Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fixing Double Faulting

When I was in my 30's I entered a tournament in Austin Texas called the Hotter Than Heck. It was in June or July and I wasn't playing a lot of tennis - probably a match every 2-3 weeks. I practiced for about a week prior and had a strategy for playing singles. I was going to be a serve and volleyer. My first match went well. I played an inexperienced high school kid and won easily. My second match I played a guy my age and we were in a battle. Eventually, even though he was up 4-2 in the first set, he threw in the towel because it was incredibly hot and he wanted to save his energy for doubles with his dad. I appreciated the chance to advance to the semi-finals. The next day, I got up early for my semi-final match and my arm was pretty sore, but I was ok to play. I started the match and was having trouble hitting my serve in - both first and second. As the first set progressed, my serving control got worse and worse and mentally I felt lost when I threw the ball up into the air. I had no idea where the serve was going - in the net or in the fence. After losing the first set badly, I decided to serve underhand in the second set. It at least allowed me to play some points on my serve. And, at first, it threw my opponent off and I went up 4-2. But eventually, he figured out how to attack my weak underhand serve and I was playing a nervous game in all facets. I lost the set 7-5 and the match.

This was the worst my serve ever was, but I've had serving issues starting in high school. In high school, I would pat my second serve in because I didn't know how to hit a topspin serve. When I first started playing league tennis in my early 20's I was developing a topspin second serve, but I would still have patches where I would double fault at a rate of around 50% - as in half of my service points ended as double faults. It got better with more practice and experience. I eventually got to the point where I would throw my serve into the air and swing hard and expect it to land in. My #1 rule was to always swing hard on every second serve - no matter how much pressure I was under. Rule #2 is to translate all of that effort into as much topspin as possible. After a while of following these rules, I found that more often than not, it would land in.

However, I've had other patches where my serve really left me. Again, it was when I hadn't been playing a whole lot of pressure matches and then suddenly was put under more pressure than normal - like playing a tournament for the first time in 3 years and having been out of league tennis for 2 years. So, I would say one of my first rules for avoiding double fault problems is to hit serves under pressure. If I haven't served under pressure in a long time and suddenly I'm in a pressure situation, I should expect problems. In other words, there is no substitute for match pressure to "toughen" your serve and make it less prone to breaking down . You've got to find a way to hit your serve under pressure and the only way to get better at that is to practice it under pressure.

So, you can play a lot of matches and hit a lot of faults as you gain confidence in your serve. Make sure you are playing a match at least 2-3 times per week. That's the magic number. If you play that much, your consistency will be there in all aspects of your game. Eventually, your mental toughness on your serve will improve. You will develop your own tactics for dealing with pressure. Once you get your serve to where you trust it, if you are playing with that frequency, it will continue to be trustworthy.

But, what can you do to simulate pressure in practice? Here are a couple of ideas
  • Play a set against an imaginary opponent where if you get either your first or second serve in, you win the point, but if you double fault, you lose the game. So, you have to get a serve in play on four consecutive points to win the game. You serve every game. Can you beat this imaginary opponent? Also do this drill simulating having a doubles partner at the net. Serving in singles is definitely different than doubles, so practice both situations.
  • Play a match against a real opponent where you only get one serve - i.e. if you miss your first serve, you lose the point. Again, play singles and doubles matches in this way.

When you've lost confidence that you can hit your serve in, the first thing you should do is start hitting serves into the service box. Stand at the baseline and hit very relaxed serves into the service box. Simplify your service motion - keep your general motion but do everything at about 50% - legs, backswing, toss, speed, etc. The idea is to just allow yourself to hit the ball in the box. Each time you hit a serve in very loudly say the count. When you get to 50, switch to the other side and repeat up to 50. There is no penalty for missing and you can serve at a brisk pace. You're just trying to train your muscles to hit the ball into the box again.

Next, do the same 100-ball drill but focus on two things:
  • A good toss in your comfort zone
  • Watching the ball like a cat
Don't worry about a perfect or overly high toss. Just get it into a spot where you can hit it comfortably. That is usually into the court a little bit and in the line made by your front foot that extends to the net post. If you want to know what watching the ball "like a cat" means, find a video of Andre Agassi's eyes returning serve. Once that ball enters your hitting zone on the serve, don't take your eyes off of it and focus on nothing else. For practice, while you are not hitting the ball overly hard, watch it all the way to the service box. The first time I tried this, I was amazed at how well I could see the ball.

Next, do the same 100-ball drill, but focus on putting topspin on your serve. Keep your motion relaxed and simple. Hit the ball up. Adjust your toss a little more over your head. Focus on brushing up on the ball. But above all else, keep your speed at 50% and everything relaxed. Keep watching the ball like a cat; try to see the ball spinning as it flies up off your racquet and then down into the service box. Can you hit the ball into the box with 100% confidence?

Lastly, add a little more pace to your serves in the 100-ball drill. Keep in mind that you should still be relaxed and that you should only be speeding up the process at the END of your swing. The END of your swing is the only time you should feel that you are moving faster than your previous iteration of the drill. Focus on putting the toss where you want it, putting lots of tospin on the ball, and watching the ball all the way to the box. If you are not happy with how the consistency is, dial things back again. Don't move on until you feel that you are hitting most of your serves in.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Second Serve Topspin

Getting good topspin on your serve is key to having a second serve that you can trust. If you have a "feel" for hitting your serve with topspin, you will trust that you can get it in with enough pace and spin to be effective.

I had to work many years to develop a second serve that I could trust. I used several visualizations to get there. One of the more powerful ones is to imagine my racquet face being horizontal to the ball at the point of contact rather than up and down. Normally, we imagine the racquet standing straight up and down (vertical) as we hit serves and overheads. In the case of hitting a topspin serve, we can imagine the racquet in a horizontal position (like for a groundstroke) that brushes up on the ball, to give it topspin. Below is a video that takes this visual to the extreme and even has some drills to practice the motion.

Tom Avery Topspin Serve

I am careful to call this a visualization. If you watch second serves in slow motion, the racquet is not in a horizontal position when it contacts the ball, but it is close.

With this in mind, watch this video that shows modern players hitting topspin serves:

Lloyd Second Serve Lesson

You can also compare this to Bill Tilden and his pupil back in the days when the American Twist was being invented. I'm especially impressed with his student's racquet motion.

Bill Tilden

To get your racquet in the proper position to where it will snap from a horizontal position that contacts the ball in a way to impart topspin is the key. It will take practice and visualizations. What seems like a big change to you is probably a little change to your swing in reality.

Note that Bill Tilden says that your arm needs to finish out to the right instead of coming across the body to the left.

If you want to examine a topspin serve in slow motion, here are some good videos.

Slow Motion Topspin Serve
Notice where the arm ends for the server in the slow motion video.

A pro who coached Andy Roddick a little when he was young once told me that at 9 he could hit a kick serve that would bounce over your head. Let's look at his second serve in slow motion.

Andy Roddick Topspin Serve

Just like Big Bill says, on an American twist serve the arm ends on the right side of the body. To achieve this will require pronation. Pronating your wrist allows the ball to go toward the target but your arm ends off to the right. After I watched the Nick Bollettieri video below and practiced it, I started hitting big kicking American twist serves!

Nick Bollettieri Pronation Practice

Now that you know what to look for, watch all of these videos again. Then practice. Then watch the videos again. Then practice some more. You get the idea. Here's a checklist for hitting a kick serve.
  • Pronate your wrist (Bollettieri).
  • Brush up on the ball with the racquet more horizontal (Avery).
  • Focus on your arm finishing off to the right. (Tilden)
  • Toss the ball over your head (Avery, Lloyd, Tilden).
  • Arch your back (Roddick).
  • Bend your knees and explode up and into the court (Roddick).
Put the toss in the proper location (above your head instead of out to your right), and then work on your motion to incorporate a fast wrist snap and arm path that brushes up on the ball and finishes to the right. Remember that your wrist snap should pronate horizontally. Then, don't forget about your legs and torso. We want legs pushing us up and into the court for free and easy racquet acceleration. Our torso faces up to the sky initially so we can brush up on the ball over our head.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Sonic Serve" Revolutionized My Serve

A couple years ago, I found an old VHS tape by Nick Bollettieri called Sonic Serve and watched it. The major difference between my existing service motion and the Sonic Serve was the angle of my shoulders. My existing serve had my shoulders fairly level, and the Sonic Serve calls for the line of the shoulders to be in a 7-o-clock position (close to vertical). It took a couple weeks of really focusing on trying to get my shoulders in that position, but the results were dramatic. I found that my first serve became a lot more consistent because I was snapping down more and keeping it from going long. I also found that I could ditch my old second serve motion which was drastically different from my first serve motion, and use my new first serve motion with more spin (grip and wrist action change) for a second serve.

Below is portion of the full "Sonic Serve" video that goes over the fundamentals. The full video gets overly repetitive:

Drills to Practice Sonic Serve:
  • Throwing Form: Practice the elements of throwing with power including getting a full stretch of the chest and using the left (off) arm to pull to accelerate.
  • Throwing Up: Practice the serve without a racquet by throwing a tennis ball straight up into the air. Stand at the service line and try to throw the ball up so that it will come down on the same side of the net.
  • Set To Launch: You should be able to balance in the set to launch position. Practice the service motion with the racquet and tossing the ball in the air, but freezing in the set to launch position (hip out, knees bent, arm up) and letting the ball drop.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lessons From 1991 US Open Edberg v Courier

The video below provides many examples of my core principles for winning points in singles play.