Learning how to handle a high ball to the backhand or forehand side in tennis requires you to adjust your technique and play a tactically correct shot.
In order to deal with a high ball, especially on the backhand side, you need to prepare the stroke higher and pull across instead of hitting up on the ball.
And unless you are really pushed way behind the baseline, where you need to play back up, I recommend hitting the ball horizontally and letting gravity and spin bring the ball down.
Your first goal whenever you face a challenge in tennis is to think tactically rather than technically.
How does the ball need to “fly” in order for you to solve the tactical problem?
In many cases, if you simply stick with an intention and try to hit a certain incoming ball in a certain way, your technique will adjust naturally without any thinking.
That’s always preferable because your body will find the optimal movement for your current skills and abilities.
Of course, often times players get too hung up on certain techniques or they develop such strong habits (muscle memory) that they are unable to adjust. In those cases, look at the technical suggestions below.
The most common mistake in dealing with a high ball in tennis is to hit it in a downward trajectory.
While you may think you’re hitting the ball fast, that ball will almost always land short and bounce right at the perfect height for your opponent to attack it.
It also won’t have enough spin, so it won’t bounce rapidly off the ground – and it will be easy to time.
So, avoid hitting a high ball to your backhand or forehand side down.
The other usual “mistake” is hitting the ball back up.
It is the correct choice if you are way behind the baseline, but if you are closer, about 3 feet behind, then you’re simply hitting back a passive shot and letting your opponent dictate.
So, the best way to handle a high ball is to hit it horizontally.
Just imagine a horizontal trajectory from the contact point you are hitting at and let gravity and some amount of spin bring the ball down.
I know from experience that many players are afraid to hit such a shot because they feel it’s going to sail long.
But as it is with all shots in tennis, we need to gauge with how much force we are going to hit each shot in order to hit it deep but not too long.
So, it’s the same with this one – with some amount of practice, you’ll quickly know how hard to hit the ball horizontally to make it land deep.
The main advantage of this shot is that it is much faster than the high ball yet it’s now risky, so it still creates some pressure on your opponent.
It doesn’t give them the time to set up perfectly for the shot and therefore neutralizes their attacks.
If you’re having trouble hitting a high ball horizontally, then keep in mind these two adjustments to your basic forehand and backhand technique:
Why Prepare Higher?
If you keep your normal swing path, your racquet will dip into the “slot” and then travel from a very low point around your knees to a very high point around your shoulders.
This racquet path will create an upward force to the ball when you make contact, and you’ll only be able to hit the ball back up.
So, you need to prepare your shot higher and keep a higher swing path when approaching the ball.
A good way to learn that is to swing without the ball and look at your hand while you’re performing the stroke.
That will help you correct the possible habit that keeps pulling your arm down when you’re executing your stroke.
I also suggest taping yourself.
I’ve had a few players who could not believe their eyes when they saw the video showing how low they were dropping the racquet head even though they were about to hit a shot above their shoulders.
Why Pull Across?
Since most shots are played waist height or lower, we usually hit up on the ball in order to apply spin – which means we try to make the ball spin around the horizontal axis.
But when we make a contact around shoulder height or even higher, we have almost no more space to go higher – in fact, the body cannot perform that motion with any significant force.
So, if we do try to handle a high ball on the backhand or forehand side with »regular« spin, we will hit a weak shot and the opponent will be able to dictate the point.
The best way to solve that is actually the most natural way – just swing as you normally do, and you’ll see that, at that height (above shoulders), your follow-through is already going to the side.
So, you are not hitting forward any more but more pulling across.
That’s exactly what you need to do when hitting a high ball, especially on the backhand side.
The forehand side gives you more freedom, and you can still hit more forward. However, when the ball is around your head, you’ll probably also need to pull across the ball more.
When you’re pulling across the ball, two things are different than usual:
Not having a horizontal racquet at contact and applying side spin to the ball are sometimes things that bother a lot of club players, so you may need to hit some nice, slow balls in order to get the hang of it.
But if you observe the images and slow motion videos in this article, you’ll see that that’s exactly what happens when pros have to deal with a high ball to the backhand, whether a one-handed or a two-handed backhand.
A good way to feel the “pull across” is to practice against the fence, which gives you a little bit of resistance.
After a few repetitions, you will know how it should feel when hitting a high ball to your backhand or forehand side.
I recommend practicing these shots at very low speed first so that your ball will land around the service line on the other side.
Hitting slowly gives you enough time to be aware of whether you are preparing high and whether you’re pulling across and imparting side spin.
In time, you’ll find it easier to hit the ball with the right amount of force to make it land deep and successfully neutralize your opponent’s high balls to your backhand or forehand side.