Preparation and Position: the groundstrokes.
"Preparation allows the lucky accident that we're always hoping for to happen." Sidney Lument, director.
You have the perfect practice swing. You consistently hit the stroke you like off a ball bounced for you. But when a live ball comes everything falls apart. So you continue to work on your form until you are absolutely sure that you have it down. You hit the courts again and the problem persists. Why can’t you just swing the way you have practiced? I mean to tell you that in most cases your stroke really is fine, and the culprit for your frustration lies elsewhere. Instead of concentrating on the swing you might try instead focusing your energies on the twin steps of preparation and positioning. Let me explain why.
“It’s all in the preparation.” Tom Landry, football coach. (Advice also given by every great chef ever.)
What is the difference between the sweet stroke you hit when a ball is dropped for you versus the live ball? In the artificial, standstill situation your racket was already back and you merely triggered as the ball entered your strike zone. With a live ball, you feel rushed and off-balance, resulting in an awkward, erratic stroke because you are not prepared in the same way. But you can be. While there are many things in tennis of which you have no control over, (your opponent’s shots, exact placement of your own shot, to name two) taking your racket back is 100% controlled by you! We know that the stroke you desire already exists. In order to use it you must coil your body to take the racket back the instant you know what shot you will have to hit. Otherwise you end up taking the racket back as the ball is passing, forcing you to rush and hit a faulty stroke. With early preparation, even balls hit at you with blazing speed, require only the timing to swing when the ball enters your strike zone.
7 steps to a new you.
The next step (actually steps) in hitting better strokes is positioning. The legendary Chris Evert was known for her flawless groundstrokes and overall graceful motion on the court as she fiercely tore through her competitors. What set her apart? Did she have some unique ability to swing a racket the rest of us lack? With all due respect to her, I sincerely doubt it. What she did have though was tremendous footwork that put her in excellent position to hit each ball. She possessed the discipline to take 7 steps before she hit any groundstroke. With her racket back she used long steps to carry her to the ball’s destination with smaller steps to set her weight before hitting the ball on the seventh step. Thus balls she didn’t have to run far for, meant she used lots of these tiny steps to hit the absolutely best shot she could every time. Sound like a lot of work? Perhaps. Of course, having a great forehand is of no avail if you are never in a position to use it. If it took Chris 7 steps to be the best player in the world, increasing the number of steps you take can only help you become a better player in your own tennis realm.
Ready, set, go!
Once you feel comfortable swinging on a dropped ball, concentrate on readying your racket sooner. As you move towards the ball, make sure you take extra steps to get set in the best position to strike the ball perfectly. When the ball arrives, go after it with confidence in your swing. These steps may not be easy, but the resulting pleasure you will feel being able to hit the stroke you have always known you had, is certainly worth it. - Nick Sousanis (Spring 1998)