Although singles has come to be dominated by players with big, booming groundstrokes, that doesn’t mean the art of volleying is dead. There’s still plenty of room for good volleyers in the modern game, and of course, it’s one of the key facets of any good doubles player.
Tennis matches can be won and lost on the turn of a few key points, and if you happen to find yourself at the net on those key points, then you’ll wish you’d practiced your volleying more.
To help you with your volleying, we put together our course on “The Art of Volleying” with our super coach, Dave Ireland, but here we will break down some of the basics of the tennis volley.
Why is Volleying Important?
If you’re a singles player, then you might be wondering why you need to focus on your volleys. After all, the majority of your work is done from the back of the court with your serve and groundstrokes.
However, an inability to attack the net leaves you short of weapons and allows your opponent to take comfort in the fact that they don’t have to worry about you turning up at the net.
Whether you use it frequently or sparingly, coming into the net is a great tactic that keeps your opponent guessing and can bring you lots of free points.
If you get a short ball and put your opponent under pressure then your ability to follow the ball in and put the ball away at the net makes a big difference. If your opponent knows you’re comfortable at the net, then they know they’ve got to hit a very good shot to win the point.
If your opponent knows you’re not comfortable at the net though, and you’re not going to follow the ball in, then they’re free to float the ball back deep, allowing them to get back into the point.
Without the ability to come into the net, your opponent has a get out of jail free card any time they’re under pressure because they know they can play that floated, high margin for error shot back deep and get back to an even footing in the point.
This is why solid net play can add an extra dimension to your game, and that’s before we even start to think about doubles.
Basics of the Tennis Volley
While the volley is complicated by the fact that you have less time to react to the ball, the mechanics of the shot are actually quite straightforward compared to some of the other strokes.
The main aim here is to minimize the size of the swing and simply “punch” the ball back. For this reason, you’re going to put away the big topspin strokes and adopt a more concise, restrained swing.
Most people are going to use a Continental (chopper) grip for the volley. The Continental grip is probably the most simple grip there is and it’s roughly the grip you would use if you were using a hammer or axe.
If you look at your grip, you will see it has 8 “bevels” or lines that go around the circumference. These can help you find the right grip by making sure the V between your thumb and index finger is on a certain bevel.
For right-handers, the V should line up with the left bevel on the top of the grip, and for right-handers, the v should line up with the right bevel for the Continental grip.
This helps limit the amount of wrist movement you have, thus helping to keep the swing shorter and less complicated. With the Continental grip, you have a solid base to handle the extra power that is coming at you and to block the ball back to the other side.
Because you’re closer to the net and where your opponent is hitting the ball from, it means you have less time to react to the ball. Combine this with the fact that the angles of the court have changed greatly as you have closed the net and it means you need to develop a feeling for where the ball might be going.
(It just occurred to me that I use Roger Federer videos for every example, but who doesn’t like the Fed?)
Anyway, this clip is a good example of one of the basic parts of anticipation. You can see how Federer’s body position is angled towards the ball, which helps him cut off the down the line shot, but still gives him the option to explode across to cover the cross-court.
The stronger his position in the point, the more he is able to get on top of the net and cut off the angles, but notice how he is always alert for the lob!
If you can begin to understand how the shot you hit affects the shot your opponent is going to hit, then this helps your ability to anticipate what is coming next and become a better volleyer.
If you look at the Federer video again, you’ll notice how eager he is to get forward and stop the ball from dropping too low. He actually hits his approach shot slightly off the back foot which means he’s got to move quickly to cover the angles.
Even with his haste to get to the net, Federer doesn’t neglect one of the most important parts of the tennis volley – the split step, and uses it to propel himself forward and cut the ball off before it drops below the net.
That’s not an easy volley that he hit because the ball is dropping quite quickly, but the more he allows the ball to drop, the harder it gets. Once he has made the volley, Federer quickly recovers to the middle and continues to attack the net, allowing him to cut off the angles.
You have to be able to use your footwork to make the volley as easy as possible, and one of the ways to do that is by not allowing the ball to drop.
This might not be the most intense warm-up session you will ever see from Federer, but it really illustrates how short the take back is on his volleys. He starts with the racket nicely out in front in a neutral position, and the racket never goes too far behind his body on the take-back.
This means that no matter how fast the ball comes at him, he can always get the racket out in front of his body fast enough so that he can get a clean contact on the ball.
If you take a big cut at the ball, then you’re always going to be playing catch up and it makes it extremely difficult to make a clean contact. Instead, you want to keep the swing short and sweet and use the pace that’s already on the ball.
One of the important things is that you still transfer your weight through the ball despite the abbreviated swing. You may be aiming to take pace off the ball, but if you’re letting the ball push you backwards, then you’re not going to be controlling where it goes.
Again, on the Federer video, you can see that his body weight goes over and through the ball which allows him to control where it goes.
This is something you can practice, and our coach Dave has some drills for you.
Tennis Volley Drills
If you’re going to improve your tennis volleys then you’ve got to get out there and practice them. We’ve picked out some drills you can do to improve your volleys, and help you spot the right time to attack the net.
Transferring Weight Through the Ball
Place a pyramid of balls a couple of feet inside the serviceline on either side of the volleyer. The coach will then feed balls towards the targets, and the player has to protect the pyramids by moving forwards into the volley.
The head and shoulders of the player should lead by leaning forward, taking the player into a lunge and forcing them to move forward, transferring their weight through the ball in the process.
This will not only help the player to hit stronger volleys but make sure that they continue to move into the net and cut off those angles.
Knowing When to Approach the Net
One of the most important things about volleying is actually knowing when is a good time to approach the net. As much as attacking the ball is about where you are on the court, it’s also about what your opponent is doing at the other end of the court and you need to be able to spot these signs.
Where your opponent is on the court, whether they are on balance or off-balance, and generally if they look comfortable hitting the shot are all signs you should be looking at to see whether or not you should be coming into the net.
This drill allows players to spot the right ball to come to the net on by waiting for the right ball so they can get to net and catch the ball with their hands. The coach will hit a series of on balance, comfortable shots which the player will shadow swing at, before hitting one off-balance, uncomfortable shot that will allow the player to sneak into the net.
If the player is alert to the signs, then they will have enough time to get to the net and make the catch.
It’s not just how you hit the ball that will decide your level of success at the net but also where you hit the ball. Just like when you’re at the back of the court, the tactics you use at the net can make a big difference.
So, what should you be looking to do once you’ve made it to the net?
Don’t Get Dissuaded Just Because You Lost the Point
Players of all levels are guilty of doing this. They approach the net once or twice and because they lost the point, they decide it’s not the right tactic for them. The thing is, in the average game you’ve got pretty much a 50/50 chance of losing the point whether you’re at the back of the court or at the net (sad but true).
Just because coming to the net didn’t work out the first time you tried it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. Statistically, the net is still one of the best places to win points, so keep trying it at the right times, and the law of averages says you’re going to start winning points.
The other benefit with coming to the net is that even when you don’t win the point it will affect your opponent’s mentality. Attacking the net is a sign that you are in control of the points, and it puts pressure on your opponent to keep hitting good shots so they don’t get picked off when you turn up at the net.
Sometimes You’ve Got Nothing to Lose
If things just aren’t working out from the back of the court and your opponent has the measure of you, then what’s the point in keep doing the same old thing? You’ve got to find a way to change the equation, and one of the ways you can do that is by mixing things up and coming into the net.
You don’t have to do it on every point, or indeed all match, but if you throw it in and mix things up then it gives your opponent something different to think about. If you’re not going to win from the back of the court, then give the volleys ago and see if it throws up something different.
Take the First Volley Back Behind the Opponent
When you come into the net it’s really tempting to go for the big winner into the open court, but this neglects the fact that volley’s aren’t easy shots, especially your first volley.
One of the ways you can simplify your first volley is by sending is straight back where it came from. This means you don’t have to change the direction of the ball, allowing you to focus on getting it out in front of your body with a nice contact.
The other great thing about this is that your opponent knows he has to cover the open court, so when you play back behind them, you make them change directions and play their shot very quickly. This makes it so difficult to come up with a good passing shot, especially if it’s off the backhand side, which is where you want to approach to more often than not.
No matter what style of play you use, volleys are something you need to have in your locker. Tennis is played much more from the back of the court these days, but players still need to be able to attack the net in order to put pressure on their opponents.
Having good tennis volleys gives you an extra dimension to your game that allows you to change up your gameplan and ask your opponent different questions.
The key to good volleys is keeping things as simple as possible, and using short swings to guide the ball back into court. By coming into the net, you are automatically putting your opponent under pressure by taking time away from them, so you don’t need to come up with a miracle winner.
If you can work on your volleys until you reach a level where you are confident at the net, then it can make a huge difference to your game, and you will have more ways of winning matches.