The two secrets of timing

Of all the things I’ll point out during the course of a day of tennis instruction, late swings rank right at the top. These late swings happen for a variety of reasons: your preparation is lax, your mind’s focused on some mechanical aspect of the stroke you’re hitting, you’re distracted by your opponent or the part of the court you want to hit to, or you simply misread the variables of the approaching ball.

These things can happen to anyone and at any level of play. But they are avoidable to a great extent. There are two things that I promote to develop better timing and all the beneficial things that come with it. These two factors work together. The first is the way you watch the ball. The second is a little formula I’ve developed that ensures hitting the ball on the rise.

What are the two keys to great timing?

Like pretty much anything else in tennis, when it comes to truly incorporating these elements into your game, be prepared for loads of disciplined, patient practice. If you put the work in, the prospects for a substantial improvement in your groundstroke timing are very good.

Roger showing how to watch the ball “like Roger.”

Undoubtedly, the most common words you hear on the tennis court are “watch the ball,” whether in the form of your own reprimand or just good instructional advice from someone else. Most of us do what I call “sort of watch the ball.” That is, we see it well enough to make decent contact with it a fair amount of the time. Then there’s what I call, “watching it like Roger.”

By now, unless you’re totally new to the game, you’ve seen the amazing Roger Federer and his uncanny ability to keep his eye on the ball. This is so pronounced that even after it’s left his racket he’s still focused on the spot where it was struck.

He does this better than any of his peers and I would argue that he’s the only one who does it on virtually every shot. I would also argue that it’s one of the reasons why Roger is so phenomenal. Roger actually turns his head noticeably further to the side than any other player as John Yandell addresses in his article on the Federer forehand (which subscribers can find at Tennisplayer.net). That’s probably not possible for the average player, and I’ll put myself in the same category.

But one thing every player can do is establish a still head position prior to the hit, and keep it there.

When you see the ball that well you’re simply going to hit it better. He says this ability just came naturally to him which is another reason to believe that this guy’s from another planet when it comes to playing tennis.

Establishing and maintaining the head position–before and after contact.

Certainly for the average player consistently keeping your eye on the ball until it’s off the racket is a sporadic proposition at best. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article there are plenty of potential distractions and hey, as a rule, we just tend to have short attention spans.

I’ve always told players to watch the ball off the other player’s racket, actually see the ball bounce and then watch it until they hear it hit their strings. I still think this is good advice.

But now I have them take it a step further in order to maintain that still head position longer. I do this by having them count to 2 after the ball is gone before they remove their eyes from the spot where the ball was hit. The “2 count” should be fairly rapid (boom-boom) but there’s actually plenty of time to then see where the ball has gone.

Note in the example that I’ve established a head position that is closer to a 45 degree angle, versus Roger who’s head is, amazingly, almost completely sideways. But the point is that this position is established before the hit and maintained for the two count afterwards.

Hit the ball exactly where you want by holding the head position and visualizing the placement.

To learn this, it’s essential to start in a controlled situation starting with slower balls, and most importantly, hitting just one ball at a time. There is no intent other than to focus on prolonged ball watching–no thoughts about winning points or even rallying. As you master this you’ll be stunned by the improved quality of your contact.

From there you can progress to balls with a variety of differences including more speed, spins, depths etc. but still only hit only one ball at a time. I can’s stress this enough to really hammer the point home.

Now go to two balls. Eventually, you build up the number of consecutive balls hit, but always practicing the “2 count.” You have to be relentless and disciplined. Hopefully, you have a partner who’s willing to feed you balls but in lieu of that, a ball machine on which you can set realistic intervals or even a backboard will work fine.

Great timing: watching the ball plus hitting on the rise.

The next phase involves hitting the ball to a spot on the court, typically crosscourt or down the line. Choose the placement with your mind’s eye but don’t look to see if it went there until after the “2 count.” This is where you will really get excited. Why? Because you will find that the placement you choose is exactly where you’re hitting the ball.

The crosscourt shots that used to land short are now deeper. The down the line forehand that used to land in the alley is now well inside the line. Your passing shots have more accuracy, and so on. By trusting your mind’s eye and watching the ball until after it’s gone you’ve eliminated , many external factors that create errors.

Great Timing

As important as watching the ball in this way is, it won’t, in and of itself, guarantee great timing. You need to combine it with hitting the ball on the rise.

To hit on the rise, the coiling is complete just before the bounce.

To me hitting on the rise means you make contact somewhere between the bounce and the apex of that bounce. Hitting the ball on the rise with good timing means sharper, more aggressive tennis.

To virtually guarantee this kind of ball striking, I’ve developed a two-step process. This is the process of first coiling, then second, uncoiling. But the timing of these two steps is as critical or more crtical than the steps themselves.

Coiling is a term that describes the preparation phase of your forehand or backhand. This the unit turn which is initiated with the feet and the torso. As the ball leaves the racket on the other side of the net you “coil.” The coil is completed just before the ball bounces.

The uncoiling starts at the moment the ball bounces. This is the completion of the backswing and the forward swing in a combined fluid motion. To summarize, you coil pre-bounce and uncoil at the moment of the bounce.

The uncoiling should start as the ball comes up off the court.

Before you can do this effectively hitting the ball, it is important to learn to model them in your swing. Many players get impatient when asked to do these forms of “shadow tennis.” That’s a big mistake. Once you master the feeling of coiling and then uncoiling on both sides, you have taken a big step toward building your confidence. Again without this, hitting hundreds and even thousands of balls can end up being a futile exercise.

How often have you set up to hit a groundstroke thinking you have plenty of time to make a full, relaxed swing and suddenly the ball’s on top of you? The answer to that question is, “More times than I care to mention!”

I’ve always marveled at how sneaky that interval between the ball bouncing and when you actually hit it is. So many players get trapped by it. What appears to be plenty of time is gone before you know it and when you should be uncoiling you’re still in the coiling phase. The next thing you are in a mad dash to make up for lost time, and your shot gets misdirected.

Coiling just before the ball hits the court–and the uncoiling and early timing that follows.

The solution is all about “pre-bounce” and “moment of the bounce.” You want to build your swing around those two moments. Then you want to combine them with the ball watching described above. The result will be a dramatic improvement in your timing.

When you hit the ball on the rise the benefits are many. First off I think you’ll find that you’re sharper and more immersed in each point based on that singular focus of shaping your swing around the flight of the ball that you’re now watching, relatively speaking, much longer. Minimizing distractions, of which there can be many while playing a tennis match, is always a good thing.

You also neutralize the potential impact of a heavy high bouncing ball which can easily get on top of any player. You can take a high arching topspin shot at waist level instead of above your shoulder and actually turn a defensive situation into an offensive one.

All that energy and pace your opponent had in mind for you is actually intercepted and redirected back at him when you take the ball on the rise. It’s amazing how much pace can be generated in this way and it brings to mind a cautionary note: for control, use topspin and don’t get carried away with huge, maniacal swings. You don’t need them, and the bigger your swing the greater the possibility of something going wrong.

When you take the ball on the rise you’ll generally find you play up closer to the baseline and going forward much more. This takes time away from your opponent. That is invaluable! It also increases your ability to create angles.

Hitting on rise neturalizes a heavy ball and takes time from the opponent.

I have a great friend I play quite often who’s a highly ranked senior open player. We’ve played hundreds of times and our matches are always knock down drag out affairs. His game is based on tremendous consistency, great foot speed and pinpoint accuracy. I used to think I could simply overpower him. He knew this too and so he would throw many balls at me that enticed me to try, knowing full well eventually I’d start making errors.

The problem was I wasn’t taking enough balls on the rise and therefore playing “forced offense.” This is waiting too long to play a ball that begs you to hit the cover off of it–and then that’s exactly what you try to do. Most of the time that leads to boatloads of unforced errors. Against my friend, even if I hit a decent shot he’d track it down with his speed because he had time.

That all changed when I started to build my swings around the things mentioned above. This enabled me to move up on or even inside the baseline. Rather than trying to hit winners, I just calmly worked the two keys.

I can’t tell you how awesome it was seeing my buddy racing around the court pressed for time. He started to go for shots he would never hit otherwise because he could feel the pressure and the fact that he was now being rushed.

My friend is not a “pusher” per se. But if you play someone who basically gives you no pace to work with, hitting the ball and stepping up into the court is one of the only ways to make this type of opponent feel rushed. In this way you avoid that trap of playing their kind of game.

Taking the ball early and around the baseline takes time from the opponent.

When you play big hitters, hitting the ball on the rise is a must. If you don’t, you’re definitely going to be late. Speaking of big hitters, hitting on the rise is a given at the pro level. The balls are constantly traveling at a very high rate of speed and their swings have become acclimated to it. They feed off of each other’s pace. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to do but be careful to realize it’s not about overt blasting of the ball. The one ball out of 50 that goes in isn’t worth it. What is worth it is a disciplined, progressive practice regimen of the things that will eventually help you hit balls like the pros.

I want to emphasize that this change in your game won’t happen overnight. The transition from practicing the “2 count” and building swings around whether the ball had bounced or not during drill sessions to match play will take time but you’ll love the results. Eventually, you’ll be quick to realize when you let the ball get too far back on you and that realization will help you refocus. Every time you take the court set the “on the rise” precedent from the first ball you hit so when the actual points begin you’re more likely to be focused on what will allow you to better time your swings.

Have fun and good luck!