*This article was written by Coach James of Boston, MA, you can find his profile here.
What shots do you want to work on?
Generally speaking, I start all my lessons with this question so I can start tailoring a specific workout for them. Most of the time, the answer contains a combination of forehands, backhands, and serves. But I honestly can’t recall one instance where a player replied to that question with the volley shot. While the volley as a shot is not dead, it’s just firmly taken a backseat to the stronger-faster-better crowd.
Ultimately, the volley shot is part of the dying finesse shot family, but that seems like a mistake for any aspiring athlete. In fact, these types of shots can help today’s young tennis players distinguish themselves in a field of heavy-hitting baseliners. Through the years, I’ve recognized this ideal in my experience as a player and coach, constantly working to dispel this cultural change in the sport we all love. In this article, I’d like to share those perspectives and hopefully influence your way of thinking and training moving forward!
Oh, How the Game Has Changed
With the invention of the Western Grip and technological advances in tennis rackets and courts, topspin has transformed the way we play, for better or for worse. One of the impacts of this has been less volleying and there are many legitimate reasons for this, from overwhelming power to giving them less time to react. But, what if you had a volley that you could count on when you need a big point or your other shots break down? The game may be different today than it was fifty years ago, but has the volley become any less effective? I honestly don’t think so. Less people are willing to learn, apply, and perfect these opportunities, which makes the volley a wonderful weapon for those who know how to use it.
Honing the Element of Surprise
Given that we’ve established baseline tennis as the general play-style amongst athletes, the volley is a nice way to switch up the action, focus, and rally. By all definitions, a good tennis match is defined by lengthy rallies with a large number of clean winners off the ground. Of course, it’s undeniably entertaining to watch a fifteen shot rally that ends with an explosive forehand winner crosscourt; but is fun when you’re the one getting beat by the stronger, more consistent player? Absolutely not. While this style of smash mouth tennis suits many of today’s athletes, it would be a mistake to apply this approach to everyone.
The bottom line is this: there’s tons of room for creativity in the sport, but are you willing to use it? Simply put, employing the volley strategically allows you to change the dynamic of a point and the match at your own will. Once you come into the net and pick off a volley successfully, you’ve gotten into your opponent's head. Was it a desperate move? Will they do it again? What should I do? From there, just sit back and play your game while your opponent thinks about your next attack, hitting with hesitation and less confidence. Pick your attacks wisely as excessive misses will have the opposite effect and force you to stay back. You want to use the volley to keep your opponent on his back foot, off his game, and in his own head.
Adding Another Level
Once you’ve got that foundational volley down, there are plenty of other tricky finesse shots that you can crush during a match. For a quick outline of each, check out our list below:
- Half-Volley -- This shot is a combination of a ground stroke and a volley. You will need to stay low to the ground and keep a determined focus on the ball. Remember, there is no swing here, you’re simply guiding the ball back over the net using the pace of your opponent’s shot with balance and precision.
- Overhead -- Also known as the smash, this shot is mandatory learning as it will earn you an easy putaway when your opponent tries to lob you. The key here is to get to the side and use your entire body to swing through the ball, much similar to a serve.
- Drop Shot -- This shot is a tricky one, but, much like the volley, can work wonders if used effectively and in moderation. The drop shot is possible on both sides, but I personally find it easier to hit a backhand drop shot as you can use your left hand to guide the racket through the entire motion, adding just the perfect amount of touch during the process.
- Slice -- The slice is similar to the drop shot, it’s designed to keep the ball low so it can bounce away from your opponent at unhittable angles. The only major difference here is that the slice should be hit deeper and with more pace. Ultimately, this is a good shot to mix things up during a long rally.
- Approach Shot -- For coaches, this is, believe it or not, one of the most important shots in tennis. This shot is essential if you plan on attacking the net during your rallies at some point in the match. Often enough, you’ll be forced to hit this transition shot as you approach the net and prepare for a drop, half-volley, or overhead smash. As always, remember to stay low and shorten your backswing as you guide the ball deep into the opponent’s court in order to make their return as difficult as possible.
- Lob -- Admittedly, you don’t see this shot very often, but it’s another game changer and confidence booster if you can hit it just right. You’ll need to find the right amount of height and depth, with the necessary amount of topspin to keep it inside the baseline. As an added tip, be sure to disguise it as a groundstroke to keep your opponent from recognizing your lob and retreating to the baseline.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
As you reach higher levels of tennis, you won’t often be the biggest or even the most talented athlete on the court. To win close matches, focus on becoming crafty, scrappy, and tough to predict. I was never afraid to come into the net because I always knew it was necessary if I wanted to win. I like to mix things up and believe it’s my ability to hit unconventional finesse shots that has kept me in many matches. These volleys and finesse shots are an easy way to win points quicker and more efficiently, which often helps you avoid getting sucked into smash-and-bash marathon tennis.
(Related: Read about the most important types of tennis grips here.)
For all these aforementioned reasons, it’s why we will work on volleys during sessions no matter what. Believe me, this is not because I’m pushing my own agenda, but because having a reliable volley and confidence at the net will create many viable opportunities for competitive tennis players. Even better, you might be a skeptic now, but most of my athletes change their mind after just a few lessons and realize the value in volleys. Will you be next? If you’re interested in improving your volley and overall net play, visit my CoachUp profile and book a lesson with me next spring!
Be prepared for the biggest moments by mastering the small ones off the court.