The game of tennis has seen some significant changes in the way it is played over the past 30 years. Racket technology has, at least partially, been responsible for players at the top level hitting the ball harder and with more open stances. Serves are being hit at 130 miles per hour and both forehands and backhands are used as major weapons to win points from almost anywhere on the court. In addition, most tournaments around the world are now played on hard- or clay court surfaces. Grass court surfaces are becoming more and more rare these days. So where does that leave the net game, and specifically the volley? The volley is typically played at or near the net and contact is made before the ball bounces on your side of the net. Let's take a look at some of the characteristics of the volley.
Preparing for the Volley
Since contact with the ball is made near the net, you will have less time to prepare for this shot than most others. Proper preparation is crucial for the volley. Poor preparation leads to a rushed stroke and therefore poor mechanics. Experienced players learn to anticipate or at least they become aware of the opponent's options in a particular situation. Reducing the number of options opponents have from five or six to two or three can make your response to the ball a lot faster. Saviano (2001) identified four major cues to help proper anticipation. 1. Your opponent's patterns and tendencies, 2. Cues from his strokes, 3. His court positioning, and 4. Proper perception of spin and trajectory.
In addition to anticipation, which mostly comes from the experience of playing many matches, players with good response time have an advantage at the net. According to Grosser et al. (2000), response time is particularly important to reach a passing shot at the net or in a volleying duel in doubles. Response time is a combination of reaction time and movement time. Reaction time is the time it takes for your brain to process the information about what type of shot is being hit and send a message to the muscles to prepare for either a forehand or backhand volley. Movement time is the actual time spent moving into position for the correct volley. Chow et al (1999) found, when studying skilled tennis players, that the average reaction times (from ball machine release to initial racket movement) for forehand and backhand were 226 and 205 ms respectively. This difference was statistically significant. The average stroke time (from initial racket movement to ball impact) ranged from 381 ms in fast speed trials to 803 ms in slow speed trials. Since it is slower to overcome inertia from a stationary position, we recommend using a split step to improve the response time in preparation for the volley.
Footwork Preparation for the Volley
Too many players practice the volley in a static situation. Van Fraayenhoven and Schapers (2001) recommend dynamic volley practice, timing the split step and focusing on balance as soon and as much as possible. Top players perform a split step before most strokes to establish a base of support and to be able to get to the next shot in the fastest and most balanced way. Most players at the club level should try to split step as the opponent initiates the forward swing, even though the very top volleyers have learned to time the split step so that they actual perform this movement the instant just after the opponent's impact. They have learned to time the split step so that it facilitates them getting to the net as quickly as possible, and still allow their brains to have enough time to process the impact and give the signal to move toward the volley position.
Performing a split step is probably most important for volleys and other shots played at the net. A split step is like the unweighting technique skiers use to make a turn. Unweighting lasts for only the split second your body is falling through the air (Groppel, 1992). The concept of unweighting can help your movement skills tremendously in tennis. By quickly decreasing and increasing your force against the ground, you can get balanced and then explode to the next shot in any direction as quickly and forcefully as possible. To perform the split step properly, your feet should be about shoulder width apart, your weight on the balls of your feet, your upper body leaning slightly forward. Make sure you keep your racket out in front of your body. Then quickly bend your knees to get on balance and prepared to move in any direction (Roetert, 1995). Beside the fact that the split step provides for proper balance and allows for movement in all directions, the pre-stretch of specifically the quadriceps and calf (gastrocnemius and soleus) muscles helps store elastic energy to allow explosive movement upon landing.
Volley Swing Mechanics
Although the volley can be played with either a continental or eastern grip, top level players generally use a continental grip for both forehand and backhand volleys. The eastern grip necessitates a grip change from forehand to backhand side which is somewhat more time consuming, although previous research indicates that sufficient time is available (ITF, 1998). Most punch volleys are hit with an abbreviated swing, however a study by Elliott (1994) highlighted the fact that the racket was taken beyond the shoulder in the backswing of both forehand and backhand volley when hit at the service line. This type of backswing may be more specific to the first volley following a serve, as this type of volley should focus on keeping the ball deep in the opponent's court. Second volleys typically will have a shorter backswing and the focus will be more on hitting an angle. One of the primary energy sources for the volley is the transfer of weight and returning the power of the incoming shot (Williams, 2000). Chow et al (1999) found that the ground reaction forces during the stroke phase suggest that the subjects initiated lateral movement by leaning sideward when ball velocity was low and by a vigorous push-off of the contralateral foot when ball velocity was high. This weight transfer, or step does not have to be completed before contact with the ball is made. In fact, if the landing of the step occurs at exactly the same time as ball contact, accuracy of the shot may be compromised, because the step may cause the racket head to drop (this can be likened to a car slamming on the brakes, causing the nose to go down). A key coaching point for the volley therefore is to "not synchronize" the hands and feet when contacting the ball. Williams (2000) found that on lower volleys the weight transfer step usually occurs before contact, while on higher volleys the step occurs after contact.
On both the forehand and backhand volleys the racket head was found to be slightly open at contact, however, in comparing the backswings, the rotation of the upper limb laid the racket more open on the backhand side (Elliott, 1994). Although the racket head is slightly open, players should be careful not to dish the ball when volleying. Groppel (1992) found that players who "dish" the ball employ no racket head rotation prior to ball contact and that the dishing effect seen is usually a reaction to the impact; it is not a purposeful movement. As mentioned earlier, the forward swing involves a weight transfer which is initiated by the soleus, gastrocnemius, quadriceps and gluteals. Both forehand and backhand volleys typically utilize some trunk rotation (obliques and spinal erectors) although the backhand volley involves less trunk rotation. The forehand swing uses the anterior deltoid, pectorals, shoulder internal rotators, elbow flexors (biceps) and serratus anterior muscles in a concentric (shortening) fashion. The backhand volley swing uses the rhomboids, and middle trapezius, posterior deltoid, middle deltoid, shoulder external rotators, triceps and serratus anterior, also concentrically. The opposing muscle groups for each stroke contract eccentrically (lengthening action) in the follow-through (Roetert & Ellenbecker, 1998).