NSWTA life member Mary Hill, a highly regarded teaching pro and player from Northern California, shares with us some short instructional pieces to help improve your tennis game.
Release is the 4th Fundamental Principle of tennis. One definition of release is to “allow something to move, act, or flow freely”. Breathing is the mechanism that allows the release to happen. There are 3 types of breathing: 1) Shallow, which is what we normally do, 2) abdominal, which is often used for yoga, and 3) thoracic, which is used for Pilates and tennis. With thoracic breathing, you will fill up your lungs, expanding your upper chest.
Most players hold their breath when playing, which contributes to a forced, often muscled stroke. A good release will enable the player to produce effortless strokes. Your breathing should be tied to the aggressiveness of the stroke. High intensity strokes, like the serve, overhead, and offensive groundstrokes should have a high intensity breath. The release should be like the weight lifter who lifts a heavy weight and you hear an explosive breath. A finesse shot like a drop shot, on the other hand, should have a slower, longer breath. Learn to inhale as the ball comes towards you and exhale as you hit the ball, on the release. Breathing will quiet your mind, eliminate muscle tension, and accelerate your swing. It’s the breath that ties the mind to the body.
Breathing exercises for thoracic breathing would be helpful to increase your lung capacity. Start slowly. Count from 1 to 8 as you inhale, hold for 2, and exhale to the count of 8. As you become comfortable, you will be able to increase your count. If you are not used to this type of breathing, you may become light headed, so be careful and be willing to stop.
For feedback on your breathing, go to the court with a whistle. You will become very aware of the timing and intensity of your breathing. You may have to do this when no one else is around or you will surly drive the nearby players crazy!
Balance is one of the five fundamental principles of tennis. Physical balance can be defined as having your head over your shoulders, hips, and feet. This should be your ideal hitting posture. On low balls, lower your center of gravity, bending your knees rather than bending at the waist. Balance is necessary to move to the ball quickly and recover quickly. Balance effects your stroke flight. If your balance is too far back, your racket face is shaped up and balls go long. If it is too far forward, balls go in the net. Lack of balance also produces errors left and right. You need to be balanced physically, which is your posture, mentally which is being calm, confident, and present, and emotionally, which is your fuel. You can become aware and practice your physical balance by hitting short court with a cup full of water. Do this in the summer, because you may get wet! You could also use a quarter folded washcloth that you place on your head. Note how many hits you can do before the washcloth falls on the ground.
Symmetry is the second fundamental principle of tennis. Symmetry in tennis is the ability to prepare the same way on both sides of the body. The key to symmetry is the use of the non-dominant hand.
In the old school, you were probably taught to take your racket back. This often resulted in a tight grip in the backswing. Today the cue is “turn”, keeping the non dominant hand on the throat of the racket. This allows for a loose grip in the backswing with your dominant hand. Now you can use your non dominant hand to change grips to shape the racket for the different spins you will use. Strokes will be better disguised.
To practice, try this exercise: (go slowly, 1 step at a time, so you do not overthink) This exercise is written for a right hander, but left handers will know how to reverse the cues. Face the net starting in a ready position holding your racket at the throat in your left hand. Lift the ball in front of you with your right hand. Keep your left hand on the throat, turn, grip lightly you’re your right hand, and adjust your feet into position for a forehand or a backhand, letting the ball bounce twice. Letting the ball bounce twice gives you more time to find the optimal balanced position and gives you a better feeling of how the left hand controls the racket in the turn and the backswing. Be sure you keep your left hand on the throat of the racket until after the second bounce. With your right hand still gripping loosely, let go with your left hand after the second bounce, just before you start your forward step, firming up your grip just before contact with the ball. This exercise trains your left hand to be involved in the preparation, trains your right hand muscles to be loose in the preparation, and trains your preparation to be symmetrical.
Rhythm is the 3rd Fundamental Principle of Tennis. It can be defined as “a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement”. The key to rhythm is creating time. This means being attentive to the 3 R’s, like Matts Wilander stressed. The first R is Ready: be unweighted, like the skier or basketball player, just before your opponent strikes the ball. #2 is Read: turn using the non-dominant hand to prepare the racket and body. Use your opponent’s service line as your benchmark and practice reading and preparing before the ball crosses that plane. #3 is React: get behind the ball before the ball bounces.
Each individual has her own rhythm, based on her abilities to perform the 3 R’s. This successful sequence of events can lead to a fluid, effortless stroke, one that will not be influenced by her opponent’s change of pace or her opponent’s form or body language. If we believe Jim Loehr, who said that intensity is the biggest predictor of the outcome of a match, then we should develop the quickest, most consistent R’s we can. This habit will give us a “strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement” and give us a consistent rhythm.