Sunday, December 29, 2013

Five More Things All Tennis Players Can Learn from Serena Williams

It was only a few months ago, when I wrote an interesting tennis-based column titled, ‘Five Things All Tennis Players Can Learn from Serena Williams’

That article on the WTA World No. 1 was so well-received by tennis enthusiasts across the globe that I have decided to write another tennis-teaching column on Williams’ formidable tennis prowess in an effort to both, inform and assist tennis players and fans everywhere. Besides, there are clearly more than five things that all tennis players can learn from the rejuvenated Williams who just unfurled arguably the greatest season of her history-making 15-year career.

Okay, with that long-winded diatribe out of the way, let’s get started.

If you saw Serena Williams at all this past season, then you already know the conditioning – and body changes – she’s undergone since dedicating herself more to fitness following her scary ordeal with a pulmonary embolism in 2011.

Williams looks thinner (but still awesome) this year than she did when she first came into out consciousness as a demur 15-year-old back in 1999 and her improvement in conditioning showed as she ran with or outran altogether – many of the WTA Tour players known largely for their ‘wheels’ and ability to run down ‘unhittable’ balls.

As a tennis instructor, I generally begin each and every session, whether in an individual or group setting, by having my students run through a series of footwork and agility drills. This not only get the heart rate up, but it has also helped many of my junior players improve their on-court movement dramatically.

Unfortunately, I see many of my brethren giving instruction by simply tossing out or hitting balls to their students…even those that are overweight and clearly in need of conditioning.

As I always say, if you’re not fit and you can’t move properly, you’re not going to win very many tennis matches – and this applies to every player from recreational weekend warriors to the very elite ATP and WTA professionals.

Get fit if you want to be at your very best on court.

Swinging Volleys
While Williams can and does occasionally hit traditional volleys, you wont’ see that part of her game very much as she has made a career out of  bashing winners mostly from the baseline.

Nevertheless, Williams does occasionally move forward to finish points off quickly, particularly when she sees a floater coming over the net.

Williams rushes to the net and catches the ball in mid-air while unleashing a vicious swing off of either wing. While both of these shots make look like they’re fairly simple shots that don’t have much chance of missing, I am here to say, that they most certainly are not.

Generally, when I see players attempt a swinging volley, they’re either hitting the ball long or swinging too quickly and hitting one into the net.

Next time you have a swinging volley attempt, don’t approach the net all wide-eyed as if you’re about to smack the green off of the ball. No, while you will still need to approach the net quickly, you’ll also need to maintain your composure and not get overanxious. Focus on your strike point and where you want to place your swinging volley.

Remember, it’s better to dial down the power and keep the ball on court than to blast away and give your opponent a free point on an unforced error.

Here’s a video of former Serena coach Rick Macci teaching the swinging volley.

Return of Serve
I’m going to get right to the point by saying that if you can win games on your opponents’ serve with any sort of consistency; you’re way ahead of the game and well on your way to playing winning tennis.

However, before you can even begin to think about breaking your opponents, you need to learn how to return serves and no, I don’t mean just getting them over the net. To become a great ‘returner’ you’re going to need to beef up those groundstrokes and place them deep in the court, just like Serena Williams does.

Williams punishes weak serves, routinely smacking them past her often dazed opponents for outright winners and never allowing her opponents to start a rally. If you can put your opponent on the defensive right off the bat, then you’ll have a far greater chance of taking control – and winning – the point you’re playing.

One of the first things I teach my juniors to do is to watch their opponents’ serve in warm-ups and early in the match so they can try to get a good read on their opponents’ preferred placement in both courts and on both, first and second serves.

Another thing you may want to do is to adjust your return positioning depending on where your opponent is hitting the majority of their serves. Meaning, if your opponent has a killer serve down the ‘T’ out of the deuce box, then you will likely want to play a step or two further to your left than normal. Conversely, if your opponent likes to hit the slice out wide out of the deuce box, then you’ll probably want to shade a foot or so in that direction.

Like Williams, if you can learn to step in and take balls on the rise, you’ll be able to shorten your opponent’s reaction time or what I like to call ‘stealing time’ likely forcing an immediate defensive reply and an ensuing offensive shot for you.

Now, check out this return from Serena…if you can see the ball that is.

Hitting Deep
One of the first things my tennis coach/mentor taught me was to hit the ball as deep to the baseline as possible. Thankfully, this resulted in me now having the ability to consistently place my groundstrokes off of both wings generally, within 6-12 inches of the baseline whenever I so choose.

Having said that, if you watch Serena Williams hit her groundstrokes, you’ll notice that there are generally a bit flatter and lengthier than many of today’s topspin-loving players that hit up on the ball a bit more as opposed to through it like Williams.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m all for plenty of topspin, however, I am also a massive opponent for hitting the ball deeper – by hitting it a bit flatter. One of the things I love about the younger Williams’ game is the fact that she can vary the amount of topspin she uses on every groundstroke.

Williams will take balls hit deeper in the court and flatten them out with powerful replies that land equally deep in her opponents court. However, when she receives a shorter ball than stays under the height of the tape, then Williams digs those balls out with much more topspin while maintaining her ability to place the ball deep in the court.

Hitting balls deep in the court denies your opponent the opportunity to aggressively move forward and makes many players produce awkward groundstrokes of their own as they have to continually fight off balls.

Whether your groundstrokes tend to be flat strokes with a lower net clearance height or higher topspin drives, if you can hit close to the baseline consistently, you’re likely to win matches far more often than not.

Mental Fortitude
Last but not least, tennis players everywhere can learn a thing or two about mental fortitude and overcoming adversity from Serena Williams.

A I tell my young students all the time, if you’re a tennis player, then you had better learn to deal with adversity because things are, invariably, going to go wrong at some point in some match and likely, nearly every time they step on the court.

I mean really, unless you can 6-0 every player on the face of the planet, you have to deal with adversity in tennis…that’s just a simple truth abut the sport. However, receiving adversity is something every player goes through, even your opponents, so at least you’re not alone. Dealing with these tough stretches in matches is another thing altogether and Williams would likely attest to this fact firsthand.

If you’re prone to wild, emotional outbursts on court, either in jubilation or despair over certain shots or points in a match, then you’re helping your opponent in a big way while simultaneously draining both, physical and psychological energy from your own self.

Just look at Williams over her career and you’ll notice that, whenever she wasn’t able to ‘keep it together’ mentally, she generally ended up with a loss on her resume, even if she was playing an inferior opponent (aren’t they all?). When she has been able to block out any and everything, she steamrolls through the field

Williams has apparently worked hard to improve her on-court mental state because in 2013, not once did we see the sure-fire Hall of Famer ‘beat herself’ as has happened on several occasions in the past.

To go along with her powerful game, Williams also has a mental resolve to overcome all odds and generally seems to play better when the stakes are highest. If you can learn to do the same, then you’ll have something in common with the great Serena Williams and isn’t that something all tennis players would like?

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