Growing up in a small town you may have been lucky enough to have a volunteer tennis coach in the community and a couple of courts that they ran a junior tennis program on. You’d line up and wait for your turn to hit a ball or two and then go back to the end of the line. You’d do this a couple of times a week for an hour after school and spend the rest of the week hoping to get on the court again when the adults weren’t using them.
The lessons went something like this; the coach would feed the balls across the net to you and then tell you to take your racquet back further and bend your knees more. The balls they used were from last season and as long as people were moving around the court it sort of felt like tennis. Your club may have even had a basic tennis ball machine that lobbed the ball over the net. That was new technology at the time; it set you apart as an advanced training facility and the novelty factor of having a ball machine was just great.
Go to any competitive modern tennis training facility today and you will see many ball machines tirelessly firing thousands of balls a day to tennis prodigies of all ages. Just like the machine the way we train with them has evolved.
The first way of training with a machine is to simply hit a lot of balls. Of course you want to make sure you’re hitting them correctly so having an instructor beside you would be a good idea. But let’s say you can already hit a pretty decent forehand and backhand as well as a good volley, what is the next level of progression?
Next you want to simulate what happens in a competitive game. For example the average professional level rally lasts between 3 - 5 shots and the average number of points in a game is 6. Your numbers will likely be slightly more. Now consider that playing the best of 3 sets could last anywhere from 1 - 2 hours. This doesn’t mean you should be doing drills for 1 - 2 hours with the ball machine because you’re going to hit many more balls a minute with a machine then you would during a game.
Now you want to consider how many forehands and backhands you are likely to hit during that 1 - 2 hour match. If you’re closely matched with your opponent it will probably be 80 - 100 forehands and a slightly lower number of backhands (people tend to run around their backhands to hit their stronger forehand). The example below is what charting a tennis match looks like. Don’t try and figure it out, it’s how tennis coaches simulate match conditions for their athletes. You can simply set up the ball machine to replicate the shots that occur during a match.
So, here’s the drill. Set the machine to fire out a ball every 4 - 6 seconds. Doing the math for 60 - 90 forehands in a match, you will be hitting with the machine for 18 minutes on your forehand and 18 minutes on your backhand. The ball feed rate can be increased or decreased to get a variety of physical training. When fatigue during a match is a factor the preparation and footwork to hit the next shot begins to suffer, so incorporating a fairly quick shot feed rate is a smart training tactic. The important thing is to hit enough forehands and backhands to simulate the number you would hit during a match.