Timing in Tennis and How to Improve It
One of the most difficult things in tennis, in my opinion, is not learning technique or even footwork—it’s the timing and rhythm.
Because timing in tennis naturally improves over time, most players and coaches don’t pay much attention to it. They also misdiagnose many errors as technical mistakes when the incorrect technique in many cases is just a consequence of poor timing.
If you start tennis very early and play a lot, then timing, ball judgment, and rhythm won’t be a problem. All will eventually improve naturally and unconsciously.
But, if you’re an adult and you started late, then timing exercises can greatly improve your game, especially since they take your focus away from technique, which is so often the key limiting factor that holds you back.
The following three drills will help you improve your timing and rhythm—and help you play tennis more effortlessly.
With less effort put into your strokes, you’ll improve consistency and accuracy and eventually be able to add controlled power to your groundstrokes.
Drill #1: Playing Far Behind The Baseline
So many club players stand much too close to the baseline, and I understand why—they play points most of the time, and they want to be able to reach short balls.
But, by playing close to the baseline, you shorten the distance to your opponent and therefore have less time to hit the ball.
When your timing is not that good yet, it will cause you to shorten your strokes, and you’ll do that by tightening your muscles. That will cause a lot of poor technical shots and inconsistencies.
My first suggestion is to play way less tennis for points if you want to improve in the long term.
And my second suggestion is to play way behind the baseline for 5 to 10 minutes every session (perhaps even more).
By playing 2 or 3 meters behind the baseline, you’ll have much more time to prepare and swing. You’ll also have a much longer court to play into.
So, you’ll benefit in two ways: more time to swing and more freedom to swing, as the other baseline will be quite far away and you’ll see that it’s quite difficult to hit the ball too long.
The goal is to find the rhythm with the ball—try to hit the ball when it’s falling down and swing freely without tension through it.
With practice, you’ll find it very enjoyable to play like that. As you’ll feel no time pressure, you’ll finally be free to swing and let go.
This type of timing is the FOUNDATION for other timing where there is less time, like hitting the ball at the top of the bounce and hitting the ball on the rise.
Once you have this timing in place, it will be much easier to adjust it and still retain the feeling of no time pressure and the relaxed swing through the ball. In turn, your technique of groundstrokes will also be much smoother.
Drill #2: “Do I Have Time?”
Because coaches and players notice very early that the beginner or intermediate tennis player is late hitting the ball, the most common correction is to “put your racquet back” early, as that will give the player more time.
In theory that’s correct, but in practice that doesn’t work well. That’s because the player actually breaks down their timing by the sudden movement of bringing the racquet back.
The racquet then also starts the forward swing from a still point, which requires a jerky movement to get it started. In order to accelerate the racquet suddenly from a still point (to jerk it), we need to use a lot of force suddenly.
We can achieve that only through tension and strong muscle contraction, both of which cause inconsistency of the shot and a lot of wasted energy.
In reality, the swing of the groundstroke has 3 phases:
- Quick preparation
- Slower movement of the racquet in the phase between the backswing and the forward swing
- Acceleration toward the ball
In order to make all three work in harmony, the key part is the second one—it’s where we transition from backswing to forward swing.
This part MUST be smooth, as that allows gradual acceleration toward the ball. If the acceleration is not gradual but jerky, then muscles will tighten, contract suddenly, and cause small changes in the racquet head orientation, which in turn will cause a lot of errors.
That’s why it is crucial that the second phase of the swing is smooth, and it can be smooth only if we don’t feel any time pressure.
The best way to achieve that, in my experience, is to keep asking yourself whether you have time in that part of the swing.
The more you are aware of that phase and how you go through it, the more you’ll be able to adjust your swing.
In fact, most of the adjustments will happen unconsciously as your brain will adjust the speed of each phase and the transitions between them.
But again, in order to pay attention to these details, you need to rally in easy conditions without playing points.
Your whole awareness must be in your stroke—that’s why you must receive easy balls.
It’s best if you combine this drill with Drill #1, where you rally 2 to 3 meters behind the baseline.
Your final goal in this drill is to find time in phase 2 of the swing. You’ll find it through awareness and repetition. Once you feel no time pressure, you’ll be able to relax.
Once you relax, the swing will be much smoother and will generate much more force with less effort.
Feeling no time pressure and hitting effortlessly will tell you that you’re on the right track.
One more thing: allow your unconscious mind to make all the adjustments in the long term. Don’t force it consciously—just look for time in phase 2, hit 1000 balls, and wait.
Give your cerebellum enough information and feedback so that it can adjust this highly complex operation of sending thousands of signals to hundreds of your muscles that need to operate in almost perfect harmony.
Drill #3: Align With The Ball Flight
This is a drill I first discovered through The Inner Game of Tennis from Timothy Gallwey, and it’s one of the best drills to work on both timing and rhythm at once.
Gallwey called it “riding the ball”, and the idea is that you move in the same way as the ball does.
When the ball is going down, you’re going down, and when the ball is going up, you’re going up.
This drill works best if you don’t stand too far behind the baseline because then the ball will be falling down again at the time you need to go up toward it.
So, it’s not a drill that works in every situation, as the rhythms of your movement need to adjust to the ball’s flight.
Sometimes you hit the ball when it’s falling down, sometimes on top of the bounce, and sometimes when it’s rising—so there isn’t one drill that teaches you all three rhythms at the same time (except simply playing).
So, try to go down and load the energy in your legs and then go up once the ball bounces off the ground and release that energy into your stroke.
This will be the correct rhythm in most baseline exchanges when you rally nicely with your partner but also in most exchanges later when you play points.
One of the best hidden benefits of this drill besides helping you improve your timing in tennis is also helping you focus more on the loading of your legs and becoming more aware of the power you can generate off the ground.
By “pressing” into the ground with your legs, the “ground will press back”, and you’ll feel as if you’re receiving energy from the ground.
Of course, the ground doesn’t send energy, but that’s how it feels.
By finding more power in your legs you’ll be able to let go of some of the tension in your arms, and you’ll find another level of more effortless swing and eventually more consistency and power.
In summary, timing and rhythm in tennis are not easy to master, and most technical errors that we see are actually caused by poor timing.
In fact, when you’re thinking about the “correct movement of the racquet”, then in your mind’s eye you’re observing your racquet path and you’re not really tracking the ball.
How can you time the ball well when in fact you’re not even paying attention to it?
Only when you have your full attention on the ball will you be able to gauge the right time to go against it in the most comfortable and efficient way.
It is crucial that you complement your technical lessons with timing and rhythm exercises in order to achieve that effortless stroke in the long term.
Test these drills repeatedly, and let me know how they work for you!