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Net play: revisiting the volley
Sadly, the refinement and deployment of the volley is greatly neglected.
Published Jun 15, 2021
Seven years ago at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Roger Federer practiced with his coach, Stefan Edberg. A fan turned to me and asked if Edberg, one of the greatest volleyers in tennis history, was going to have Federer come to net more.
My response: I’ve never heard a coach tell a player to come to net less. Which begs the question: WHY
Across decades, through stylistic shifts, changes in technique, the ascent of slower court surfaces and upgrades in equipment, the volley remains highly effective—especially once a match reaches its critical closing stages. As the legendary strategist Pancho Segura once asked, “When you’re under pressure, what would you rather hit, a three-foot volley or a 25- foot passing shot?”
Sadly, though, the refinement and deployment of the volley is greatly neglected.
The problem begins at the most basic level, with how a player holds the racquet and goes about building a playing style. Nearly 50 years ago, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg established a stylistic template that has become a prevailing norm: a baseline-based game fueled by a two-handed backhand and, inspired by the Swede, a topspin forehand. The grips required to execute these shots—two hands on the backhand, an increasing use of the semi-Western on the forehand—represent a distinct distance along the racquet handle from the more volley-friendly Eastern and Continental grips that were once commonplace.
America’s mass instructional culture plays a role in this too. Juniors play fewer practice sets than they used to, often opting for workouts at academies that favor baseline drills and repetition over variety. Among adults, the doubles strategy clinic is quite popular—a foursome in simulated match play, the instructor offering more tactical than technical input.
Be it with juniors or adults, these environments make it difficult to provide the kind of insight required to grasp the nuances of the volley.
“There’s no stopping in a clinic,” says Peter Freeman, a USPTA Elite Professional and creator of Crunch-time Coaching. “The job of the instructor is to keep things going.”
Then there’s private instruction. Once a junior begins to compete, short-term results, often earned by baseline play and east-west court movement, become far more important than a long-term approach to building the broadest possible arsenal to help one dart around the entire court.
“Parents are putting too much pressure on coaches to see results,” says Brent Abel, who runs the instructional site webtennis.com. “And the easiest way to get results is to hit another mind-numbing, windshield-wiper forehand.”
Adults who take lessons are frequently keen to learn the so-called “modern game” and indulge themselves in also pursuing big topspin— even if they lack the strength or coordination required to generate the necessary racquet-head speed.
“You see people trying to emulate the topspin of the pros, and they end up with a pretty soft ball that barely clears the service line,” says Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest volleyers of all time.
So what is to be done? Is there hope for the volley?
The first step is to understand the volley’s strategic value: to apply pressure. “It wasn’t that Edberg hit winners so much as he kept making me hit passing shots,” says one of his longstanding rivals, Mats Wilander.
When even someone as good at threading the needle as Wilander says that, the case for considered net-rushing grows.
It helps to recognize that the volley is not a monolithic shot. There’s the approach volley, the low volley, the wide volley, the close volley, the swing volley, the drop volley, the high volley, the lunge volley.
“A big myth is that the volley always has to end the point,” says Tina Samara, owner and founder of Transition Coach 4 Athletes.
For example, an approach volley— hit often behind the service line—requires more use of gross motor skills and the ability to move through the ball. Same for the high volley, a shot that often appears simple but can be difficult due to sloppy footwork. The swing volley, another gross motor-fueled shot, is more akin to hitting a groundstroke in the air, and can even be hit with topspin. In contrast, a drop volley calls for delicate fine motor deployment; that is, a relaxed body and a softer hold on the grip. And then there’s the low volley. For this shot, some instructors emphasize bending the knees. Others cite the value of dropping the racquet head.
No matter what kind of volley you hit, its foundation must be good balance and posture.
“For a long time there was a lot of bad language about the volley,” says Lynne Rolley, a former USTA coach now teaching in California. “Terms like ‘hit it out in the front’ and ‘reach for it’ and even ‘punch’ got people out of sync, flailing and falling. The imagery should be as if you had a glass of water on your head.”
The problem with merely ‘punching’ the volley is that the student tends to face the net.
“When you stand there like that you have no leverage,” says Hall of Famer Nick Bollettieri. “You end up slapping at the ball. You’ve got to learn to turn, just like on the groundstrokes.”
Many players stand much too close to the net when volleying, minimizing use of the most underrated aspect of a forceful volley: the lower body.
“People like to talk about the hands,” says Bollettieri, “but the feet and legs really make you a good volleyer.”
According to Emma Doyle, a high-performance coach with Tennis Australia, “Instead of the punch, it’s better to think about the back foot push and how to truly generate pace on the ball.”
With that in mind, it’s best to practice volleys much closer to the service line.
“Practice your volley from all parts of the court,” says Navratilova. “Sometimes a bit behind the service line, or a little in front of it, or really close so you can work on those volleys too. This shot is very much about movement.”
Another way to aid volley skills is to see the court differently. While it’s long been conventional wisdom that any ball landing inside the service line is a net-rushing opportunity, many that land a foot or two just behind it also signal a green light to charge forward.
“Play a set where you have to serve and volley on every serve,” advises Bollettieri. Navratilova recommends players learn to serve and volley on every serve in doubles—or at least come in one or two shots later.
“Sure, you’ll get passed a few times when you come to net,” reminds Abel, “But over the long haul, if you can continue to force your opponent to hit difficult passing shots, the percentages will favor the net-rusher.”
Indeed, for all the apparent haste that accompanies the decision to volley, coming to net frequently is a form of long-term investment that, if learned properly, can yield great dividends.