Would you go so far as to practice?
by Ed Collins/June, 1999

Iím assuming that youíre eager to climb a rung on the clubís ladder, so to speak, and that youíll do almost anything to do so.
   Would that include practicing?
   Beware: a casual workout can be more harmful than helpful. Instinctively, we tend to do whatís easiest. Lackadaisical footwork and careless errors you donít need. Maybe the best suggestion I can give is to forget about practicing; instead, spend the time playing a set. The fear of losing will at least get you off your heels. 
   Itís by practicing that you can isolate a skill, and through repetition, systematically make improvements. If you are the type of person who can spend your time wisely, hereís some advice:

Warm up slowly, concentrating 
Think of the warm-up as being mental as well as physical. Muscles, strokes, timing, and vision need a gradual adjustment to playing tempo. Hit the first balls as slowly as possible. Instead of rallying aimlessly, direct your shots to a spot on the court. Since youíre in a cooperative mood, aim six feet behind the service line, so your opponent will have a nice ball to hit. Youíll build steadiness through concentration.

Get in position 
After a couple minutes of loosening up, start moving. Feel your weight lightly balanced on the balls of your feet. Move continuously in search for the optimal position to strike the ball­­waist high, in front of your body.

Recover your position 
By knowing in advance where the return will be aimed, youíll be inclined to wait for it. Suppress this lazy instinct by recovering your position after each shot; by doing so, youíll practice a variety of shots.

Practice the shots 
From the backcourt there are five basic shots: forehand and backhand, crosscourt, and down-the-line, and the inside-out forehand (hit from the backhand corner). You may not have time to devote to all the shots, but devoting five minutes to several helps.

Attack short balls 
Youíve decided to practice crosscourt forehands, and youíre determined to recover after each ball. Now make another commitment­­look for and react to every short ball. If you can move up inside the baseline, to contact the ball before it falls, do so.

Not in the net; not wide either 
To attack with confidence, you must not fear missing; if your habit is to miss in the net, or wide, you canít relax. Even though it sounds oversimplified, it is possible to reduce errors by giving yourself a bigger margin-for-error. Increase your net clearance; aim three to six feet inside the sidelines.

Practice hitting deep 
Do you think youíd win more, were if not for your habit of hitting short? Then play a baseline game of Deep, where balls short of the service line are out.

Practice over-hitting 
A tentative stroke can be made more convincing by slugging the ball back and forth a bit. Hitting the ball as hard (as you can control it) may force you to be more natural, plus it makes you go forward. Driving the ball requires you to stay down with your head, torso and legs­­just the ticket for added pace and sure put-a-ways.

Play crosscourt-down-the-line 
Want a drill that will test your backcourt shots, footwork and fitness? Then play this game: One player hits all his shots crosscourt, his opponent answers down-the-line. With both players concentrating, the rallies are long and the benefits are many. Plus you get practice changing the angle of the ball (i.e. taking a crosscourt forehand, sending it down-the-line.)

   To make a game out of this drill, play first-to-11, then switch shots. Give the benefit of the doubt on balls landing in the center.

Practice volleys 
The most challenging exercise in tennis is maintaining a volley-groundstroke rally. Both players must concentrate and cooperate to get any kind of rhythm going. A good volley game is played on half of the court. From no-manís land, one player feeds a groundstroke to the baseliner, then jogs up and volleys from behind the service line, then the point is played out. Play games; alternate approaching and defending.

Practice playing points 
Tennis players practice their shot combinations by playing points. Each is started with a friendly feed and return, then anything goes. With or without scoring. 

Hit buckets 
A playerís endless search for his sense of timing can be found with a basket of balls and a practice partner. Feed balls from across the net, or toss them from the same side of the court. Or set up a wide target on the ad court, and hit a bucket of serves, two or three times per week. In less time than you can imagine, youíll be hitting that spot.

Excerpted from Watch the Ball, Bend Your Knees!

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