“Pat Cash is such a beautiful volleyer. If he gets his hands on anything at the net, then it seems the point’s over.”
– Former world No. 1 Jim Courier
Spencer Gore, a well-to-do businessman and avid cricketer, won the inaugural Wimbledon in 1877 by boldly rushing the net and volleying. Some thought this effective tactic so unsporting they tried to ban it. Fortunately, better judgment prevailed. Ever since, the volley has proved a major stroke in the arsenal of attacking players.
Nothing is more satisfying and fun in tennis than setting up a point and finishing off your opponent with a decisive volley. This century Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Justine Henin have exemplified that with groundstrokes and volleys. And before them, Roy Emerson, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, and Stefan Edberg served and volleyed artfully.
These champions have thrilled us with lunging and leaping volleys that shoot like a laser or float like a feather—directed diabolically so that their foes cannot reach them. How do they volley so skillfully against world-class passing shots and serve returns?
I asked 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, now a renowned coach, host of CNN’s tennis show Open Court, TV analyst for Eurosport,BBC, and Fox Sports Australia, and tennis columnist for The Times (UK). He explained the fundamentals and fine points of the most exciting shot in tennis.
Whether you’re a tournament competitor, a social player, or an avid spectator, Cash’s volley expertise will help you enjoy the sport more.
What do all the great volleyers in tennis history have in common?
All the best volleyers in the world have been great athletes. If you look back to Margaret Court, Rod Laver, and John McEnroe, and more recently, to Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter, and Roger Federer, they are all extremely quick. They are able to get to the ball early and balanced, and more importantly, get back into position for the next volley or overhead. Laver has often said that great volleys require excellent footwork and the ability to get into position quickly. He believes he became a great volleyer around the time he worked extra hard on his speed, agility, and strength.
Why is the Continental grip the best grip for volleying?
It’s the most useful grip for volleys because the net player has less time to prepare and get into position. So a ‘one grip fits all’ is handy under fire and the most practical. However, in theory, a high volley would be more efficient with a grip facing down to the court much like you would have if you hit a high groundstroke.
The reverse can be said for the low volley where a move to open the racket face with a grip change would work. It’s the same as using the angle of the golf club face which does the work for the golfer. For example, an open-faced sand wedge to chip high over a bunker would be similar to a low volley over the high net with an open-faced grip change.
Making a grip change and keeping the same arm and wrist movement through the ball prevents risky wrist movements. We see that problem so often with amateurs or juniors, especially on the forehand when they use a grip edging to the forehand side.
What volley grip do you use?
I use a variety of grips when I have enough time. When I need to hit a sharply angled crosscourt forehand volley, I open the racket face, using a grip more toward the backhand. That helps me get a lot of cut around the side of the ball.
Using the same grip for all volleys is one of those coaching myths that have been around for decades. For a low or high groundstroke, it makes sense to change your volley grip when it’s appropriate. This grip change is also very easy to learn. It’s usually not recommended because of the very short reaction time you have at the net, but it’s biomechanically sounder.
Drive (swing) volleys are the new normal for some players, especially girls and women. Should they keep their forehand or backhand grip for drive volleys following a groundstroke approach shot, or switch it to the Continental grip?
This is a classic case where keeping your groundstroke grip works perfectly when you’re approaching the net. Of course, it depends on the height of the ball, but the drive volley is typically hit shoulder height or above the shoulder. I see no need to switch to the Continental grip until after the drive volley is hit and you take your position at the net.
Doug MacCurdy, the respected International Tennis Federation clinician, said, “With light equipment of today, you can learn to volley when you are seven years old.” Considering that better athletes and lesser athletes have different abilities, what is the best age or age range for each of these two groups to start learning the volley?
In tennis, we have to learn all the skills for every shot, and this is why tennis is the toughest sport to master in the world. The earlier we can start learning all the techniques, the better. It doesn’t mean we have to play for hours on end at the age of seven or eight. But because the volley is one of the easiest things to learn technically, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be the first shot to learn—rather than an afterthought, as it is so often these days.
In fact, the most basic and simple hand-eye coordination, throwing and catching a ball to children, is almost a volley technique in itself. You and your young students can bond together, and you can improve their athleticism by spending 10 minutes every day just playing catch.
Should all children under eight years old learn the volley on downsized courts with foam balls, or can more athletic children get started with regulation courts and balls?
The foam balls were introduced so children could play without the ball bouncing over their head. Of course, with the volley, the ball doesn’t bounce. That’s a perfect reason why the volley could be the first shot to learn. Regulation balls are a little heavy for little hands, but stronger children should be able to hit volleys with standard balls. Downsized courts are especially good for kids to develop confidence at the net.
MacCurdy asserted that 11 to 14 years old is the critical age period to learn and master the volley in order to develop a comfort level at net, and a confidence that will last for the rest of young players’ lives. Do you agree?
Juniors find it very hard to win at the net when they are small. Every opponent these days has a powerful racket with strings that can produce topspin like the pros, so naturally, they are reluctant to come to the net against that. Whether you are going to be a champion or just a good social player playing some doubles with friends, the volley is a crucial shot to learn.
Last summer I had a chat with the great Roy Emerson. He believes if you haven’t learned to volley by the time you’re 15, you will never develop the skill to truly master the net. I think that is true for the vast majority of players, though an exception to the rule is Nadal. He was able to develop good technique and a very good volley during his pro career. However, most pros develop the volley too late, and inevitably, it’s their weakest link. That happened to Djokovic, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Theim, Berdych—the list goes on. Even though most have pretty good technique, they still tend to miss too often at the net. That’s because they bypassed an early focus on volley and net development in favor of the baseline game.
According to MacCurdy, junior players and their coaches often give short-term results a higher priority than long-term development. Specifically, he said 80% of practice time is typically devoted to groundstrokes with just 10% on the serve, 5% on the serve return, and 5% on the volley. He contends that juniors should work on serve returns and volleys 50% of the time. What percentages do you recommend for the volley?
Very much depends on your style of play. All the shots need to be worked at with more time devoted to the weaker parts. I believe every child needs to be assessed for the parts of the game they need to improve on, and the percentage of time they need to spend on these weaknesses.
But there is no doubt that the volley is largely neglected on the practice court. When I interviewed Pete Sampras recently, he emphasized the need for juniors and coaches to look longer term so they can become world-class players. Pete recalled that his coach made him practice volleys even when he didn’t want to.
Most pros on the circuit—but not the doubles players—spend very little time practicing at the net compared to the groundstrokes, serves, and serve returns. Those practice patterns reflect the type of style they play. Some serve and volleyers like Radek Stepanek and Feliciano Lopez practice a lot at the net. But even Murray, who doesn’t venture to the net much, still practices net play plenty. Generally, very few top 100 singles players use the net successfully, especially among the women who neglect net practice even more.
Do even superstars have flaws in their volleys?
Serena’s volley is the one shot that has prevented her from having even more domination. When she comes up against the top defenders, she is forced to finish the point off with a ground stroke where a good volley would work better. Serena has her head too high above the racket and uses too much wrist on her forehand volley. At times she loses complete confidence in her net play. A dedicated focus on improving her volleys for six months would work wonders for Serena and keep her in the game longer. Margaret Court, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf were much better volleyers, as is Martina Hingis.
Federer’s volley technique is slightly flawed. He tends to cut down too sharply and at times almost chops at the ball like a karate blow on the backhand. Federer also tends to lose the left arm behind him on the forehand which tends to introduce the wrist more than it should. Sampras was also slightly choppy on the backhand volley, though not as pronounced as Federer’s. But their ability to get themselves in the correct position very quickly pays off.
Should the traditional volley have a backswing against fast passing shots?
Against a fast passing shot, there is no time to take a full backswing. Do nothing much more than put your racket on to the ball unless you play a high level of tennis. Attempt to give the ball the full racket face without trying to move the head of the racket. This is where a strong forearm and wrist are most advantageous. Here is a rule of thumb: the less time you have to volley the oncoming ball, the shorter the distance your racket moves forward. For the average or typical volley, the racket travels forward about a foot.
Is equating, or using, a boxer's jab for the forward path of the volley swing the best analogy, or is catching a thrown ball with the palm of your hand?
I have never understood why coaches use the analogy of the boxer’s jab or punch to teach the volley. This is a completely wrong technique for the volley because a punch or a jab requires elbow bend where the volley requires very little to no bend or flexion of the elbow. Most coaches have focused on the wrong area because the volley movement comes from the shoulder.
The movement for the forehand volley is more like in the old Western movies when the bartender slides a beer down the counter so smoothly that not only drop is spilled. The backhand volley is really like throwing a Frisbee. There is some elbow bend from time to time, but it is insignificant overall. The arm is in a stronger position when slightly bent at contact on all shots in tennis. The only time you would use a straight arm is when you are on the full stretch. Of course, there are always exceptions. Roger Federer and Fernando Verdasco always contact the ball on the forehand with a straight arm. Rafael Nadal, who improvises a lot, has a straight arm sometimes, like them but a bent arm other times. Federer is the only really successful player I have ever witnessed with a straight arm all the time.
How does the height of the volley serve as a variable for the angle that the racket face is beveled?
When you volley above shoulder height, there is no, or almost no, tilt to the racket face. Below shoulder height, the tilt increases slightly and gradually, the lower the ball is. And below waist height, the tilt continues to increase slightly and gradually, the lower the ball is. There is another variable for very low volleys. The closer to the net you are, the more you must tilt the racket face so the ball can rise up enough to clear the net.
The racket tilt is obviously a matter-of-degree learning process. For example, on low volleys, if you tilt the racket face too much, the ball will pop up too high and with too much underspin. On the other hand, if you don’t tilt the racket face enough, it will go into the net. Through trial and error, you will fine tune your low volleys.
How does the height of the volley serve as a variable for the angle of the racket shaft?
For the highest volleys that are hit conventionally, the racket shaft is vertical. At shoulder height, the racket shaft is about a 45-degree angle. And at waist height, the racket shaft is horizontal or parallel to the court. Below waist height, the racket shaft stays parallel to the court as much as possible while the knees bend more or less depending on how low the oncoming ball and contact point are.
When is dropping the racket head acceptable?
You don’t need to drop the racket head at all on low volleys above knee height. Instead, a player should bend his knees significantly when hitting low volleys. The first reason is you have better balance with a lower center of gravity. The second reason is visual. You see the ball better when your eyes are lower and closer to the line of flight of the oncoming ball.
What is the angle of the racket shaft on volleys below knee height?
You have to drop or lower the racket head sometimes, especially to volley very fast, dipping, low passing shots that even the social player sees more often these days. You just don’t have the time to get your body down all the way and then recover in time for the next volley. I have also found that dropping the racket head works well with half volleys.
Where is the contact point for power volleys? For drop volleys?
Both types of volleys should be at about the same contact point. The forehand volley is usually contacted later [not as far in front of the body] than the backhand volley. One reason is that a player’s shoulder is in a naturally strong position with the body behind the arm. Remember the angle of the body is usually leaning forward and down because almost all volleys require slice. The arm on the volley, like the ground strokes, should be positioned not too far away from the body. For most people, the backhand volley contact is about 30–45 cm (12-18 inches) in front and the forehand volley 20–35 cm (8-14 inches). The distance should approximate the handshaking position. If you get too close to or far from someone, you cannot shake hands properly.
When you volley, if the ball is too close to the body, you cannot swing cleanly through the shot. If it’s too far away, you are over-stretching. Over-stretching would make a touch shot or drop volley very difficult. Therefore, your elbow should be 15–30 cm (6-12 inches) away from your body to enable the shoulder and arm to swing freely but still have control or to shake hands properly. And like for ground strokes, a player should always attempt to hit the ball at the same distance from the body as much as possible. This will develop confidence and consistency of the swing. Mastering this alignment can be very difficult. It requires excellent quickness and hand-eye coordination.
When your racket contacts the ball, should the elbow be slightly bent on the forehand volley and not bent at all on the backhand volley?
Ideally, it should be slightly bent on both forehand and backhand volleys. As we know, it is not always possible to be in the perfect position at the net. More than any other shot, the volley needs last-second adaptations. I have a very clear vision of Tony Roche hitting his famous backhand volley from almost any position, especially when it was coming way over to the forehand side of his body. He learned to adapt to any situation. The backhand volley is the better shot to hit when the ball is coming fast at your torso or legs and you can’t get your body out of the way in time.
How long should the follow-through be? Should the follow-through be longer for volleys hit near the service line?
The backswing and follow-through very much depend on what type of volley you have to hit and the speed and trajectory of the ball coming towards you. If it is fast and low, not much more than push through the ball would be sufficient. But if the ball is floating and high around the service line, a bigger backswing and follow-through are required.
On the high backhand volley, should the racket end up at the same height where the ball is contacted?
First, let’s describe the height zones. The high zone is above the shoulders. The medium zone is from the waist to the shoulders. And the low zone is below the waist. The volley follow-through is the same as groundstrokes in some respects. The highest volley, of course, is the smash, and like the serve, its follow-through is sharply downwards. The opposite is true for the very low volley, though it’s not a drastically sharp upwards movement because that will create a pop-up volley. But for most volleys between the chest and the waist, a reasonably level or parallel follow-through with some rotation of the shoulders and arm is good.
Which variables determine grip firmness for the volley? The strength of the player? The speed and spin of the oncoming ball? Or the intended shot of the volleyer?
The grip firmness at contact must be strong. Otherwise, the wrist will bend and that will produce a loss of control in the racket. We see this problem a lot with children who lack strength. A player’s arm should be relaxed most of the time until just before contact when the grip will be squeezed harder. This takes a lot of strength and endurance, and it takes many years to develop a strong wrist and forearm.
Look at old photos of players who use heavy wooden rackets to see how much their forearm is developed. Players such as Rod Laver and Guillermo Vilas were famous for their enormous forearms. Laver’s left forearm was two and a half inches bigger than his right forearm and even bigger than the forearm of heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano.
Even today’s players who volley infrequently and use lighter rackets often their two arms still have contrasting size and strength. Federer often jokes that his left arm is purely ornamental.
How firm should the grip be for the drop volley?
The only real exception is the drop volley off a firmly hit ball. With practice, most players can learn this difficult shot by softening their grip, slightly breaking their wrist, and beveling the racket face to create backspin. With this shot, no backswing or follow through is required, and the oncoming ball must be allowed to force the racket backward absorbing some shock. The speed of the ball will quickly decrease, enabling it to barely rebound off the racket and then drop short in your opponent’s court. Keep in mind that the drop volley is an advanced shot requiring a honed skill and a lot of athletic ability.
In his instruction book, Tennis 2000, distinguished teaching pro Vic Braden wrote: “The reason pros can volley so well is that they start moving as or before the ball is hit, whereas the average player waits until the ball reaches the net.” Would you please elaborate.
This is correct in many ways because the pros have excellent anticipation. The best volleyers in the world are always moving, constantly shuffling their feet backward and forward, left and right, preparing for a passing shot or a lob. As Isaac Newton said, a body in motion tends to stay in motion.
For me, the toughest workouts in tennis are at the net when your legs are burning and your forearm is aching. The aim is to always get quickly into the correct position where your knees are bent and you are able to bound in and out of position. I see very little point in a high-energy volley workout if you’re not starting just behind the service line and moving forward.
My most beneficial workout, and one that has become famous in tennis academies around the world, is when I start from one step inside the baseline moving forward as fast as I possibly can while my coach, or the other player, feeds ball anywhere in the court. My challenge is to get to that ball and stay in the rally as long as I can. I have done this for thousands of hours over my career.
When should you split step? And why is the split step so important at the net?
Split step when your opponent contacts the ball. By slowing down your forward movement toward the net, you are able to position your legs so that a diagonally left or right movement is possible. If you don’t slow down and split step, changing direction sharply is nearly impossible even for someone with thighs as strong as mine were. The secret to the split step is not to jump too wide or too high or slow down too much.
In time, with plenty of practice and fitness work, you can run 90−100% of your maximum speed forward, split step, and turn without losing your balance. But if the ball drops short, you can just continue your quick movement forward. All but a couple of players on the circuit now, in my opinion, move too slowly to the net. Before the 2015 Wimbledon, I worked with Marcos Baghdatis, and we improved his results at the net significantly just by focusing on his movement.
Who moves quickly enough?
Edberg, McEnroe, Kriek, and Jarryd were some of the quickest at the net I played against. Federer and Nadal move very quickly now. For the women, Navratilova, Graf, and Henin. Before them, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley. I remember watching them when I was a junior, and my coach pointed out their great movement.
Are crossover steps and diagonal movement the best ways to reach wide volleys?
Another great fallacy about volleys is that you have to use crossover steps for every volley. Much like for groundstrokes, how much time the volleyer has to react dictates the leg movement, especially when the ball is within arm’s length. There is no reason to use a crossover step when an oncoming ball is hit within arm’s length, such as when the returner hits the ball straight to you in doubles. Our aim is to position ourselves so that we have the strongest contact position.
Remember, we are aiming to hit the ball only slightly in front of us and slightly to our side, so why do we feel the need to lunge our legs across our body? Nothing more than a quick shuffle or half step to the side is required. I believe that up to 60% of volleys could be hit in an open or semi-open stance.
The cross-legged [crossover step] volley was used almost exclusively during an era when the ball was not hit as fast and the players had a greater chance to cut off the low volley with a lunge. Just as important, they had a little more time then to get back into position. Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall often used an open stance when rushed. For me, the best movers around the net, and superior to most tennis players, are badminton players. They use a cross-legged movement pattern only when they’re stretched very wide.
When should you use crossover steps?
The two exceptions to the rule are if the ball is very wide or very short dropping over the net. Both situations require you to lunge after the ball, and the best way to stretch the farthest distance is to bring the opposite leg across the body. This movement is time-consuming. It’s also time-consuming to move back to a neutral stance position ready for the next ball. This is why I like the open stance volley, which we see more in top-level doubles when the ball is moving at rapid speeds.
What is “the center of possible returns”? And why is positioning yourself there so vital at net?
The center of possible returns is the best place to position yourself laterally, both in the backcourt and in the forecourt. This position puts you in the center so that have an equal distance to cover for lateral shots either to your forehand or backhand side. During backcourt rallies, if your opponent is hitting the ball from his forehand corner, you re-position one to two feet to the right of the little center strip on the baseline. If he is hitting the ball from outside his forehand alley, you re-position yourself two to three feet to the right of the center strip.
When you’re positioned at the net, the theory is the same, but the practice is different. Here you move in the same direction as your opponent behind his backline. For example, if you hit an approach shot or volley into his backhand corner, you shift a foot or two to your right. That puts you in the perfect lateral position—the new center of possible returns—to have an equal distance to move to for forehand and backhand volleys.
What is the optimal distance you should be positioned from the net in singles?
The volley position needs to vary constantly. There are many variables. A position of 1 or 1.5 meters (3.3-4.9 feet) from the net is good after a decent volley on a fast court—or, in doubles, if your partner is a good server because you can be sure it will be very difficult for your opponent to execute a lob. If the volley you hit is deep and high on a slow clay court, there is more chance your opponent is going to lob, so the middle of the service box is the closest you want to position yourself. A good place to base yourself generally is in the middle of the service box. There you can move forward for put-away volleys or backward for potential lobs, depending on the quality of your previous shot. Good net play is all about attacking and finishing points off by a winner or forcing an error.
If your opponent rarely lobs, then you can take the liberty of blanketing the net?
I looked back recently at the 1987 Australian Open final when I played Edberg. Centre court in Melbourne was the fastest grass court in the world, and a strong first volley made the ball skid through viciously. I noticed how close to the net both Edberg and I got after we made the first volley. This was a good tactic because a ball coming quickly off a court is very hard to lob. Of course, if the volley wasn’t hit as well, we had to hedge our bets and refrain from taking the extra step closer to the net.
Edberg had an amazing backhand pass and a well-disguised lob, so I had to proceed with some caution when the ball went to his backhand. If I saw an opponent take a big swing, I could be very certain he was going to hit a passing shot. So I would blanket the net until I was within 1 meter (3.3 feet). I would also move close to the net if an opponent had a poor lob or was less inclined to hit the lob. Success in my career would show that I got this tactic right plenty of times.
When you play net, you need to bluff and second guess your opponent from time to time. Sometimes the bluffs work and sometimes they don’t. This game of cat and mouse was something that I really enjoyed, and I’m guessing other net-attacking players did as well.
How do you rate the three men superstars of the 20th century for their net play?
Despite the fact that Djokovic is extremely quick, he tends to find himself too far away from the net too often and is not aggressive enough in closing. One of the reasons he does not close the net enough is that for most of his career his smash has been his worst shot. Though his smash has improved, it’s still in his mind that he has to protect that shot. The opposite can be said for Federer, Nadal, and [Andy] Roddick. None are perfect volleyers, but their smashes are extraordinary.
What is the optimal position at the net in doubles?
In doubles, we see the net player extremely close when his or her partner is serving. Jamie Murray, the world No. 1 doubles player in 2016, is extremely close to the net and is susceptible to a lob. The problem for opponents is that his partner Bruno Soares serves very well, so it takes great touch to be able to hit a good lob off a powerful first serve and an accurate kicking second serve over Murray’s head. The famous Australian team of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde—nicknamed “The Woodies”—were famous for keeping their opponents off-balance and unsure which way they would move at net. They sometimes poached and sometimes faked a poach.
When you starred in the 1980s, the average player height on the ATP Tour was about 6’. Now it’s close to 6’3”. What advantages and disadvantages do tall players have at the net?
Any sport with a net is advantageous for a taller athlete. Tennis has a low net, so height is less advantageous than it is in volleyball, but height still helps with the serve, the return of serve, and reach at the net.
In my day, a tall player, in general, didn’t really move very well. Tennis was a little more explosive with shorter sprints and shorter points as much of the play was at the net. So quicker leg speed was more beneficial there.
In the 1990s, we started seeing taller, athletic players taking advantage of the net—Ivanisevic, Krajicek, Rusedski, Philippoussis, and Stich, all 6’4” or more. With greater wingspan and height for their serve, they were a perfect type of serve-volley player. Unfortunately, towards the end of their careers, slower courts and balls made the serve-and-volley style less effective.
Power, depth, and accuracy are the three main assets for serves and groundstrokes. How do these three variables apply to volleying?
Accuracy is No. 1 on this list, depth is No. 2, and power, like learning any shot, develops later. Like any shot, variety is crucial. The volley is a little bit more limited than the groundstrokes. But a player who can drop volley effectively and take the opponent out of their comfort zone will have success, especially these days where face-to-face net play is rare.
The most important volley to perfect is the first volley because it’s the lynchpin to all net play. When the first volley is hit accurately and deep to the baseline corner, this shot really sets up a dominant position for net play success.
Angle volleys can be extremely effective. When is the best time to use them?
Now more than ever, the angle volley when hit correctly is effective. With more high-bouncing courts around the world, a deep first volley, if not hit perfectly, is going to be easily picked off and hit for a winner by most players. So the alternative is the angled volley landing fairly near the net. The crosscourt volley is the easiest to start with. Hit well, it can draw the baseliner forwards laterally or diagonally out of position.
I was always taught to hit a deep volley first to push the opponent back and then finish it off with the angle. But I believe that the angled volley can be employed even as a first volley. It is much easier to do it when contacted from several feet laterally away from the center service line because that automatically creates an angle. The downside of an angle volley is that if it’s not hit accurately, it opens the court for the passing shot.
You can get a natural slice on the ball by having the racket head in an upward position in relation to the wrist. And a little tilt with the racket face can deliver the ball crosscourt. The ball needs to be aimed very closely over the net to be effective. If it’s hit too high, it naturally bounces up. The angle volley comes with a higher margin for error, but the benefits can outweigh the negatives.
Low volleys and half volleys are the most difficult volleys to hit. What are the best ways to reduce the number of low volleys and half volleys you have to hit?
To be successful, low volleys and half volleys need to be hit very closely to the top of the net. Some errors are inevitable with such risk. But if you aim to improve the accuracy of your volleys and half volleys, I suggest that at practice you weave a racket handle into the net leaving just the head of the racket popping out on top of the net. Your aim is to hit the face of the racket with your low volley or half volley.
To reduce the number of half volleys altogether, you need to get closer to the net to volley the low ball.
Excellent agility is required for playing volleys. You had terrific agility. What are the keys to achieving agility?
It took a lot of hard work on the court and off the court. I was fortunate enough in Australia to have a trainer named Dr. Ann Quinn, who was a specialist in speed and agility. She created most of the agility exercises that you see players doing on the side of the court even to this day—both on the pro tours and at tennis academies. Some of the best exercises are court line sprints, agility ball tosses, run- throughs, and jumps over ladders.
I was fortunate to be ahead of the pack with my training. Genetically, I was born with leg strength and speed, both big advantages. I had a low center of gravity that helped with quick changes of direction.
Tennis agility is different from agility in most other sports because tennis speed is not just chasing the ball down from one place to the next. It is also about getting back into position quickly. Players like Wilander, Hewitt, Federer, Murray, and Djokovic have it, and women like Navratilova, Graf, Henin, Serena, and Halep are near the best there ever were.
One cannot have agility without flexibility. Which exercises do you recommend to increase flexibility?
I have always done a lot of flexibility exercises which include Yoga, Feldenkrais, and Gyrotonics. I was one of the most flexible players on tour. I worked extremely hard on flexibility, starting from an early age.
Quick reflexes are another big asset for volleyers. How can players improve their reflexes?
One of the standard workouts that Australians made famous through Harry Hopman, the legendary Davis Cup captain, focuses on honing reflex volleys with four players at the net. Aussies also love doing two-on-one drills with one player at the net for hundreds of hours each year.
For beginners, a simple wall or backboard is an ideal way to work on technique. The quick rebound off the wall ensures that you don’t have time to take the racket back too far. Also, volleying against a wall work strengthens your legs and improves your balance. If you want to improve your hand-eye coordination and reflexes, you can even try volleying against a brick wall which produces unpredictable caroms.
I think every world-class Australian player did some volleying against a wall when growing up. Evonne Goolagong and Rod Laver mentioned it in their autobiographies. When I was sidelined from tournaments with a back injury a couple of years before I won Wimbledon, I took all the furniture out of my living room so I had a bare wall. I volleyed against it for hours. I couldn’t bend or stretch too quickly, so I set myself up in the perfect pain-free position for the volley and held it. That kept my reflexes and eyes sharp, kept my legs and arm strong, and also improved my technique. Keeping my arms in front with a slight turn of the shoulders with each hit was just perfect.
Anticipation of the speed, direction, and trajectory of the oncoming ball is vital for every shot in tennis, except the serve. What are the keys for anticipating passing shots and lobs?
Without a doubt, the most important aspect of anticipation is learning from experience. In my day, before the invention of the polyester string, the easiest way to hit passing shots was down the line. So we naturally covered that spot. Now you see players like Nadal hit heavy topspin backhands crosscourt 95% of the time, and the opponent doesn’t even cover it or can’t cover it. The same crosscourt pattern goes for Murray with his forehand. Time and time again, we see the net players flat-footed, not covering the best position to intercept crosscourt passing shots. As a TV analyst, I get exasperated watching this repeated mistake, but then again I’ve consistently moved to the correct position at net for 30 years. Most players on tour come to the net less in one year than Becker, Edberg, McEnroe, Rafter, or I did in one week. So they lack the requisite experience and confidence.
How do you develop a softer, gentler touch for handling low volleys, half volleys, and drop volleys?
Again, it’s just a matter of lots of practice and experience. For the low volley, the body needs to be very still and balanced. All the work is done with the arm and wrist, and the less you do, the better. It’s okay to drop the head of the racket a little bit on those low shots. Gripping the racket tightly or tensely hampers your feel or touch. John McEnroe exemplifies soft hands and great touch.
What advice do you have for players, especially kids, who are afraid of getting hit by the ball when they’re at net?
One of the first lessons you learn is to keep your racket out in front of your body and face. The other thing to remember is that it’s just a tennis ball. It’s not a hard baseball or a cricket ball which can really hurt you. Very rarely do top players get through a net session without someone getting hit. That’s the way it goes. And you can and will get used to it.
What racket head size, balance, weight, and length as well as string type and tension do you recommend for recreational and tournament players who volley often?
It’s all a matter of personal preference. A large racket head is an advantage in some ways, and I think volleying is the most obvious place to use that advantage. It’s hard to find a good large head racket these days. The lighter the frame, the more head-light the balance, and the shorter the length, the quicker and easier the racket is to maneuver. But some of the best players of all time, like Pete Sampras, have used a very heavy racket and heavy in the head as well. Generally speaking, you will find an evenly balanced racket is fine for both volleys and groundstrokes.
Excluding the physical skills of the player, experts say that strings are responsible for at least 50% of the quality of the shot with the racket responsible for the rest. Since the strings are so important, what string type and tension do you recommend for frequent volleyers?
In general, good volleyers tend to prefer a slightly tighter tension, but it is personal preference. I have always been a stickler for the right tension. In fact, I had more than 40 rackets strung one week in the high altitude of Johannesburg because I couldn’t get the tension right, and we had an inexperienced stringer with an old machine.
I test and adjust strings frequently, and this is what I have found. Natural gut is the best for volleys and is used by all the pros who like to come to the net regularly. Most of them use a hybrid of half natural gut and half synthetic strings, with the majority putting the natural gut in the main strings. If this is the way you would like to go, try a tension around 54-55 lbs. in the mains with gut—higher for a full gut racket—and decrease it by 4 lbs. for the synthetic cross strings.
I need a polyester that flexes somewhat. So I use a very thin polyester string, 1.12 gauge. Most standard polyesters, like Big Banger/Hurricane, are around 1.30. This enables the polyester to slide a little and flex against the gut. Feliciano Lopez does a similar thing. In fact, he suggested the very thin 1.12 to me. I was using 1.18.
All that said, we should also consider which rackets best suit the volleyer. In general, modern powerful rackets don’t suit touch shots, such as the volley. Most of the good volleyers of this era, except for Tsonga and Nadal to some extent, use a more traditional thinner [beam] racket. It suits the volley well because these rackets tend to need less power and less swing to maneuver through the air quickly.
What qualities does natural gut have that make it superior for frequent volleyers?
Natural gut has a springiness to it and creates vibration through the racket and gives you a sensitive feel into your hand. Synthetic strings dampen vibration and require some power impact on to the ball to be effective in projecting the ball. Of course, because the volley is a touch shot, and often hit with little or no swing or power, the synthetic strings give you a dead feeling. We often witness top pros miss a simple touch volley into the net because the strings did not receive enough force to make them flex.
Does hot weather affect racket strings? And if so, should you increase or decrease the string tension in extreme heat?
Gut strings flex in warm conditions, but synthetic/polyester strings don’t. This is a big issue in very hot conditions like the Australian Open and US Open. The ball goes through the air 10-25% faster in very hot conditions than it does in cool conditions. As a guideline, I suggest you tighten your strings according to that ratio.
The strings will adjust to keep the ball in the court so you won’t have to change the power of your swing. The more you jab at the ball nervously in fast conditions, the less time the ball spends on the strings, which gives you less control of your shots. In fact, generally that is the problem with modern techniques with the more powerful rackets. Instead of pushing right through the strike zone keeping the ball on the racket strings longer, players cut down or across the ball.
We live in the Information Age. Data is king. Which statistic or statistics reveal the most about how successful you are at net?
Like most stats, the tennis stats you see on the TV tend to be a little misleading. For example, “points won at net,” do not necessarily mean you win it with a volley or smash. More often than not, you just happen to win the point inside the service line with a groundstroke winner. I shake my head when I see a stat indicating 20 points were won at the net, yet the player hit only five or six volley winners in the entire match.
When astute coaches break down matches statistics, do they learn the most from volley winners, forced and unforced volley errors, passing shot winners, and passing shot errors? Please explain.
As I said before, I’m not a huge believer in stats because they tell only half of the story. The other half is the quality of the serve, the approach shot, and the opponent’s serve return or passing shot. Another consideration is whether it’s a pressure situation or not. It’s much harder to hit a passing shot or a tough volley on break point, isn’t it? The surface is important as well. It’s easier to pass on clay because the ball bounces slower and the net player’s footing is less stable.
Astute coaches watch the match first and then check to see if the stats back up their ideas. I look at what happens under pressure. That means break points or 30-30 and 40-40 situations because losing big points may indicate technique defects which tend to break down under pressure. Most people make mistakes when their confidence is low. Then they overcompensate and tend to play too safely under pressure. When they volley too cautiously, the passing shot winners stat for their opponent will be higher.
Stats can be valuable, but they have to be used judiciously.
What are the biggest differences between volleying in singles and doubles? And how does doubles volleying help your singles volleying — and vice versa.
This is an interesting subject. Playing doubles certainly helps your volleying in singles. In many situations in doubles, the volley is much harder to hit than in singles as you have a much smaller area to aim at because one opponent is directly in front of you. I believe that you need to use more short angled volleys in doubles. This is often the best way to finish a point off.
Before I play a doubles tournament, I focus on playing just one side of the court. This could be hitting crosscourt to crosscourt volleys and passing shots, or hitting up and down the line.
One of my favorite competitive doubles drills is to have one player standing just inside the baseline running forward to the net while feeding the ball to the player on the baseline. This simulates the passing shot from the returner/baseliner and also the first volley for the oncoming net player. Both scenarios are exactly what you get in a doubles match. Everything must be played in half a court. Each player can take turns starting the drill with five medium-speed forehand approaches, and you play until someone gets to 21 points.
Slower courts, heavier balls, better serve returns, bigger rackets, and topspin-producing synthetic strings have combined to make serving and volleying virtually extinct on the WTA Tour, and a dying art on the ATP Tour. That’s a tennis tragedy because serving and volleying is entertaining, and many of the greatest rivalries, such as Sampras vs. Agassi and Navratilova vs. Evert, featured contrasting styles — a serve-and-volleyer versus a baseliner. Is there any way to revive serving and volleying?
Yes. Simply put a limitation on the power and spin of strings. There is no attempt whatsoever to do this by the ITF [International Tennis Federation]. They simply don’t believe anything is wrong even though everybody knows the volley is dying. The other remedy is to speed the courts up, which is now finally happening. The Australian Open started speeding courts up a few years ago. The US Open has followed suit, and this year the courts at the ATP World Tour Finals were similarly a faster speed.
Tennis technique has evolved a lot in the past 50 years. Do you think the volley will evolve in the next 50 years? And if so, how?
I think volley technique is the only shot in the game that has become worse, in general, this century. Modern ground strokes require a lot of body movement, which is the opposite of a good volley technique. The biggest technical mistake is making too much movement with the non-hitting arm. Typically, on the forehand volley, the left arm is either not in front of the body or is pulled away too quickly during the swing with the arm ending up by the side of the hip, or even worse, behind the body.
I can’t predict what will happen in the future. But with more advances in technology and the increased use of the drive volley, we’ll see more mid-court power shots. However, as groundstrokes became more powerful this century, the drop shot also became more common to break up the power game. I would like to see volleyers use the drop volley more often to do the same thing, and perhaps with some sidespin. Alexandr Dolgopolov displays this kind of diverse shot-making.
Today, coaches and players read articles on websites and in tennis magazines. They watch videos of pro players on YouTube and on various apps. What are the best places to learn more about the volley and watch it executed correctly?
It’s strange, but there are very few places to watch excellent volleyers on the Internet. It seems that technical people are obsessed with ground strokes and serves. I like www.tennisplayer.net. I have a regular newsletter giving tennis tips and also a coaching App simplifying many shots in bite size chunks. Both can be accessed via my website, www.patcash.net .