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Learn the practice habits of tennis professionals

By Nick Bollettieri

Practice with Purpose

People often ask me about my philosophy toward creating champions. The truth is that champions create themselves because within their make-up they have what it takes to be champions. They have God-given athletic talent, the burning desire to win (losing is simply not in their vocabulary), and a mentor who guides their development.

My role is that of a mentor, the shaper of talent at every level. My philosophy, directed throughout the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, is that anyone with enough desire on court can be his or her best. That’s all we can do. In the end, as history has shown, this philosophy produces champions. Not everyone can be a champion. But everyone, even recreational players, can be their best. How? My suggestions have nothing to do with changing grips or altering hitting style. Instead I offer simple suggestions about how you can elevate your game to another level.

Learn to Concentrate Like the Pros

Not a day goes by at the academy that some student or coach does not ask me how to improve that key element to winning - concentration. Bjorn Borg, perhaps the foremost model of court concentration, once gave a motivation speech at the academy. On the subject of concentration Borg was very clear: "The second you step onto the court, the match begins. Every movement, every contact of the ball, every shot hit must be played with the concentration of match point." If you practice this way, you will improve immediately. You will learn the art of focusing, which in time you will translate into match play.

It’s important to remember that most players are unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes. Concentration is a learned art, and with effort, you can develop it. Borg and Chris Evert were extreme examples. They could maintain intense concentration for a match, a week, a year if necessary. Theirs was a remarkable skill but one that you can copy by raising the concentrated intensity of your practice habits.

Reduce Your Unforced Errors

Day in and day out, tennis players who play for the lines will lose, just as gamblers who defy the odds and double up when down will lose. When you practice (even when rallying back and forth), visualize target areas that allow you to move the ball while maintaining a degree of margin for placement. If you need help, mark the area of the court you know to be effective--deep in the corners and shallow angles near the service line. By practicing with targets you will improve your visualization, which you will soon be able to translate to matches.

The same can be accomplished regarding pace and the ball height. At the academy, part of our System 5 accessory package includes target markers, practice-drill cones, and an adjustable height marker. Practicing correct habits will improve your match performance. It’s possible to beat the odds only if you understand the lessons involved.

Why Can’t I Reach Every Ball?

Before starting this section, let’s bring out the single most important cause of unforced errors - technique breakdowns and lack of movement and balance on contact.

Think about what really happens when you see the ball barely drop over the net and you are standing at the back of the court. What do you do? Nothing? Having concluded that you have no chance to get the shot, you don’t even try. Right? In your next practice session, try something different. Many of the balls that you believe you cannot reach, you can. If you make a mental determination to chase down every ball, you will surprise yourself. On balls that you try to reach and don’t make, the message for your opponent is clear. Unless he or she hits a perfect shot, you’re going to run the ball down.

Will it be different simply because I’m telling you it will be different? Yes. Telling yourself that you can do it will categorically improve your performance, your self-esteem, and your opponent’s respect for your effort.

Anticipate and Watch the Ball

To improve your preparation and response time, watch the ball leave your opponent’s racquet. The speed of your movement is secondary to getting a feel for your shot. This feeling, coupled with the knowledge of your opponent’s capabilities, is the first step to better preparation.

The next step is to focus on the ball as it leaves the opponent’s racquet, not when it appears on your side of the court. Pick up small clues while the ball is still in flight to facilitate early preparation. Too many players permit the ball to bounce before they start to react. By then it is too late. Even if you get to the shot, your timing will be poor and your shot will be defensive or badly prepared.

Rather than just hitting the ball back and forth in your next practice, ask your practice partner to hit the ball away from you. Set yourself a goal to run for everything, no matter how impossible. Try watching the ball come off your opponent’s strings. Watch closely and you will learn the art of reading the ball’s direction. By incorporating this technique into your practices, during matches you’ll feel that you have more than enough time to prepare for the next shot.

I know from my years at the academy that these suggestions will help you play better tennis. None are earth shattering. They are simply commonsense ideas. The point is that regardless of ability, you can improve by practicing with the same focus you use in match play. Remember, the more your practice reflects actual match play, the faster you’ll improve.

Translating Practice Tennis to Match Tennis

How many times have you signed up for a clinic at your local club or municipal court and arrived at the courts excited only to leave afterward disappointed? What you expect and what you get often don’t match up. Here are tips on what you should ask about prospective clinics before taking out your checkbook:

  • What is the clinic’s context?
  • What is the coach-to-student ratio?
  • How match specific are the drills?
  • Will the clinic be mechanics specific?
  • Does the clinic cover doubles?

In all forms of practice, especially match practice, it angers me to see one of our pros drilling with no regard to where the ball is going or what the student should be doing next. All drilling should be designed to ensure that the exercise has carryover value into match play.

Take a simple example - a drill designed to reinforce the value of an approach shot followed by a volley. The first ball, hit relatively short by the coach, should usually be struck up the line, especially if the ball is below the net when the student gets to it. Having struck the ball, the student should follow the flight of the ball to the net covering the line and then finish with a crosscourt volley. At this point most coaches would stop the drill. At the academy, however, we insist that our students continue to concentrate and follow the volley, thereby covering any possibility of a foe’s great shot and subsequent passing shot. This is not genius. It is simply a point-specific drill for predictable movement rules, set up to teach mechanics and strategy simultaneously.

Another good example of a practice that can be match specific is the serve. To practice match-specific serves, the returner must be as serious as the server, thus creating a learning environment for both players. Beyond the important discussion of serve mechanics, this manner of practice permits the pro to discuss, in real time, the direct result of a miss or badly placed serve.

The same can be said for hitting passing shots on the run. It’s simply not good enough to have students run from one side of the court to the other, attempt a passing shot down the line, and stop. Having attempted the passing shot in match play, the instinct must be to reposition for the next return. This too should be part of the practice drill.

In summary, to transfer skills from practice into matches, all repetition drills should mirror match possibilities. Errors, mental or mechanical, should be immediately corrected, and an explanation on how these errors relate to match success or failure should follow. Because most of the adult tennis community plays doubles, a clinic not dealing with doubles is useless.

If your practice lacks the benefit of an instructor, my suggestion is to practice what you should be doing during a match. If your preference is baseline tennis, practice hitting the ball back with depth and consistency. If your preference is serve and volley, work on the location of your serve rather than pace. Don’t neglect hitting returns, the placement of which is especially important in doubles. Have your practice partner serve from inside the baseline (more power and consistency) while you work on a short backswing, meeting the ball out front and, most important, moving the return around the court. If your opponent serves wide, a good return is up the line. If your opponent serves up the middle, a crosscourt return is your best choice.

Don’t neglect doubles drills. While you and your partner work on hitting crosscourt, practice coming to the net. At the service tee, practice quick volley drills to improve your reflexes and make those impossible shots routine. Again, when practicing this drill, keep your backswing short, make contact out front, and, most important, concentrate on control and placement.

Remember, when practicing match play it’s not the quantity of practice that matters, it’s the quality. Make a practice plan, center it on your style of play, and work it to a successful conclusion.

This is an excerpt from Bollettieri’s Tennis Handbook

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