Tennis: tips on how to control the ball

A good tennis player should try to put spin on almost every shot. You need to direct the ball to land in the part of the court that you want, otherwise it will go off and do its own thing. To impart spin, you need to brush around the ball with your racket, rather than hit through it, because it will travel in whatever direction the strings were facing when they made contact.


Use topspin when you want to hit the ball very fast but keep it in the court. Topspin is great because it encourages the ball to come down and then kick up as it makes contact with the ground. This keeps your opponent on their back foot and stops them from coming forward into the court. Topspin is the biggest weapon in the arsenal of players such as Rafael Nadal or Amelie Mauresmo.

You get topspin by just brushing from low to high up the back of the ball. The thinner you make contact, the faster it will spin. If you combine this with plenty of acceleration through the shot, the ball will rotate incredibly quickly, which will allow you to bend it in.


Slice, or backspin, is used to control opponents and stop them from hitting massive topspin shots. It keeps the ball low, and is a great technique to slow the pace of a rally, so Federer will use it to counter Nadal’s high-kicking shots. To play a slice, it is actually helpful if the ball you receive is kicking up, because your racket needs to go up high so that you can slice it sharply and thinly downwards. Then, as the ball lands, the reaction with the ground will slow it down, making it stay very low and skid along the court.

Backspin is mostly played on the backhand. Sometimes players use it in forehand strokes, when they have been sent a slice that stays low and stops them getting their racket under the ball to hit a topspin reply. The slice can also be used when you are approaching the net and you want the ball to skid in low to your opponent. This means they will have to dig it up in the air for you to knock it away.


It is impossible to generate much power with sidespin, and top-level players can read it easily, so you don’t see many pros using it unless they are playing a dropshot. But it is a great little trick shot for club players as it throws in an awkward bounce.

Essentially you are just flipping your hand around either side of the tennis ball so when it lands it moves sharply one way or the other, giving your opponent another problem to deal with as they run in to meet it. At pro level, the sidespin dropshot would generally be played on a ball in the mid-court, no higher than waist height, perhaps when a player has threatened to hit the ball very deep and hard before changing their mind at the last second. It is also a great get-out-of-trouble shot when the ball is coming towards your body and there is not enough room to play anything else.

Reading your opponent’s spin

This should be pretty simple as spin is entirely dictated by the path of the racket. If your opponent’s racket started above the ball, chances are that their shot is full of slice, and if you see the racket dropping very low before hitting the ball, you know they are trying to impart some heavy topspin. If it is lined up around the same level, of course, then they are going to be driving through without much topspin or backspin.

Now try this …

Get a ball machine, or just drop some balls in front of you, and practise controlling the path of your racket head. Imagine that the ball has a full head of hair, and for topspin all you are going to try and do is get your racket underneath and brush the hair upwards. You’re not trying to make contact with the head itself, you’re just going to skim your racket up the back of the ball to get it rotating forwards. Now try it the other way around, going straight down the back of the ball, to generate slice. The key is to brush the ball, not hit it. That is what the strings are there for, to rebound the incoming pace.

At the beginning of each session, to develop your spin, you and your practice partner should stand on the service lines and just pretend to play table tennis within the service boxes for 15 minutes or so. You could even move your hand up the racket a little bit as you do so. This is a really good way of isolating your hand, which is responsible for the angle of the racket face. Because you don’t have to hit it far, this will also encourage you to brush the ball rather than hit it.

What am I doing wrong?

Many players hit topspin shots into the net. Remember that if you have told the ball to come down a lot quicker than it normally would, you need to make an allowance for that and aim it higher. Try changing the angle of the racket face as it meets the ball to give yourself a one-to-two-metre height clearance over the net. But don’t forget to get that spin on it, or it will go over the fence. It is all just a matter of practice.

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