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Building Blocks to Success: Tracy Austin helps your game
Without proper balance and an effective unit turn, your shots won’t be at their best. Here’s how to improve them both—and see the payoff.
Published Mar 09, 2022
WATCH: What made Chris Evert such a special player? Tracy Austin explains one of the great's underrated qualities.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to be on the court with thousands of recreational tennis players. It’s fantastic to witness the passion many have for learning and improvement.
In this piece, I’ll provide you with insights on two tennis building blocks: balance and the unit turn. Without good balance and an effective unit turn, the foundation of a shot is compromised right from the start. Because the vast majority of recreational players struggle with these fundamentals, their path to improvement is often erratic and frustrating. But if you work hard to master them both, the quality of your game will take a major leap forward.
As a practical example of applying the principles of balance and the unit turn, I’m also going to help you refine your volley—a shot that should be simple, but often becomes unnecessarily complicated.
Balance: Be Right from the Start
Everyone agrees that it’s important to balance work and play, body and mind, healthy foods and the occasional treat. Yet while recreational tennis players love to talk about what happens when the racquet makes contact with the ball, they often overlook the importance of balance in executing a swing that’s smooth and sustainable.
In order to ensure hitting a shot with proper balance, everything starts with a good split step—a small hop, flexing the knees and separating your feet just before the opponent hits the ball. Without an effective split step, the entire stroke will become unstable.
The idea is to keep your body aligned. You’re not standing perfectly straight as if you were on a street corner, waiting for a bus. Instead, imagine yourself like a shortstop in baseball, or a guard in basketball: you want to take an athletic position, the feet spread at shoulder width, knees slightly bent, weight on the balls of your feet, hands relaxed, arms comfortably in front of your body.
When you’re properly balanced, you’ll be able to track the incoming ball. This is the first step on the path towards organizing your body so that you can attain proper spacing from the point of contact, transfer your weight effectively, and make that smooth swing everyone craves.
In contrast, an off-balance player will arrive too close or too far from the ball, and be forced to employ last-second manipulations of the forearm and the wrist. Though those improvisational techniques that rely on fine motor skills might help you compensate, they are hardly effective and reliable. It’s much better to rely on bigger muscle groups such as the legs, the core, and the torso. And balance is where it all begins.
My coach, Robert Lansdorp, had a simple drill to determine the state of a player’s balance: After you hit the ball, he’d say “freeze.” Then you’d instantly see if you were leaning too far forward, backwards or sideways.
Great balance is the reason why world-class players can repeatedly hit ball after ball so efficiently and make it look easy. For a great example, look at Novak Djokovic. It’s as if he has a phone book on his head. Even when Djokovic is stretched, he maintains exquisite balance. Note how his base remains stable, not lopsided or wobbly. And even his head stays in a still, quiet position.
A good way to practice balance is to slowly hit against a backboard. The benefit of the backboard is that it challenges you to work rigorously on your footwork and, in the process, create the proper spacing required for a clean swing path, so that the ball keeps coming back to you.
Unit Turn: Coil the Entire Body
Hitting the tennis ball well requires a build-up of energy. The way this happens is to master a proper unit turn. I’m not just talking about a slight pivot. Instead, think of the unit turn as a coiling—a thorough rotation of your entire body.
In recent years, the concept of the open stance has misled people to think that they can simply face the net, bring the racquet back and whip around the ball. But when that happens, only the arm does the work. The result is a shot that’s not very powerful or reliable—and even a potential source of injury.
The unit turn is what lets you load, store and deploy energy so that you can maximize the kinetic chain. This starts from the ground with the feet, on up to the legs, hips, torso, and shoulders.
One vital but often neglected component of an effective unit turn is the non-racquet hand. Often, I see recreational players leaving that hand separated, dangling and drooping far away from the hitting hand. It therefore becomes an anchor, tilting a player off-balance and greatly reducing the possibility of building as much energy as possible through the takeback and forward swing.
A better approach is to think of the non-racquet hand as the launchpad for making a solid unit turn. You want your non-racquet hand to work in sync with your hitting hand. Watch Serena Williams’ left hand as she gets ready to hit a forehand. It’s as if she’s rotating on an axis—a coiled spring, armed, loaded and, soon enough, properly in place to efficiently arrive at the contact point and swing through the ball with tremendous power.
But when you practice your unit turn, don’t concern yourself with how hard you’re hitting the ball. Instead, focus on good technique, control and repetition. Besides the tennis court and the backboard, you can refine your unit turn at home. If possible, practice it in front of a mirror. Begin with a simple concept: Using your non-racquet hand to help you make that turn. As time goes on, you can start to address the four tennis power sources: shoulders, hips, legs and racquet-head speed.
The Volley: Keep it Simple
The volley might well be the shot that’s easiest to improve of all. While groundstrokes have a longer swing path, the volley is a simpler stroke, with fewer moving parts.
As a starting point, don’t practice your volley too close to the net. This is not a realistic place you’ll be hitting volleys from in competition—and you’ll never learn how to use your entire body. Good volleyers don’t just rely on their hands. Instead, they build sound technique by using their legs properly.
A good way to do this is to practice your volleys no closer than halfway between the service line and the net—or even just a foot or two behind that location. You’ll learn how to deploy your unit turn, sink and load with your legs, stay balanced, and use your entire body to generate the crisp bite on the ball—which makes a great volley.
Even though the ball is coming to you sooner when you’re at the net, you still must work to attain sound balance and make a solid unit turn. If you’re a right-hander hitting a forehand volley, use the left hand to help guide your turn. At the most, take your racquet back no further than a little behind your right shoulder. As you turn, you should be able to see the racquet the entire time.
Keep your hitting elbow tucked in near your body, and then move through the ball with the bottom edge of the racquet ever-so-slightly beveled—you want a slightly open racquet face. Keep your wrist firm. Eager as you might be to generate power, don’t make the mistake of taking a big swing and finishing down near your left ankle. Instead, finish near the waist—no matter if it’s a high volley, one just above your waist, or a low one.
A good volley is concise, the body stable throughout the entire swing path. And make no mistake, it’s still a swing, not just a punch. You’re not merely reacting to the ball, but instead looking to control your body and the racquet face—and, to the extent possible, make a good decision about where you’re going to direct the ball, and how much pace you can attempt to generate.
Here too, the backboard can be your friend. Start slow and see how well you can control the volley to get the ball back to you every time. At first, you’ll see that it’s challenging to hit three straight volleys against the wall from a properly balanced position. But as you work on this, your proficiency will improve. And so will your game.