How to Keep the Ball Over the Net in Tennis
From a spectator’s point of view, a tennis match can be a graceful and grandiose display of athleticism. Players, on the other hand, can become red in the face as the game tests their physical and mental limitations. And no aspect of the game is more maddening than the jungle of twine in the center of the court that seems to suck shots into its grasp with voodoo-like sorcery. Keeping the ball over the net is the most basic skill in the game, but it’s also one of the hardest feats to accomplish as a beginner. This guide explains some basic skills that will help you avoid unforced errors into the net.
The vast majority of players who struggle to keep the ball over the net share the same Achilles’ heel: Poor footwork. Tennis swings start from the ground up, but most players — especially beginners — put all of their emphasis on swing technique. While there’s no hiding the fact that swing mechanics determine where the ball lands, footwork is the foundation of your swing.
If you’re slow to move to the ball and have to stretch out to make contact, the ball will likely stick to the net like a fruit fly in a spider web. Similarly, if you let the ball jam your body, your shot will travel slower than a three-toed sloth. Proper footwork, on the other hand, allows you to get in position, fully extend, and make contact on the sweet spot of your strings.
Catch your breath when the point comes to an end, but always keep your feet moving while the ball’s in play. Split step the moment your opponent is about to make contact with the ball. Land on the balls of your feet with your knees bent, holding the racquet in the ready position. You should be ready to explode in any direction, and bring your racquet back as you track down the ball.
Along with the split step, apply the following footwork pointers, as well:
- Short strides: Take small steps rather than huge strides. Small steps keep you balanced, but they also help you move around so you can hit the ball in your comfort zone. Even if the ball’s hit directly at you, you’ll need to make slight adjustments to get in position.
- Shuffle your feet: You don’t want to get caught flatfooted, and shuffling your feet keeps you in control as you move around the court. Shuffling your feet allows you to push off of either foot to move in any direction. Sidestep back to the center of the baseline after each shot.
- Offensive shots: Step into your shot as you swing, and keep your momentum moving forward. You should never fall back on your heels as you swing or follow through.
- Defensive shots: Take a few steps towards the back fence, and always recover to the center of the court. If you leave a really easy sitter for your opponent, you’ll have to guess which side of the court to move to before he hits the ball. Anticipation is key here: Recognize when you set your opponent up for an easy shot — like an overhead — and when you have time to respond. Keep your feet moving, and avoid over-committing to one side of the court.
Check out iSport’s guide on Tennis Footwork Drills for some basic exercises that will improve your ability to hustle around the court.
Take it Back
Your stroke should be a smooth motion, but rushing your swing disrupts its fluidity. A lot of beginners chase down the ball, but don’t bring their racquet back until they’re about to swing. A late backswing results in a rushed, spastic stroke. Instead, bring your racquet back immediately after your split step. Simply turn your shoulders rather than coiling your entire upper body. On forehands, your free arm should come out in front of your body, roughly parallel to the baseline.
Additionally, try shortening your backswing. Professionals might load up for a huge swing — which does generate a lot of power — but doing so also increases the margin for error. A short backswing helps you control the ball and keep it in play consistently. To boot, a shorter swing doesn’t necessarily sacrifice power. Make sure you follow through completely, though.
Hot Tip: Keep it Simple
When your opponent hits a shot with a lot of pace, or forces you into a difficult get, don’t change the ball’s direction. For example, if your opponent smashes a forehand crosscourt, return the ball crosscourt. Changing the direction of the ball leads to a much harder shot and, in general, an unforced error.
On the Rise
Hitting the ball on the rise can improve your game in many ways, but this technique primarily helps with control. You never want to hit the ball as it’s descending — your stroke can break down very quickly and it minimizes how much topspin you can hit with. Instead, try to hit the ball as it’s rising or reaches its apex.
You definitely need to shorten your stroke, though, when taking the ball on the rise. Timing is crucial, so don’t use a big backswing. You’re essentially generating power from your opponent’s shot, so you don’t need a huge windup. Instead, use a short backswing and focus on timing your shot as the ball rises. Check out iSport’s guide on Taking the Ball on the Rise for an in-depth breakdown of this technique. If you’re consistently struggling to time your shots and keep the ball in play, wait until the ball reaches its apex instead.
It might sound obvious, but avoid hitting the ball near the net. Give yourself ample space to clear the top of the net, and hit with enough topspin so that the ball dives downwards and inbounds. You don’t want shots to land in the middle of the court anyways, so aim towards the back third of the court. And don’t get frustrated if the ball sails long and out of play. Deep shots might only need minor tweaking — perhaps closing your racquet face five degrees will do the trick. But shots that land in the net could be the result of a whole range of issues, anything from footwork to stroke mechanics.
Hot Tip: Hit Crosscourt
You’ll keep the ball in play much more consistently if you hit crosscourt. You’ll have more court to work with from corner to corner — roughly four and a half more feet than down-the-line shots. In addition, your shots will travel over the center of the net, which is six inches lower than the sides.
Don’t Sweat the Net
The net can swallow shots like a bear trap and really test your boiling point. Without any teammates to boost your morale, your frustration can easily consume any self-confidence or positivity. So don’t dwell on your mistakes. Instead, focus on the types of errors you’re committing, and then make adjustments accordingly. If you’re consistently shanking shots off the frame of your racquet, for example, you’re probably not moving your feet. Rather than blushing about the shot that just sailed over the fence and directly at an unsuspecting pedestrian, assess your mistakes and figure out what you need to do to avoid future errors.