What does your typical day on a tennis court look like? Maybe knock around a few balls in the warm up, try out a couple serves and then get on with the game? Or perhaps you spend the entire hour working on groundstrokes and playing rally-game points. You might even go so far as to take a bucket of balls and try to perfect your serve for 60 minutes. These are all great! But there are three areas of your game that rarely get worked on, and they're three of the most important ones that you need to be practicing, especially if you're a recreational player looking for improvement. They're not flashy, they're not exciting, but boy are they crucial to a successful tennis game.
1. The Serve Toss
Imagine hitting a groundstroke without ever moving your feet. Just standing on the baseline hoping that the ball will come exactly to your strike zone. What a wonderful world that would be. You move your feet and put forth the effort in your footwork to allow yourself the best position possible to hit a forehand or backhand. It takes work and energy, but you know your reward is going to be a better and much easier shot. So why aren't you putting that same effort in on your serve toss?
But there's good news. You don't need a tennis court to practice this element. You don't even need a partner. All you need is a racquet, and to step outside.
The other piece of good news is that, unlike your groundstrokes, this is far less exhausting. You don't need to move your feet an inch to get good at this. In fact, if you're moving your feet, you're probably doing it wrong. Grab a racquet, a ball, and go into your backyard, driveway, sidewalk, wherever, and go through your service motion right up until you would make contact with the ball. You can make contact if you want, but you'll probably upset your neighbours or oncoming traffic.
The most common issue with a players serve is the toss. If your toss is no good, it doesn't matter if you're John Isner, you're not going to hit a good serve (actually, he probably could). Technique, racquet head speed, pronation, they're all deemed irrelevant if your toss is 4 feet to your right.
Work on this. Spend 10 minutes a day just practicing your toss. You don't need a private lesson to improve this. It's an expensive use of money to stand on a baseline for an hour going through this repetition, and I can guarantee that your coach will be thrilled if you come out to your lesson and you've improved your toss dramatically. It opens up so many more possibilities with your serve. You can get to the good stuff without wasting precious court time going over the basics.
So get outside, build some consistency. Find the correct height, bring your toss arm up slowly, leave it there after you've released the ball, and try to have the ball come right back into your hand. If you can master that, you will notice a huge difference going forward. You might look like a lunatic, but you knew that the day you started playing tennis to "relax".
2. Serve Return
Answer honestly; Have you ever had a practice session with your hitting partner(s) where you specifically worked on returning serves? I'm going to lean towards the answer being no. And when your opponent is warming up their serve before the match, I'm going to look into my crystal ball and guess that you're either stopping the ball and pocketing it, or you're very softly slicing it back to them. Sound familiar? Don't worry, it's a universal habit. Most players are so concerned about warming up their serve that they forget that 50% of the match begins with getting the opponents serve back.
When you're warming up for a match, it is imperative to actually return your opponents warm up serves. You want to get a sense of timing and rhythm before the match begins and the points start to matter. How can you expect to hit a gameplay return when you haven't hit a single one during the warm up?
And this isn't to say start crushing their warm up serves down the line, that's poor sportsmanship. But make sure to swing freely and find some rhythm to your stroke. Hit it back to them with topspin and control, because you don't want to come out of the gate trying to annihilate the ball anyway. This is also a great time to get a sense of their tendencies, how much spin they put on the ball, how accurate their placement is, and how consistent they are. Imagine being confident in your service game and your return game? That's the sort of player most people don't want to see on a court.
3. The Split Step
If you're not familiar with split stepping, it's one of the simplest movements you will do on a tennis court. From a ready position, when your opponent is just about to make contact with the ball, you will do a small hop. That's it! Seems simple, right? It is, and this is why it gets overlooked.
A split step done too early won't do anything for you, and one that's too late will force you to be rushed. Timed exactly right will give you a springboard that I guarantee will help your timing. Without this it's so difficult to time your preparation and get set for your next shot. The great news here is that not only can you practice this without a tennis court, you don't even have to leave your house. Next time you're watching tennis, pretend you're one of the players and split step every time the opponent is about to strike the ball. Do it for every shot they make. Your pets will be confused.
At first this will likely feel strange, but after enough times it becomes natural and will add so much patience and calm to your game. Footwork is vitally important in tennis, and it all begins by split stepping. Do this every time you're out on the court. Hammer it into your muscle memory until you do it on autopilot. Advanced players know that if they aren't split stepping it will have a huge effect on their game play, but they've done it so many times they instinctively do it without thinking.
The reason people don't practice these things is because they're boring. It's not fun to practice what you're not good at. It feels better to crush your forehand a bunch of times. You'll hit thousands upon thousands of ground strokes, volleys and serves, but spend some more time on the smaller details. Master these three elements and it will pay enormous dividends to your tennis.
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