What I Advise a Junior Player to Aim Toward

Judy Murray has juniors working on balance and touch!

Tennis is a complex sport.  There are at least 6 basic shots everyone has to learn (serve, forehand, backhand, forehand volley, backhand volley, and overhead), and then variations of spins, grips, first and second serves, etc. make for an exponentially expanding skill set for simply striking the ball.  However, moving to the ball while maintaining balance is just as important as striking the ball and developing positive feedback from stroke production toward movement and movement toward striking the ball is vitally important.  Then throw in the mental questions, (What is my strategy?, How do I control my nerves?, How do I adjust my plan to what my opponent does well/poorly?) are legion as well. Here is a simple checklist I have been developing for junior players, but I think it could be adapted to anyone who is young to the sport of tennis.IMG_2130

  1. Become Fit – Eliminate lack of conditioning as a reason for a loss
  2. Work on Balance and Movement at least as much as One Works on Technique
  3. Develop Your Serve
    1. First, Eliminate/Strictly Limit Double Faults – Double faulting means that the server failed to play a point
    2. Second, Develop a Second Serve that is Hard to Attack – Again this limits cheap points given to one’s opponent
    3. Third, Develop a First Serve that Can Attack an Opponent from the First Shot of the Point – Doing this before having a reliable and solid second serve would be ill-advised, but being able to produce cheap points (aces, service winners, and easy put aways) is an eventual goal for a server.
  4. Develop Your Return – This is Essentially a Mirror Image of #3 and is Vitally Important
    1. First, Get More Returns in Play – A big server may hit a fair share of aces and service winners, but making a server earn holds is key for winning sets and consequently matches.
    2. Second, Go Beyond Getting Returns Simply in Play by Hitting a High Percentage of Quality Returns that Start as many Return Points as Possible in a Neutral Spot for the Server
    3. Third, Develop the Ability to Punish Weak Second Serve Deliveries Without(!) Ramping up One’s Return Error Total
    4. Add Wrinkles Such as Being Able to Chip and Charge Against Weak and/or Second Serves – Hitting a passing shot when down 15-40 and hitting a second serve becomes hard for a server.
  5.  Ground Strokes
    1. Develop the Ability to Keep the Ball in Play – This does not have to entail pushing.  In fact, today’s equipment allows for most players to quickly develop a fairly effective and dependable topspin forehand.  A reliable two-handed backhand can also be developed fairly quickly.
      1. No one wants to practice with someone who never hits the ball in play so being able to practice and improve depends on learning to control one’s shots.
      2. My advice about focusing on movement and balance as much as technique should be a safeguard against becoming a pusher with a low ceiling for improvement.   Getting to the ball with one’s body in balance allows for confidence in putting a quality ball in play.
    2. Develop Shots that Put Your Opponent on the Defensive – This does not have to be accomplished via brute power.  Placement, depth, changing spins, changing the direction of the ball can all be as or more effective than blasting shots at one’s opponent.
    3. Develop a Reliable Put Away Shot – The old 1990s style net rusher in me dies a little placing this above approach shots, but if one’s opponent is pinned in a bad spot and/or off balance being able to hit a winner into the open court or to hit a winner by wrong-footing an opponent is quite helpful.
    4. Be Willing to Hit Approach Shots When an Opponent is in Trouble – This is my preferred way to win a point.  If an opponent hits a short ball, is stuck in a bad court position, and/or is off balance, I like to hit an underspin shot (generally up the line) and move forward.  If an opponent reaches that ball, generally an easily volleyed-off ball is coming to me.  Having a good transition game is a big plus in tennis and it translates well to the doubles court as well.
  6. Develop One’s Volleys and Overhead
    1. Learn to Shift Grips for Volleying – Some players love their topspin forehands so much that their hand does not like shifting for hitting a volley.  This can lead to giving away what should have been an easy point by missing or mishandling a volley.
    2. Practice Volleys from the Service Line – Practicing volleys standing 1 foot from the net generally allows a player to not notice if one’s technique/grip needs adjusting.  The technique that works on hard volleys will also work on very simple volleys.  The reverse is not always true.
    3. Being on One’s Toes is Key for Attacking Weak Passing Shots and Lobs, but is Also Key for Handling Good Lobs
    4. Remember the Old Baseball Adage that It is Easier to Move Foreward than Backwards when Making One’s Split Steps at the Net – Volleying in no-man’s-land is not what I am advocating, but closing too close can make one a sitting duck for even a decently hit lob.
  7. Play with Thoughtful Effort – Anyone Can Do This
  8. Learn to Not Obsess Over Lost Points – Brain Game Tennis is a great site and it points out that the #1 ATP player has historically won around 55% of his points in a given year.  That means the best player in the world still tends to lose 45% of his points over the course of 52 weeks.  Playing hard is a good thing, but letting a bad miss sabotage the next few points is a recipe for disaster on court.
    1. There is a fine balance between learning from a lost point and obsessing over lost points.  Finding that balance is a good idea.
  9. Learn to Play the Score
    1. Going for a Winner at 40-0 might Have Carryover Impact on an Opponent’s Morale if the Big Shot Connects while Missing that Shot Should Not Jeopardize Winning that Game
    2. Going for a Winner when down 30-40 has a Much Worse Risk to Reward Outcome.  Similarly, slapping at a return when an opponent is serving at 30-40 might really let someone off the hook who is facing a break point.
    3. Have a Simple Plan for the Basic Scoring Patterns One Faces when Serving and Receiving in Place before Matches.
  10. Learn to Enjoy the One-on-One Nature of Tennis
    1. Tennis can be tough.  When I lose in singles, I know I lost because either my opponent was better than I am or I played below my ability to an inferior player.  Both of those are tough truths to swallow.
    2. Tough does not mean the sport is bad
      1. Learning to embrace the problem-solving aspect of tennis (I am trying to solve my opponent while he/she is trying to solve me) helps.
      2. The mirror image of tennis being maddening is that it is a great challenge from which a lot of satisfaction can be derived.  I’d much prefer to solve a Rubick’s Cube than solve a 4 piece puzzle.

Soon Enough You Too Can Be Doing This! (Or a Simple Version of it)

 

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