If you study the very best tennis players to ever play the game you will notice a number of distinguishing similarities. They are all without exception smart players. I don’t mean just making smart shots at the right time during a match, although that’s also very important. I’m talking about a different type of “smarts”, the kind that only comes from years of experience and good coaching.
Many individual skills comprise the complete player. The most obvious are the ability to hit the ball with power and direction. But maybe you’ve noticed over the years some very big servers and groundstrokers have won a few tournaments but haven’t been around for the long run. Why is that? Their opponents learn to adapt to their game relatively easily and then just outthink them on the court. Let me give you an example from another sport to illustrate this. In professional baseball the pitcher that only has a fastball, even if it’s 100 mph will eventually give up hits to a lot of batters. Speed is something you can prepare for, it’s just all about timing your swing. Once you get that timing down, and because there’s no spin on the ball to make your timing difficult, you will see many batters can hit homeruns off of these one-pitch pitchers. It’s the same thing with tennis, the player that just tries to hit everything with power, whether it’s the serve or groundstrokes will eventually have a difficult time of it.
This is an advanced drill designed to separate players at the higher levels. It assumes an already elite level of groundstroking and serving. These types of drills force the mind to consider multiple signals at once and then react to them.
Take a hopper full of tennis balls and set them up at the baseline of the court. A typical hopper will hold 75 to 100 balls.
Use a black or red marker to write a number on the balls that is easily read. Example: a large #4 OR #7 etc.
Stage 1. Have the coach feed balls to the baseline alternating to the forehand and backhand. The tennis player tries to see the number on the ball as they hit it and calls out that number to the coach. It’s not really important that they get the number correctly; it’s the fact that they are looking for it and trying to concentrate enough on it to read it.
Stage 2 of this drill is the coach continues to feed balls to the baseline alternating forehand and backhands but also now calls out the shot to be made. Start with just random calls of crosscourt, down the line and lob. The player continues to call back the number on the ball as they hit it back according to the shot the coach has called out. Note: Coach, don’t call out the shot you want the player to make until the ball you’re feeding to them has crossed the net. The idea is to get them to react to shots without too much pre-warning.
Stage 3 builds upon the previous stages. Now the coach tells the player to hit topspin, backspin, crosscourt, down the line, lob or any number of other shots they want to see. Again the player calls out the number on the ball as they hit it. Note: Coach, again call out the shot you want the player to make as the ball you’re feeding the crosses over the net. For variety you can now pick up the pace and location of the balls you feed to the player.
You can make it easy for yourself or your coach by automating the whole feeding process using a programmable ball machine.