How “Lifting” The Ball Improves Consistency Of Your Groundstrokes

Sep 27

Do you hit lots of forehands or backhands into the net or perhaps play them short?

If that’s the case, you may have an incorrect foundation of your groundstrokes.

You may be imagining and trying to hit a horizontal shot off your racket and looking to just make it cross the net.

Tennis shots do look like that because the trajectory of the flight is much closer to a horizontal line than to a vertical line.

So, what you’re probably trying to do is hit the ball straight and then work your way up a bit so that it crosses the net.

But, in my experience, you will never achieve good consistency of your forehands and backhands with that approach.

The actual foundation of a groundstroke is an almost vertical shot from which we work our way down to our desired height.

Update: I’ve been asked a few times what is the racket face orientation at contact so I’ve added this clip below to show you the side view of me hitting two backhands in slow motion.

Why Aiming Low Is Not A Good Idea

The reason you’re hitting the balls very low and imagining an almost horizontal shot is because you think those are good shots.

They’re not – except when you really want to attack with a fast ball. And, even then, I would always suggest that you hit with some trajectory and not imagine a straight line of your shots.

The reason why low shots are not a good idea is very simple – you margin of error is too small.

In other words, your shots are too risky.

You’re going to hit the net way too often. Even if you don’t, lots of your shots will land short and then bounce right into the strike zone of your opponent.

You will cause much more pressure to your opponent by looking to hit a deep ball with some moderate pace rather than looking to hit very fast shots all the time.

The majority of shots in tennis are in fact played with quite a good margin of error and are aimed at least 1 meter (3 feet) above the net.

Even the pros play quite high over the net, which means that it is impossible to master hitting very low over the net at high speed – otherwise, someone would have figured it out by now.

Note the height of the shots played by Wawrinka and Dimitrov from this back view

It is also possible that you’re afraid to hit the ball high and therefore long and that’s why you play very low.

I have two answers to that:

  1. Why aren’t you afraid to hit into the net then? Hitting long and hitting in the net both result in you losing the point.
     
    We teach junior tennis players that hitting long is a much better mistake in the long term than hitting in the net. That’s because you are much closer to the target that you were aiming at when you hit long than when you hit into the net.
     
    The result is that you get good feedback on how to adjust for the next shot since you may be 2 meters from the target, but if you hit into the net, you are 10 meters from the target.
  2. You may not realize how high you can actually play and still keep the ball in the court. I’ve witnessed countless times the situation where I asked a player to hit higher with good pace and, when they did, their ball landed in.
     
    However, when asked if they believed initially whether the ball would land in, they said no.
     
    So, players can be wrong about their depth perception and how high and how fast they can play the ball for years and never actually experiment to see whether their theories of how fast and high it’s possible to play and still keep the ball in are true.

How to Develop a Lifting Element/Force in Your Groundstrokes

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that playing low above the net is not a good idea, let’s see how we add that safety margin to our strokes.

Note that you may still have problems with hitting into the net a lot if you maintain your main idea of hitting the ball horizontally but just aiming a bit higher.

That’s because your initial swing will still be too horizontal, and you will swing up to lift the ball only at the last minute.

In reality, it should be exactly the other way around: we need to swing more under the ball and then we can finish the swing with a more horizontal motion if we still want a lower shot over the net.

As I mentioned before, we need to work our way down from an almost vertical shot instead of working our way up from a horizontal shot.

The drills I recommend are all based on the principle of exaggeration because that’s how you’ll learn in the fastest way.

Here’s how to practice adding more lift to the ball if:

a) You’re alone with a basket of balls

  1. Stand halfway between the service line and the baseline. Hit the ball vertically up by around 2 meters and let it bounce always off the ground in between your hits. Do 20 repetitions.
  2. Start exactly the same, but now hit every second shot over the net with a very high trajectory, approximately 4-5 meters above the net. Hit around 10 balls like that.
  3. You can now drop-hit every ball over the net. Aim around 3 meters above the net and hit 10 balls, then gradually work your way down aiming lower and lower while maintaining a very similar swing path. You can also start gradually increasing the speed of your shots so that you can maintain the same depth.
  4. Eventually move back to the baseline and repeat the process except that you can hit fewer balls for each height. So, hit around 5 balls aiming 5 meters above the net and then lower your target by 1 meter and each time hit 5 balls at that height.
height of tennis forehand stroke

Start aiming 4-5 meters above the net and work your way down

Once you start aiming 1 meter above the net, you may feel that your strokes feel different already and that you are swinging more upwards and yet you are able to play the ball fairly low if you want to.

b) You’re rallying with a partner

If you rally with a friend, then simply play at a very high arc above the net for a minute when you start your session. From there, simply lower your trajectory of shots by 1 meter every next minute.

consistent tennis backhand strokes

Work your way down from initial higher shots as you rally

You can also slowly start adding some speed to your shots.

That’s how you will add that lifting force to all your shots that will keep the ball away from the net even when you decide to play a bit lower.

I show in the video above how I can eventually play very low above the net with good pace and spin and still have the lifting part in my strokes – meaning that I still swing upwards, just not at a very steep angle.

That gives me that extra level of consistency even when I play lower and faster shots.

c) You’re coaching someone with a basket of balls

If you’re a coach and want to work on this idea with your players, you can follow this progression:

  1. Stand at the net and have your player play from the service line. Toss/feed them the ball and ask them to play well over you and keep the ball in the court. You can even stretch your arm with the racket up so that they imagine lobbing you.
  2. Every 10 repetitions, ask the player to move back 1 meter and repeat the exercise from there. You can keep the arm with the racket up initially for a higher arc, but eventually you can just ask the players to play over you when you just stand there. I simply ask the players to lob me.
  3. Once the player reaches the baseline, have them hit 10 more balls over you and then move away so that they don’t have any target anymore but need to visualize the trajectory of the ball at the same height. Make them notice that majority of their shots land inside the court even though they initially think that the ball will go long.
  4. Ask them to “lob the net” when they play. When I asked them to lob me, they typically had good safety margin because they didn’t want to hit me in the head. So, usually when we ask the players to lob, they will have some margin. Now they need to have the same margin when they lob the net. The lob is low, of course, but the mental image of “lobbing” gives them the idea of an arc/trajectory and not a straight line which is what we are trying to correct.
shot height of two-handed backhand

“Hit over me” is one of my favorite drills that changes swing path technique with no mechanical corrections and over-thinking problems

One more coaching tip: most coaches would start telling the players to swing low to high or to drop their racket if they saw a very horizontal swing path.

I personally find that to be very bad coaching advice.

That’s because you are not addressing the intention first. A player’s technique almost always reflects their intention.

They swing horizontally because they IMAGINE that kind of shot in the first place.

They are not robots that happen to move incorrectly and now we need to fix their movements.

They are people with their minds working all the time.

So, the problem that you see (incorrect swing path) originates from somewhere you can’t see (in their mind imagining a straight shot).

If you do not address and correct their thinking but only mechanically correct their bodies, you will find that the players will quickly revert to old swing paths once you don’t monitor them.

That’s because they still think hitting low is fine. When they imagine a low ball, they will swing horizontally.

If you don’t correct the source of the problem (their incorrect intention) and you correct technique (which is simply a consequence of that intention), the technique will not want to change in the long term.

The second reason I avoid correcting this swing path mechanically is that, if I ask them to swing low to high, for example, they now think about their BODY.

Their attention is at their ARMS or RACKET and how they need to move them. They devote part of their attention (or brain power) to tracking what their ARMS are doing in space.

That means that they now have less attention on the incoming ball.

Simply speaking, we can say that they devote 50% of their brain power to controlling their body movements and 50% of their brain power to judging and timing the ball.

But, for a typical recreational tennis player, having only 50% of their attention on the ball is NOT ENOUGH!

They will constantly misjudge and mistime the ball and keep hitting it late or mishitting it!

Whenever the student thinks about their body, they don’t pay attention to the ball. That’s why we must give them very nice balls (tossing or feeding) so that they don’t need to judge the ball that well.

They will still have problems, though, especially in a live rally situation.

That’s why it’s much better and much more natural to ask them to hit the ball in a higher arc.

That’s what we actually want to achieve!

When we ask the players to hit with an arc, they do that simply by trying to do something TO THE BALL.

When the ball is approaching them, they can keep 100% attention on the ball because they are imagining how they will hit IT.

They are imagining they want to hit the ball below the center so that it will go up.

We don’t have to teach people such obvious things and make them think even more.

Wanting to hit the ball higher and therefore hitting the ball below the center (or under) is the most intuitive thing in tennis, and a 5-year-old child can do it with no instruction whatsoever.

Ask a 5-year-old child to hit one ball forward and one ball up, and they can do it immediately with no thinking.

So, there is no need to talk about low to high or tell them to get under the ball, etc. You simply ask the player to hit higher, and they can do it instantly.

And the only way they can do it is to hit the ball below the center, which means they will swing under it.

So, we correct technique subconsciously.

The player’s technique changes, not because they think about it, but because it is a consequence of their changed intention of how they want the ball to fly.

The body simply adjusts its movements to the new task.

improved two-handed backhand technique

Elen’s backhand “technique” improved because she changed her intention of how she wants to make the ball fly

In this way, we don’t overload the player with additional information (which is completely unnecessary), and we don’t cause more mistakes since they don’t pay less attention to the ball but actually pay full attention to the ball.

(Note: I did work with Elen on correcting the biomechanics of her two-handed backhand and a few other details but when it comes to the changed swing path that you see above we mostly worked on hitting higher and gradually lowering the trajectory of her shots.)

I hope this clarifies my approach to coaches who may be reading this and helps explain why I do the drills I recommend and why I don’t talk about swinging low to high or dropping the racket under the ball or anything like that.

I do that sometimes, as my last resort, if the player really doesn’t get it after a few minutes of trying to hit higher balls or if they are very tight in the wrist and hold the racket very tight. In that case, I guide their arm and try to loosen up their wrist.

Then I come back quickly to just talking about the ball flight and not about their body.

In summary, the approach presented in this article is very simple but very effective; if you start with high shots above the net and work your way down you will naturally implement a “lifting” element (or force) into your swings and that will give you that extra consistency even when you decide to play lower and faster.

This is how the greatest tennis player of all times starts his sessions. How do you? 😉

Leave a Comment:

(20) comments

Luiz September 27, 2016

Thanks!

Reply
Tomi September 27, 2016

‘A player’s technique almost always reflects their intention.’ You have probably seen young players open their racquet faces in order to hit with a high trajectory. Do you tell them about the racquet face needing to be more perpendicular to the ground or do you wait for the issue to settle by itself?

Reply
    Tomaz September 27, 2016

    Hi Tomi,

    I don’t have that experience but if they do open the racket face then they are not imagining any topspin on the ball.

    So their intention is a high ball but with no topspin.

    When we develop their feel for topspin and their topspin technique with rolling drills, other topspin drills or using various tools then they will have a more vertical racket face even when hitting higher balls.

    Reply
David September 27, 2016

Two things. First, I try to be visual when I play.

So when I practice hitting serves and ground strokes, as you suggest, I don’t just try to hit over the net I try to aim for a point 2 – 3 feet over the net.

This actually reduced my double fault percentage by a huge amount.

Second, when I hit ground strokes, I try to watch the bottom half of the ball.

This does two things: it allows me to focus more on the ball; and, it makes me hit up on the ball, thus imparting topspin.

Reply
    Tomaz September 27, 2016

    Thanks for sharing, David, very good tips!

    Reply
      Simon Payne September 27, 2016

      Hi Tomaz,

      A really helpful lesson and applying your suggestions will allow us all to hit a deep ball with a good margin of error. A more upright swing path allows for safer net clearance, a welcome alternative to a flatter swing and the need to “crush” the ball to keep it deep.

      This idea of a “lifting” is still relevant and beneficial to the doubles situation where one is often trying to make the opponent volley from below the height of the net. Using this “lifting” along with the ideas of a recent video to drive the legs up into the shot to “unconsciously” add top spin, will allow higher/safer net clearance before the spin takes effect to dip the ball downwards.

      This video is a good example of why “Feel Tennis” was recently voted one of the most important online tennis coaching sites . Great advice and it is much appreciated.

      Reply
        Tomaz September 27, 2016

        Thanks for the feedback, Simon.

        Yes, as I mentioned, I do not only say that one needs to play higher above the net, I also say that once the “lifting” part is implemented in your strokes, it will help you play more consistently even when you aim lower over the net and try and dip the ball to the shoe laces of your doubles opponents.

        Reply
Charlie September 27, 2016

Hi Tomaz, this lesson reminded me of when I spend a week with you this summer, and I brought with me a secondary net that we attached to the posts, and then we hit simply with the intention of getting the ball over this secondary net as THE MAIN CLOSE TARGET!!

It worked, as most balls landed deep, WITHOUT THINKING DEEP!!

So this is a very important concept for all levels of play, and actually great fun and relaxing, because you’re not stressed about hitting deep targets, just HIT HIGH OVER NET!!

Keep up your great work, and btw, I loved your new Second Serve Mastery course, been practicing your drills and they are working really well!

Take care, cheers, Charlie from sunny London

Reply
    Tomaz September 27, 2016

    Hey Charlie,

    You bring up a good point that I haven’t mentioned: I usually aim about a meter above the net (approx 3 feet) and know at what speed I can hit that height and still keep the ball in play.

    So I have “stored” in a way that ideal speed of my shots that when hit at that window above the net just produce that ideal deep ball that I am looking for.

    So yes, I don’t really aim deep, I aim at a certain height with a certain speed and I get the depth I want.

    Cheers!

    Reply
Dan September 28, 2016

When lifting the ball, can you comment on your face angle at impact? I can lift the ball by swinging up with an open face and send it to Mars, but it doesnt seem thats what you’re saying.

Reply
    Tomaz September 28, 2016

    Hi Dan,

    Lifting the ball with the open racket face is the first stage and that’s just fine. When you do that you correctly swing under the ball and make it go up.

    The next stage is to imagine imparting some topspin on the ball WHILE you are lifting it.

    If you don’t usually spin the ball much then you need to first learn how to topspin the ball and then work on that so that the skill of spinning improves.

    As that skill improves and you look to lift the ball with topspin you’ll end up doing what I am doing.

    My most basic way of introducing spin is to teach compress & roll technique and later you can drop the ball to yourself and just try spinning it and also use other topspin drills that I showed before.

    So when you do that your racket face will then be more vertical and not that open as the friction when imparting topspin will also help you lift the ball.

    Update: I just added a new clip on top of this article showing the racket face orientation from the side view.

    Reply
      Arturo Hernandez September 28, 2016

      The issue of racket face and topspin is an interesting one. The compress and role method for teaching topspin works really well. I have tried it with my kids (at Tomaz’s suggested) and they immediately understood and would then just try to roll the ball when they played. Hitting high is also an interesting and important concept. My eleven year old daughter is trying to learn to hit a one-handed backhand. I just work on her finishing really high. She hits a lob backhand but it lands in the court. I am wondering if it is easier for kids to learn the concept of high because they are smaller.

      Is this your experience Tomaz? If so, should adults try to get lower somehow to emphasize this aspect. Or maybe play with an obstacle that makes them hit higher over the net.

      Reply
Henderson Eads September 28, 2016

Outstanding as usual, the best information and well presented.

Every tennis coach appreciates your work! Thanks!

Reply
    Tomaz September 28, 2016

    Much appreciated!

    Reply
      Zac September 30, 2016

      Hi Tomaz,

      Great advice, as usual.

      This seems like it would be especially important when teaching kids, since the net is like a towering wall for them.

      Reply
        Tomaz September 30, 2016

        Yes, but kids tend to lift anyway since the net is so big for them. Adults on the other way can play over the fence that separates two courts if there is one.

        That’s a good obstacle to practice with and after a few minutes of rallying over that fence you can go back to playing on one court and working your way down.

        Reply
tom mcnamara September 30, 2016

Hi Tomaz,
You just solved my short ball problem. I’ve always been so concerned with “quickly getting the racket up and down” that it led to some great shots but a lot of missed ones, since my choppy mechanics led to a lot of errors and inconsistency, which doesn’t tend to breed confidence.

By simply using a gently ascending racket path and a smooth relaxed rhythm I’ve started hitting my targets repeatedly and mostly effortlessly. I’m able to consistently corner the ball and my opponent. Thanks, Tomaz–TMc

Reply
    Tomaz October 1, 2016

    Good to hear, Tom. The intention always comes first, we need to just “want” to hit a higher ball, there is no need to tell our body how to do it, it’s very intuitive.

    The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action. – Bruce Lee

    Reply
Michael Wyeth October 2, 2016

I play a lot of doubles where balls higher over the net can be a disaster. How does this advice apply to doulbles?

Reply
    Tomaz October 2, 2016

    Hi Michael,

    Firstly, if you aim well and away from the opposing net player then you’ll play a very deep ball that will prevent the other player on the baseline from attacking you. In fact, you can follow your deep shot and control the net yourself.

    Secondly, I mentioned in the article above that you don’t have to play high.

    I am describing a simple process which you have to practice MANY MANY times so that it will actually change your forehand and backhand technique possibly even without you knowing about it.

    This process of working your way down from high balls in practice repeatedly will ADD a lifting element / force that will increase the consistency of your shots even when you want to play lower above the net.

    Reply
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