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Never Miss Your Approach Shots

In tennis, “probing” refers to the act of spacing your body with respect to the ball, and it is one of the most important drivers of consistency while playing.

The image above depicts two repetitions of a similar approach shot. In the repetition on the left, the player is too close to the ball, and as a result, he buries the shot into the bottom of the net. In the repetition on the right, he is properly spaced, and he strikes a high-quality, deep, inside-out approach.

Improving your probing requires improving your ability in three areas:

  1. Understanding your perfect contact point
  2. Tracking the ball
  3. Adjusting on reaction

The better you get at each of these three, the more perfect reps you’ll take, and the less wild errors you’ll make.

1. Your Perfect Contact Point

Metaphorically speaking, the ball should almost light up when it’s at the perfect spot for you to initiate your swing. You’re watching it, it’s coming towards you, moving, moving, and then… there. The perfect spot. If you swing through it, the racket will just fly. Everything will be maximally comfortable, the racket will have tremendous velocity, and contact will be perfectly clean.

This is a visual concept. The first step in perfecting your approach shots is to discover what good spacing looks like on each of your strokes, for your particular swing and body. As you finish your preparation and begin to swing, your brain should signal to you whether or not the ball is in the right spot. Subconsciously, it is using the visual information gathered during the flight so far to project the ball’s future position.

A UTR 9 player preparing for and striking an inside-out forehand approach shot.

The left image above depicts the final moments of preparation, before the player fully commits to the forward swing. By this point, if you can’t tell whether or not the stroke is going to be comfortable, it means you’re not actually aware of what your perfect contact point looks and feels like.

That’s fine. I often coach students who aren’t actually aware of the contact point they’re trying to set up. It’s a common issue, and fixing it dramatically improves probing, even over the course of just a single lesson.

Here’s a drill I use to test a student’s awareness of their desired contact point and spacing. I hold a ball, still, in the air. The student sets up for a forehand. They look at the ball in the air and prepare to hit it, spacing it how they feel is appropriate, but they don’t swing. By holding the ball stationary in the air, rather than having them hit a moving ball, I’ve removed the tracking and flight projecting elements from the process, leaving only the contact point itself as the driver of success.

They can adjust their preparation as much as they want, until they feel they’ve gotten it exactly right. Once they feel they’re optimally spaced from the ball, I have them swing (slowly) to it, so we can see if they did, in fact, set up at a spot such that the swing will be comfortable and efficient.

For many of my students, they prepare in the wrong spot, even with a stationary ball and infinite time. It’s no wonder, then, that when hitting a moving ball, under the time pressure of a live point, their contact is all over the place. Mastering your own contact point is the first and most important step of probing, a step which is far too often overlooked:

Where are you actually trying to hit the ball?

Not where over the net, where in space? Where in front of you is the spot at which, if you were to swing through the ball there, your swing would be maximally comfortable and efficient? Probe the ball into that spot.

2. Tracking the Ball

So you understand your perfect contact point. If someone holds a ball in the air, you can set up and swing at it with the correct spacing every time, but you’re still missing your approach shots. The next step is improving how well your brain tracks and predicts the ball.

In order to probe the ball into the right spot, you have to know where it’s going. This requires proper gaze behavior and attention. Your tracking starts (at the latest) the moment your opponent hits the ball, and it ends when you fully commit to your swing, which is before actual contact.

Dominic Thiem’s eyes are often closed during the final moments leading up to contact. Though non-traditional, this doesn’t hinder him, because, at that point, no more adjustments could be made based on what he would see. (Short video pointing this out)

The slower the ball, the more you’ll want to keep it in focus throughout it’s entire flight, and the faster it is (serves, for example), the more you’ll want to abandon smooth pursuit tracking and instead just try to clearly see specific checkpoints. There are a few particular parts of the ball’s flight that are very important to see clearly:

  1. When your opponent hits it
  2. As it crosses the net
  3. As it bounces, and
  4. Just before you hit

If you know the exact contact point you’re trying to create, but you’re still shanking the ball in spite of that, it’s worth dedicating practice time to mastering these specific fixations. During practice, pick one of them, and focus on clearly seeing just that one, every shot.

If you’re missing approach shots, specifically, the two most important fixations are your opponent’s contact, and the bounce. Often, it’s easy for your eyes to get lazy when you’re in an offensive situation. Don’t let yourself do that – track their hitting rhythm, and watch them hit, with just as much attention when they’re going to hit a weak shot as you would if they were going to hit a strong shot.

The bounce is critically important on approach shots, because you’re going to be striking the ball very soon after it bounces. The bounce is the point of the ball’s flight when it’s velocity changes most dramatically. Trying to hit on-the-rise, so shortly after that dramatic change in velocity, is almost impossible unless you see it clearly. My favorite drill for this: practice saying “bounce” at the exact moment the ball bounces on your side of the net. The exact moment – not an instant before or after. If you can, it means you are not only seeing the ball correctly, but also predicting it’s movement accurately, which is what visual tracking in high level tennis is.

3. Adjusting on Reaction

The holy grail of never missing in tennis is not actually probing or footwork. Those are two critical elements, but they only get you about 95% of the way there, and if you understand the brutal math of consistency in elite tennis, you understand that a 95% success rate isn’t even close to good enough.

Against a strong player, you will be out of position at least some of the time. You win if you can succeed anyway. You lose if you can’t.

The beautiful thing about both 1. Knowing your perfect contact point, and 2. Tracking the ball clearly, is that you now have all the information you need to adjust your stroke in real time. You can see, as you finish your preparation, whether or not you’re properly spaced.

If you’re not properly spaced, swing differently.

Swing to the actual contact point. I’ll say that again, because it’s so important. Swing to the actual contact point. Do NOT just take a habituated swing as if the ball is where you want it to be, if the ball is not actually there. Swing at the ball, wherever it actually is. Steps 1 and 2 were all about getting the ball in the optimal spot, such that you can swing normally at it, but if the ball is not there, don’t swing normally.

I don’t care if you have to contort your torso, follow-through in a weird way, or slide across the ball and moonball it over the net. Taking your full, typical swing to the wrong contact point will cause an error. Full stop, 100% of the time. It simply, physically, doesn’t work. You only have two options:

  1. Adjust your body to fix the contact point. If you’re too close, maybe you lean away, or if you’re too far, you can lean in.
  2. Take a different swing that works with the contact point you actually have in front of you.
Roger Federer doesn’t quite get around this inside-out forehand, and it’s far too close to him when he strikes it. Despite that, he hits a decent shot, and goes on to win the point.

The ability to adjust in this manner constitutes one of the biggest differences between elite tennis, and merely good tennis. Both elite players and good players have great strokes, and they’re usually in the correct position to hit them. If you were to only see the players in those situations, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them. The critical difference is that, when an elite player is out of position, they still execute extremely well, whereas when a good player is out of position, they often outright miss.

Back to our UTR 9 student at the top, he should have made both approach shots. Yes, he was far too close to the ball in the rep on the left, but that shouldn’t have led to an outright miss. He should have recognized that he was out of position, contorted his body, and hit a lower-quality, slower shot, but one that would have still gone in the court. Maybe his opponent would have passed him, or maybe he would have missed. We don’t know. What we do know is that, when you hit into the net, you lose 100% of the time.

Probing and Adjustment Drive Elite Tennis

Players on tour are constantly keeping points neutral from awkward situations. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are two of the best at it, but watch any player in the top 50 closely, and you’ll see it time and time and time again. Small little adjustments leading to high quality shots from situations where lesser players would have simply outright missed.

This is it with tennis, one of the hidden secrets that separates the greats from the rest. I can’t stress enough that if you can make just one extra ball every ten, you will literally jump 3 points in UTR. From a 7 to a 10, for example. The math of missing in tennis is brutal – if you miss, you lose, and no amount of flashiness or skill can make up for that simple fact. You must learn what your ideal contact point looks like. You have to see it in front of you as you go to swing, and notice if it looks wrong. You then adjust in real time, in the few moments before you actually swing, in order to succeed in spite of imperfect preparation. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to playing real, high-level, fault tolerant tennis.

4 Comments

  1. Eric
    April 28, 2024

    What a great article, haven’t thought of visual part is actually the most important part of approaching shot.

    May I ask when should we play such approaching shot, instead of just recover to the baseline and let the rally continues?

    Reply
    1. Johnny (FTF)
      April 29, 2024

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. As for when to approach: it’s up to you. Players like Federer do it often, players like Novak do it rarely. In general, the better you are at net play, the more aggressive you should be, and vice versa. Rafa didn’t used to sprint to net, but he added it into his game over the years, to tremendous effect. Here’s our article on it.

      Reply
  2. AJ
    April 28, 2024

    I like Never Miss Tennis because *missing* is by far the number one cause of losing points. Even at the pro level, and overwhelmingly so at the rec level.

    Reply
    1. Johnny (FTF)
      April 29, 2024

      Agree 100%. Mathematically so.

      Reply

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