Many of my lower level students are totally lost when receiving a short ball, even when it’s really not that short. The ball’s second bounce is past the service line, and yet they’re still scrambling to pick it up as if it were a drop shot. I’m standing there next to my ball basket thinking:
Seriously? That ball ended like 5 steps in front of you. You could have jogged to it.
This happens with kids, teenagers, and adults. Even in some high performance classes, you’ll occasionally see a double bounce past the service line and scratch your head.
Then, you have that one student who always gets to balls past the service line, and even gets to balls much shorter than that. The classic mishit short volley winner isn’t even always a winner against this player, despite being trivially a winner against the rest of the class.
Despite this stark difference in retrieval skills, the quick student often isn’t much fitter or faster than the rest. Their advantage is visual, not athletic.
Watch Your Opponent’s Contact
On every ball you receive, you’ll react faster if you see the ball actually strike our opponent’s racket.
If you were a supercomputer, this is actually all you would need to see. The ball’s exit velocity, combined with your opponent’s racket face at contact, telegraphs everything you need to know about its flight. Obviously, since you’re human, you’re going to continue watching it after this contact, but I can’t stress enough just how much flight information is revealed right at the beginning.
The instant you recognize the ball’s motion, your brain will immediately start performing its own super-computer like computations to predict its future trajectory. The more clearly you see the ball come off your opponent’s strings, the more information you give your brain, and the better your reactions will be.
Follow The Ball On Their Side
Reacting quickly requires tracking the ball on your opponent’s side of the net. Since tracking accuracy cascades, the more visual information you gather early in the flight, the better you’re going to see the ball later in its flight. When you track it well throughout, by the time you’re hitting, your brain will have ample information to produce the right swing.
Unless the ball is blazing fast, follow it off your opponent’s racket (using a predictive saccade) to a point in mid air. (On an extremely fast ball like a serve or an overhead, skip this step, and just try to predict the bounce instead). The goal is to pick up the ball, in crystal clear focus, somewhere in mid-air before the net. If you’ve done it right, you’ll be able to remember a snapshot of what you saw – the ball in mid air coming at you.
When you’re able to do this successfully, the rest of the tracking process – specifically, seeing the bounce and seeing just before your own contact – will be much, much easier.
Does this really need to be taught?
That 3.5 adult you have shanking easy volley floaters isn’t just “bad at volleying.” It’s not even because they’re “taking too big a swing,” or because they’re “using the wrong grip.”
They can’t see.
In many of my lower level classes, it’s not early flight tracking deficiency that’s most obvious, but rather competency (because competency is the outlier).
In sharp contrast to the normal blind 3.5, I have the occasional 3.5 adult for whom the visual part of the game comes extremely naturally. This guy flies around the net like superman, hitting volley winners with all kinds of strange grips and “awful” technique. Despite the less than stellar aesthetic, this player almost always hits the ball dead center on the strings, and he hits quick reaction volleys on balls that his 3.5 brethren would have no hope of even touching.
How does the 3.5 net master do it? Vision. Volleying, more than any other part of the game, is a visual task, and specifically an early flight visual task.
Progressing in Level
Low level tennis shots float in the air for a long time, giving the receiving player ample time to find it visually, even if they don’t see it right away. They bounce in a very predictable location, and then float again after the bounce. Even if you’re only watching the ball on your own side of the net, you’ll probably be fine. In fact, even if you’re only seeing the ball clearly after the bounce, you’ll still probably be fine.
High level shots possess very different properties. They cut through the air extremely quickly. They are often moving mid-air, due to spin. Slices will skid off the court as they bounce, and topspin shots will kick off of it. When receiving high level shots, gaining maximal visual information immediately is vital to success, because the ball’s motion is far more complicated, and you aren’t going to have many chances to see it clearly.
Every tennis player starts at a low level. At the this level, any lack of attentiveness to opponent contact is rarely punished. Almost all of my non-advanced 10-12 students can rally fine against each other, but if a better player gets in there and hits just one real forehand at them, they’re close to 0% to even get the ball close to the net. The spin and pace are so different from what they’re used to that it heavily punishes the inferior tracking. You need to see that ball in order to handle it, and they simply can’t see it.
There’s also the other archetype of student who comes along (far more rarely). To the naive observer, they appear to be on the same level as the rest, and yet this student can successfully return 3 or 4 balls that have topspin on them. This also happens to be the student that always runs down the other kids’ mishit dropshots, and barely ever mishits the ball himself.
Is it a coincidence that when we find these rare retrieval skills, they come bundled together in one player? Not at all.
These talents are all actually one talent – vision. They come from successful early flight tracking, attentiveness to the ball in the opponent’s court.
Watching Your Opponent
You might be wondering – if I spend so much time watching the ball on in opponent’s court, won’t I miss clues from their body? The answer is – only barely.
Before the ball bounces, go ahead and watch your opponent – that’s actually a good idea, as their movements will telegraph a lot of what’s to come. After the bounce, as the ball is nearing their racket, switch back to the ball, and continue to watch your opponent in your peripheral vision, rather than fixating on them directly. You won’t see in fine detail, but you’ll still be able to make out gross movements, like hip rotation, shoulder rotation, and grip change, which are the keys to anticipatory tennis.
Remember, in order to see an event clearly, your eyes must arrive there before the event actually transpires; the image on your retina needs time to stabilize, and you’ll be blind until it does. This means we must get our visual focus to the right spot before our opponent actually strikes the ball. If you jump your eyes to your opponent’s contact point while your opponent is striking it, rather than before, your saccade won’t be completed by ball impact, and you’ll miss it.
November 2, 2022
Another great article.
So on a normal speed ball a player can ‘jump’ their eyes to the following spots right before the ball gets there?
1. Opponent contact
2. A point in mid-air before the ball crosses the net
4. A spot near player contact.
And for a fast ball a player wants to skip number 3…
November 2, 2022
I meant skip number 2.
November 4, 2022
Pretty much! These are the basics, but you’ll have to experiment in different situations. For example, on an indoor hard-court, you don’t have to watch the bounce quite as closely, since it’s very predictable. Due to that, it’s the fixation you might want to skip on a hard or deep ball (wait with your eyes at contact).
Typically though, you’ll be able to see the ball leave your opponent’s racket, follow it off, see it bounce, and see it at contact. Most players are good at some of these, and bad at others. I had a student yesterday who saw the ball on her side of the court great, but wasn’t following it well early in its flight. A little work on that, and 20 min later, she was sprinting around the court making 10 shots in a row, reacting quickly and never shanking it.
The lower your level, the more I’d recommend you focus on exactly these fixations, never skipping any, and the higher your level, the more I’d recommend using this as your baseline, but ignoring it in edge cases where you feel you see the ball better doing something else. You won’t always have time for all 4, especially against hard 1st serves, and you’ll have to figure out which are most important for you.
I’ll put a few nuances here that were too verbose for the article:
1. On balls that bounce very close to you, you’ll have to skip either bounce or contact. Your #1 priority is that your eyes are STILL during stroke production, and if the ball bounces right at your feet, if you try to follow it after that, you’ll be moving your eyes as you swing, and you’ll miss a ton. Either have your last fixation be the bounce, or predict the contact point before the bounce and have your eyes rest there and wait for the ball.
2. Probably the biggest advantage of moving well behind the baseline is that the ball bounces farther in front of you. This makes tracking the bounce much easier. If an opponent is hitting too heavy/deep for you to see it clearly, move back, and you’ll perform much better.
3. Often, the net will block your opponent’s actual contact. In these cases, just pick up the ball as soon as you can after they hit it.
4. #2 is actually the MOST important fixation when volleying. Every time you’re warming up volleys before the match, focus on getting #2 clearly 10 times out of 10. That’s where your attention should be during your volley warm up.
5. If you’re struggling with a fixation, add an audio cue to test yourself. Say “hit” right as your opponent strikes it or “bounce” right as the ball bounces. You’d be surprised how much more focus you’re able to give to a fixation once you’re doing that.
This vision series has still more articles coming, so a lot of this will be expounded on further later.
November 5, 2022
That’s fantastic advice. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
P.S. I was able to beat a UTR 10 in a tournament last week thanks mostly to using your Fault Tolerant forehand principles. Getting an extra few mph on the short forehand was enough to force errors rather than it be just another rally shot.
November 5, 2022
That’s phenomenal, great win! Keep it going.
November 6, 2022
Excellent advice across the board.
Only one comment: I often “trap” a ball at my feet without watching the bounce and am successful.
Feel free to weigh in.
November 8, 2022
Yes, great point.
I might write an article dedicated to the edge cases later, but “trapping” it like you describe is certainly possible (and effective).
When the ball bounces extremely close to you, your final fixation might be before it actually hits the ground. If your early flight tracking was good enough, you’ll predict the bounce correctly without seeing it, and still hit a clean shot.
The most important thing is that your eyes are still at contact, and trying to literally see a bounce right next to you often means a moving gaze during stroke production (bad).
I discussed some other edge cases in a different comment, too.
November 10, 2022
i find this exciting. And sobering. I have a drusen (dead spot) in the middle of my left retina after a retinal detachment. I am 82, so basically your article details why I can no longer make good flight predictions as I often don’t or can’t see the ball right off the strings. I wish there were a field of study just for people with my problems but not enough of me to warrant such work. Thanks for your articles though. Wish I had seen them when I was younger and still had 20=15 vision. I am a sports psychologist who used to be a good player. Still toying with how much tension could affect my fading vision and not just other muscle groups.
November 11, 2022
Thanks for the comment Robin.
That’s tough about the left retina – tennis is a super visual sport, so you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you. Hopefully, even if you can’t see the ball clearly as your opponent strikes it, you can still find it in clear focus mid-air on their side of the net, which will allow you to react quickly enough to compete.
I’m really happy that, despite your visual challenges, you still enjoy the game enough to find and read articles like this one. Stay with it! – Coach Johnny
March 31, 2023
I think this can explain why sometimes I just do not react to my opponents shots fast enough and am fixed on watching the ball. I think I watch the ball after I make contact too much. I really do say to my self so many times why am I just ball watching and not moving.
So after I make contact should I let go of the ball and focus more on my opponent so I am focused on their contact point?
April 11, 2023
That makes sense, Sasha. Here are a few drills to try:
“1, 2, 3” – When receiving, say “1” if the ball is going to land short, “2” if it’s going to land in the middle, and “3” if it’s going to land deep. Can you predict the landing right when the ball is still on your opponent’s side of the court?
“Red, yellow, green.” – Same concept, but “Red” = defense, “Yellow” = neutral, “Green” = attackable. Same goal: call the ball while it’s still on your opponent’s side of the net.
These two drills will let you directly target and improve your early flight tracking and reaction time.