Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston
University and each month he will give us a new tennis
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?
but that doesn't exactly help. Here's
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
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?
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),
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
And, as always, practice, practice, practice.
Send your tennis questions and comments to Mike
Read more tennis tips.