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Steps to Better Tennis

One of the secrets of life is to make stepping-stones out of stumbling blocks. -Jack Penn

Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.
Author: Angelique Arnauld

Mastering The Fundamentals

Here we focus on what we feel are some of the most common pitfalls of the three player levels. Focus on improving these areas of your game and trying to achieve the goals in the time allotted. Don't worry if you fall a little short; just keep plugging away and seek the advice of your coach. As you achieve each goal, concentrate on the next concept. We'll give you goals to keep you motivated and help you chart your progress. Learning how to play smart winning tennis makes the game way more fun.

Successful tennis performance requires a mix of player talent and player development. This development requires a player to understand those aspects of sport science pertinent to tennis if he is to ever reach an optimal level of performance. In the early stages of training, parents and coach can coax the individual into developing some parts of his skills. Ultimately, the athlete determines this development himself. Desire is the basis of motivation. Knowing how to desire is a mystery that is rarely solved, but in the end it is always up to the individual athlete.


Build a foundation

The game of tennis requires that you understand the basic fundamentals. When you learn the different grips and strokes you can become a good tennis player. Ground Strokes are the meat and potatoes of every players game.





The challenge

Many beginners simply face the net and swat at the ball. When you hit a ground stroke, you must make a 'unit turn,' that is, pivot your shoulders and hips to coil your body. This provides power and helps to improve control.

Beginners usually push their serve, starting from a position resembling that of a waitress holding a platter, palm facing up and wrist bent back. Pushing the ball limits power and spin.

Swinging at volleys gives you an inconsistent contact point and leads to hitting wild shots. If you hit too far behind your body, the ball will fly off to your racquet side; too far in front, the ball will fly crosscourt.

How to improve

As balls leave your opponent's or practice partner's racquet, quickly make a 45-degree turn with your shoulders and hips in the direction of the ball. Saying 'turn' as your opponent hits will help you remember to turn before every ground stroke.

If you can't throw a ball from the baseline into the service box across the net, start your serve with your racquet hand near your head, your palm facing just above your ear and the butt cap pointing toward the net. As you move to hit the ball, turn your hand to get the strings pointed toward your target. If you can throw a ball into the court, a traditional service motion should get you into this position. Turn your hand and wrist to expose your strings to the ball and follow through.

To feel how little swing you need, hold your racquet handle between your thumb and index finger like a pen and have someone gently toss you a ball. Hit it with the butt cap of the racquet. Repeat this on the backhand side, making sure you don't turn your fingers toward the ground. You should notice that you take very little swing and your wrist stays firm. Now, hit volleys with the strings while holding your racquet in a normal grip and use this new compact stroke.

Your goal

Within six weeks, you should start to instinctively turn on all your ground strokes.

In six weeks, using either method, you should be able to make six out of 10 serves.

In six weeks you should have a non-swinging volley on both your forehand and backhand side.

If you achieve the goal

Focus on getting your racquet back quickly as you turn and on keeping the proper distance from the ball.

Keep practicing until you can make eight out of 10 serves. Start to focus on making the motion as smooth and rhythmic as you can.

Practice volleying while transferring your weight forward, using good footwork to help you hit deeper and get power without swinging.

If you don't achieve the goal

Stand at the service line and have your practice partner rhythmically feed you soft, alternating forehands and backhands. Feel your body turning as you go from one side to the other. As you gain confidence, keep hitting and slowly back up to the baseline.

Have your teaching pro or coach check your grip and ball toss. Some of the most common problems beginners have can be corrected by improving the ball toss and adjusting the grip. Keep at it until you can make six out of 10.

Hold your racquet at the throat, just below the strings, and hit soft volleys. Choking up like this should give you more control and reduce your swing. Slide down the handle as you feel more confident.


Develop consistency, control, placement and power

Control comes from a consistent, fluid motion of the racquet. Work on the same starting point and finishing point with your swing. Ideally, the racquet should move low to high, keeping the head perpendicular to the ground, and moving into position with poise, and balance, then smoothly accelerating the head of the racquet and transferring your weight at the right time to execute the stroke.





The challenge

Intermediates often hit the ball behind the optimal contact point, robbing themselves of control and power.

If you don't turn your hips and shoulders on the serve, you can't generate power. Rotating your hips and shoulders increases racquet-head speed, translating into faster serves.

Intermediates face better competition, and therefore play more low volleys. You'll need to bend your knees, not just step forward, to hit these shots. Avoid bending from your waist.

How to improve

Make contact with the ball between your knees and chest and as far out in front as your front knee. Have someone stand behind you and toss a ball gently over your shoulder. Move forward, hit it and feel how far in front you made contact.

Hit a couple of serves using your normal grip, but with the opposite side of the string bed. Turning your wrist and arm in this way forces you to turn your shoulders and hips. Don't worry if the ball lands out.

Keep your upper body upright and practice hitting low volleys by dropping your back knee. Don't bend from the waist. Keep your hands and racquet in front of you at all times.

Your goal

In six weeks, hit from the ideal contact point more consistently.

In six weeks, develop a larger, fuller shoulder and hip turn.

In six weeks, step forward and bend your knees on all low volleys.

If you achieve your goal

For added power, work on developing more racquet-head speed while maintaining a high-quality stroke.

With the help of your toss, focus on moving forward, into the court, as you rotate hips and shoulders to generate even more power.

Don't rely on power to hit winning volleys. Use angles to put the ball away and try to hit the ball to awkward places for your opponent.

If you don't achieve your goal

Have someone stand in front of you and slightly to your side. When they drop a ball for you to hit, try to feel the difference between the ideal contact point and where you have been hitting.

Talk to your pro and make sure your ball toss is in the proper position. If your toss is too far to your racquet side, you have overextended to reach the ball and won't physically be able to rotate your body.

Make sure you're balanced and your footwork is sound. If you step with the wrong foot, it's difficult to bend your knees and play a good shot. Also, be sure you're watching the ball long enough.


Strengthen your weaknesses

Co-ordination Skills - Eye - Body - Brain, is the way we want our co-ordination skills. Unfortunately many of us see the ball, and our body takes too long to react to it passing us.


This area can be improved by developing what is called your tracking technique, so that you see the ball, and your body automatically positions itself in the correct place. With a complete variety of situations you can be in for a ball to pass you.


You need to work on improving your total body, to react as one fast efficient machine.





The challenge

If you don't hold your turn on a one-handed backhand, or if you rotate too quickly on a two-hander, your shot will drift to the middle, making your passing shots less effective.

 Advanced players sometimes depend too much on their best type of serve. At this level, you can't let your opponents get into a groove on the return, so mixing up your serve is crucial.

Even advanced players can get lazy on half volleys. A weak half volley won't cut it against a strong opponent. You need to be able to hit it deep.

How to improve

Practice moving from the center mark and hitting down-the-line backhands at a cone or ball can placed deep in the corner. Try to hide the front of your shirt from the feeder as long as you can and step toward your target as you swing.

Set up targets in the corners of the service box and up the lines. Practice hitting slice, kick and flat serves to the different areas and feel how much spin, and what kinds, you need for the various shots.

Like on all low volleys, bend to the ball using your knees. Be especially aware of keeping your racquet in front of you throughout the stroke, and keep the racquet face open only enough to get the ball to clear the net. Don't hit the ball too high.

Your goal

In six weeks, develop a more consistent down-the-line backhand.

In six weeks, feel more comfortable hitting two new serves.

In six weeks, you should be able to hit deeper and with more control.

If you achieve your goal

Increase your racquet-head speed and add power. Most passing shots at the advanced level need to have zip.

Practice the serves that are most challenging so eventually you can hit various serves wide, down the middle or into your opponent's body.

Practice getting the ball not only deep but into the corners. Try to put your opponents in weak tactical positions to set up your next volley.

If you don't achieve your goal

Be sure you are on balance. If you are moving or falling to one side, the ball will pull in that direction. All of your momentum needs to be moving toward your target. The better your balance, the better you can hit.

Have your pro check your grip and toss combinations. To hit different serves well, you may need to make some subtle adjustments. Some serves may be harder for you than others, so be patient and keep at it.

Even though there is almost no backswing, be sure to make a long follow-through to help you control the shot. Also, be sure to get down to the ball with good balance.


Practice sessions must be approached with a sense of purpose. That means asking yourself some very basic questions. How much of an investment, in terms of both time and money, can you afford to make in your tennis? If you want to get the most out of your court time, knowing how many hours you can allot to the game will allow you to plan appropriately.But there should always be an end to the means. Too often, players take the court and hit balls with no particular purpose in mind. Practice should be about improving specific strokes, tactics, movement, or conditioning. And when you get better, you put yourself in a better position to win. And everybody likes winning.





A newcomer to the game of tennis may be quick and athletic, but there's absolutely no substitute for learning the proper footwork skills right from the beginning. A solid foundation and good habits are the keys to getting on the fast track to success. Running is excellent for the legs and lungs with distance for stamina and sharp bursts of short sprints to keep a player conditioned for the many short bursts of speed neccessary getting to the net, moving across it, back to the backcourt for lobs and for the many points a good player must scramble for in top company. Weight training can help improve your serve and overheads.




The challenge

One of the common errors beginners make is to stand flat-footed and expect the ball to come to them. Then, when it doesn't, they end up reaching or lunging for it. Split-stepping will force you to get up on your toes and prepare to move.

There are lots of things to think about when you're learning to play tennis. But if you don't step forward with the proper foot, you'll be robbing yourself of power and depth. Plus, you'll be off-balance and unable to recover in time for the next shot.

How to improve

As your practice partner starts to swing, hop a few inches off the ground and raise your racquet into the ready position. Land softly on the balls of your feet, with your legs spread about shoulder width, your knees slightly bent, and your weight forward. From this position, you should be able to move in almost any direction.

Hit 25 volleys, alternating between forehands and backhands. (Right-handers step with the left foot on the forehand volley and the right foot on the backhand volley; lefties, vice versa.) Then hit 25 ground strokes with the same footwork patterns. Concentrate on keeping the correct foot moving forward before each stroke. 

Your goal

Within three weeks, you should automatically split-step before you hit every ground stroke, volley, and overhead.

Within three weeks, you should instinctively step forward with the proper foot on all ground strokes and volleys.

If you achieve the goal

As you split-step, bend your knees and stay low so that you'll be able to change directions quickly.

Stay focused, not only on stepping forward, but on timing the move to get maximum power and depth on your shots.

If you don't achieve the goal

Have your partner feed balls to you and say 'split' out loud. This verbal cue before every shot will remind you to split-step, keep your weight forward, and get up on your toes. Keep repeating it during all your drills until the maneuver becomes automatic.

Stand in front of a mirror and practice your strokes, continually reinforcing the proper movements and footwork combinations. Do 25 forehand ground strokes, then 25 backhand ground strokes, 25 forehand volleys, and finish with 25 backhand volleys.

Now that your ground strokes are improving, it's time to put yourself in a position to use them. Power becomes a factor at this level, especially with today's high-tech racquets. But power without good movement won't get you very far.




The challenge

Some players' first steps are explosive; others need a runway to get up to speed. Being efficient will help you get to shots faster and change directions more quickly. It can mean the difference between hitting a good shot and merely getting the ball back.

Power has never been a bigger factor than it is today. To handle hard shots, you need to anticipate where the ball is going and pick up subtle cues to give yourself a head start. If you wait until your opponent hits before moving, you may not get to the shot in time.

How to improve

Start in the ad court and have someone feed shots into the deuce corner. Push off with your outside foot and cross it in front of your inside leg. For balance, take lots of little steps before you swing.

Observe where your opponent's momentum is taking him (shots will usually go in the same direction), as well as the height of his contact point (e.g., low balls are easier to hit crosscourt). 

Your goal

Within three weeks, your first step along the baseline should instinctively be made with your outside foot.

Within three weeks, you should be able to anticipate your opponents' shots more often, and begin moving sooner.

If you achieve your goal

Practice running the length of the baseline and hitting a down-the-line passing shot, one of the toughest shots in the game.

As you learn more about your opponents' tendencies, develop game strategies to address each of them in match play.

If you don't achieve your goal

Try jumping rope. Not only will this make you quicker, but it will also improve your aerobic conditioning. And in practice, think about which foot you should use as your 'push-off' foot.

Hit crosscourt forehands with your partner and see what his stroke looks like. Repeat the drill with down-the-line forehands. Note how the swings differ. Repeat the exercise with backhands.

As hard as you hit and as well as you know the game, you can't let faulty footwork turn you into a sitting duck. Face it: No one hits right to you. To get an edge, you have to master the various surfaces and use your balance, athleticism, co-ordination and anticipatory skills.




The challenge

Many advanced players prefer to play on clay. Har-Tru and clay courts, however, have a granular top dressing or 'brick dust,' so when you plant your foot and swing, you slide. To be a demon on dirt, you need to control your slide -- then use it to your advantage.

Just about every advanced player has a good overhead when he has time to prepare. But when you're playing someone who lobs well, you'll have to hit your overhead while you're moving backward. A scissors kick will keep you balanced on deep balls.

How to improve

On a clay court, run along the baseline and stretch to hit a slice backhand. As you take your final step (with your right foot for right-handers, left foot for left-handers), let it glide over the court. Keeping your knees bent, time your slide so that you'll stop just as you make contact. Repeat the exercise on the forehand side.

Have your partner feed you deep overheads. Turn and shuffle back for the ball. Jump off your back foot (right foot for right-handers, left foot for left-handers), rotate your shoulders and hips, and then land on your non-dominant foot, with the leg you jumped off of still in the air. This will complete the 'scissors' action. 

Your goal

On a clay court, run along the baseline and stretch to hit a slice backhand. As you take your final step (with your right foot for right-handers, left foot for left-handers), let it glide over the court. Keeping your knees bent, time your slide so that you'll stop just as you make contact. Repeat the exercise on the forehand side.

Within three weeks, to use your improved movement to return deep overheads more consistently -- and with greater authority.

If you achieve your goal

Practice sliding forward to retrieve drop shots? More of them are hit on clay than on any other surface.

Try to improve your anticipation skills and approach shots, so that you won't have to hit tough overheads too often.

If you don't achieve your goal

Run along the baseline, extend your right leg, and slide. In the beginning, pretend that you're skateboarding. Then try sliding and mimicking a stroke. This should boost your confidence.

Starting from a service position, toss a ball slightly behind your head. Jump, swing, and rotate your shoulders to face the net, landing on your non-dominant foot. Then try it with a real overhead.

 The most damaging phrase in the language is: 'It's always been done that way.'---Grace Murray Hopper


The Serve

People who are just learning to play tennis often want to hit aces right off the bat. But understanding the fundamentals of the serve, like a good throwing motion and a consistent ball toss, has to come first.




The challenge

If you're not a strong thrower or don't have any background in a sport that requires throwing, it's important that you learn. Baseball pitchers and football quarterbacks often make good tennis players because a serve is really a throwing of your racquet.

Your serve can only be as good as your toss. If your toss is poor, you'll have to bend your body and swing your racquet awkwardly to hit the ball. Plus, inconsistent tosses make it virtually impossible to develop a steady, effective service rhythm.

How to improve

Stand on the baseline, your body turned sideways and your nondominant shoulder pointing at the net. Using your dominant hand, throw a ball into the service box. Rotate your shoulders and allow your back leg to follow through. After 20 throws, pick up a racquet and serve using that same throwing motion.

Hold a ball with the tips of your non-dominant thumb, index finger, and middle finger. Lift your arm, and when your hand gets to eye level, release the ball. Toss the ball to the racquet side of your body and slightly forward. Ideally, your toss should only be as high as the tip of your racquet reaches when you're fully extended. 

Your goal

Within three weeks, you should develop a serve that's closer to a throwing motion than a pushing motion.

Within three weeks, you should have a consistent ball toss that allows you to make a natural, smooth service motion.

If you achieve the goal

Extend your motion so that you're hitting the ball at its highest point. The higher the contact point, the more leverage you get.

Keep practicing diligently until your toss becomes so automatic that you can count on it even in a tight match.

If you don't achieve the goal

You may need to develop more shoulder strength. To do this, try throwing a football. Playing catch-and-throw in your backyard or on the court should make you stronger. After a week, both your throwing motion and your serve should improve.

From your service stance, place your racquet on the ground with the handle touching your toes and the head pointed toward the net post (right-handers should point it to the right post; lefties, to the left post). Toss the ball so that it bounces on the racquet strings.

Once you're at this level, you should be able to put the serve into play more consistently. Intermediates can improve their games by developing a second serve that isn't glaringly weak and by moving their first serve around in the box.




The challenge

Too many intermediates have a second serve that's weak and prone to being attacked. Putting extra spin on your second serve should give you a larger margin for error, help you avoid double faults, and make it tougher for your opponent to be aggressive on the return.

The last thing a server can afford to do is to become predictable. As your skill level rises, you'll need to be able to hit to specific locations on the court in order to keep the returner off balance and force him into hitting his weakest returns more often.

How to improve

When practicing your second serve, brush up the back of the ball to create topspin, which will help bring it down into the court. Balls hit with topspin are tougher to return aggressively than balls hit flat (without any spin). Using a Continental grip and a loose wrist on the serve will help you get more net clearance.

Standing on your service line, your body facing the outside of the box diagonally across the net, hit 10 serves. Then hit 10 down the middle. Step back two paces and serve again. Keep repeating the drill until you reach the baseline. Feel the relationship between where you're pointed and where the ball goes after you hit it.

Your goal

Within three weeks, your second serve should have more topspin and you should be serving fewer double faults.

Within three weeks, you should be able to hit wide or down the middle, depending on the game score and the situation.

If you achieve your goal

Start hitting first serves with the topspin motion. This tactic is very effective in doubles and in serve-and-volley situations

Making accuracy and consistency your top priorities, begin to increase the amount of pace on your serve.

If you don't achieve your goal

Go to an outdoor facility and hit serves from behind the fence and onto the court. This will help you learn to hit up on the ball. Hit 15 over the fence, then go back to practicing your serve on the court.

Build pyramids of tennis balls in strategic spots and try hitting them. Visual targets help you develop more accuracy on the serve. Try one spot until you hit the target, then go to another.

Most players think of the serve as a power shot. But thatís shortsighted. Sure, hitting aces and service winners are desirable results, but itís not realistic to rely on such shots. To be an effective server, you need to learn to use your serve in an offensive way to construct a point. Itís a different philosophy from trying to serve your opponent off the court. To me, thereís a subtle art to moving your serve around to different parts of the box and mixing up your pace and spin so you can be aggressive from your first shot. Itís using your serve as a setup shot rather than a finisher.




The challenge

The best players live for crunch time. And to win big matches, you need to be able to hit your best shots when the pressure is on. So while you may hit your targets in practice, it doesn't mean much until you can do it in a match.

At this level, speed kills. But so does great placement and the ability to load a ball up with spin; hitting with power isn't the only way to make your serve a weapon. Blending power, spin, and placement will turn your serve into a consistently tough shot to handle.

How to improve

Pros have rituals they perform before each serve. So should you. Bounce the ball a certain number of times. Take a specific number of deep breaths. The idea is to make every serve exactly the same. The repetition will help you build consistency and develop confidence in your ability to perform well under pressure.

The key to hitting a big serve is in the legs. Bend your knees as you toss, then explode up and into the ball, trying to meet it at its highest point. As your contact point gets higher, you will have more options available to you: a powerful flat serve, a twisting kick serve, or a hard slice serve.

Your goal

Within three weeks, you should instinctively repeat a pattern or routine before every first serve and every second serve.

Within three weeks, you should be blending power, spin, and placement on your serve.

If you achieve your goal

To get a feel for what playing under pressure is like, try serving some games with the score starting out at 0-30.

Practice hitting your flat, slice, and kick serves down the middle, wide, and into your opponent's body.

If you don't achieve your goal

Create a ritual and stick to it. Then, after going through the routine, envision targets on the court and practice serving to them. This will create the same situations that exist in your matches.

Players often pull their heads down while serving, reducing their accuracy. Try keeping your eyes up through the motion, practicing serves without looking to see where they land.


Serve Returns

Most beginners never think about the return serve, and that's a big mistake. Every point in tennis involves someone trying to get a serve back into play. If you don't understand the basics of the return, you'll start off too many points on the defensive.





The challenge

Every server is different and every court plays differently, but you still need to learn where to stand so that you don't make life easy for the server. There won't be too many booming deliveries at this level, but getting into good habits now will help you later on.

Beginning servers have little in the way of control, so the ball is liable to go almost anywhere. Still, you can't get away with standing flat-footed on the return; returning serve is all about quickness, making the most of every step, and being ready to move.

How to improve

Your first goal is to put the ball in play, so stand far enough back so that you can make a compact stroke at waist level. Position yourself so that an imaginary line between you and the server splits the service box into two equal pieces -- one to the left, one to the right. From here, you'll be able to reach the most serves.

As the server tosses the ball, hop an inch or so into the air and land with your feet shoulder-width apart, your weight a bit forward, and your heels slightly off the ground. This is called the split-step, and it's your cue to get ready to play the point. From this position, you should be able to move in any direction.

Your goal

Within three weeks, you should be positioning yourself properly to return serve against a variety of players in both singles and doubles.

Within three weeks, you should instinctively split-step before every first and second serve.

If you achieve the goal

Strive for consistency in your return game by exposing yourself to as many types of servers and situations as you possibly can.

As you get more comfortable returning, be slightly more aggressive by split-stepping a foot or two farther inside the court.

If you don't achieve the goal

Talk to your practice partner and see if you're giving away too much of the court on the deuce side or the ad side. If you're having trouble getting to serves on one side, adjust accordingly: move back a step or two, or to your left or right.

Have your practice partner move up and serve from his service line. Shortening the time you have to see and react to the ball will force you to be up on your toes. Once you start returning serves more consistently, have your partner move back to his baseline.

At this level, you should be able to get most serves back into play; only the toughest will remain a challenge. But you'd better get used to the hard ones: Opponents' serves are only going to get faster and more-accurately placed.




The challenge

Most intermediate players are pretty good at moving their serves around the box. One way to cut down on the amount of court you need to cover on the return is by carefully watching each toss and then anticipating where the serve is likely to land.

A big server may force you to play defensively, but you can seize the moment, and the momentum of the point, with a strong return. As long as you play within your ability, second serves and high-pressure situations are prime times to turn up the heat.

How to improve

As the server makes a toss, look closely: Is the ball way off to the player's racquet side (which normally indicates a slice or hook serve) or back over his head (a kicking, topspin serve)? At this level, tosses made in the traditional spot -- just slightly to the racquet side of the server -- usually go toward the center of the box.

Have your practice partner hit a series of second serves and give yourself a target to hit before he even tosses the ball (you can set different targets for forehands and backhands). Once you make a decision, stick with it. Predetermining your target will make you a more decisive returner -- and a much stronger player.

Your goal

Within three weeks, you should be able to anticipate where most serves are going and move quickly to make the returns.

Within three weeks, you should be able to predetermine the location of your returns and be increasingly consistent with them.

If you achieve your goal

Expose yourself to a variety of service types and speeds. Again, the key is to gain consistency in the placement of the return.

Move a few steps inside the baseline; this will give you more angles to shoot for on the return.

If you don't achieve your goal

Have your partner hit serves using exaggerated ball tosses. Before he swings, have him tell you where he's aiming; note the differences in each toss. Store this information for later use.

With your partner serving to your forehand side in the deuce court, hit 15 returns crosscourt, then 15 down the line. Repeat the drill with serves to your backhand, then switch to the ad court.

Since the server has the advantage here, you'll need to return even the heaviest bombs and make your opponent play tough shots. To nullify a variety of service velocities, spins, and placements, you must be quick on your feet and fast with your hands.




The challenge

It's not uncommon for advanced club-level servers to hit the ball close to 100 m.p.h. -- and speed definitely kills. Even if you guess right and get to a cannonball serve, the force of the impact may send your return flying.

Most advanced players aren't afraid to serve and volley. The serve itself may not beat you, but if you float the return back, attacking players will rush the net, hit their volley into the open court, and force you into attempting a low-percentage passing shot.

How to improve

Turn the server's power against him. Let the biggest server you know hit bullets to your forehand. Using almost no backswing, block the ball back into play. After 20 forehands, repeat the drill on your backhand side. Note: If you have a one-handed backhand, slicing the return may be easier than hitting with topspin.

Tell your practice partner to serve and come into net. As you hit your return, move forward and, with a compact backswing, hit the shot and make a long follow-through. Using topspin or slice, keep the ball low and try to steer it on or near the convergence of his service lines (his 'T'). This will force him to hit a tough volley.

Your goal

Within three weeks, you should be more consistent returning serves that are hit with a lot of pace.

Within three weeks, you should be hitting a lot of low returns and forcing serve-and-volleyers to play more difficult first volleys.

If you achieve your goal

Keep practicing against bigger and bigger servers; returning is a skill you can always improve and refine.

Turn up the heat by going for sharper angles on your service returns. Warning: Avoid the temptation to hit the ball too hard.

If you don't achieve your goal

Have your partner at net hit ground strokes to your immediate left and right. Don't let the balls bounce; play them out of the air. This will be terrific practice for facing powerful servers.

Take a bit of pace off of your return. Speed isn't what beats a skilled serve-and-volleyer; placement and positioning do. Your goal is to make volleys tough, not necessarily to hit a winner.


Ball Flights

As a beginner, you may have been told what spins do to the ball and how they can affect its flight, but you may have thought that topspin and slice were for more advanced players. Wrong! Topspin and slice give you control, and thatís exactly what beginners need.




The challenge

The essential thing to do when hitting ground strokes with topspin, on both your forehand and backhand, is to keep your racquet face straight up-and-down as you swing from a level below the height of ball to above it.

Slice (often called backspin or underspin) is great for beginners because it slows the ball down and doesnít require a large swing. Beginners should only slice use on their backhand, with a slightly-opened racquet face -- the bottom edge of your racquet should lead the top edge by about 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Turn sideways, use a swing similar to a backhand volley and press through the ball, allowing the openness of the racquet face to create backspin.

How to improve

Drop and hit a few simple forehands and backhands and try to make the ball rotate forward. Then have your practice partner or coach feed you some soft backhands and do the same thing. Try to feel the strings brushing up the back of the ball. Ideally, the ball will rise over the net, then drop quickly into the court.

Drop a ball slightly in front of you and hit it as a slice backhand. Donít worry about power -- watch the spin and be sure the rotation is towards you as the ball goes over the net. After youíve hit a few and see the correct spin, have a practice partner hit you some shots and try to make the same motion.

Your goal

After three weeks, be able to make six topspin forehands and six topspin backhands out of 10.

In three weeks, you should be able to hit six out of 10 slice backhands into the court.

If you achieve the goal

Practice hitting with topspin after moving to the ball. You need to put yourself in a position where you can make a good swing.

Take a more aggressive step forward while making your flat swing for more power and depth.

If you don't achieve the goal

Try hitting some topspin ground strokes from the service line. Concentrate on making a smooth, evenly-paced swing. Be sure your racquet face is closed at contact and that you watch the ball closely.

Try hitting some underspin backhands from the service line. Be sure to make contact with the ball in front of your body and donít allow your racquet face to get too open. Also be careful not to chop down on the ball as you swing.

Topspin and slice are crucial for intermediate players who are looking for consistency from the baseline and the ability to stay in rallies. Once you get a feel for hitting with different spins, you can add more variety to your game.




The challenge

Hitting a ball that lands deep in your opponentís court and forces them to play defensively should be your goal on all ground strokes. Using topspin to get net clearance and then to drive your opponent deep for an excellent, high-percentage shot.

When you come to the net, you want to make your opponent hit a challenging shot to beat you. Slice backhands stay low, give you more time to get into good volley position and let you keep moving forward as you hit. Beat that!

How to improve

Try to hit your forehands and backhands at least 4 to 6 feet above the net. The height will help get the ball deep, and after it bounces in your opponentís court, the topspin will push it deeper still.

Standing four feet inside the baseline, turn sideways and have someone feed you backhands. Hit each shot down the line and with underspin. Progress to moving forward from the baseline and hitting the same shot. Concentrate on hitting a high-quality shot, not racing into the net as fast as you can.

Your goal

In three weeks, consistently hit high, deep ground strokes off both your forehand and backhand side.

In three weeks, feel confident enough to hit down-the-line slice approach shots in match play.

If you achieve your goal

Develop a feel for adding more and less topspin to the ball, and flattening the trajectory for a more powerful shot when you need it.

Focus on getting the ball deep and into the corner on every approach shot you can. The deeper the better.

If you don't achieve your goal

Use your opponentís service line a guide and try to hit all your shots past it. Power isnít the concern, so donít worry if your shots look like topspin lobs. That fine as long as they land deep.

Keep practicing and be sure you arenít swing down on the ball, which can make it float or pop up. When you practice, be willing to miss trying the 'right' shot.

The advanced player should use topspin and slice to open up the court and create angles. Increased racquet-head speed and extra power will allow you to alter the tempo of a point -- and set up the rest of your game. coordination

Remember, they'll still be thinking that winners mean power and will overplay many of their shots. If you would like to increase your power and still stay in your control range, here is a principle that can help: practice! In your practice sessions, try hitting high ball after high ball for a winner with minimum power, then increase that power as you see your control improve. If you find yourself tightening up again and trying to muscle the ball, back off a little and practice relaxing until you can hit with the amount of power that feels comfortable. I am constantly telling players to relax on their winners and not to overplay. It's just human nature to want to do more on your winners when that magical moment occurs ... and you should! But that does not mean you have to abandon control...

Why is this important to understand? Because most players overplay their winners. Overplaying is one of the main reasons players lose control of their put-aways. For some reason, when they finally have the right opportunity to win the point, they abandon control and go with power.

Advanced players understand that more shots are lost than won. Understanding this enables them to avoid the high risk shots while hitting strong and consistent with a purpose. On a high level it is very difficult to have an open court to hit into. What seems open is only there for an instance. The more important strategy is being able to hit the right shot at the right time and it does not matter if the opponent is out of position or not. The shot itself will either produce an error or lead to a short ball and thus an opportunity to close out the point.

Power without control is meaningless. When most players hit with power they inevitably go outside of their control range. You must learn what your control range is with a given amount of power. If you step outside this control range, life on the tennis court becomes tough, not to mention frustrating.




The challenge

When players pull you off the court or rush the net against you in high-level matches, you have to be able to hit extreme angles and create openings. Because you can make a topspin shot dip quickly after it clears the net, itís the spin of choice for these situations.

Too often, advanced players regard slice backhands as defensive shots. Tell that to Steffi Graf, whoís made a career out of hitting exclusively with slice on her backhand. Even if you stay at the baseline, you can dictate play by pulling opponents out of position and making them hit up when your slice stays low. 

How to improve

Set up Targets along your practice partnerís service line, about two feet from the singles sidelines. Starting from the center mark, have someone feed you forehands and backhands and hit them crosscourt to the targets. Try to hit up and around the outside edge of the ball and use topspin to bring the ball back down into the court. 

Set up targets three feet from the convergence of the baseline and singles sidelines of your practice partnerís court. Hit a series of deep slice backhands to each target, giving the ball a flat trajectory to keep it low. Step forward aggressively and lean into each shot.

Your goal

In three weeks, be able to mix in sharply-angled balls with your down-the-line passing shots.

In three weeks be able to hit slice backhands aggressively and to set up your more powerful ground strokes.

If you achieve your goal

Start to experiment with using heavy-topspin shots in doubles to keep the ball low against a team established at the net. 

Try to incorporate slice backhands into your passing shot attack. A low, soft crosscourt slice backhands can force a net-rusher to try very difficult volleys.

If you don't achieve your goal

Keep your racquet head speed high. Try hitting higher and with more Topspin -- the shot won't be as powerful, but it's your shotís trajectory is what will beat your opponent.

Be sure you are leaning forward enough at impact. If your weight is not behind the shot, you may still get it in, but the shot will lack the sting you want.

Work on core skills needs a great deal of repetition, in the process of which the percentage of inferior efforts gradually diminishes, before competence is achieved. And without competence there is little hope of pleasure, which is, after all, what sport is all about.

Such comprehension permits you to play the proper shot, in the most effective manner, at the right moment, almost automatically or intuitively. - William Talbert