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The New Volley Paradigm

Rick Macci

Printable Version

The lost art of the net is about to reemerge.

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.

There is just a huge opportunity to play successful attacking tennis, especially in the women's game. And if that's true in pro tennis it's 50 times more true at the recreational level.

One of the mistakes we all make is dividing players into arbitrary categories according to so-called playing style. You are an aggressive baseliner, or you're a serve and volleyer, or you're something else.

The next generation: looking for ways to finish at the net.

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.

We will see more serve and volley, but the real change is going to be in opportunity attacks off the ground and off the return fo serve by players who are every bit as athletic and powerful as today's baseliners.

To do this coaches will have to develop the volleys and the forward movement patternsof their players so they are a seamless part of the overall game. Going to the net will become an equal option with hitting one more big forehand, or retrieving one more ball on the run.

What we need to understand is how the net fits into the picture puzzle of the overall game. I don't think we do right now. To develop complete players we have to work with them in a different way on the court to integrate attacking play.

Groundstrokes and grinding win most pro matches.

The Problem of Power

In the pro game, the level of power keeps increasing. The rackets are explosive, and with the new strings there is even more power and spin.

In today's game you can become a world class player on sheer athleticism. You've got hundreds of international players who have played on clay their whole lives. They run like deer, and if you can't run now in the pro game, you need to take up golf.

These players are going to grind. And it's working. This clay court mentality is dominating the tour. Most matches are being won by hitting relentless heavy groundstrokes.

I think we can trace a lot of this mentality to the coaching. Global coaching has changed. It's become follow-the-leader. The majority of successful world class players are grinders, so this is what the coaches are preaching. And when young players look up the ladder this is what they see in the players above them.

When the new paradigm emerges, the tennis world will follow.

The game has become so fast that is virtually impossible to play serve and volley, at least as a primary strategy. It is just very difficult to get in and out of the split step, to cover the court, to maintain balance, and to have enough control to win points at the net as an exclusive style.

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.

Many players are moving up closer to the baseline, trying to take the ball early, trying force their opponents on time. The next step is for players to come forward when they push their opponents off balance and take more balls out of the air. There are huge openings in the court for players who can step up and do this.

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.

Click on Photo to hear Rick talk about the pluses and minuses of swinging volleys.

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.

What if Venus and Serena attacked 30 times a match?

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.

Knifing volley winners in the juniors changes players.

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.

Playing the net isn't a matter of hitting one close range volley.


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.

Calmness is the basis for developing technique and for executing in competition.

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.

A few of the inspirational sayings you'll find if you visit Rick Macci's teaching court.

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.

On court training: constant transition and flow.

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.

Fringe Benefits

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.

Less is more with the technical volley motions.

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.

I want players to understand the volley is not something totally distinct or special or unusual. It's what they do naturally in the right situation. This way that feeling of calmness is much easier to create and maintain.

Going forward and knifing a gorgeous backhand volley is just part of the deal. It's great, but there is no reason to get overly amped up or too excited. Because you are planning to do it again, maybe on the next point. Working with kids this way, I see more development in a year than many players experience in an entire junior career.

Using the shoulder turn to set the racket controls the backswing.

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.

Compact volleys with the racket moving through the line of the shot, regardless of ball height.

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.

As players advance, there is going to be more swing on certain balls. The speed of the ball is going to dictate three options: what I call a block, a punch, or a swing. And I don't mind if people do all three. Eventually they should.

But I think players need to learn things in the right order, with the more compact version first. Like I said, we have this backwards teaching. We teach players to hit with bigger swings on easy balls in artificial situations.

Volley with the Feet

I teach players to load on the outside foot for the volley as well as the groundstrokes.

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.

Keeping the racket near head level is key going down for low balls.

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.

But the basic motion is not going to change. The player is still going to stay compact and hit through the shot as much as possible. As the contact point goes down, the player needs to keep the racket at eye level, or as close as they can, depending on the ball.

To accomplish this I very seldom tell a student to bend their knees. Instead I say "Keep the racket at eye level." I think this is more effective. Because you can bend your knees and still drop the racket head. But if you try to keep the racket head at eye level you will use your knees automatically.

Moving Through

I want players to move through the volley and not get stuck with the steps.

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 wrist on the forehand volley is laid back and relaxed, not "firm."

The Backhand Volley

As with some other top coaches, I refer to the backhand volley as a karate chop, struck with the edge of the racket hand. I like to see a stretch in the shoulder, and to see the racket going out. At the same time, the back arm moves back the other way.

I always teach one-hand. I never teach a two-handed backhand volley. I have 5-year olds and 6-year olds that can volley with one hand. People see an 8-year old at the net and say, "Wow! This guy's got an amazing backhand volley. How did that happen?" I say, "Well he started at 5 the right way."

Then I see a 16-year old girl with a two-handed backhand volley, and the coach or the parent say, well now she's big enough now, so it's time to change her backhand volley. That's a big developmental mistake.

The forward swing on the backhand volley: a karate chop.

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.

Calmness, compact technique, the ball popping off the strings, the player trying to get his opponent off balance, taking advantage of every opportunity to come forward.

I don't think it's too much to ask, and I think that we can look forward to seeing it at higher levels soon. And for recreational players who take these ideas seriously, the sky is the limit. That's the great thing about this game, it's always evolving to the next level.

Rick Macci has coached some of the greatest players in the modern game during their critical, formative years. He is widely regarded as one the world's top developmental coaches. Rick and his staff have shaped the strokes of Jennifer Capriati, Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, and dozens of other successful tour players. In the last 20 years, Macci students have won 98 USTA national junior championships, and have been awarded over 4 million dollars in college scholarships.

The Macci Tennis Academy is located in Deerfield Beach, Florida at the beautiful Deer Creek Resort. Macci Tennis offers a full time boarding academy, a non-boarding weekly academy, and a summer academy, all for juniors from beginning to the world class level.

For more information about Rick's Academy, email him at: or call Rick Macci directly at: (561) 445-2747

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