The net has become a lost art in tennis, but I think that's about to change. I believe the next paradigm in tennis is the all-around attacking player. You are going to see the same type of power we see now, or even more power, but you are also going to see much more volleying in the next five years.
The next generation of players will transcend these categories and do it all. Players who can stand in and take the ball on the rise. Players who have great variety with slice, drop shots, and feel. And players who want to finish points at the net. It will be natural and instinctive.
The Problem of Power
But that doesn't mean that opportunities aren't there to go to the net. In fact it's the opposite. The power game is actually creating new options for attack. The balls are there for the picking in every pro match I see.
These openings will be something players will look to create and exploit as often as possible. And when a player or two emerges that has success, then the game will change. And we'll see another round of follow the leader from the coaches.
We see the beginning of this trend with the emergence of the swinging volley. I think that's a big plus and I'm glad players are coming off the baseline and taking balls out of the air.
But there's a downside. The swinging volley is really more like an advanced ground stroke. It's really not volleying in my opinion. It's a ground stroke that you hit in the air.
In a way, I think this has actually hurt the development of the game. Players don't see traditional volleying as a winning overall strategy. They may add the swinging volley, but they are giving up on learning all the subtleties involved in playing the net, and developing all their potential weapons.
And I think this is a huge mistake. But it's also an opportunity for the next generation of players. Because the kind of player I'm talking about will do both: hit the swinging volley when appropriate but be able to do hurt their opponents every other way as well.
With my players, we spend an enormous amount of time at the net. This isn't a new idea for me. The net was the first thing on the menu with Venus and Serena Williams. Early on, I saw how that could have gone with their athleticism. We would work an hour a day just at the net, everyday.
This all around attacking style was what I was hoping they would bring to tennis. I was with Venus when she made her pro debut. She came to the net more than 30 times in her first match. And this was as a 14-year old girl.
I remember when Venus played Steffi Graf the first time, she lost 4 and 4. She was taking Steffi's serve, jacking it down the line and coming in as a 15-year old. You never see her do that now. And sure, I can't help wondering what might have been. The problem was that over time things changed, and I never got to finish the job I started.
I think it's only a matter of time though until an athlete with the ability of a Venus or Serena walks all the way down that road. .The fact is the most delicious thing on the plate in women's tennis is the second serve. That's the tastiest thing you've got. You know where it's going. Against some players, it's almost like playing T-ball. And in club tennis it is like playing t-ball. With the right training and practice the average club player could win literally dozens of points on second serve returns followed by solid volleying.
Most pro players train themselves to bang that second ball, but then they hang back. Why not train yourself to bang and go in? I predict that you are going to see this in the women's game. Players are going to go into the net 15, or 20 or 30 times in a match. Coming in on returns. Sneaking in off the ground. And using a sprinkling of serve and volley.
If you train players to attack this way at a young age can it have a negative impact on results in the 10s, 12s and the14s? The answer is yes. But nothing beats the place of on-the-job training. The value of making your net game work in match play at that age is priceless.
When it's break point against you and you can take a one-handed backhand volley and knife it down the line for a winner at 12 years old, that changes who you are as a player. You learn to believe.
It's one thing for me to just tell players this, but when they do it themselves in combat, it's huge. And can you play like that all the time at that age? No because if you do 50 or 100 balls are going to go over your head. But when the right opportunity is there I want my players to immediately to change the channel, chip the ball and go in.
When it comes to actual teaching of the volley, I think we do it completely backwards in this country. The belief is that when you're at the net, you're supposed to tear the guy's head off.
The student is already standing four feet from the net. He doesn't have to complete a pattern and go in. He just stands there and the coach feeds him an absolute duck, and he player kills it. It's impressive. The coach says "Great!" The player is pumped. The parents are on the sideline clapping and cheering.
The same thing happens in club tennis. Players take lessons and never miss a volley when the pro is feeding them. Then they never go to the net in a match.
Let's look at what we're really doing here. My grandmother can make that one static ball. Yes, when it's slow, you should be able to close and put the ball away, but that's not what I call being able to volley.
What you are doing is training the player to create the wrong emotional state. You need to have a feeling of calmness at the net, but what you have actually trained the player to do is become hyper and sometimes out of control. You see it all the time.
Beyond that, you are not training the players to hit the volley as part of a sequence or a transition from the backcourt. They never practice actually moving to the net, so it's not surprising they never get their in matches.
This calmness factor is huge. Why? Because players miss balls at the net because of anxiety. It's the moment of truth. There's no time on the clock. They're at the foul line. It's a completely different feeling than grinding from the baseline, because now, the point is going to be over with one or two shots. That creates pressure.
So the ultimate freak outs occur at the net. Why? Because the emotional climate inside the player is all wrong. The blood is going way too fast. So players swing at the ball and knock it off the fence. Or they tighten up and dump it into the middle of the net.
It happens on the pro tour all the time. It's not technical per se. Players miss at the net because they choke. And they choke because there's no calmness.
There's no calmness because--you can go all the way back to whoever started working with them in the beginning--it wasn't on the menu to create calmness. The volley has been on the back shelf from developmental step one, all the way through the juniors and college. It's not an integral part of how players are taught to play the game. And so it's not an integral part of the way they play.
You've got to get control of the ball, and you've got to relax. But, again the way we are taught to think is wrong. "Be aggressive. Punch it. Put it away." You want to really put it away when the pressure in on in a big match on a big point? You have to learn how to control the ball first. Then you'll put it away without having to think about putting it away.
So the calmness factor is huge. I'll carry on a conversation with the kid. I'll try to make them smile or laugh. I'll ask them what's going on outside of tennis. The saying I use with everybody is: "You've got to try not to try." And suddenly they'll start to feel the ball like there's no tomorrow. They start to understand the net is not just about hitting one big finishing shot from point blank range. It's just another page in the play book.
When I teach kids, the movement to the net evolves out of the flow of overall play. It has to be seamless. I put a lot of emphasis on feel and touch and drops and dinks and imagination. We don't break the time on the court down into completely different segments: first the groundstrokes, then the net.
Instead the players are always flowing up and back. We are mixing every conceivable situation and every type of ball. We chip, we slice, we dink, hit drop shots. How many club players ever practice that way?
We constantly transition from defense to offense with every kind of shot and every kind of ball. So the movement forward becomes automatic and instinctive--it's part of the whole pattern of being on the court.
S i f you are a recreational or lower level club player who wants to develop this kind of all court attacking versatility, you are going to have to start working in the same way.
Another point. Chipping every single day, for four or five or six years, helps the volleys--and vice versa. It's part of being a more complete player and all the aspects feed off each other. If as a young player you get comfortable with all the chips and slices, it also pays off when you're when you are off balance and out of position. When I see one of my players running off balance in the alley and chip a little short ball crosscourt, I love it.
Part of this process is also learning to hit on the rise. To be up closer where you can pick the ball and go in. That's where the transition begins. And that's another built in benefit of this approach. If you think you've got to hit on the rise, you work harder to get to the ball quicker. So the attacking mentality can have a big positive impact on movement in general.
The Technical Part
When it comes to the technical volley motions, I believe that the less that goes on the better. I believe that learning a minimal motion is critical in creating the right internal emotional climate. The way I teach the motions on the volley is actually related to the process of creating calmness.
I prefer that players use a continental grip, but I am not dogmatic. I don't teach everyone the same way. I don't think it's necessarily a problem if people change the grip somewhat. For some players it may be necessary, at least at first.
It all depends on what I see. How are the strings approaching the ball? If the player is having problems creating strength and getting the racket to move through the ball, shifting the grip a little bit can help. So I might move a player a little bit toward an eastern forehand or eastern backhand grip.
I believe the best volleyers have the simplest technique. Players like Pat Cash, Patrick Rafter, Richard Krajicek, or a player like Greg Rusedski.
On the groundstrokes and the serve, there are more complications and more idiosyncrasies from player to player. But good volleyers look more alike than they do different.
They have compact backswings and they move the racket forward through the line of the shot as much as possible. The contact is early and they don't chop down at the ball too much or too sharply.
I want players to start with little or no backswing. I want them to use the shoulders to set the racket. Zero backswing if possible.
The best volleyers volley with their feet. Unfortunately most people think you volley with your hands. Obviously the hands are holding the racket and the racket hits the ball. But the hands are used by great volleyers mainly for feel.
If your feet are not in the right position, your technique is going to change and your accuracy is going to change and your balance is going to change. You're going to be reaching, flicking, and lunging.
So I always try to tell people to volley with their feet. That means their feet have to get to the ball. It's been my experience when you have very little backswing that your mind tells your feet, "I've got to get in position better."
What I am really talking about aligning to the ball. I want the person to get behind the ball so they can drive the legs and the racket through to the target.
I also want players to load on the outside foot. I want people to understand that even though the volley is a shorter, more compact stroke, the power still starts from the ground. I want them get on their outside foot and push down, especially on the backhand.
Height of the Ball
The height of the ball dictates the angle of the racket. The higher the ball is the flatter the shot. The lower the ball, the more beveling or opening of the racket.
You can hit the volley with a variety of stances, but I want players to move through the volley as they hit it. I think you can get too focused on the exact steps and this can detract from the flow forward. It can lead to getting stuck in the court.
I think when you flow through the volley in this fashion, it promotes confidence. It's part of the emphasize on calmness and seamless movement.
The Wrist on the Forehand
"Keep your wrist firm on the volley." That's something you hear all the time. But this is one of the biggest mistakes I see on the forehand volley. I see kids that come here, nationally-ranked kids, good players. They're keeping their wrists so firm on the forehand volley that the whole motion is locked up and the contact point is late.
The reality is there is a lay back in the wrist on the forehand volley. You can see it clearly in footage of the good volleyers. The hand is driving the racket with the wrist laid back. It's very important and the motion can't really be fluid without it.
The Backhand Volley
At the end of the day it all comes down to one thing. What does the ball look like coming off the racket? Does the ball really pop or squirt off the racket? A good volley has a certain look. I don't care if it has no backspin on it or has a little or has a lot. A good volley always has a certain look when the ball comes off the strings.
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