You may be wondering, why am I even bothering to write an article about hitting a tennis ball?
We hit the ball with the racquet, right?
I have to write this article for a simple reason – there are many ways to hit a tennis ball with the racquet, and most of them are not good.
By »not good«, I mean that they don’t give the player good control of the ball, or don’t transfer the energy well into the ball, or don’t enable top spin.
Tennis technique (or form) – meaning how you prepare, do a full backswing, and extend through the ball toward the target – plus a bunch of other »technical« details you see and read online and in books – have nothing to do with what happens in the three- to five-thousandths of a second when the strings of the racquet are in the contact with the ball.
And in those three- to five-thousandths of a second, EVERYTHING is determined about the ball’s flight. (see image above)
So let’s focus on this moment, shall we, since it’s the most important part of a tennis stroke.
As you saw in the video above, to hit the ball »correctly«, we need to imagine and FEEL that we compress the ball against the strings and roll it.
There are quite a few reasons why it’s best to have an image of »rolling« the ball in your mind instead of »brushing or spinning« the ball or, worse, »hitting« the ball.
I heard Doug King from tennisone.com use the word »stroking« a tennis ball – another good word to keep in mind when you’re imagining the contact.
I think it’s important to understand that it’s not just semantics that we’re talking about. Different words trigger different mental images, and those trigger certain motor responses in our muscles – and all that happens on a subconscious level.
So unless we make them conscious and explore different words and what types of feel the words naturally induce, correcting your strokes won’t do much good if your mental image of how to connect the racquet and the ball is completely wrong…
Let’s see first why »hitting« and »spinning« are not good mental images to have when preparing to contact the ball…
The word »hit« implies a swing. A baseball player hits the ball with the bat.
A squash player or a badminton player hits the ball. In all these cases, the person swings the racquet or bat to generate a lot of speed that he or she wants to transfer into the ball.
While it seems like as if tennis players swing and hit the ball, that is NOT the case. (except in rare instances)
If we hit a hard tennis ball with a swinging bouncy racquet, the ball will fly the distance of two or maybe three tennis courts, especially if the ball goes with a slightly higher trajectory.
Modern tennis racquets are too »bouncy« for us to swing at the ball, and the game of tennis is based on consistency and accuracy.
Neither of this is achieved by generating high racquet head speed.
In fact, what matters much more is force, not speed.
And force is the result of acceleration x mass. (Newton’s Second Law: F = m x a)
I first heard about this equation when it comes to hitting a tennis ball from Oscar Wegner. I highly recommend his teachings to anyone who wants to learn tennis in a more natural way and abandon the traditional robotic and mechanical way of teaching strokes and movement.
Since there is no speed in the above equation, we can see that we don’t need such high racquet head speed to generate force into the ball.
We just need good acceleration.
The reason so many people believe (mostly subconsciously) that we need to swing at the ball is because it looks like the pros are swinging at the ball.
In fact, they are not (on groundstrokes in this case).
Is Roger Federer above “hitting” the ball or “rolling” it?
I’ll explain below what they ARE doing when I come to the »rolling« part and in the future articles.
»Brush up« and »spin the ball« are better mental images for how to approach hitting a tennis ball, but they are still not the best mental images you want to have unless you’re playing mini tennis.
Brushing up the ball suggests that we project force mostly past the ball, that the racquet barely catches the ball, and that the friction between the ball and the strings makes the ball rotate and makes the ball fly forward.
We coaches often see this in junior tennis, especially with girls. We jokingly say that they hit »past the ball« or »around the ball«.
If you have a mental image that you need to brush the ball, you’ll probably project the force to the ball at the wrong angle, which will give the ball good spin but not good speed.
Here’s an image where I compared the racquet path between a club player and a former pro (ranked around 280 on the ATP). Both were simply rallying with me…
As you can see, the club player’s racquet path is much steeper than the pro’s path.
The pro on the other hand knows how to hit and spin the ball. He has a different mental image when it comes to contacting the ball – he rolls the ball.
Note that simply telling the club player to have a lower racquet path achieves almost nothing because deep down he believes that he needs to spin the ball by moving the racquet upwards.
So you see the racquet path that he makes is a CONSEQUENCE of an incorrect mental image or idea of how to contact the ball.
And as you saw, we’re working on it. 😉
To develop a feel for compressing and rolling, it’s not enough to roll the ball on the bench for 30 seconds and then try to apply that idea with the racquet.
Feel develops slowly – like muscles grow.
To benefit from this concept of compressing and rolling, here’s what I suggest you do:
1. Roll the ball on the bench with your hand for 2 minutes before every session. (1 minute for forehand, 1 for backhand)
2. Roll the ball on the bench (or on the ground!) with the racquet and half-grip for 2 minutes. (1 minute for forehand, 1 minute for backhand)
3. Play mini tennis for a couple of minutes and attempt to compress and roll the ball while using the big muscles and pushing off the ground.
4. Replay the video of me demonstrating a few times at home so you can sense how I generate force from the ground. We learn best visually by copying so don’t ignore this part of watching and attempting to feel what I feel when hit a groundstroke.
Let me know how it goes and if you have any questions about this concept of “rolling” the ball!