When tennis players first come to me and they say that they want to improve control of their shots, I ask them what they think their shot is lacking. The most common response to this question is better ball placement, and while they are not wrong most of the time, first one needs to understand ball flight and the 5 characters of tennis balls.
Speed can be measured many ways and can also be called the tennis ball tempo. I often train my players to be able to practice hitting 10 different speeds from 1 to 10 (1 being slowest possible without missing & 10 being the fastest possible). This can be done with all shots and can be very specific, for example practicing doing 10 speeds on the forehand down the line or 10 speeds on the slice serve out wide.
Spin can also be measured by 1 to 10 but it’s also important to remember that there are 3 types of tennis ball spin: SLICE, TOPSPIN and FLAT (no spin). It’s crucial to know how each spin effects the ball flight and what your most effective amount/type of spin is on each shot to control this tennis ball character effectively.
Direction is one of the most difficult ball characteristics for beginner tennis players to control and controlling the angle of the tennis racket and the timing of the swing is not easy. Controlling the direction of one’s shot is incredibly important as this is how one can begin to move one’s opponent around the tennis court.
Depth is normally the least considered ball characteristic and tennis players often neglect it, forget it completely, or are totally unaware of the importance of good depth control. High level tennis players are very aware of their depth control and the effect it has on their opponents. Being able to hit deep onto an opponent’s weaker side and then following it up with a short ball, like a drop shot, is very effective in club tennis.
Better depth control can be even more effective than making one’s opponent simply move side to side. Many tennis players are not confident coming to the net, so hitting drop shots short can bring an opponent into an uncomfortable position on the court.
Height is a very important character for tennis players of all levels, as hitting the ball over the net is the first obstacle for everyone. Normally I would teach my beginner tennis players to play slow and high over the net to increase their consistency and to give them more time in between shots.
As tennis players get better their height over the net will often get lower. It is important to know that even on the men’s tour (ATP) the average clearance is between 60 to 110cm over the net. This surprises many club players as yes; the professionals do hit low over the net when trying to create angles or driving through the baseline. However, they still need to give themselves a margin for error. Meaning that they aim to hit the ball around 90cm over the net and sometime they will dip below this and over this but they will still be avoiding hitting the ball into the net and losing the point.
Food for Thought
One thought I want you to take away is this : Do you want your ball to travel over the net like a bullet trajectory, or more like the shape of a rainbow? Hitting low flat shots have a lower success rate and can make rallying consistently more difficult, whereas hitting too high can give your opponent more time to chase down your shots making winners lesson common.
Tennis is a game of tactics and strategy, understanding the 5 ball characteristics will give you an edge over your opponent and help you increase your level just that bit more.