as you take your racket back, IMMEDIATELY ROTATE YOUR SHOULDERS ABOUT 90o TO THE NET. Every time.
HERE ARE THE THREE FOREHAND STANCES: [Also covered in the instructional “Forehand Stance, Backswing & Follow Through Basics by TennisTom”]
Closed Stance – This position is established when you rotate your body and feet 90 degrees to the net as you prepare to hit the ball. In other words, you have rotated your entire body. I prefer this stance as it allows you to swing at the ball using a forward motion with your racket face directly in line towards your target area. I call this in-line racket movement a “linear section.” It is easier to develop forehand control using this method because your racket face is moving straight at the ball rather than tracing a semi-circular pattern. The closed stance alignment, also called “side on,” is where your left foot and right foot are in line with each other and your left shoulder is pointed toward your target area. The closed stance is optimal for the beginner and intermediate player, which is to say 90-some percent of the early learning tennis players.
Semi-Open Stance – This stance is similar to the closed stance except that your right foot is moved back only half the distance from the net of the closed stance. With this stance your feet are roughly at a 45 degree angle in relation to the net.
Open Stance – This stance is similar to the semi-open stance except that both of your feet are side by side and your body is standing parallel to the net. This stance requires that you torque your shoulders, arms, and hips a great deal. It is sometimes called a “modern forehand” and was necessitated by the significantly higher-paced shots involved in professional and college-level arenas. With this stance great body flexibility is required and is more suited for youthful players. This type of alignment is primarily useful for the more elite competitors in the world.
CONFIGURATION OF YOUR HITTING ARM. As you rotate both shoulders for a groundstroke, your weight should naturally shift to your back foot. YOUR RACKET ARM SHOULD NOW BE IN A DOUBLE BEND POSITION (with your elbow comfortably bent and your wrist bent backward) so that the tip of your racket head is pointing back towards the rear fence and the butt of your racket handle pointing forward towards your target.
WEIGHT TRANSFER. For groundstrokes most of your body weight, except in dire emergency, should be where your racket is. In other words, your weight should move in synchrony with your racket. When you take your racket back your body weight should go backward. When your racket goes forward to contact the ball your body weight should shift forward. Players who use “all arm” do not do this. Using all arm swing requires more arm speed for the same pace; in other words you have to swing harder than if you shift you body weight forward into your stroke. To repeat, if you do not do this body weight transfer, this requires more racket speed to produce the same pace on a ball.
A general rule for most groundstrokes is:
The harder you swing at the ball, the less control you have.
Control is a sine qua non -- essential element -- in the game of tennis.
FOOTWORK -- GETTING TO THE BALL. This is just as necessary as swinging correctly. If your body is not in good position to hit the ball when you swing, no matter how good your stroke is, you will not contact the ball properly, and the ball will go to an unintended destination. Improper footwork and body preparation are a significant cause of inconsistency. As you are getting your racket back and preparing to swing, you should Adjust Your Feet SO THAT THE BALL ARRIVES AT YOUR HITTING ZONE, NEAR YOUR WAIST. This is called “setting up” for the ball.
Tip: Beginners are notorious for contacting the ball mid-chest to neck high; and this ruins their form if they are trying to hit a topspin groundstroke. If hitting flat, contacting the ball this high most often produces medium lobs. (See below for the logic of hitting topspin vs flat.)
Your wonderful mind's computer will tell your feet where to go with practice, however, after your body moves to the correct court position, YOU STILL HAVE TO RELENTLESSLY WATCH THE BALL AND HOW IT BOUNCES. If your feet don't carry your body to approximately the right spot then your shot will often be variations of a disaster. Your computer can't tell you where to go unless you watch the ball closely, including its spin. As you become more proficient with your tennis skills, you will also be able to anticipate spin due to the direction that your opponent moves his racket.
Important Examples: When your opponent hits topspin, his or her racket moves from low to high. When your opponent hits slice (underspin), his or her racket moves from high to low. Topspin bounces higher. Slice bounces lower. If your opponent swings flat and contacts the ball with the racket face at right angles with the ball trajectory, the bounce is governed by the laws of physics (gravity).
WATCHING THE BALL: You can pick out the seams on most balls if you look closely! Really! The reason I use two-colored balls in my clinics is so that you can more easily detect spin, not only of the ball coming toward you but also of the ball you have just hit.
As a trained observer who watches student’s eyes, I have noticed that many players do not actually watch the ball, even though they think they are doing so. Here is a little self test that will tell the tale. Try freezing you head at impact each time you hit a ball. Check to see where your head & eyes are aligned – down at the ball contact area, or upward to see where the ball is going? (Roger Federer, a world class champion, is probably the best tennis ball watcher in the world, according to hundreds of photos on the Internet. I have never seen a photo of him at ball contact when his eyes were not glued to the ball.)
IN-HEAD DIALOG FOR RUNNING TO THE BALL. Try talking to yourself. Nobody will think you are crazy, unless you talk out loud. A really good internal dialog for getting to and hitting the ball is: "QUICK! QUICK! QUICK! SLOOOOOW,” where “Quick!” refers to your footwork and “Slooooow” refers to your swing." It can be quite helpful to repeat this to yourself as you run to the ball. It means moving your feet quickly to get to the ball, preparing your body stance as early as possible, and swinging moderately slow and deliberately. Try this internal dialog during practice and see if it is helpful. Even for players with experience this mantra often helps when their shots are “off.” (Tip of the tennis cap to Sam Chung of Durham, NC for this valuable suggestion.)
SWING SLOW & SMOOTH (sic, pardon the grammar). Having arrived at the right spot and with your body IN BALANCE, you should try to smoothly SWING YOUR RACKET FROM LOW TO HIGH (for topspin), transferring your weight forward along with your racket. Many beginners tend to SLAP at the ball -- WRIST BENDING, or to jerkily PUSH the racket at the ball rather than swinging rhythmically. The idea when hitting groundstrokes is to swing your racket with a smooth “flow” as often as possible.
Helper hint courtesy of Silvestre Tejada: Swing smoothly and keep your head still: Do not lift your head up as you hit the ball. Keep your head still until you have completed impact. Lifting or jerking your head at impact will tend to make your shot go astray.
TOPSPIN. Groundstroke topspin is imparted forward rotation on a tennis ball. Here is one way to envision how to hit a tennis ball with topspin. Imagine a tennis ball with a large black circle drawn around its equatorial circumference i.e. around the middle of the ball. Imagine this ball is suspended about three feet above the court surface. Imagine that when you swing at the ball you stroke the back of the equator upward. In other words, as you swing forward from low to high, you brush the back of the ball upward with the racket strings. This brushing upward motion causes the ball to spin in a forward, arcing path. Voilá! Topspin!
THE LOGIC FOR HITTING TOPSPIN VERSUS HITTING FLAT. A ball hit flat has mainly gravity to bring it down into the court. A ball hit with forward rotation (topspin) interacts with the air. This air friction is considerably greater at the top of the ball than at the bottom, creating an area of lower air pressure beneath the ball. This results in a steeper and quicker downward arc of the ball into the court. The biggest advantage of topspin is that it gives you a much greater margin against error; that is when you hit with topspin, the window through which the ball can safely travel is larger. Another significant topspin advantage is that you can hit the ball in the court with much more force (pace), which in turn makes your shot more difficult to return by your opponent.
SLICE. Groundstroke slice is imparted reverse rotation on a tennis ball. As in the description of topspin immediately preceding, imagine a tennis ball with a wide black circle drawn around its equatorial circumference. Imagine this ball is suspended about three feet above the court surface. Imagine that when you swing at the ball you stroke the lower back of the equator downward. In other words, as you swing forward from high to low, you brush the back of the ball diagonally downward with the racket strings. This brushing downward motion causes the ball to spin in a downward path with little arc. Naturally the more arm speed you swing with, the properly hit sliced ball will stay lower to the court and be more difficult for your opponent to return. Slice can be hit from anywhere on the court.
RACKET-TO-BALL CONTACT – ONE-HANDED GROUNDSTROKES. Now comes the moment of truth: the racket face contact with the ball. Obviously, if the face of the racket does not address the ball correctly, the ball is compelled to go off target. When using topspin the racket face should be approximately perpendicular to the court surface or tilted slightly downward when you strike the ball. The only exception is when the oncoming ball is so low to the court that you may need to open your racket face a little.
WHERE TO CONTACT THE BALL. You should CONTACT THE BALL OUT IN FRONT OF YOU -- FORWARD OF, OR NEAR, YOUR FRONT FOOT. Your elbow and your wrist should be bent when you make contact. (Two handers do not meet the ball as far forward of their body for physiological reasons.)
THE FOLLOW THROUGH. When you hit a tennis ball with topspin the trajectory and spin of the ball are different if you stop your swing immediately after contact rather than following through high with the racket head. For learners, an important key to good and consistent topspin groundstroking is FINISHING HIGH with your racket.
I recommend that learners finish their groundstrokes with the head of their racket above their shoulder. Pros and other advanced players may use different techniques, but for learning groundstrokes, a high follow through is the best method to use because it insures a complete follow through of your racket.
SELF TALK. Talking to yourself during a match is a smart thing IF you are reminding yourself of good habits (“eyes on the ball,”) or with self reinforcement (“Great shot!”).
PLAYER WHO TAKES THE DOWN-THE-MIDDLE SHOTS. Down-the-middle shots should be taken by the one who is diagonally across from the opponent who hits the ball. If in question, both of you should go for it. Forget the idea that “it was to your forehand.” In any case, back up your partner just in case of momentary narcosis. Want the ball.
SPECTATING. Never spectate after you hit a shot. This means that you should know where to move to intercept the opponent’s likely return. [If you do not know where you should move to, see the instructional “Angle of Possible Good Shots & Percentage Tennis.]
MUSCLE MEMORY. This is the mind > nervous-system > body phenomenon, where the constant repetition of physical movements in tennis becomes ingrained. In other words, repeating the same mechanical movements tends to result in a more or less identical performance of the action without your having to consciously think about it. What does "repeating" mean here? Around one or two thousand identical repetitions of a correct stroke should usually do it. No problem.
Arrrgh note for the nitpicking, intellectually bent, tennis purist: In reality “muscle memory” does not exist because muscles do not have the capacity of memory. Muscle memory is physiologically unrealizable from a literal standpoint; however, I use the phrase because I find it irresistibly appropriate from a psychological viewpoint.
FORM VISUALIZATION – COACHING YOURSELF. Once you can see yourself in your mind's eye executing a proper stroke, you can then coach yourself when you are having trouble. One of the best diagnostic methods is to freeze your movement at the end of your stroke. Immediately after missing a ball you can ask yourself queries like, "Did my racket end up in the right place? Am I in balance? Did I bend my knees? Did I really watch the ball closely?" Since tennis consistency depends so much on proper form, the answer to one or more of these questions after an errant shot will usually be, "No." With this self-diagnosis routine you can appreciably improve your game. [Note: On the other hand, if you are really adverse to analysis and problem solving, you can always play mindless tennis. For a novice, intuitive tennis strokes and four quarters will almost always add up to only a dollar and poor tennis strokes. ]
RACKET FACE TILT (ANGLE). An Internet tennis videotape states that, if you are standing at one baseline and hitting a groundstroke, for every single degree of racket face tilt, the tennis ball’s destination will vary about six feet at the opposite baseline. It also says, “The only thing the ball cares about is the racket face when it meets it.” I like to say your racket face must be more or less correct at the point of contact or your ball will end up in Brazil. That’s why it’s very important for your form to be repetitiously precise. The more precise you are, the better your tennis will be.
PACE and CONTROL. Although I readily admit I cannot explain it, inexperienced players are infamous for hitting the ball too hard (overhitting). If you tend to do this, consciously slow your racket speed down somewhat and think, "Smooth." Believe me, in virtually any tennis venue, CONTROL IS SUPERIOR TO POWER. For years I enjoyed a wise doubles partner who always said “Soft and IN is better than hard and out.” (Thanks to Rod of Raleigh, NC.) He was a tactical control player, which means that he hardly ever made unforced errors. In any kind of tennis, good control is especially effective because your same-level opponent’s biggest deficit is likely to be (you guessed it) lack of consistency.
Humorous yet thoughtful tip from a great Prince commercial:
“The ball and strings are in contact for a fraction of a second.
Use the time wisely.”
EMERGENCIES. Tennis is a game of emergencies. In general the better your opponent, the more pace on the ball, and the more emergencies you can expect. This variability is one of the most engaging aspects of our game for a lifetime -- it’s aliveness. If there were no emergency in tennis, it would be just slightly more fun than watching grass grow.
[7B-Some Basics for Early Learners by TennisTom] [Rev 6-26-10]