There’s one shot in tennis that changes the geometry of the court in a way unlike any other:
The swinging volley.
This shot allows a player to attack in ways that are physically impossible with any other, and, especially on the forehand side, they can execute those attacks in an extremely high percentage way.
The swinging volley’s primary use case is to take away every tennis player’s best defensive option – the deep block/roll shot over the middle. When a defending player is in a compromised position, the easiest, highest percentage way for that player to reset the point is to block the ball back high, slow, and deep, while aiming to a very large target. This high, slow, deep block shot is difficult to miss, even if the incoming ball is challenging, and yet it still typically succeeds in returning the point to neutral.
Why Evangelize The Swinging Volley?
It actually isn’t the swinging volley itself that’s the cheat code – it’s rolling the ball deep when on defense that is. It’s too effective, and too easy. The swinging volley is the only consistent way to attack this defensive cheat code, but it isn’t as popular as it should be, because it carries with it a very high degree of difficulty.
Here’s what makes it difficult:
- The ball typically has a large, downward velocity when you strike it.
- The ball is also accelerating down as you strike it.
- You’ll often be moving while you execute your swing.
- The contact point will vary widely from shot to shot.
Due to #1 and #2, perfect contact is unlikely. When the ball has both a large vertical velocity and is also accelerating as it comes in (due to gravity), a small error in timing or spacing is almost guaranteed. Your stroke must succeed in the face of that small error.
Hitting While Moving
It’s uncommon, on the swinging volley, that you get to set your feet, prepare in rhythm, and swing. In fact, the very idea of the shot is to explode forward and take time away from your opponent, intentionally breaking the rhythm of the match.
To do this successfully requires a very fundamental understanding of the forehand. If your understanding of the stroke exists as a series of rules like “swing low to high” and “drive with your legs,” then the swinging volley won’t be possible for you. If you don’t know what the forehand stroke really is, at its core, then you won’t be able to correctly adapt your swing for the novel situation that is each individual swinging volley attempt.
When sprinting through the shot is necessary, the forehand swinging volley is performed with the simplest stroke possible. The chest is minimally turned away from the target, and the hips are mostly open. Since you’re sprinting forward anyway, you’ll have plenty of power, and adding more with rotation will often cause more misses than it’s worth.
Fault Tolerance Itself Is A Weapon
Some players try to strike every ball perfectly. That’s fine, but that should be a secondary goal, because the ability to strike a ball imperfectly and still have the shot succeed, that ability itself is a weapon.
It allows you to go for more aggressive, more difficult shots, without missing – shots where perfect striking is very unlikely.
This is one of the reasons that I, perhaps more than many coaches, evangelize the swinging volley so heavily. Because it’s a very difficult shot to execute perfectly, many see it as an inherently low-percentage shot, but that’s not actually the case. If you design your stroke to be fault tolerant, then it’ll work even when executed imperfectly, and that fact is what allows you to take advantage of amazing shots like the swinging volley.
The chain of reasoning that leads away from the swinging volley is too unimaginative:
- It’s too hard to execute a swinging volley perfectly.
- The swinging volley is low percentage.
- The advantage you gain isn’t worth the miss rate.
Whereas, we start with a first principle idea of the advantage we want, and work backwards from there:
- The swinging volley provides a massive geometrical advantage.
- It’s really hard to execute perfectly.
- Design and practice a forehand stroke that succeeds when executed imperfectly.
- Use that stroke to hit the swinging volley, and cash in on that geometrical advantage.
The Forehand Stroke Is Phenomenal
In the intro to The Fault Tolerant Forehand, we marvel at just how effective the modern forehand movement pattern is at producing a tennis shot. Well, we can press this advantage further by using this movement pattern at net.
The ability to use your forehand mechanics in transition – through no man’s land and when sprinting forward – and also while at the net, papers over a lot of the biomechanically tricky shots you’ll run into in those areas:
- Shots at your knees in transition go from awkward chip shots, to regular low forehands.
- Shots at your shoulders go from awkward high volleys to trivial high forehands.
- Shots at waist height go from, again, awkward mid-court, transition volleys to, essentially, approach shots that you don’t bounce.
Not to oversell it, it’s certainly more difficult to strike these forehands out of the air than it is off the ground, but if your stroke is sufficiently fault tolerant, not prohibitively so.
One More Use Case
One last, fun use case of the swinging volley is actually defensive. Yes, the swinging volley improves your defense as well.
When an opponent is at the net, and you’ve just hit a dipping passing shot, you need to sprint forward, because the highest margin, most effective volley is short. When you do that, you’ll end up split stepping in no-man’s land, so what do you do if the ball is volleyed back deep instead?
Hit it out of the air, of course.
Just take your regular forehand or backhand swing and either hit it right at the player’s body, or go for another passing shot. This is the only effective way to defend against a player at net. If you stay at the baseline, you’re giving up way too much equity with the easy short volleys.
You’ll notice a pattern here – the swinging volley allows us to take away our opponent’s best option. It’s difficult, but by mastering this difficult shot ourselves, we make our opponent’s shots even more difficult.
Whether we’re taking away the easy deep defensive shot, or we’re taking away the easy short chip volley, we’re using our ability to strike the ball out of the air to take away our opponent’s best options.
Maybe “cheat code” is the wrong word for the swinging volley – it takes a lot of repetitions to get it right; it’s not as simple as entering a few buttons into your controller. “Cheat code eliminator” is more accurate. The swinging volley takes away your opponent’s cheat codes, and that’s as good as having one yourself.
January 17, 2022
Great article. Question, when the ball is shoulder high, should we swing down to the ball? Thanks
May 31, 2022
Good question. It depends how close to the net you are, and how far off the court your opponent is.
If you are very close to the net, yes. You should tilt your shoulders in the opposite direction you would for a low ball. At contact, your hitting shoulder should be above your off shoulder (like it is on a serve).
If you are in the mid-court, I’d recommend keeping your shoulders level, swinging essentially straight through the ball, but perhaps using just a little bit of gravity for just a little bit of topspin (let your racket drop then shoot up just a little on the way forward). If you can’t hit a winner like this, be willing to play another shot. The other option from the mid-court – hitting down, and hitting flatter, will likely increase your miss rate too much to be worth it.
May 31, 2022
Young Venus William’s trademark. Taking ball out of air. Just wondering why her name wasn’t mention in the article.
May 31, 2022
Ah, good point! Short memory I guess. Watching Leylah inspired this one, so that’s why she gets the spotlight.
Glad this comment is here though, Venus was awesome at this too.
July 2, 2022
I use the swinging volley a lot and I have had two different trainers tell me it’s an old fashioned shot and to stop using it. I’m not sure why they want me to stop it.
July 16, 2022
Watch any match on the tour, men’s or women’s, and you’ll almost definitely see one. Watch someone like Venus, Federer, Iga, or Leylah, who utilize the shot as a staple of their game, and you’ll see many.
If anything, I’d call the swinging volley a modern invention, made possible by the increased spin potential of modern technology, which makes the swinging volley fault tolerant enough to be match usable.