If you’re anything like me, you may often marvel at the game’s best players. As an observer, I often ask myself, "how do they make it look so easy?" Many of us probably wonder if it's possible for anyone to play at that level. Just for the record, I don’t believe in talent. Even considering the dominance (and brilliance) of players like Federer, Nadal and the Williams sisters. They all practiced (and practiced and practiced). This isn’t just opinion based, rather, it’s derived from a new-ish branch of motor learning called 'the science of expertise'.
I am by no means an expert in this field but it’s something that obviously interests me greatly - especially considering I coach players who are working towards reaching this so called 'expertise'. I won’t get into the details in today’s post as it’s not the primary focus, but knowing this info provides context as to how I design tennis drills. The organization of my practices are heavily based on the principles of deliberate/purposeful practice (stemming from the work my Anders Ericsson), along with Wulf’s theories on attentional focus and Chow’s research on nonlinear pedagogy. Here's Chow (2015) on why drills themselves likely outweigh verbal feedback from coaches:
"Despite the importance of what coaches say to learners, when planning coaching interventions the key focus is largely the design of practice activities. This is not surprising, given the quality of practice is a key determinant of coaching effectiveness".
From these perspectives, I will share several drills that I use with players. I'd like to note that these drills are based on MY INTERPRETATION of the science and theory behind the above stated principles. The emphasis here is on drills that help players within the first few shots of a rally as this comprises the majority of points in today's game. Lastly, any of these drills can be applied to a variety of skill levels & age groups. The only prerequisite is that they be aimed at individuals who have a desire to get better and are willing to put in the hours - as mundane as they may be - to improve.
First Strike Tennis - First Serve and Second Serve Return Drills
We're all well aware by this point that today’s tennis is fast-paced. This is true on both the men’s and women’s tours. Rallies are shorter. During points, players only make a handful of changes of directions. And the serve and return are of paramount importance. Drills should be organized to develop a player’s ability to take control of a point either with a first serve or a 2nd serve return. Below are a couple drills - along with variations - that emphasize these qualities.
DRILL 1: 3 + 2
Giving players more chances to hit first serves in practice can help them gain confidence while working on specific tactical scenarios they may encounter during a match. When first incorporating this drill, you may notice players making mistakes - this is a good thing. They may not be comfortable being aggressive right off the first ball, but because of today's game, if the server doesn't try to take control of the point within the first 1 or 2 shots (along with the serve itself), they may be on the defensive very quickly.
Each player is awarded 3 first serves. To win a point, a player must win the point within the first 2 shots after the serve, otherwise the returner receives a point.
VARIATION: 3 + 2 or 3 (+Net Play)
You’ll often notice that when players are first starting out with this type of drilling, they have problems either to force an error from their opponent or to hit a winning shot early in the rally. Using variations can get players thinking of the 2 first shots as opportunities to move forward in a rally while at the same time providing more volume to allow them to gain confidence with this style of play.
Again, each player is awarded 3 first serves. To win a point, a player must win within the first 2 shots after the serve. In this drill, a 3rd ball can be hit BUT ONLY if the player plays that ball at the net - either with a volley, a swing volley, overhead smash etc.
Note: If you notice that players are still experiencing difficulties, increase the number of shots they can hit after the serve to 3 + volley (for a total of 4 possible shots after the serve), for example. Also, when working with more advanced players - or players that need to be further challenged - provide only 2 first serves instead of 3. Lastly, if you see that the server has already hit 2 shots after the serve, has yet to win the point BUT is in an attacking position, a point can also be awarded. It simply depends on how demanding and specific you are with your approach.
DRILL 2: SECOND SERVE BATTLES
If you’ve ever heard Craig O’Shannessy speak, you’ll often hear him talk about second serve points being a battleground. In 2016, only 5 (Kvitova, Konta, Stosur, Bacsinszky, Shvedova) female players in the top 50 had a 2nd serve winning percentage above 50%. ONLY 5! While the men do have bigger serves, understandably, only 3 players (Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka) won 56% or more of their second serve points. As a returner, this is your opportunity to gain an advantage.
But we must look a little deeper into this. When looking at the stats, the player who sees a forehand first in the rally, has a greater chance of winning the point (based on stats from Brain Game Tennis). As the returner, this means you must look to hit to the server’s backhand as much as possible.
The server hits only second serves. Each player (server and returner) attempt to gain positioning and control of the point. The server’s goal is to see a forehand after the second serve while the returner is looking to hit to the server’s backhand.
If the server hits their +1 ball (the first ball after the serve) with a forehand, he/she receives a point. If, however, the returner forces the server to hit a backhand, he/she receives point.
Variation: Second Serve Battle + Play it Out
The same drill can be extended into point play. The only way to win a point, however, is if a player satisfies 2 conditions. In the case of the server, they must hit a forehand as their first shot after the serve AND win the point while the returner must make sure the server hits a backhand after the serve AND win the point.
Note: As an elite player or coach, from the server’s perspective, you know that it can be more difficult to see a forehand after the second serve from the ad court. There are 2 reasons for this, and both are intertwined. First, the returner can see more of the ad court when returning from that side (which in righties, will be their backhand). Second, servers often provide an even greater angle (and more court to hit into) because they hit their second serve into the wrong spot. Take a look at the pic below.
There are 8 target areas a player can aim at when serving. During second serves on the ad side, players often aim at position 8. This is probably not the best position to hit towards consistently (nothing wrong with throwing a few that way however) - and based on stats from both the ATP & WTA tours, the top players hit second serves more often to position 7 (on average, close to 70% of the time). A few reasons for this - there is less angle for the returner to hit into, but more importantly, the server can be more aggressive into this position. If they miss by a couple feet wide (one way or the other) the ball will still land inside the service box AND, the net is lower as you aim closer towards the middle.
**In this description I’m referring to right handers but lefties have a similar problem when serving to the deuce court.
First Serve Speed & Accuracy Development
DRILL 3: RUN & GUN FIRST SERVE
There’s often a difference between a player’s capacity to hit a serve at a certain speed and their ability to do so and still make sure it lands inside the service box. Knowing this disparity is critical in improving a player’s first serve speed. For instance, I’m currently working with a player who maxed their first serve out at 115mph. Their run & gun first serve speed was at 120mph. That’s a pretty big gap - and with the serve being so important in today’s game, I’m not sure about you but I’d prefer to hit a 120mph serve than one at 115mph.
I have to admit, I stole this drill from baseball. Pitchers often use this drill to help get some extra velocity on their throws. It’s quite simple, you simply start a few feet behind the baseline, approach the baseline and as you’re approaching, toss the ball and hit with maximum intent.
Obviously, I highly advise that you use a radar gun (I use the Ball Coach Pocket Radar) as this is the only way to truly gain insight into the speed of a player's serve. What you’ll notice though, especially if you slow the serve down, is that a player is gaining more speed because they are executing some aspect of the serve in this drill, that they don’t do during regular their regular service motion. In the case of my athlete, he was able to get a greater horizontal separation angle during this drill (something Roetert and Ellenbecker - highly regarded researchers - refer to as being quite apparent in elite servers). Separation angle refers to the alignment of the shoulders compared to the alignment of the hips - this separation is ~20 degrees in elite players, while developing players often lack this separation (i.e. their hips and shoulders are parallel to one another during the preparatory phase of the serve).
DRILL 4: Speed & Accuracy Drill
Once you’ve worked on absolute serve speed (using drills like the run & gun, for instance), you can put the serve back into context. In today’s game, it’s no longer enough to simply have good accuracy or the ability to hit high speed serves, players need a combination of the 2.
Draw or outline the 8 target areas for serving practice (from the image above). Pick one of the areas, set up the radar gun and give the player a goal. In the video on the left below, the aim was to hit each serve above 110mph AND into position 5 AND to do this 6/10 times.
This can obviously be adjusted to fit your particular context. A junior may only have to hit above 90 or 95mph while a top 250 level player may have to hit above 115mph, for instance. Likewise, it depends on where you’re serving to. In the second video on the right, the aim was to hit each serve into position 1 AND the ball had to cross the doubles line before the baseline off the bounce (the reason I’m standing beyond the doubles alley). Also, the player had to hit above 95mph AND they were meant to do this 7/10 times (less than that was simply too easy for this player).
Final Thoughts - Push Players (Slightly) out of Their Comfort
Notice anything about the above drills & exercises? There are 3 main things you should see pretty clearly. First, there is no internal cueing and no emphasis on how to hit the ball. These are distal external focused drills - distal in the sense that they are mostly target driven - in other words, the external focus is far from the body. In elite athletes, the research points to this being the most effective way to improve performance. Second, they all involve some sort of constraint. For instance, in drill 1, the server can only win a point if they win the point within the first couple shots. This is a constraint. The returner also has a constraint. To win a point, they must extend the rally past those initial few shots (and perhaps be in a neutral position once the last ball of the point is hit).
Likewise, when attempting to improve serve accuracy and serve speed simultaneously, a player must hit the serve in the appropriate target area AND achieve a certain speed threshold, otherwise it doesn’t count. Lastly, based on the principles of purposeful practice, these drills aim to constantly challenge a player. And all of them can be progressed in difficulty (or regressed) depending on the level of the player - make targets smaller, adjust serve speed thresholds, provide more serves etc. This, based on both scientific evidence and experience, is the only way players improve - constantly being challenged by drills that take them slightly out of their comfort zones.
Now you have some drills to work on. Great. The problem is, you (or your players) are going to be serving A LOT more than you're probably accustomed to. Make sure to follow proper warm-up and post-match shoulder recovery routines (read part 1 and part 2 articles on this topic for more info).
Prepare. Serve. Recover.
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