Thou Shalt Not Backswing

federer hitting a backhand volley - indication that the swing only goes forward

When I say that the volley should utilize “no backswing,” I mean no backswing. Not a quick backswing, not an abbreviated backswing.

No backswing.

The racket travels directly from its position in the ready position to the player’s anticipated volley contact point. This makes the volley distinctly different from the groundstroke – it’s a unique shot that can barely even be called a “stroke” in the first place. The volley movement, on a technical level, is really better described as placing the racket behind the ball, and letting the ball bounce off of it, rather than as any sort of “swing.”

To understand why we completely eliminate the backswing when volleying, it’s important to first understand why we ever elect to use a backswing at all, and what factors are unique about net play that cause us to abandon it.

Why We Backswing from the Baseline

During Jen Brady‘s follow through, her racket angle is completely closed – were she to accidentally strike the ball like this, it would travel straight down into the net.

The backswing on our groundstrokes is worth the time it takes, and it’s worth the inconsistency it adds.

Let’s look at our forehand. Technically, our forehand backswing is sacrificing some fault tolerance – we would miss less if we held the racket out in front of us, turned only slightly away from our target, and then turned back without allowing our wrist to lag and snap at all. If we did that, though, the resulting shot wouldn’t be very effective.

So we sacrifice just a bit of our stroke’s fault tolerance in order to incorporate the rotational kinetic chain. This makes the swing take longer, and it makes it harder to time. We also relax our wrist and allow the racket to whip around that relaxed wrist through the hitting zone.

This dramatically increases our racket head speed, but also causes the racket to turn over during the follow-through, and it decreases the amount of time and space during which clean contact can be made. If we’re too late, we’ll bury the ball into the net, and if we don’t aim the racket properly, we’ll hit the ball off the frame.

Luckily for us, when executed properly, the forehand stroke is still extremely fault tolerant, despite the small disadvantages that the backswing adds. By rotating the hips, maintaining the string angle through contact, and mastering the various other technical skills we teach here at Fault Tolerant Tennis, we need only sacrifice a small amount of our margin for error to generate a heavy, spinning, drive shot instead a spinless, flat, floating ball for our opponent to handle.

Backswing is Always a Cost/Benefit Analysis

Daniil Medvedev’s unique backswing doesn’t ruin his stroke’s fault tolerance – his racket stays on the hitting side of his body, and he still keeps his wrist extremely relaxed as he rotates around.

I want to take a brief detour here and mention that the proper way to evaluate any particular student’s unique or funky backswing is precisely with this idea – is the increase they are getting in comfort, power, or spin worth what they are paying in consistency and timing? For most extraneous movement back there, the answer is a resounding “no;” almost every player should use a very abbreviated backswing with very little arm movement at all.

But when it comes to the unit turn – the name for the movement during which the player turns their body away from the target, so that they can explosively rotate back towards it during the forward swing – that “backswing” is well worth its cost.

At the Baseline, This Cost is Minor

Make no mistake, even when utilizing an anatomically perfect backswing, we still do pay a cost for that extended forehand preparation. It takes time, and it adds a ton of difficult to control (relatively speaking) explosion to the swing. It requires that we prepare early, and that we execute the stroke during a small timing window in order strike the ball correctly.

At the baseline, we have enough time and enough visual information that these restrictions aren’t deal breakers – we cash in that extra time and information by turning our hips away from the ball and pushing our racket back, so that we can then explosively rotate and fling the racket around our body during the forward swing.

Why We do Not Backswing at Net

At net, the situation is drastically different. We have no time. By the time we’ve recognized where the ball will arrive, any “swing” we’ve elected to take needs to be practically complete already.

This also means that our brain is provided far less visual information to process before it has to commit our body to a movement. To succeed under conditions like these, we need to build into our strokes every possible modicum of fault tolerance we can find.

Volleys Often Fault

Net play happens so quickly that volleys will almost always be executed “imperfectly,” in the fault tolerance sense. Small faults – an imperfect contact point, an imperfect string angle, or a slight mistiming of the ball – are inevitable with so little time to prepare and strike.

If volleys didn’t work when timing or execution was imperfect, they’d never work.

We could still attempt a backswing under these conditions, and if we did, the volleys we managed to execute perfectly would still be quite effective, but since that attempt isn’t fault tolerant, it won’t succeed frequently enough to be worth it; the conditions at net are just too challenging.

Even though there might technically exist enough time to execute a back-then-forward swing at net, in practice, that movement is too complex for the quick conditions. It simply can’t be correctly executed consistently enough to be profitable, given the net’s pressures.

Net Play Necessitates Fault Tolerance

The net isn’t like the baseline – we don’t get to move to the ball, relax, take a deep breath, track the ball over the entire length of the court, and contact it right where we want it.

Quite the opposite, in fact. We see our opponent strike the ball, and, in the next instant, our brain has to recognize its path, project the contact point, and then command our body to maneuver the racket behind that point. We lunge for it, stick our racket out, and attempt to redirect the ball’s pace to a new target.

Under these circumstances, if volleys didn’t work when timing or execution was imperfect, they’d never work.

Move the Racket Directly to Contact

The racket should travel directly from its position in the ready position to the player’s anticipated volley contact point.

To succeed under the fault prone conditions at net, eliminate the backswing entirely. The racket should travel directly from its position in the ready position to the player’s anticipated volley contact point, without going backwards at all.

This direct-to-contact racket path maximizes our fault tolerance – it minimizes the swing time while simultaneously maximizing the part of the swing during which correct contact can be made. The result is that our volley will very often succeed in the face of small imperfections in tracking, racket placement, or stroke timing.

Turning Sideways and Backswing

When you stand still and turn sideways, your racket does, in an absolute sense, move backwards, which could technically constitute a “backswing.” It doesn’t move backwards relative to the torso, but it does move backwards in an objective sense. If a ball is rifled at you, it’s okay for this backwards racket motion to occur.

During Roger Federer’s backhand volley preparation, the racket has moved “backwards” relative to his feet, but it’s still in the same position relative to his chest as it started in. (Photo credit)

But on any normal volley, this backwards motion should be offset by the fact that your entire body, as a unit, is moving diagonally forward towards the contact point as you prepare. Therefore, despite the racket moving backwards relative to, say, your front foot, it never moves backwards relative to the court. This is ideal, as a stable, forward moving racket is a racket that will strike a crisp volley.

All that said, turning sideways on the volley is beneficial, as it makes the volley easier to execute. Note that, on the volley, we’re actually striking the ball while sideways – we’re not turning away from the ball so that we can rotate back towards it later on in the swing, like we are on the forehand.

How to Turn on the Volley

Roger Federer executing a low volley from a closed stance. His hips and chest are turned 45 degrees away from the net, and he contacts the ball well out in front of him.

On the forehand volley, turn your trunk away from the net by about 45 degrees, and on the backhand volley, turn away by at least 90 degrees (you can even face your own baseline if you want). On both volleys, it’s best (again, time permitting) to hit out of either a neutral stance, or a closed stance. These movements put your body in a better anatomical position to easily make fault tolerant, fundamental theorem of tennis adhering contact out in front of you.

Backswing of the arm is the biggest volley killer, rather than any accidental backswing from turning the torso. Just keep in mind that you’re only turning the torso on the volley in order to get in a better anatomical position to make stable contact out in front of you. You are not turning in order to rotate back towards the net and generate power. Use the turn for stability, and you’ll be fine.

It’ll Feel Strange, At First

Initially, the volley “swing” will feel very counter-intuitive. It feels extremely natural turn our shoulders and our hips sideways, and then to bring the racket back with our arm. Our intuition is yelling at us that, if we want to hit the ball forward, we first need to bring everything back so that we can do so. This intuition is wrong.

The “swing” on the volley is really no swing at all; it’s just a repositioning of the racket.

Further, when we watch the players on the tour volley on TV, it is very difficult to tell what constitutes a forward swing and what constitutes a backswing. That’s actually true on the forehand as well, a stroke on which many players take an excessively arm-y backswing because that’s what it looks like the tour level players are doing, even though they aren’t.

So don’t be disillusioned if the abolition of the backswing feels awkward at first. It should feel strange – the “swing” on the volley is really no swing at all; it’s just repositioning of the racket.

You’ll quickly notice, though, how solid the occasional, correctly executed, zero backswing volley feels, and you’ll never want to go back. Eventually, your brain’s reward system will start associating that firm, crisp volley feeling with the complete abolition of the backswing, and you won’t be tempted to do it anymore.

Eventually, but not right away.

Training The Zero Backswing Volley

The most effective way to train yourself to abolish your volley backswing is to practice volleying with another player who is also at net – volley-to-volley. When hitting volley-to-volley, backswing will be impossible, because the ball will come at you too fast. This will force you practice taking your racket directly from your ready position out to a contact point in front of you, lest you shank and mishit every ball.

Rafael Nadal drives a volley at Jack Sock’s feet at the Laver Cup, 2017. Sock, an elite doubles player and an elite volleyer, successfully hits a quick, reflex volley, catching the ball low and in front of his feet, and Team World ends up winning the point.

Keep your feet, torso, and eyes engaged. When you have time, turn sideways as you move the racket forward to the contact point, and the shot will feel more comfortable. When you don’t have time – when the ball is hit exceptionally quickly, or when it’s hit right at you – just ensure that the racket is at a 90 degree angle with your forearm, and send it straight out towards the ball. Forward, forward, forward.

You’ll be surprised how many balls will simply hit it and bounce back over.

1 Comment

    October 2, 2023

    Great advice!


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