Bouncing Off the Walls: An ode to the backboard (and 5 practice tips)

Bouncing Off the Walls: An ode to the backboard (and 5 practice tips)

Chances are, if you’ve been itching for a tennis fix during the coronavirus shutdown, you’ve pulled out a racquet and taken up arms against one of your own walls; or, if you’re lucky, against the backboard at your local club or park.

For more on recreational tennis during this unprecedented time—including the best quarantine workout; a guide to improving your ball toss from your couch; what the pros have done to stay active; nutrition tips, advice on how to cope with COVID-19; and drills while hitting against a wall (of any size)—click here.

It’s the only opponent in tennis history that has never been beaten, but it may have taken 150 years for it to be properly respected.

I’m talking, of course, about the wall. Over the last few months, we’ve seen Roger Federer put on a hat and go toe-to-toe with one at home. We’ve seen Leander Paes use a frying pan against his. We’ve seen Sofia Kenin pound hers into submission. Chances are, if you’ve been itching for a tennis fix during the coronavirus shutdown, you’ve pulled out a racquet and taken up arms against one of your own walls; or, if you’re lucky, against the backboard at your local club or park. At least you don’t have to worry about staying six feet away from it.

But hitting against a wall shouldn’t be a last-ditch option. Even when we’re not keeping our distance from each other, a backboard is the ideal foe to face when you’re looking to improve your game. Control, form, footwork, reflexes, stamina, consistency, concentration: you’ll progress in all of these categories and more when you hit against the wall.

Fortunately, YouTube is a gold mine for ideas about putting together an effective practice session with a backboard. We’ve culled five drills from Simon Konov at Top Tennis Training, Peter Freeman at Crunch Time Tennis and Nikola Aracic at Intuitive Tennis that will help you take advantage of what a backboard has to offer. But first, a few ground rules.

—Think control, not power. If you hit too hard against a wall, you won’t be ready for its reply.
—Commit to getting each ball on one bounce.
—Play with intensity.
A backboard workout is fast-paced, and you need to be ready for its counter-barrage. Aim to work out for 30 minutes at a time.

1. Hit and Catch

Freeman recommends starting a practice with a simple but deceptively demanding drill that will help you with precision, consistency and technique.

Hit a medium-pace ball against the wall so that it comes directly back to you, and catch it; you shouldn’t have to move more than two steps to track it down. Once you can do that, try to hit two balls in a row, and catch the ball again. Continue to progress one ball at a time—three in a row, then catch; four in a row, then catch, and so on. If you’re forced to move more than two steps to get to any ball, or can’t catch it, you must start over.

“If you can do that all the way up to 10,” Freeman says, “you’re going to feel that when you play your matches, you’re controlling the ball much better.”

2. Crosscourt to Inside Out

Hitting against a wall shouldn’t be about doing the same thing over and over. It’s the perfect opportunity to create drills that target specific shots and tactics, and simulate live-match situations.

Konov recommends alternating between crosscourt and inside-out forehands. Try to hit 10 of each in a row, on one bounce. The key is to give yourself time to get to the ball and, in particular, to get all the way around for your inside-out forehand. Hit your shots high and at a medium pace, and aim for the middle of the wall.

“This is a great drill to improve your movement around your forehand,” Konov says.

That includes the backpedaling and adjustment steps needed to prepare to hit the ball inside out. If you can cover this much court against a wall, it should make it seem that much easier against an opponent back at the baseline.

3. Two-Touch Volleys

Volleying against a wall isn’t easy, because the ball comes back quickly. But that’s what makes it such a good place to practice the shot. You need to be ready for the backboard’s response right away, which will force you to keep your racquet stable, use a short swing, and aim for control rather than power.

To improve your feel around the net, Konov recommends the twotouch volley drill. Hit one volley against the wall, and then hit the next ball to yourself, by tapping it gently upwards. When it comes down, volley it into the wall, and then repeat the two-step process.

“This is a great way to develop the feel on your volleys,” Konov says, “and also to get rid of the excessive backswings. Because if I have a big backswing, the ball is going to fly on that first touch.”

4. Overheads

Overheads, against a backboard? It’s hard to imagine, but no opponent can put lobs back into the air more consistently than a wall.

“One of my all-time favorite drills is the overhead drill on the wall,” Aracic says. “If you can master this drill, you can definitely master the overhead on the court.”

Toss a ball up and hit it down into the ground in front of the wall at a medium pace. The ball will pop up like a lob and give you a chance to hit an overhead. Hit your overhead into the same area—into the ground, in front of the wall—and continue from there, as in a warm-up.

Start slowly and easily, and gradually increase the pace as you try to make 10 overheads in a row.

“Make sure the feet are moving,” Aracic says.

Just like in a match, the key to the overhead is anticipating where the ball is going to come down and getting yourself there quickly, so you have to time to set up and make adjustment steps before you swing.

5. Top Hand Drill

Players with two-handed backhands normally think of their arms as a single unit. But each has a specific job, and one is stronger than the other. Your top hand is the one that will lead the shot; it will help you pull the ball crosscourt and whip up on it for topspin. But your top hand is also your weaker, less-utilized off-hand.

How can you strengthen it? By hitting against a wall.

Hit a normal two-handed backhand. On the next ball, take your bottom hand— the right hand for righties—off the racquet and swing with your top hand only. Use the same grip you use on your backhand and make a full stroke. Continue to alternate between the two shots.

“This is a great way for you to really develop that top hand,” Konov says, “and to make you feel that it is really leading the shot—that it’s the boss on the two-handed backhand.”