Shortcourt––Training Ground for
Technique and Tactics

Excerpts of past writings on a tennis teaching methodology/by Ed Collins

The tennis acid test is given within the service boxes. When the student can more or less control the ball within its boundaries––hitting softly––consider him sufficiently skilled.
    To score well on the test requires the mastery of technical skills, lots of practice and considerable experience in competing.
    The test asks a number of questions, including:
Does the player understand and have command of his stroke well enough so that he can slow it and the ball down?
Can he play the ball from below net level? Groundstrokes? Volleys?
Can he decide (correctly) between half-volley and volley?
     Can he create topspin angled passing shots? Can he put the lob over the backhand side? Can he decide when’s the best time to lob. Can he set up the lob by first keeping the passing shot low. Can he see/sense when the opponent has lost position? And then can he capitalize by coming in?
Can he manage the ball when it gets behind him?

Strategy shapes the strokes
The court is smaller but the shots are the same––they’re just miniaturized.
    The drives have the low-to-high shape, the short forehands and high flat backhands are still taken at the top of the bounce. The slices are hit on a line, producing a low bounce.
    The smaller court enables the student to feel the stroke. The strategy shapes the strokes. (Every ball is hit with a purpose, to create an effect––spin, shape and placement, in combination.)
Misguided beginners try to hit the ball hard; in doing so, they sacrifice technical control. It becomes a high-risk, low-percentage gamble (make one, miss three).
    They lose more than just points––they develop technical habits that prevent them from learning what I’ll call advanced lessons (one of which is the execution of natural pace.
    Increasing racquet head speed (generating more pace) eventually becomes a subject of focus––but later on, after technique, consistency, accuracy, spin and strategy.

Orchestrate success
Make sure that the student has success from the outset. Challenge him with manageable tasks, not-too-difficult skills. (Play mini-tennis so he can consistently get the ball over the net and into the court.)

Contact in front
Ball control is dependent on making contact away and in front of the body, in tennis’ strike zone.
    Play tap tennis, where the student is encouraged to just make contact with the ball, not to hit it. Soft tosses, soft hits (from same side of the net).
    Play up-and-back/side-to-side tap tennis. From across the net, toss or hit balls randomly, encouraging student to hit ball at waist level.

Eastern/semi-eastern grips
Orthodox grips make the game more natural. Plus it’s easier to play low and high-bouncing balls. Plus it’s easier to learn a variety of spins. Plus it contributes to hand-eye coordination by maintaining a balanced/athletic posture.
    Shake hands forehand grip, with fingers spread. Ready position with continental grip, racquet on edge, left hand positioned at the racquet’s throat.

Light on the feet
The body’s weight is balanced on the balls of the feet, which makes the knees relaxed, promotes balance and
tennis posture. (The pro’s first consideration is how the foot strikes the ground at a 45-degree angle.)

Spin it
Once the student can routinely make contact in front (playing tap tennis) he learns the elements of producing spin.
    Low-to-high for topspin, follow-through in front, racquet pointed skyward, contributing to balance/posture. How high can you make the bounce? How far can you make the second bounce?
Andre Agassi spent a week training in San Diego this year. Several students of mine watched one of his workouts. Each remarked that his practice began with a 10-to-15-minute session of what I call shortcourt.
What’s he doing? He’s remembering how to hit his groundstrokes. He’s reviewing, repeating, rehearsing.
    Just the opposite of what one might expect.
    It (should be) interesting for the young student to watch what may be the best groundstroker in the history of tennis practicing like a beginner:
Trying to get in the best hitting position. Trying to move rhythmically, lightly, fluidly.
Feeling the hand loose, the racquet back, the wrist prepared at just the right moment.
Seeing the ball at the moment of impact. Feeling the body’s stillness.
Feeling the ball heavy in the middle of the frame.
Trying to create make the most effective shot––with just the right amount of spin, shape and placement.
Serve from the service line
In teaching the serve to a beginner, what the teacher wants most of all is a loose arm. Putting him at the baseline––where the service box defines his success––only creates tension.
    Standing at the net, start from the point of contact. Eliminate the complexity of the backswing by first assuming the trophy/poised-for-power position (sideways, elbow at shoulder level, racquet pointed skyward). Choke up on the racquet. Just a tap at first, no follow-through. Eyes on contact.
    Then the follow through across the body, racquet pointed to back fence.
    Then the synchronized backswing and toss.
    Then move back to the service line.
    Then no-man’s land.
    Then the baseline––with success, a loosed grip, relaxed arm and proper technique all along the way.

Walk through the stroke   
Occasionally the pro follows his mistake with a shadow stroke. With his racquet, or just his hand, he rehearses the stroke with corrected technique.
The typical beginner misses, shrugs his shoulders, then plods along. Just the opposite of what you’d expect.

Starting point: the point-of-contact
The essence of good shotmaking––the technical skill that makes all shots possible––is making contact in front of and away from the body.
A young student is trained for success when he learns the strokes starting with the point-of-contact. This is accomplished through a simple procedure of soft tosses, self feeds and, of
course, shortcourt (where the ball is more easily managed). Good habits are created from the beginning.

Shortcourt is relatively easy when the skills are good. If the student is not skillful, and he lacks knowledge, he’ll resist.
If it’s not easy, and if it doesn’t feel right, then human nature takes over and what wins out is frustration.
Speed is the great equalizer. When the ball comes softly, any stroke works.
Fast and low; high and slow
Within the boundaries of the service boxes, I play tethered to the T, 7-year-old Abby tries to pass and lob me. I encourage her to watch the ball and be aware of the court.
We’re not keeping score yet, but every time she hits a ball out of my reach I reward her with a “That’s a point for Abby!” Meanwhile, I remind her how to get the ball by/over me when I repeatedly say, “Fast and low, high and slow.” When she makes an exceptionally good shot, I call her to the net and give her a high-five.
With the teacher feeding and playing points, it’s from the forecourt that they learn fundamental lessons: How to soften their hands, develop feel and control, spins and angles,
How to move w/balance, taking small steps, playing the ball at waist level.
When to close their stance, when to open it.
How to lob and drop shot, chip and drive the ball.
 A regular part of tennis camp curriculum is and always has been the shortcourt tournament I’d say four out of five times the winner proved to be the best player in camp.
How many can you make in a row? This question usually gets the novice player headed in the right direction.

Lead-up drills
Can you bounce it down four times then catch it in your left hand?
    Can you tap the ball up four times, then catch it?
    Can you tap it up and let it bounce four times, then catch it? 
    Alley rally: Tapping the ball up, alternate hitting balls, making them land in the alley.
    Targets: Set two targets (tripod of balls) ten feet apart, w/or w/out the net. Try to hit each other’s target.

The why before the how
The teacher shows the beginning student how to use the strokes.
    To learn how to play the game, a new player must first gain an understanding. Learning the strokes by rote may not lead anywhere.
    Introductory lessons include the rudiments of offense and defense. The student develops a sense of anticipation, balance, relaxation and cleverness.
    The challenge for the teacher is to encourage better technique while allowing students to keep whatever natural feel they possess. If the game is made too mechanical, too technical, the stiff and anxious student can forget that the idea is to hit a ball.

From below net level
To motivate the student to improve technique and feel for the ball, I have him practice hitting balls from the service line, below net level, softly, into the service box.
Soft low tosses hit crosscourt and down-the-line. Topspin groundstrokes, underspin volleys.
It becomes clear to the student that consistency can only be achieved by producing the technique correctly.
The student with an exaggerated backswing or an unorthodox grip may have trouble, which hopefully will motivate him to make corrective changes.

This developmental game is played with both players (teacher and student) on the same side of the court, playing within the boundaries of the service boxes, playing the ball over the center service line.
    A lead-up game involves tossing-and-catching (played without the racquet). The ball must be caught one-handed, on the descent. And tossed with the same hand, underhanded.
I spend some time teaching the student how to make a soft catch (hand absorbs weight of ball––and catch and toss with the same motion.)
    It usually takes some prompting on how to be clever––tossing or hitting the ball short, deep and in the corners. (It always interests me to see who the games-player is, and who plays by rote, hitting every ball down the center.)

Offense/defense shortcourt
A favorite drill to teach all-court play is played within the service boxes. It goes like this:
One player starts the point with an underhanded serve, crosscourt; the return must be hit back crosscourt.
All balls must be hit (very) softly, but may be spun.
The server may not come to the net until he has hit his second shot (one after the serve).
No volleys until one player approaches (must be down the line). Once one player approaches, the ball must be played within the boundaries of one service box (down-the-line––may include the alley).
Lobs are encouraged (overheads hit softly).

This shortcourt game is played on one half of the court, inside the service line (with or w/o the alley). It’s a volley/lob game where the point is started by first laying the ball on the net and then letting it fall to either side.
    It’s a great drill/game to improve the quickness and softness of hands, as well as to encourage proper volley technique. Singles or doubles.

Scramble shortcourt
Footwork and groundstroke shotmaking are put to the test when balls are fed randomly and, from the forecourt, the student is expected to play the ball within the service boxes. Meanwhile, I encouraged the student to play balls on the descent, on the rise, at the top of the bounce, and as half-volleys.
As they run forward for a short ball, the instructor calls out for them to chip or roll the ball with a short stroke. The subsequent shot may be fed deep in the court, for which I’ll ask for a lob.

Practice is permanent
It’s here where the instructor trains the student to develop ball- and court-sense. To encourage net clearance, I ask the student to immediately pick up each netted ball. Targets are placed well inside the sidelines.
    I don’t want the student to think that it’s enough just to hit a lot of balls––that any practice makes perfect. I want him to understand that practice is permanent––that THE BALL MUST GO IN.

Don’t follow through
Many shots require little or no follow-through. Digging out drop shots, some half-volleys, returns and lobs, and most volleys require an abbreviated backswing and a half-stroke.
    Taking pace off the ball is a subject that is always addressed.