Buying a tennis ball machine is a great way to improve your game, regardless of hitting partners or matchplay opportunities.
You can set a tennis ball machine up on a court, have it feed a range of different balls to you at your chosen frequency, allowing you to replicate matchplay situations.
Why Use a Tennis Ball Machine?
A tennis ball machine is a great training tool as you can customize the settings specifically to work on certain aspects of your game.
If you are looking to improve how you handle high, deep balls, you can set the machine up to feed you only these.
The ball machine will feed the balls at the same rate, same speed, same spin rate and to the same location time after time.
Therefore you can practice exactly the same shot and really fine tune any particular shot you like.
Equally, if you are using a more advanced tennis ball machine, it may come with the ability to set up your own custom drills, or come pre-programmed with drills.
This way, you can hit shots in a sequence that suits you, allowing you to practice your footwork patterns, recovery and simulate match-like conditions.
Also, if you are struggling to find consistent hitting partners or coaching in your area is too expensive, using a ball machine can provide a solution to this problem.
You may not actually need further coaching, just a consistent feed that you can practice your strokes with.
Therefore, using a ball machine can be a great alternative, as you will get a much more controllable experience.
Do Professional Tennis Players Use Ball Machines?
Given that professional tennis players will often travel to tournaments with coaches, and be surrounded by other elite level players, it is fair to say that they don’t use ball machines as much as recreational tennis clubs.
However, if they are looking to work on a specific area of their game, with their coach paying very close attention, it is not unheard of for professional tennis players to use ball machines.
They may be particularly useful during a professional player’s off season.
Higher quality ball machines will be able to fire balls at around 80mph, which is a good pace for a professional to receive and still be able to replicate a realistic match ball.
The majority of tennis ball machines are purchased by tennis coaches, clubs and individuals looking to significantly improve their game.
Things to Consider
When deciding which drills specifically to perform when using a ball machine, you need to remember that you can be very specific with the ball you receive.
This is a unique opportunity to practice exactly the shot, pattern of play or drill sequence you desire, so make it count!
It can be useful to take a step back and have an honest look at your game before using a ball machine.
Objectively looking at your strengths and weaknesses (you can ask a coach or hitting partner to help with this), will ensure you are working on the areas of your game that will help you improve the most!
Deciding how intensely you need to practice may not be quite as straightforward as you think.
If you are looking to work on your fitness or do a drill designed to replicate patterns of play, for example hitting two balls cross court followed by one down the line, then high intensity would probably be recommended.
This means keeping your heart rate up, having your ball machine feed balls at smaller intervals, whilst still leaving enough time for you to recover properly, in order to make the drill as realistic as possible.
If you are training with a high intensity, for example on a drill that will have you doing a lot of movement off the ball, you may only be able to keep this up for say 10 or 15 shots before having a break.
So consider this when you are loading up your ball machine and adjust the settings accordingly.
However, if you are looking to focus more on technique or a specific footwork pattern, you will probably benefit with some more time to concentrate on what you’re doing.
This will ensure you are practicing the right things, rather than reinforcing bad or old habits.
In this case, you would want to have as much time as possible between feeds from your ball machine, making the drill less intense.
You may be able to hit a much higher number of balls in a row here, so consider this too when you are setting up your machine.
Working on the tactical side of your game is very important, as it is all well and good having the best technique in the world, but if you can’t pick the right shot at the right time, you simply won’t have success on court.
Using a pre-programmed drill, or setting your own custom drills (if your ball machine allows you to do so), are great ways to work on tactics and patterns of play.
Whilst no two points are exactly the same, working on a few tried and tested tactical set plays can really help improve your confidence on court.
If you have a plan in place for when you receive a high ball to your backhand or a short ball on your forehand side, this can really help you feel more at ease, rather than being caught in no man’s land, wondering what to do next.
Working on tactical drills such as hitting a rally ball, followed by attacking a short ball, followed by a volley is an example of replicating a common pattern of play.
Rather than just hitting the rally ball and staying back, you can set the ball machine up to hit different balls to different areas of the court at different speeds, so you can practice hitting each shot in the same order they would likely come in a match.
Working on your consistency is a sure fire way to improve your tennis game, and using a ball machine is the perfect way to get more consistent!
Ultimately, the more balls you can get back into court (of course with good quality), the more points you will likely win.
So, using a ball machine that can be programmed to put the exact type of ball you need, to the exact location you want is a great way to practice your consistency.
Setting yourself a target of 50 balls in the court in a row, 25 balls in between the service line and the baseline or hitting more than half of your shots to a target area can improve your mental focus, thus helping you become more engaged in your session.
Practicing for consistency can become monotonous or boring after a while, so setting yourself targets and changing up the shots you are hitting frequently is a great way to keep things more interesting!
The Best Tennis Ball Machine Drills
Listed below are a collection of the best drills you can do whilst using a tennis ball machine.
You could do an endless amount of drills when using a ball machine, but we have considered factors such as movement required, technical focus, tactical focus and intensity to give you a well rounded approach to your practice session.
Forehand or Backhand Consistency
This straightforward drill will help you improve the consistency of your rally ball through continuous repetition.
Simply set up your ball machine to feed you a cross court topspin ball to approximately halfway between the service line and the baseline.
You can then position yourself just behind the baseline, starting a couple of steps away from the centre marker, towards the side you will be hitting from.
For example, if you are a right hander hitting forehands, you would start a couple of steps to the right of the centre marker on the baseline.
This is a realistic recovery position that would help you narrow down the angles on the court in a match.
As soon as the ball leaves the ball machine, start by completing a unit turn (turning your legs, hips, torso, shoulders and racket) to the side and step out towards the oncoming ball.
This early preparation will help you time the ball better and make cleaner contact with the ball.
Then, plant your outside foot wider of where the ball will land, then step forward with your inside foot and rotate as you strike the ball.
This movement pattern will help improve your weight transfer through the ball, allowing you to hit with more power more easily.
Repeat this for as many times as you see fit for your desired level of intensity.
If you want to add a progression to this drill, you can put targets such as cones, ball cans or throw down lines on the other side of the court to work on your accuracy.
You can also change the direction of your shot at a given interval, for example hit 3 balls cross court and then one down the line.
Top Tip: If you are struggling with getting the ball over and in with enough depth, try to aim higher over the net and add some more topspin to your shots.
This will increase the margin for error on your groundstrokes, whilst making them harder for opponents to deal with!
Taking the Ball Early and Attacking
A great way to take control of any point is to take the ball early. This helps you to take time away from your opponent and potentially force an error by rushing them into a mistake.
You can set your ball machine up in a similar way to the forehand and backhand consistency drills, except for this time you will be looking to take the ball on the rise or at the top of the bounce.
In order to do this, you will want to repeat the steps of the forehand and backhand consistency drills.
However, rather than waiting for the ball to rise, reach its peak and start to fall before you hit it, you will want to get to the ball quicker, prepare your racket and body earlier and try to strike the ball as it is reaching its peak.
You will also be looking to hit the ball with less spin and lower over the net to increase its speed.
Top Tip: You are not necessarily looking to hit the ball harder here, you are looking to take time away from your opponent by taking the ball earlier.
So don’t feel like you have to muscle the ball, this is all about perfect timing!
Attacking a short ball is a great confidence booster that you should certainly practice when using a ball machine.
Have the machine feed you a short, slow ball around the service line, pick a target either cross court or down the line and try to hit the ball firmly.
Your aim here is to hit the ball low over the net with as much power as you can control.
Defending and Neutralising the Point
Setting up a more challenging drill that will have you covering more ground is a great way to practice defending or neutralising the point.
This is a very underrated skill in tennis, and is used a lot more than you might think!
Set out a marker on your baseline, around half way between the centre marker and the sideline from which you will not be hitting from.
So if you are hitting defensive backhands, set the marker down on the forehand side of the baseline.
Starting on the marker, as the ball is fed you can get across the court quickly and hit a higher, softer slice or loopy topspin ball.
Top Tip: Give yourself more time by starting further back behind the baseline, and aim even higher over the net to push your opponent back.
This will give you plenty of margin for error and time to work your way back into the point.
Remember, this is more about staying in the point than anything else, so try and hit the ball deep and slow!
Transition Play Drills
Transitioning from the back of the court to the net is not actually practiced that often, yet is a major area of the game that so many players could do with working on!
If your ball machine has the capability, you want to have it feed one rally ball that you can take early, followed by a shorter ball that you can attack, followed by a shorter ball that you can step up to the net and volley.
The aim here is to work on moving forward through each ball and get more comfortable stepping up the court after each shot.
If you are looking to focus more on technique, you can have the ball fed to the same side of the court for all three of these shots.
However, if you are looking to up the intensity, have the ball machine mix up the ball location. This will really keep you on your toes!
Overall, using a tennis ball machine is a great way to improve your game, especially if you have the right drills to go along with it.
Think about what area of your game you want to improve the most, be it consistency, tactics or technique.
Then set up your machine accordingly and use the drills above as a starting point to improve your tennis today!