How To Deal With High Balls To Backhand And Forehand

Nov 18

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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.

 

How To Handle A High Ball Tactically

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.

High ball in tennis

If you hit a high ball with a downward trajectory, it’s going to bounce right in the perfect height – in the strike zone of your opponent.

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.

High ball to one-handed backhand

Hit the ball straight – in a horizontal trajectory and it will land deep and still have some pace.

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.

High Balls and Technique Adjustments

If you’re having trouble hitting a high ball horizontally, then keep in mind these two adjustments to your basic forehand and backhand technique:

  • Prepare higher
  • Pull across

Why Prepare Higher?

High preparation for high balls

Look at your hand when practising high preparation

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.

Two-handed backhand at waist height

At waist height, the racquet continues in a forward and upward path after the contact.

Shoulder height backhand

At shoulder height, the racquet is going more across the ball.

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:

  • Your racquet is not horizontal anymore
  • You are imparting a side spin

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.

Roger Federer backhand high ball

Roger Federer hitting a high one-handed backhand – note how he hits across the ball.
(Image credit: fuzzyyellowballs.com)

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.

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27 comments

  1. The higher backswing preparation and pulling across the ball is a real eye opener for me. I was instinctively doing this more or less right about half the time but always with some doubt about whether I was doing the right thing even when successful. After reading your explanations and watching the very clear demonstration I feel I will have a lot less hesitation how to approach the high returns. Thanks a lot.
    Atsa

  2. OK, I get the message but I have one issue with it. What is the problem with the “high” return if I am able to get a lot of depth and have the opponent held at the baseline from where he will have the same problem dealing with my high ball.

  3. This is an interesting topic as high balls can often be short as well as deep. When they are short and there is the opportunity to put the ball away then high preparation is obviously the key. The video understandably focused mainly on the backhand but most balls whether short or long will be forehands as there is often more time to run round the backhand and hit a forehand. Please could you describe more fully the forehand to a high short ball as hitting horizontally on a short ball needs topspin. Is this achieved by using a slightly closed racket face with a horizontal swing? Also its not clear to me how pulling across the ball works on the forehand side. Please could you provide some image examples for the forehand.

    • Hi John,

      I’ll try an update the article or post a new one in the near future on how to hit a high ball on the forehand side.

  4. Very useful.
    Thank you a lot. It seems obvious after you explained.

  5. Brushing across ball with diagonal racket – that’s new to me, thanks! I’ve always tried to get the racket head below my wrist on the high ball to 1h bh which seems to be my problem. Question: On a not-high ball, I believe that the racket head must be below the wrist, the question is how to get it there. Do you feel you are letting the wrist relax and thus letting racket head drop by gravity or are you conciously pointing the racket head towards the ground?

    • Hi Jon,

      The racquet drop should not be conscious. Think more of a path of the racquet where you start the swing from below the below to above the ball – and let your hand and forearm find the right combination of firmness and relaxation through repetition.

  6. Thanks for this tip on how to handle high balls. I do want to comment that hitting from high to low would be OK if the incoming ball is relatively close to the net. In this case I can angle my reply away from my opponent for a winner.
    I always learn something form your “feel Tennis” approach. I like to ask you to talk more on the necessary “foot work” when you teach techniques. Often I make errors even if I can run to where the ball is, but my feet and my lower body is not properly set to execute the short no matter how well my racket swings.
    Thank you again. I always look forwards to your tips.

    • Interesting post. I had noticed that my son, Nikolas, tends to hit across the ball on his one handed backhand naturally. He is 14 so that leads to more balls being above his shoulders than with an adult. I have noticed that Federer tends to come across the ball especially against Nadal. Now I know why. The tricky part for me is that it is easy to lose control of the ball. It seems to me that this has to be hit pretty smoothly with the intent to simply neutralize. If one tries to attack or be too aggressive it will result in a shank or in the ball going wide.

      With regard to John M’s question about footwork. I think that there are a lot of issues with regard to not being in proper position. One cause might be footwork but just as likely is the fact that one needs to track the ball and know how and when to get to that position. More advanced players can detect where the ball will be earlier and thus prepare earlier. That is why you hear the issue of early preparation emphasized so often. But there is also a need for early detection which precedes preparation.

      One thing I can emphasize is to try and stay very relaxed and not try to do too much with the ball. This will naturally lead to a better shot because when you are rushed you will simply put the ball back deep but when you have time then you can take a bigger swing. I have incorporated Tomaz’s approach to my game and worked with my son to do exactly this. Always swing smooth no matter what.

      If one takes a mechanical swing to every ball, then the swing becomes disconnected from the preparation and the movement to the ball. If one takes a very smooth swing then the body tends to loosen up and adjust on its own. Then slowly the right footwork and technique start to appear on their own and you just do what works best once you have discovered it.

    • Hi John,

      Arturo has some good pointers.

      I find it often that if the player is not positioning to the ball well, then he is not watching the ball carefully.

      Most of the times the player also wants to see where the opponent is going and that takes focus off the ball.

      Once you don’t know where exactly is the ball, your footwork will show that.

      The other causes for poor positioning are mental. You may be:
      – late in deciding where to play
      – doubting your shot
      – being afraid to miss
      – etc.

      All these issues will cause you to delay your movement to the ball or stutter with your feet and not get in the right position.

      So check with yourself where you are paying complete attention to the short ball or whether there are any mental causes that hold you back.

  7. My one handed backhand really struggles with high bouncing kick serves. Should I be applying these tips to the return of those type serves or doing something different (moving in , taking the ball on the rise and chipping perhaps)?

    • Hi Joe,

      You should be experimenting with all the ideas you mention to see which one works best for you. But yes, you can treat a high kicking serve as a high ball that you need to play deep.

  8. My earlier comment amplified! What I am saying is that when dealing with the high ball situation at the back of the court I usually play “up” with the intention of getting as much top spin so as to generate a higher bouncing ball for my opponent and the deal with the situation as it unfolds. Any comment?

    • Hi George,

      As long as you create pressure for your opponent with this ball and your opponent is not good enough to get out of these rallies and is the first to play a short ball, then you’re fine.

      But hitting a high ball off a high ball is a stalemate. You’re not getting closer to winning the point.

      If I play Shaheed and I only respond to his high balls with a high ball, he will start dictating the rally in 75% of the time.

      I cannot play that passive. And there is no way I can hit 6-8 shots in a row so deep that he cannot make me run.

      So I need to hit with more pace off his high ball in order to create some pressure.

      You say that you hit with a lot of top spin – good if the ball is deep. But if you just slightly mishit while hitting with a lot of top spin you hit very short and opponent can start dictating.

      You have a certain opponent in mind when you describe your situation and he is probably troubled with your high top spin shot.

      A higher level opponent would be more consistent in high vs high and be the first to attack.

      So you would need to get out of high vs high and find a way to create safe pressure.

      This is where I recommend a horizontal shot that is still deep but relatively safe and takes time away from opponent to set up well for the shot.

  9. Thank you Tomaz.
    In fact I do not have an opponent in mind but simply surmised based on general experience in these situations.
    But your point is very valid in that the odds will be against me in the long term when attempted heavy top spin misfires and gives away short balls.

    • Hi George,

      I have also been told by some pros to hit balls back high to the person. Just give it back to them. I think that can work and use it at times to simply wait for the opponent to change things. But it is nice to have the other option and at times I will also come across the ball more and hit a more offensive shot. Variety is always good so not letting your opponent get into a groove by using both strategies is a good idea.

      Arturo

  10. Dear Tomaz,
    Excellent article, I had many of those shots to deal with myself particularly on my two handed backhand and I ended up either overhitting them or burying them into the net. I think part of the problem was preparing too late, being too close to the baseline or even inside the court, and not used to it among other things. I will have to keep working at it. I was going to ask based upon my experience as well for you to add posts about dealing with sharp angles to both forehands and backhand particularly with underspin and deep underspin shots to both forehands and backhands where the shot just lands in a small corner almost on the baseline. And I also wanted to ask if you could at some point discuss how to hit the slice on both forehand and backhand wings and when is it better to use a slice as opposed to the drive on either side. And I would also ask on how to improve preparation for coming into the net as someone is hitting an underspin shot to volley off of a underspin shot. I am sorry for asking so much but as I was playing for 2 plus hours, I wondered about these various subjects and I figured my experience could aid in you adding more stuff to this site.
    Sincerely,
    Ryan

    • Thanks, Ryan, I will keep your questions in mind for future articles.

      • Thanks Tomaz,
        I wanted to add a few when you have the time in addition to the one where I asked for an ideal tennis backhand contact point, after doing the ideal tennis forehand contact point. I realized another issue is what to do when in hitting for practice when someone attempts to use pace or spin or both to overload a particular wing, forehand or backhand, how to deal with it and counteract.
        Ryan

  11. Hi Tomaz,

    Ever since I stumbled upon your videos I have improved my game and been having so much fun on the court. After watching the video I could able to hit well on my one handed backhand especially the idea of hitting horizontally is great, always tried either to hit down or try to generate a top spin by hitting up and ending in a home run. I tried to apply the same on my forehand by preparing higher and diagonal contact point, Infact I was waiting for some of the shots to raise up, previously been under pressure or trying to avoid those high balls. Thanks for posting these great instructional videos.

    Regards,
    Ravi

  12. Melinda Ross /

    Thank you; I will try this!

  13. manoj /

    what swing do I take when the ball between waist and the shoulder, not too high. Can I pull across

    • Tomaz /

      Just do the most natural swing regardless of the ball height and let the racquet hit the ball at any angle that might happen at that height.

  14. Jon C /

    Is it OK to think of putting side spin on the ball when it’s high? It seems that’s what you’re doing when you come across it horizontally.

    • Tomaz /

      Yes, Jon, it’s OK. There are no laws or rules on how we need to hit the ball – the only thing that matters is what works and what doesn’t. So yes, you will hit a high ball with some side spin.

  15. Orlando /

    Hello Thomas:

    (Sept 17/2014) Sorry, I am joining late on this instructional video. I saw a boy yesterday practicing this shot with his instructor, he was literally ripping the ball and finishing the forehand with the racquet around his back. My question would be: can this shot be tried from the baseline and midcourt also? The first thing would be to recognize a “high ball” in relation with the height of the net. With the ball one meter above the net shall we apply the same concept?

    Orlando
    South Carolina
    U.S.A.

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