I am at a point in my tennis development that moving to the next level requires a focus on feel. Using my senses more. Feeling at one with the court, ball, racquet and situation. Feel for ball, shot, game and match. That means sensing what they need and delivering what’s required. Correct technique in all areas will be the result along with timing and power.
It is all very Zen isn’t it. I am at a point where I have the basic technique for all shots and a basic feel for the strategy but I am not progressing much more because the technique and other aspects need to become instinctual. I need to stop paying attention to them and just let them be so I can focus on the wider situation. The best way I know to do that is to focus on it. Focus on the wider game and just trust the underlying aspects. Long term they should just sort themselves out. My serve is a case in point. When I think about improving it generally I start double faulting. When I shift my focus to my opponent and just aim the serve in and let it be I don’t double fault at all.
So the idea is that I need to improve my feel in general focus less on power and effort. More on timing and thought. Get a feel for the matchup, point, strokes and environment.
This is an era where I instill the core belief that feel leads to timing and then power, complexity and constant pressure. The better my feel the more pressure I apply to my opponent. The rest will take care of itself.
Develop my handshake
One way I am doing just this is by changing my thought process during each shot. I try to shake the balls hand. That is what I am thinking of to get a good solid contact and effective spin. A firm enough contact to make an impact on the ball.
Instead of focusing on the effort I put in I now focus on quality of contact and pretty much nothing else. I have in my mind where I am aiming and I focus intently on the point of contact with the ball. At this point I imagine the ball being in my palm and I apply the spin and pressure that I want. So, instead of trying to slap the ball I push it. I literally try to grip it, just like I were shaking someones hand. A handshake should not be too strong or too weak. It should be just right. There is an art to it, which is what I want to learn. How to apply just the right pressure. To do that I must develop the feel of the racquet contacting the ball.
The scientists will tell you it is impossible to do this since the ball is in contact with the racquet for only a split second. That is true of course but also lacks humanity in its answer. In volleyball where you do use your palm like a tennis racquet feel it precisely what you get. You literally feel the ball being spun by your hand. So why can’t you develop this with a racquet. Who says your senses can not be honed to let you feel that your racquet is an extension of your hand.
That is my challenge to myself and so far it is working very well. My wrist injury has got in the way because I have been playing left handed and had to focus on building my game almost from scratch. However I have still been applying the same handshake concept when I have time and energy and it works beautifully.
I find it gives more power, control and spin with less effort. I emphasise quality contact. Fast strokes seem to come naturally as I build my handshake. The real challenge is making this part of who I am and how I train. It i such a new philosophy it has not yet become part of me.
While I can implement this in my ground game and net play during sessions I find working on serving much harder because you don’t actually serve much in a normal match or knock. So I have been practicing my serve at home. Applying this new focus on feel and handshake. Left or right handed does not matter. I just need to perform a serve focusing on feel not power. I also want to start to feel a serve is like any other shot. It always feels like this separate action with specific location and toss where in fact it is just a smash with a specific target that you are actually in full control of. If it felt like any other shot then surely I would be able to transfer my skills on the court to my skill on serve and both aspects would improve. Particularly my smash. Right now my focus on serve feel is from my desire to be able to just get it in when needed. Vary pace, spin, placement.
I am very happy with the results. Right now I can get a serve in when required on the right and left hand. The focus on feel and the practice at home has helped me develop a solid workflow. The confidence that gives me feeds in to the rest of the game because I can expect the serve to go in and thus follow it up, take time away from my opponents.
Focus on strategy
More than just hitting the ball cleanly. I need to move away from thinking power will win. It leads to injury. Better technique and strategy saves effort , reduces injury and asks more of the opponent. To do this I must move my focus to feel and strategy. I need to fully accept that power and pace will come naturally and stop chasing these goals every session.
During matches I need to think strategy and options. Not micro manage my serve. I need to automatically prepare for opponents return and the various options. This is where mirosoft kinect could be useful or hitting against a wall or rebound net could help.
My read, risk, recover
approach really helps me because it highlights where my game lacks balance. I am good at taking risks. I can hit many different shots and hit them well. What I am weak at is reading the game and recovering. So those are the two aspects I should improve because it will take much more effort to improve my shots than to improve how I read or recover.
At this point I find that my weakest skill is recovery. Not because I have bad footwork. That is something I have worked on and I can cover the court very well. Instead it is because the risks I take often pull me out of position and so I have further to recover. This gives my opponent more options and it is harder for me to read which one he will take. This makes my life difficult and my opponents easy. I need to learn to take risks without exposing weaknesses, giving myself less work to do to recover and so being ready for the next shot sooner. That way I can apply pressure to my opponent sooner than before. If they see that I am ready for their return even before they have hit the ball then surely they will find the subsequent shot more difficult. That is how it works for me.
So my mantra is now to be ready for the return. Make this part of my game. In all shots think of the expected return and how to react to it. Will I rush the net, go midcourt or stay where I am. Make good recovery it part of the normal risk taking process.
I am slowly beginning to understand how playing doubles can make me a better singles player. Particularly at the net. I am developing my feel for when to poach. It’s about good movement underpinning the attack. Of course performing the poach is an opportunity to develop your skills at net but it is also crucial to work in tandem with your partner. When you poach your opponent must cover you. They must adjust to your movement. You look for cross court balls and commit. If your opponent moves quickly they don’t have to go far to cover the space.
This is useful in singles because this process develops your ability to read the situation at net. If you are like me then you are mainly a baseliner and have little experience at net. I have recently got comfortable at net and started to enjoy it. Really understanding the benefits it gives but it is a double edged sword. You can really expose yourself in a way you can not at the baseline. If you don’t understand the angles you can lose the point just by getting out of position at net. So whether I am poaching or covering the poacher I find doubles a wonderful opportunity to learn what to do at net.
Power Spin and Accuracy
Over at Essential Tennis, Ian Westermann put this concept in his own words in a tutorial explaining how to improve power, spin and accuracy
in all shots. It is really just about going back to basics. Quality contact with the ball is vital to getting the result you want.
Redirect tough balls, attack easy balls
To simplify decisions within points I work to a simple strategy. I block tough balls back where they came from. That is anything that I don’t feel I can attack I just focus on getting it back well. I don’t add anything to it. Particularly hard and fast balls I use the pace they have to get them back of the net and deep. Rather than get drawn out of position or rush I have learnt to use the opponents ball against them. It is actually much easier to use the pace of a good shot from an opponent and redirect it back to them than it is to try to apply pace myself.
When a weaker ball comes across I can think about attacking it. So my focus is obviously on waiting for a weaker ball and being positioned to take advantage. Again I am focusing less on individual shots, more on the whole rally and weighing up my options.
The logic for this approach comes from considering the difference between attacking a ball and defending, generally blocking it back. I find that technically the process of blocking and defending is faster and less complex than attacking. You need a fast response for tough balls, particularly one that will not break down under pressure. Blocking gives you that. You can get the racquet in position early and play your shot then recover. That’s what you need.
Attacking on the other hand involves so much more. From the footwork to the body, arm and wrist work there is so much more to do. Bigger swings, more rotation and lots of tiny things. The shot is always more complex. You also take longer to recover your position and throughout you are pushing yourself and thus more likely to make a mistake. So, after this analysis, it becomes obvious to only take that kind of risk on a ball that isn’t really troubling you.
I hope that helps you in some way. It is certainly making a positive difference to my game and making it more fun at the same time.