Return of Serve.
The second most important shot in tennis. If you miss the return, you really let the server off the hook because she doesn’t even need to demonstrate that she has any other strokes. The foundation of a good return is the split step. There are two kinds: the step forward and the neutral, legs apart kind. Both kinds work well depending on the situation.
In Indian Wells, I saw Federer employed both. If facing a bigger serve (Djokovic’s first serve) then he stayed more neutral with a wider stance that took less time to split step, but on Djoker’s second serve, he employed the step forward and split method to create a more aggressive return and take the kicking spin earlier. Watch what your opponent is doing and remember, whichever return you choose, make sure you do some kind of split step right as the server is about to make contact with the ball. If you stand flat-footed and still, you’ll be flat on your back at the end of the match!
Video of the return of serve split step: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSTr7gF3IU8
Roger Federer brought the spirit of Sampras with him into the second and third sets after dropping a lackluster opening set 6-3. The final two sets were 6-3, 6-2 behind scintillating backhand volleys and big first serves up the tee. Djokovic missed more returns than usual in part because he looked unsure whether he could hit a usual return or had to keep it lower if Federer charged the net. It was mostly high quality tennis that we’ve come to expect from the #2 and #8 players in the world with Federer finishing his tennis stats at +6 and Djoker with +1 (winners over unforced errors). If you are in the plus column then that’s quality! Look for the Fed express to meet Tomas Berdych in the Dubai Duty Free final after he took out Phil Kohlschreiber 7-5, 7-5 in his semi-final.
I know it sometimes seems that coming to the net doesn’t work well. You charge in, then they lob you, you run into the ball, they hit it at your feet, they pass you down the alley, or you and your partner can’t decide quickly enough who should take a shot down the middle.
These are all valid excuses for not coming to the net. You go to a clinic or a lesson and work on your volleys and positioning. You and your partner swear to the God of Tennis Coaching that you will communicate better so that nothing gets through the middle. Despite all your diligent work, the next match has the same result: you come in twice, get lobbed, and decide that it isn’t working.
Playing the net is not for the faint of heart. Like dating, it is a percentages game. If you can come in and win 52% of the time, then you will win the match, however, that also means you will get passed, lobbed, and hit in the belly button 48% of the time. No matter how much you prepare, matches will be different and you must accept that what you did in practice will not always happen in a match. Nerves freeze your feet and that shoulder high volley that was easy when your coach fed balls to you, becomes much more difficult to execute when it’s set point.
In the end, the only way to get strong as a net player is to, as Nike so famously once said, “Just Do It.” Every time you play, decide that you are going to the net behind particular shots, then DO IT. Keep doing it whether you win or lose the point. As you do it more and more, you will get comfortable hitting volleys in pressure situations, you will learn to move and communicate. The key is, there is very little time at the net, so these responses must be quick-some would say instinctive. The only way to create instinct is to fail over and over until you start to turn the ship around. At first your percentage of winning net rushes might be a measly 20%. Then it will slowly rise until one day you realize that you like being the player who controls the points. The player who is proactive rather than reactive. You realize, you like the risk of being up there and losing as the aggressor is better than losing as a passive player. If you lose, at least you lost on your own terms, rather than having the match dictated by your opponents.
Keep charging, eventually, you’ll find that your net game gets more natural and instinctive, but remember, you have to be willing to lose for a while before the ship turns your way.
We had a nice turnout for our mixed doubles social with 10 teams participating. Socially competitive tennis kept everyone laughing and there were some amazing points in both the Hugs & Kisses divisions. Our wonderful pros, Jacek and Georgie participated and we invite even more of you to bring your tennis playing sweetheart or other friend to participate in our events over the next year. Thanks to all the players for their sportsmanship and love of the game!
I often see people hit the ball too early, myself included. We can’t or more often won’t wait until the ball enters our “strike zone” before going after it. While attacking the ball is commendable, you have to move up and get right behind the ball to give it lift and power. If your feet stay planted and you reach forward with your racket without sliding up to the ball (preferably sideways all the time), then you will make contact too far in front of your hip. This early contact will usually cause the ball to go straight into the net. Instead, take adjusting steps and slide up behind the ball. This will keep your contact point and balance in the optimum spot so that you can pound those groundies past your staunchest adversary.
Happy New Year my giddy tennis compatriots! It is that time when we resolve to make changes for the better. I was having a chat with Tyrone, one of our wonderful personal trainers, and we were marveling at the massive impact the basic things can have on athletic performance. For most of us tennis players, that starts with our feet. My tip for this year is simple: resolve to do something simple (usually calisthenics) that will “activate” (Tyrone’s vocabulary) your legs when the moment of truth arrives. That moment of truth is in the heat of a third set match that you can win, but you lose because you won’t run down that extra ball because your legs are weary. You don’t even have to enter a gym to do these simple, yet very effective exercises: jump rope (100-300 reps. 3x / week), wind sprints (doubles sideline to doubles sideline 4x for 3 sets twice a week), or lunges (consult a trainer on proper technique and quantity). Do all three, or pick one and do it religiously for six months, gradually increasing your work load, then see what happens in that third set.