Improving Your Tennis From Home During the Corona Virus Lockdown
COVID19 has taken over the world and now tennis courts (and gyms) in many countries have been closed until further notice.
Those of us lucky enough to own a tennis court in the backyard can keep practicing and playing tennis as normal, but what about those of us who are stuck at home under lockdown and don’t have access to a tennis court?
Luckily, there are still many things you can do at home to help make you a better tennis player when it’s time to go back on the tennis court, so I have put together a list of various ways you can improve your tennis without leaving your home.
Try them all if you have the time, or pick just one and work on that as much as you can over the period you are stuck at home.
Put in the effort and you may surprise yourself when you step back onto the court.
1 – Practice your ball toss
Unless your ball toss is perfect, you can benefit from practicing your ball toss at home. The ball toss is the key to a good serve, so take this time to make it better.
All you need to do is find somewhere with enough space above you so you can do your regular ball toss without restrictions, for example on a balcony or your courtyard, then practice away.
You can place your racket on the ground with the racket head in front of your left foot and toss the ball up, trying to have it land on the strings of the racket each time. Make sure you do the full service motion through to the release of the ball and finish with your left arm up. No need to swing through or try to hit the ball (you don’t have to hold a racket to practice the ball toss).
A few things to pay attention to:
1 – Keep your arm straight throughout the toss (don’t bend your elbow)
2 – Hold the ball lightly in your fingertips (not the palm of your hand)
3 – Lift your arm up smoothly, not too fast (it’s not a throw, think of it more like you are placing the ball up in the air)
4 – Release the ball (open your hand) somewhere between eye level and the top of your head
5 – Everyone has a different perfect ball toss height, but generally aim to throw the ball at least 1 foot above the top of your outstretched racket
6 – Aim to place the ball roughly 6 inches (15cm) to the right of your tossing arms’ shoulder when the ball is at its peak
7 – Keep your head up!
Do this at least 3 times a week for 10 – 15 minutes each time.
2 – Hit against a wall
If you have access to an area with a good wall (maybe your courtyard or backyard, or even an underground carpark), you can go and hit against it whenever you want to.
This is your best option during a quarantine, if you don’t have access to a tennis court, because you can practice all your shots and not lose your timing or feel.
The groundstrokes and volleys are quite simple to practice. You can aim for a spot on the wall or alternate sides to challenge yourself. If you want to do smashes/overheads, bounce the ball just in front of the wall so it hits the wall on the way up: this will cause the ball to come up so you get a high ball for the overhead. Hit it down into the ground about 2 or 3 feet in front of the wall and just keep going.
This wall practice should be done as often as you can, at least 3 times a week for 45 minutes each time.
3 – Watch and analyze top players and their matches
If you can find some matches on YouTube or other sources, watch them and try to pay attention to what the top players do:
How do they structure a point?
Where do they serve on important points?
How do they move and how many steps do they take before hitting each shot?
How do they position themselves when moving and hitting a ball?
Where do they hit the ball and how does this change throughout the match?
What do they do differently on their second serves, compared with their first serves?
How do they win their points?
Where do they hit the ball when in trouble?
Can you tell how well they are concentrating, and for how long?
Could they have made a better decision on certain points?
As you can see, there are many things to watch for and try to analyze while watching the top professionals playing matches. If you are able to pay attention to these things, you can get a better understanding of how effective points are played and what strategies work against various players.
4 – Read tennis books to get a better understanding of how the champions think
Some of the best players from past eras have released books about their lives and experiences on the tour. Some of these books are goldmines of information that can give you a great insight into how the greatest players think on and off the court.
If you have a chance, read the books from the top players of the past such as Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe, as well as strategy and mental books such as Winning Ugly (by Brad Gilbert) and The Inner Game of Tennis (by Timothy Gallwey).
The last 2 books (Winning Ugly and The Inner Game of Tennis) have been around for over 2 decades, but they have some really good information, strategy and advice in them for players of all levels. They are probably the 2 best books to read for any aspiring tennis player on what and how to think to improve your game.
The books from the top players give invaluable insights into how these players think and feel when playing matches. Some of the current players like Federer, Djokovic and Nadal already have books out but I’m pretty sure they are keeping the best parts for the books they will release once they retire.
5 – Visualization
This can be a game changer when done correctly.
Many studies have shown that positive visualization exercises can greatly enhance and benefit an athlete’s ability to perform, while negative ones can harm their performance.
Sometimes just changing the way you think on the court can have a huge impact on your game. For example, instead of saying to yourself “don’t hit a double fault”, you can instead say “I am confident with my serve. This serve is going in”.
Both phrases have a similar meaning (ie: get the serve in), but the first one is negative and the second is positive. What image do you conjure up in your mind when you say “don’t hit a double fault”? If you are like most people, you will probably have a picture running through your mind of a missed serve.
Your brain is, in effect, telling your body that you are thinking about hitting a bad serve. So, what do you think your body will now do? There is a good chance you will subconsciously cause yourself to hit a bad serve.
Now, if you tell yourself “I am confident with my serve. This serve is going in”, and you see it happening in your mind, then that is what your body will try to do.
A good visualization exercise to try to perfect is where you close your eyes and try to see yourself having a rally with your coach or a friend. See if you can visualize yourself hitting your shots over the net, and in the court, at least 10 times in a row in real time speed (don’t rush through it).
Visualize by using all of your senses. Feel everything from how you set the racket, to how you move, how the ground feels, to feeling the contact, to watching how and where the ball moves… it sounds relatively easy to do, but it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds if you do it properly.
If you can get to the stage where you can do this with relative ease, you will find that you will have much greater success at keeping the ball in play when you get back on the court and try to rally.
This is just one simple (but not easy!) visualization exercise you can do to help your game.
6 – Work on leg strength, core and balance
If you ever have a chance to see a professional tennis player working out in the gym with their trainer, you will see that they will do a lot of work to strengthen and condition their legs and core (back and abdominals used for balance and power).
Most tennis players are generally skinny, but almost all of them have well defined and muscular leg muscles.
This is because of how important legs and balance are to the tennis player. Your legs need to be able to last for the duration of a match, which is usually 2 to 3 sets and can be 2 or 3 hours in duration, while allowing the player to move quickly around the court without compromise.
During the match, you will be doing numerous short sprints, stopping and starting, changing direction, balancing at full stretch, twisting, turning, lunging, jumping, etc… and that could be happening in every single point you play for the entirety of the match.
The better your legs and body are with dealing with these stresses, the better you can move and the better your chances are of winning. If you can improve your speed and stamina around the court, your whole game will be much better.
You will also gain confidence from knowing that you can reach most shots, which means that your decision making will also become better because you won’t feel pressured to come up with a great shot in the first 2 or 3 hits (to prevent your opponent from hitting a ball past you).
You can very easily work on legs, core and balance at home with minimal equipment. Below is a video with some amazing leg exercises you can do using just your bodyweight or with a piece of household furniture.
The below video has some great balance exercises that can help you immensely with your balance for tennis:
7 – Shadow and mirror swings
If you have enough space in your home or in your yard, but don’t have a wall to hit against, you can practice by doing shadow swings. Just grab your racket and start practicing your swings by doing sets of 10 -20 forehand and then backhand strokes, and even volleys, overheads and serves.
Make sure you use your legs too, getting into the right position for each shot and staying down low with your knees bent. Practice the whole move from the ready position through to the end of the swing. Don’t forget the split-step.
This isn’t as good as hitting real tennis balls, but it allows you to keep the mind/body connection and train your muscle memory to do the movements.
If you have a large mirror, you can do the movements in front of it so you can see exactly how you do the swings. This also allows you to get feedback and make adjustments straight away.
8 – Improve your fitness
I showed you a few ways to work on and improve your legs, core and balance above. That was mainly to strengthen and develop power in those areas.
But you can also work on your overall fitness during this period of quarantine by doing various exercises that don’t require much space.
For example, you can do sets of burpees (one of the best whole body exercises), dynamic lunges, running on the spot, or even a Tabata HIIT workout with a combination of various movements/exercises.
HIIT workouts are perfect for tennis conditioning because they mimic the way you work when playing points: short bursts of energy of high intensity for short time periods with minimal rest in between.
If you want to be really tennis specific with your HIIT workout, just do shadow swings with high intensity, varying up different strokes for each set, or just do one stroke as many times as you can (with good technique) per set.
If you have enough space inside (high ceilings), or you have a backyard or large balcony, you can break out the jump rope and do some jump rope (skipping) exercises. This is also a great exercise for your footwork, training you to be light on your feet.
There are quite a few good jump rope routines you can follow on YouTube, below is one example:
9 – Improve your flexibility
Another way you can benefit your tennis is by improving your flexibility, especially legs and shoulders.
This will help you when reaching for wider or shorter balls, especially if you also work on your strength and power.
If you just work on flexibility and don’t strengthen the muscles around your joints, you might end up getting more injuries rather than preventing them. This is because if your muscles are not strong, but you are flexible, you may try to stretch too far when trying to hit a ball back and end up hyperextending.
An observation that I made during my playing days was that the guys that didn’t workout much but stretched a lot seemed to get injured the most. However, I’m not sure if they got injured because they stretched a lot, or if they stretched a lot because they got injured.
If you are flexible AND strong, you will have the perfect combination for reaching tougher shots and staying injury free as long as possible.
To work on your flexibility, make sure your muscles are already warm. If you are starting cold, don’t go straight into stretching, warm up first. Hold each stretch (without moving) for at least 30 seconds. Use a timer app on your phone to make it easier, rather than watching a clock/watch.
I generally tell my students to work on their flexibility by stretching after they play tennis. Stretching before playing is generally a waste of time as the muscles are cold and won’t react to stretching as well as they will when they are warm, plus there is the risk of injury if you force the stretch when your body is not warmed up.
Definitely warm up before playing tennis and do it with some light dynamic exercises, not just stretching, because stretching without warming up is where you can get an injury.