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.
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
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? 😉