Bird's Tennis Tips: Quick Fixes to Common Tennis Problems

August 1, 2005

Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

It happens to all of us. At the worst of times. When we least expect it. Our tennis games just go to pot all of a sudden. No warning. No explanation. Just suddenly, your prized forehand is a worthless turkey. Your already poor-but-consistent backhand is now heading to the back fence faster than the speed of light. Your serve is so awry that children weep at the sight of it.

Well, dear readers, today we are going to look at some quick fixes for some common problems. As well, I will throw in a few tips here and there to help out in other areas. So, without further ado, I give you

Quick Fixes to Common Tennis Problems

The first thing to note is that there is no substitute for practice. Practice practice practice. The more you practice, the easier it is to play well when it counts. I cannot stress this enough.

But even practice can get you down sometimes. Most of us practice the fun way, by playing. Only the more serious tennis players amongst us do things like drills and such. There is a certain logic to the idea of playing for practice, I must admit, but the truth is it doesn't work for most people. And I'll tell you why.

First of all, the logic. It makes sense that if you are preparing to play a match, or a tournament, or just to beat your buddy into submission next Saturday, the best way to prepare is to play a lot. After all, playing in practice puts you in the same situations as when you play, right?

Well, yes… but that doesn't exactly help. Here's an example.

In a typical singles match, one hits overhead smashes about, what, twice a match maybe. Upwards of ten times if you're a net-rusher. So, let's go down the middle and say six. Okay, so, you practice twice a week. That's twelve overheads a week you're hitting. Is that really a way to develop your overhead? Heck no. And to top it off, if all you hit is twelve overheads a week, it's bound to suck and then your real opponents will realize this and lob the tar out of you. I know I would.

So, I think we can all agree that in order to improve parts of our games, we have to practice those parts way more often then we'll see them in a match. To take this further, there is something called "muscle memory." This means that if you repeat an action over and over and over and over and over (an action, for example, such as typing the words "and over"), eventually the neuro-pathways between your muscles and your brain will wear a nice path. This makes the nerve impulses travel much more quickly. And in some cases, and yes this is true, the impulses never even have to travel all the way to your brain. The nerves in your body and spinal column can perform the task near-effortlessly and exactly as they have done it zillions of times before.

"Can the sci-fi talk, Bird. What does this mean?" I can hear some of you screaming. Well, here's the meat of it. If you are playing matches as practice, then when you hit a forehand, regardless of how perfect that forehand is, unless you follow it by another perfect forehand and another in succession, you aren't training your muscles to hit that perfect forehand. You (I'm talking directly at you now) really need to consider a good drilling regimen to improve your game.

Finally, there is the practice slump. I have encountered this dozens of times in my life, as I'm sure most of you have as well. What happens is this. You have to take some time off of tennis for a while. No need to dwell on why. Injury. Family obligations. Mother took your racquets away because you uttered one-too-many expletives on-court. The voices in your head suddenly said, "take up backgammon." Whatever. But when you decide to pick up the racquet again, you will probably go through something similar to the following.

Day One, you are hitting at about a 3 level (scale 1 to 10, 10 being highest… because it's the highest). Some of the more talented players will play at a 5 or so just coming back, but we'll just call them freaks of nature, or Roger Federer, and leave it at that. Normal people like you and me (more like me) will start out hitting not-so-well, but not awful. After all, the muscles have some memory, even if they are somewhat weaker.

After a few weeks (usually 5-6 or so) of solid practice, you may climb to a 7 or 8. Everything is great! But then suddenly, something happens, and you play like garbage day-in and day-out, and you can't for the life of you figure out why. This is the practice slump, and there are two ways out of it: back and through. You can lay off again for a bit and start the cycle over. Or, you can power through. After a few weeks of just putting up with it, you will then break the ceiling again and begin to improve. This is the only way to make it to 9 or 10.

So, the point of this, and yes I do have one, is that if you play for your practice, you will come to a point where you are disgusted with your own play and that may cause you to want to back away from tennis for a while. And that surely cannot be good for your game. But when you drill, there is less pressure to perform. Mistakes aren't the end of the world, er, point.

In the end, practice. That's all I'm saying. But even in the best of conditions, when we're on top of our game, things can turn disastrous. I haven't yet figured out what causes this. Biorhythms? Spicy foods? Stress? Humidity? Who knows? I think it has to do with the Ozone layer, but my test results are inconclusive so far.

So, what do we do when these days occur? Heck if I know…

Gotcha! In fact, I do know. These tricks may not help everyone, but they're something to think about. And I need to stress one thing right here. Keep a journal. Yes, I know, it's weird. But it helps. I know every one of you have had a day where you started out with something going wrong. Maybe it was your forehand being suddenly out of control. But then magically it fixed itself. You tried several different things and then one of them suddenly worked.

Write it down.

When you find something that fixes one of your strokes, you need to remember it. Keep that journal and refer to it on changeovers. Yes, I know it's odd and geeky, but trust me, it really truly works.

Fix 1: Watch the Ball

More than 90% of dips in our performance are caused by timing issues. We're suddenly meeting the ball a little late or a little early. But it's imperceptible. The best way to cure this is to pay strict attention to your eyes making solid contact with the ball all the way into your strings.

Most coaches stress that you should see the ball impact your strings and then keep focused on that impact point for a tick afterward. This makes some people uncomfortable because most of us want to keep an eye on our sneaky partner. I know he stole my Gatorade money while I was busy watching the ball! But forget that. Just bet him that the loser has to buy the Gatorade and then beat the pants off of him by watching the ball!

This is the best quick fix in the book. Period. Watching the ball intently goes long ways toward improving concentration and timing. Let everything else go. Forget about the score, the shot, the point. Let your muscle memory take over, clear your mind, and watch that ball! This will generally lift the level of your whole game immediately. And it works for every shot in your arsenal.

Fix 2: Buggy Forehand

It happens to nearly all of us. The one shot that never leaves us, our bread-and-butter, suddenly vanishes. Where'd it go?

Dang ozone.

I suddenly find myself, sometimes, channeling other people. My backswing is different. My follow-through is foreign. I am hitting less topspin. I feel like I am a different person.

But I just make sure to concentrate on the basics of the shot. Weight transfer forward is a big one. Try to stay off that back foot. Second, make sure the contact point is out in front. When you see the ball hit your strings, you should be looking through the strings at the ball. Third, make sure the beginning of the stroke has the racquet handle preceding the racquet head toward the direction you are hitting. And finally, make sure that at the point of contact your racquet head is at a lower altitude than your racquet handle.

Fix 3: Backhand Woes

Unfortunately, I am not the best person to be speaking about the backhand, as mine isn't the best one out there. But I can hit one and it does seem to have a mind of its own sometimes.

When that happens, just go back to the basics. Ten people have ten different backhands, so it's difficult to say what works best with each person. So, the best advice is to just think about what your instructor has said. Early contact. Closed stance. Weight transfer. All of these are sound ideas to consider when your backhand goes away. But some other things to consider are: the grip, the elbow, the shoulders, and the wrist. Are these all in keeping with your usually-glorious backhand? If not, make the adjustment and note the effect. Did locking the elbow help? Try tucking it into your side a bit to control it more. Did rolling the grip more eastern or continental help? Did you make sure to get those shoulders turned away from the net enough? Is your wrist breaking at the wrong time, or at all (for you two-handers)? For the most part, the wrist should be firm, but your particular backhand might be like Mauresmo's Loop City backhand.

Fix 4: Wonky Serve

Boy, when my serve goes on hiatus, it's the worst of the worst. Double-faulting 3 and 4 times a game makes taking home the trophy extremely difficult. Here's what to do when this happens.

The key to the serve is timing. Remember that timing is very easy to lose (stupid ozone again!), particularly in the high-pressure situation of a match. When that happens, here are a few things to think about to get it all back in line.

Use the 1-2-3 method. Say to yourself, in your head (not out loud, because then people throw things at you), "1… 2… 3" as you perform your service motion. Racquet and tossing arm go down together. "One." Tossing arm goes up and tosses the ball (your racquet arm may go up into the "Y" position at this time as well, depending on your service motion… mine doesn't). "Two." At the peak of the toss, hit. "Three." Make your motion adhere to the rhythm of your counting, not vice-versa.

Check your toss. If your toss is going awry, that can really screw a serve up. I like to call this "The Yips." "My toss has the yips," I say, wondering why no one answers. The bad toss can come about from many things. Sometimes humidity just makes the ball stick to your fingers a bit. Or maybe you're not holding it right. Make sure that you are holding the ball very gently. In fact, it should more be resting in your fingertips than being held. Concentrate on lifting the ball, instead of actually tossing it. Treat it like a fragile egg.

As well, watch the height of your toss. Probably 80% of tennis players toss the ball too high or too low. That didn't seem to slow Steffi Graf down much, although waiting for her toss to return from the exosphere did get old. But her speed and forehand won her the Grand Slam, not her serve. Pay attention to whether your toss' height seems to be off what you're used to. Ideally, it should peak right where your racquet will strike it, with your arm fully-extended.

Other common serve problems generally have to do with the left (right for you lefties) shoulder and head. If your tossing arm drops as you hit, then your head drops too. Concentrate on keeping that tossing arm up as long as possible and keeping your head up.

Finally, try adjusting racquet-head speed. In a perfect world, every serve should be hit with the same racquet-head speed. Second serves are supposed to just have more spin to allow them to clear the net higher and still dip down into the box. But this world isn't perfect. If you can slow down or speed up your racquet head and get more serves in, then go for it. Plus, it's a great way to keep your opponent guessing.

A few side tips here. First, if you are playing in high wind (and who doesn't love that?), you may wish to abbreviate your service motion. Go for the quick delivery, hitting the toss on its way up. Take a lot of speed off and just get the ball in. The high wind will probably do more to mess up your opponent than your regular serve would anyway. I remember a tournament I played in Houston as a junior. Why they let us little tykes keep playing in these conditions is beyond me, but there must have been a hurricane ravaging the city. There was no rain, but the winds were so fierce that the windscreens had detached from the bottom and were flapping straight out sideways. Light poles were blowing over and falling across courts. But there we were, shorts and t-shirts, playing a tournament. Catching that toss on the rise was the only way I could hit a serve. Otherwise, the toss would leave my hand and bounce in the alley, far outside my reach.

Another little trick. When going out to play a singles match, if the sun is worse on one side or the other, warm up on the worse side. Then, when the match starts, if you win the racquet spin, defer to your opponent (make him or her decide first whether they wish to serve, return, or choose a side). The trick here is to attempt to make them serve with the sun at their back the very first game. They will probably hold serve that first game, but then once you switch, they will have the sun in their face and won't be used to it. You should be able to hold serve (since you now have the sun at your back) and then break them (because they aren't yet used to having the sun in their eyes). After that point, they will have seen enough of the sun to make adjustments, but it will be too late.

Fix 5: The Overhead

Overheads, for the most part, just either happen or they don't. Sometimes the shot can leave you due to poor timing, but for the most part, they are going to remain consistent. Here are a few tips to ensure the best chance of hitting a good overhead.

The most common problem with overheads is when there are no clouds. Yes, I know, that sounds crazy, but it's true. When there's nothing but blue sky up there, it is tough to get a good depth-perception on the ball without that cloudy backdrop. That tends to put your timing off and you hit late or sometimes not at all, with a big WHIFF! I have even seen people whiff the overhead only to have the ball hit them on the head. That sort of wet-your-pants hilarity isn't good to witness when wearing white shorts.

So, here's how to compensate for no clouds. Hold your non-racquet hand as if holding an invisible tennis ball. Now, use the area between your thumb and index finger as a sort of gunsight. Place the rapidly-descending ball in the little frame to get it in your sights. Having that left (right, for you lefties) hand up in your field of vision will help your eyes achieve a good depth perception on the ball.

Incidentally, this is also a good trick if the ball is in the sun. Try and sight the ball so that your hand blocks out the sun and you only see the ball. In fact, if the sun is anywhere up there, just use your left hand to block it out. Hats and sunglasses help here too, but you have to have them on at the beginning of the point. Once the lob's been hit, it's too late to run to the sideline and don new gear.

Second, I cannot stress enough how important it is to be behind the ball when hitting an overhead. Unless the lob is an offensive one, you should be able to move forward into the overhead. Very many players misjudge their position in relation to the overhead and end up leaning backward, which then makes all sorts of funny things happen. Overheads go over fences. They hit doubles partners. They go sideways onto the next court. But mostly, they rarely go in the intended direction. So, if this seems to be happening, then adjust yourself further back than you think you should be. Take an extra step back. If you are then too far back, then you can always step forward again, and you will still be moving forward. As well, if you are way too far back, you can let the lob bounce and then hit an overhead or groundstroke.

Which brings me to the final fix for overheads. Let the ball bounce. If your overhead is just stinking up the joint today, then let the ball bounce before hitting it (if you can). And this is a good idea anyway if the ball is hit really high and is coming almost straight down. Let it bounce, and then cream it when you have more time to set up and hit it properly.

Fix 6: Volley Bawl

The most common problem with volleys it too much swing. Remember, dear tennis enthusiasts, that volleys are supposed to be an abbreviated backswing (which means almost no backswing) with a short punch. Basically, DON'T SWING!

The best ways to correct volleys that seem to be going awry are twofold. First, tuck your elbow into your side, a little to the front, sort of on your hip. This will compact your motion and keep you from doing too much of the "wild thang" on your volleys.

Second, try to concentrate on just meeting the ball. Think about taking no swing at all, just let the ball hit your racquet. You will naturally take a little bit of a punch at the ball but the idea that you're trying to take no swing compensates for your overswing.

Fix 7: Concentra… um, what were we talking about?

It is very easy to let concentration slip during a match. There is usually all manner of distraction going on around you. People going to and from their respective courts. A mixed doubles couple arguing a few courts over. Former girlfriend on the next court. Squirrel on the fence. Paparazzi. You know, distractions.

The worst thing is to try to concentrate. The more you concentrate on concentrating, the less you are actually concentrating. That becomes just another distraction.

To fix this, go back to Fix 1. Watch the ball. If you find that you can't get your head in a match, just pay strict attention to the ball and try to eliminate all other thought from your head. Overall, the less we think, the better. I counsel some of my tennis buddies to drink a few beers before going on the court. There's nothing like a few cold ones to remove most of the conscious thought process. But before you try this at home, dear readers, remember: we are professionals.

Drinkers, I mean. Not professional tennis players.

The point is to fool yourself into concentrating. Watching the ball intently is always a good thing. You will soon find that your head is back in the match and you are able to focus better on the task at hand: trying to whack that squirrel with a ball. Hoo boy, that is a lot of fun!

Fix 8: Tightness

Yes, nerves. It happens to the best of us. I am especially susceptible to nervousness on-court. As a junior, I played over 30 tournaments a year. That was the only way I could really overcome my nervousness. After a while, I had played so many real matches that it became second nature.

I do not recommend this as an approach. That is way too much tennis to be playing unless you are a professional or at least an aspiring pro. But there is some logic to it. Any good practice regimen should include matchplay as well as drilling. This will put a little pressure on you to help you get used to it. To add to that, you should make the practice match "count" for something. Place a bet, like loser buys dinner. Loser has to mow the winner's lawn. Loser has to take the winner's sister-in-law out on a date. Something like that.

Once you're on the court, in a real match, and the nerves hit, there are many techniques to try and calm yourself. The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey ($10.85 at Amazon.com), has been heralded for years as the definitive work on training your mind and body to relax on the tennis court. Mostly, though, it boils down to a few basic ideas.

Between points, hold your racquet in your non-racquet hand by the throat. Don't strangle it, just dangle it. This gives your racquet arm a little break to rest. Also, concentrate on your breathing. Establish a rhythm of in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth. Finally, take moments between points and try to tense up every muscle in your body and hold it for a second or three. Then relax, the idea being that tensing the muscles and then releasing them relaxes them some.

In the end, realize that it's just a tennis match. No matter who you are or how good you are, there's always someone better. No one can win every single match. Just relax, have fun. It is, after all, just a game.

Conclusion

We've touched on some of the most common issues a competition tennis player faces nearly every time he or she steps on the court. We've also explored some common ways to alleviate some of these problems. They may or may not work for you, in particular. They work for me and they're rooted in some basic tennis techniques. Use these ideas to tailor-make your own quick fixes for whatever quirks your tennis games decides to bring up.

And, as always, practice, practice, practice.

Send your tennis questions and comments to Mike Swanberg at bird@tennis-x.com
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