In today’s day and age, 99 percent of the players use a two-handed backhand and most players are playing a typical baseline style that is indicative of this era of high tech rackets with a power game that has ruled tennis over the past two decades.
Approaching the net, volleying and having a transition game are something of a lost art. Long gone are the days that players like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras were on top of the tennis world rankings with their dominating serve and volley style. Up until the late 1980s, there were quite a few net rushers, top 20 players who chipped and charged the net at any opportunity, such as Paul Annacone or Christo Van Rensberg, who had a simple strategy—keep the point as short as possible, make the other player hit only passing shots, no baseline rallies at all. It was quite a mental challenge playing those types of players. The best way to play them was to take the net away from them by coming to the net yourself and making them hit passing shots. Today, there is one player who plays similar to that style, and he is more of a fringe player, Dustin Brown. I love watching that guy!
Today’s players don’t face such tactical challenges as we did back in the day because everyone plays a variation of the same style. Most players today use their groundstrokes to win points, trying to force errors or hit winners, mainly running around their backhands and opening up the court with the inside out forehand. The serve is rarely used for serving and volleying, but more as a weapon to get free points or simply get an advantage in the beginning of the point so that the server can dictate the point.
Even in doubles, many of the top teams on the ATP Tour don’t come to the net after the first serve, which was unthinkable back in my time and embarrassing to say the least.
As a coach, you are facing a dilemma. Since most matches are played from the baseline, it is not that practical to spend much time on the net game, especially in the younger age groups and intermediate levels when you are trying to get them interested in the game. Kids cannot implement their volley skills in a real match because it’s usually a moon ball festival and most kids revert to what they do best, which is slugging it out from the baseline.
Many coaches neglect the net game and don’t even spend time teaching it. In many cases, they (the coaches) are from a generation that grew up playing the modern game of extreme grips, a two-handed backhand and no net game, with a coach who didn’t teach them how to volley.
My approach is still the “old school approach.” I still insist on spending time on teaching kids the fundamentals of volleying from an early age. It is a long-term investment, and the results don’t show sometimes until the kids are well in their late teens. I have learned that my insistence on teaching the volley game has produced healthy tennis players who have an all-court game which allows them to mix up their style, throw off their opponents and achieve a high level in doubles, which can be very helpful in high school and college tennis.
The thing about the volley is that it is actually the easiest shot to teach in tennis, especially if you start it early on. I find that when you start it from a young age, it becomes a natural shot for the rest of their career.
I actually begin every group or private lesson with a few minutes of mini tennis with only one hand allowed using a Continental Grip. Using the one hand only allows the kids to feel the ball on the string like a natural one-handed player, develop a slice backhand and is a great introduction to the volley.
Once the player learns how to hit with a Continental Grip, the next stage is to feed them very easy balls close to the net and do this every time they play for a few minutes in order to get that particular wrist muscle stronger since having a firm wrist is essential.
The next level is to combine the volley with an approach shot so the kids can put it in the right context of point construction.
As the kids get more skilled at the net, I will blend in some quick volley games and transition game point playing situations where the kids are forced to play a point with one always coming into the net. These games are highly intense, with quick volley exchanges and passing shots. Most kids love playing those types of games.
In the short term, it can get a little frustrating for the kids because of the size and the low rate of success at the net, but I found that it is very helpful later in their career and gives them a better chance of doing well at the higher levels.
I love it when I see young players who are using all parts of the court to win points. I also believe that in today’s game when everyone plays more or less the same style, you need to separate yourself from the pack by adding different elements to your game.
Although it is difficult to implement a serve and volley style as a main strategy (it is too predictable and the returns are too powerful), it is a very good weapon as a Plan B or a surprise tactic. It could also be used when you are tired or have run out of ideas.
The ability to change your game and attack the net can give you an edge that you need, improve your doubles game and prolong your tennis career as you get older.
The volley technique is pretty simple—once you establish the Continental Grip and a firm wrist, it is all about keeping the racket out front with a solid ready position and staying low.
The rest is all about moving (closing in) and attitude (being aggressive). The best way I found to describe the volley is by describing it as the opposite of a groundstroke: A groundstroke has topspin, a swing and a follow through, while a volley has a little slice, no swing and no follow through. You simply redirect the ball with minimal racket movement, and when it’s done right, it’s poetry in motion. If you don’t believe me, go watch some old videos of Johnny McEnroe or Pat Cash.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.