Monday, October 6, 2014

Tennis League Team Practice. Come On!

Now, I know this is a very broad subject, considering how many recreational tennis players, teams and leagues there are throughout our country and the world, but this misnomer need be addressed.

I can't say I've experienced what takes place on every team, but I've been around the tennis league block.

I've had many prior captains say something to the effect of, "We practice on Tuesdays." or "We have practice matches on Thursday".

We all know so many league tennis teams and captains have their own agenda, methods or whatever (players aware or otherwise - I get it). Not all tennis teams and players are going to go out there and go for the jugular on every stroke or point, but please let's not call this practice, what may be, at best, a scrimmage.

Oh yes, I enjoy all the social and competitive aspects of tennis, but I've never gone out to team practice and done much more than hit with the same partner to see if we still have it or be tossed around with other players because the captain knows John or Jane can't make it to the next match. I understand this - we all have lives and no one pays us amateurs to play tennis.

But, please don't call this event practice. I know seniors who take more time preparing for a Bridge game (poker, I call it) and they will go for your jugular.

Team practice is typically nothing more than a few (6, 8, 10 players, 4 perhaps) getting together to play tennis. What good is that? Some, I'm sure.

In the day, I remember playing about six matches a week (varying levels of consequence) and one of my then league captains demanded attendance for this round-robin of tennis he chose to use as an opportunity to make the line-up for the next match. Great guy, he was, but I never had a clue who I would be partner with for doubles or even if I would take a singles court. He was more elusive than my ex-wife, who was a wonderful tennis player (and person) - undefeated in our last year playing 8.5 mixed.

So, most league team practices are not such. At best, they are scrimmages, not lending themselves toward improving the teams play and match outcomes.

But this is not the job of a league captain. Or is it? Captains are captains for a variety of reasons and abilities, many of which may not lend themselves toward running drills or giving instruction. And, because us league players are amateurs, unpaid individuals with our own lives, with our own reasons for taking to the court, we may not be so fond of such a thing. Yet there are many who can't say they don't need practice (Although they may not necessarily believe such nonsense.) and cringe at the idea. 

I love group drills, even to work on polishing just one or two bullets in my tennis holster for a half-hour or more. And, when employing a teaching tennis pro for such tasks, the cost is usually much lower than personal sessions. I've had a blast hacking through some issues with players of similar rating.

If you think back to most groups drills you've experienced, they are more situational than instructional. The teaching pro will set up a scenario whereas he or she specifies the situation, physical boundaries, positioning, opponent action, etc. Next comes the expectation - what you (and partner perhaps) are supposed to do in this situation.

Most groups I have seen, unless they have a coach (not a league captain), are not going to pull this off too well without a third, uncompromising party, such as a teaching pro. But it can be done if you have the right enthusiastic players or a partner who will go out there one on one with you and maintain the focus. Having players pay even a small amount of money to a teaching pro seems to promote a little more cooperation and attention, plus you will receive the instruction provided by a teaching tennis pro.

A friend and tennis friend of mine, and I, will occasionally grab a court with a hopper of balls and warm-up to a good pace for about fifteen minutes. Then we go into a few different drills.

These are mostly situational and we are not instructing one another, praise is in order when merited and I'm not talking about just on a nice put away shot.

Just a few examples of these drills (for two players of similar rating or ability):

1, 2, 3, Charge:
Using singles court or half of doubles court, after the third stroke (not serving) is taken, the hitting player comes to net whether or not it is advantageous and attempts to return or put away the fourth shot and continues play at net. Alternate who starts play after each point. This can get terribly exhausting for one particular player if you don't, unless you're both simply taking warm-up strokes.

This is great for working on out-of-the-blocks speed, approach shot footwork, timing and shot control at the net.

Alley Only
Using the alleys only and possibly a cone or other vertical object (a tennis bag will work) placed two feet in on the service line. Using one of the alleys, practice ground strokes from within the sidelines at or near the baseline to each other with the intent of not hitting outside the sideline or the parallel imaginary line created by the cone if used. Finish by switching to the opposite alley and performing the same - both players should have now had to use both forehand and backhand strokes. The cone is used by us because we don't want get used to aiming too close to the sideline from baseline - much more room for error - neither of us has been on the pro circuit. The same singles drill can be done for singles play by using the singles sideline and cones.

Good for working on consistency, control and quick short-step footwork/preparation.

Cross-court Come-in
Not serving, both players begin from near their baseline and must return cross-court to their opponent's back court between the alley line and the center mark. The purpose is to get consistent at hitting deeper shots. If a player hits a short ball (into their opponent's service box) he or she cannot make an approach to the net. Their opponent can approach the net and as long as they hit while standing in their own service box, they can hit anywhere in the cross-court, including the alley - the short-hitting player possibly paying more for doing so. For singles play use half of singles court, minus the alleys, obviously.

Promotes consistent deeper ground strokes and defense of net shots from your baseline. Great time to work on your top spin ground strokes.

So grab some of your more enthusiastic and focused team members, a partner or get your team a teaching pro and incorporate this into your regular team scrimmage or hold a separate team practice.

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