Learning and fixing strokes the easy way
Like water is directed to flow through a pipe, it’s possible to guide the strokes of new tennis players as well as correct misdirected swing patterns of others. The “guidance systems” method being described is commonplace in dozens of activities in everyday life, but infrequently invoked for good purpose in the hours on a tennis court. Think of driving in lanes on a highway, walking down a sidewalk, or being guided through lines in an airport, and you’ll get the point.
Digest this concept and you’ll soon see purpose for ever-present court accessories such as fences, nets, benches, and water removal rollers far beyond their original intended use.
Since the goal of this installment of our series is to help you help yourself and any players in your charge, let’s get right to some examples to get you on the road to problem-solving through the use of physical guidance systems.
Idea #1: FENCE
Stand against a fence to improve your slice backhand
A common problem on slice backhands is when a tennis player swings around in the follow-through without lengthening sufficiently along the path of contact. One indication of this problem is the tendency to hit most slice backhands crosscourt. If this applies to you, stand with your back against a fence to get a feel for how much to lengthen your swing forwards towards your target. Just have someone toss balls to you. The fence guides your swing easily through the correct path since you have to lengthen forwards; otherwise you will strike the fence. (Warning: Start off swinging slowly to avoid injuring your hand in case you hit the fence.)
Idea #2: NET
Volley sideways along the net to help your high volleys
A slightly surprising but common problem is when players hit high volleys into the net. The cause of this unfortunate error is chopping downwards too far. The solution is to finish with the racquet head above the height of the net. Using the net itself as a guide to finish correctly is easy. Stand sideways at the net around the center strap, facing one of the net posts and close enough to the net that if you chop down too far your racquet will hit the top of the net. Just have a partner toss balls from around the net post for you to practice high volleys. After getting a feel for finishing with the racquet above the height of the net, move to the normal volley position and practice from there. Using the top of the net as a guide should carry over to real play. If not, simply repeat until the correct racquet motion becomes more natural.
Idea #3: BENCH
Use a bench to help level out your slice groundstrokes
Hitting waist level and lower slice groundstrokes can be challenging. The most common problem occurs when tennis players chop downwards, sometimes to the point where they can hear their racquet hitting the court. To help guide a correction of this problem, bring a bench onto the court and place it perpendicular to the net between the service line and the baseline. Stand alongside the bench so that the racquet face travels along the top of the bench. A partner or ball machine feeds balls at waist height. And, like all guidance system method exercises, move away from the bench after five to ten hits and try out your improved slice groundstroke.
Idea #4: CHAIR
Lower your playing height by sitting halfway in a chair
Bending the knees is essential for not only good movement, but also to establish the balance needed for solid topspin groundstrokes. If you want to try and improve your topspin groundies, use a chair or stool without arms and place it sideways to the net about halfway between the service line and the baseline. Start off standing next to the chair to practice either topspin forehands or backhands. Have a partner toss balls right to you and just barely sit in the chair briefly before flexing upwards to hit. Striking an average height ball from this “halfway to sitting position” is a good guide for any tennis player who wants to improve their topspin groundstrokes. Get a feel for hitting from this halfway position and then try to maintain that feel while playing.
Idea #5: WATER ROLLER
Fix any large backswing with a water roller
Big backswings are great if you want to hit a homerun in baseball but can create timing problems in tennis. If the ball comes a little too fast, big backswings make tennis players late for an important meeting – the contact of the ball and the racquet. Ideally, if someone is taking the racquet back for a forehand, the backswing should go back no further than the back fence. A quick fix is to guide players to have a shorter backswing by using a water roller, not to dry a tennis court but to shorten an oversized backswing. Hit some forehands from a fed ball having a partner stand behind and on the opposite side holding a roller. The idea is that if the backswing is too large the racquet will hit the roller. Practice until you don’t strike the roller with your backswing and then try hitting with a shorter backswing on your own.
Idea #6: UMPIRE CHAIR
Hit high over the net guided by an umpire chair
You don’t have to hit harder to hit deeper in the court. Generally speaking, hitting higher over the net results in hitting deeper into your opponent’s court. This can even be more effective since the balls will bounce higher, forcing your opponent to hit out of their comfort zone. They will inevitably be kept pinned behind the baseline in a defensive position. To practice hitting higher over the net simply roll out an umpire’s chair and rally over it. Not only will your balls land deeper, but you will also seldom make the worst mistake in tennis – hitting in the net!
Idea #7: COURT DIVIDER NETTING
Hit sideways over divider netting to practice “high heavies”
High heavy is a nickname for high arcing topspin groundstrokes that can literally force an opponent to run into their own back fence. In particular, this is a common tactic among younger junior tennis players as their shorter stature makes them especially susceptible to this annoying tactic. Since the ball is far above the normal comfortable contact zone, players are weaker in that position and consequently the ball feels heavier than normal. Find two open courts with a divider net in between. Find a partner and rally over the netting with topspin, trying to hit from singles sideline to singles sideline on both courts.
The guidance system ideas in this article will not only guide the flow of your strokes to higher levels of play, but can also make the journey more fun at the same time. Use the ideas of this article as a starting point. Then, with a little imagination, you’ll probably come up with solutions to even more stroking challenges on your own.
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.