By Stewart Russell, Partner, Universal Tennis Management
It’s important for us as coaches to clearly define the strike zone immediately after the technical foundation of ground strokes have been developed. After students have established the ability to play “live ball,” we need to allow them to grasp the idea that each stroke has a purpose and can be hit with a multitude of heights, thus defining their personal “strike zone.”
By definition, a zone is an area having a particular characteristic, purpose, or use, or subject to particular restrictions. In this sport, the strike zone refers to the area ranging between the knees to one’s shoulders.
The tennis strike zone is like that of a baseball strike zone. We need students to understand that, by hitting the ball from different heights, they can generate different types of shots and have a different purpose behind each stroke, depending on their strike zone. Ted Williams (arguably the best hitter in baseball history) had a different purpose behind hitting a pitch that was thrown somewhere other than his personal strike zone. Could we be doing students a disservice by continually feeding them balls that bounce up to their waist? I would agree that a waist-high ball could be considered the optimum strike point, but please have students understand that this is NOT their strike zone. Rather, ask yourself: How many balls do you feed (when in a controlled environment/private lessons) that bounce at different heights to the student? Reason being, transitioning to live ball can influence students to think that their strike zone depends on how the opponent’s ball arrives to them.
The strike zone stays a strike zone, no matter the incoming ball. Could students begin to understand the ability to flatten out a groundstroke when they begin to grasp the leverage on the height over the net that they gain when attempting it around shoulder level? (Think about Juan Martin del Potro.). Could students begin to understand the ability to add more topspin when attempting to hit balls from below the height of the net and knee level or below? (Think of Rafael Nadal.). We tend to use terms like “take the ball on the rise,” “take the ball early to take time away from your opponent,” “Don’t let the ball drop too low.” Let’s make sure we clearly define the “area” and “purpose” that one should have when attempting to hit balls from the range between their knees and shoulder.
Fun facts: Ask a student to visually show you their strike zone and I would bet nine out of 10 would point to a spot at or around their waist level. It’s not a strike point; it’s a strike zone; please make them aware that it’s OK to hit balls from anywhere in this area.
Pro-fed slice and topspin balls are a great way to mix up incoming shots, and a much better way to bridge any gaps that may arise if students are becoming acclimated/dependent on their opponents to dictate the variety in their games. Each student’s personal strike zone may vary based on factors like size, strength, footwork, and ball recognition skills. Pre-planning on what shot you can hit that can lead you to hit the next stroke in your personal strike/ “happy” zone is a strategy that needs to be reinforced more in high-level players.