Tennis: Variations of the volley, an effective defense shot

The volley – returning your opponent’s ball without it touching the ground – is used less for offensive play than it used to be thanks to improved fitness and racket technology, but it is still an effective way of gaining an element of surprise, extending your reach and increasing your reaction times. With the exception of the high volley, these are emergency, defensive shots that will earn you a bit of time to recover or keep the ball in play.

Low volley

Play a low volley when the ball drops beneath the height of the net. Bend your knees more than you would for a traditional volley and open your racket face up a little: you want the ball to clear the net, but not rise too much, otherwise it will give your opponent the opportunity to smash it back down at you.

Half volley

A half volley is required when there has been an element of surprise: you haven’t got enough time to get to the ball and execute a traditional volley or get back and perform a groundstroke. Instead, let the ball bounce and, as soon as it starts to rise, step in and hit it close to the court’s surface. The action is less of a punch, more of a very compacted groundstroke: take your racket back to about four o’clock and swing it forwards to 12 o’clock (or eight o’clock to 12 for a left-handed forehand, or right-handed backhand). Make your swing as short as you can, and keep the racket face flat when you meet the ball. Always aim for the ball to go as low as possible over the net. To give yourself more time to recover, hit it as deep as you can.

Wide volley

This is another emergency shot to be used when you need to rescue the ball and simply get it back into play by any means necessary. You might have to lunge to get to the ball, either by bringing your inside leg across your body, or stepping out further with your outside leg – if you can stay balanced as you hit the ball, brilliant, if you can’t, make sure you recover as quickly as possible.

High volley

Unlike other variations on the volley, the high volley can be used to attack. As the ball comes towards you, turn your shoulder and bring your racket to the ball, swinging it from high to low, so that the ball travels downwards: unlike the traditional volley, which uses a punching action, you can add a little swing to this stroke. You must get up to hit the back of the ball. Jump up to get to the ball if necessary. Make sure that it does not slam into the net by stopping your racket as quickly as possible after contact.

Being dragged into the net

If your opponent has a weak volley, is slow to move forwards or you think they can’t handle fast-paced net play, feed them some short balls and force them to come to the net: Once they are there, get them moving, hit hard volleys and create spaces that you can hit the ball straight into to finish the point.

Of course there is a flip side to this: your opponent may try and bring you into the net so they can pounce on you. Your best defence is to hit the ball low and deep, ideally to your opponent’s weaker side – this will give you time to prepare for your next shot and will hopefully lessen the power of their return shot. Another way to respond is with a passing shot – a ball hit into a part of the court that your opponent can’t reach – or with a lob. Learn more about lobs in tomorrow’s guide.

Now try this …

This drill will help you control the ball and improve your footwork. Stand in the doubles alley on one side of the court while your partner stands opposite you, both a racket’s length and then one step back from the net. The aim here is to forehand volley back and forth to each other while you both shuffle along the court to the other doubles alley. Once you master moving from one side of the court to the other without letting the ball drop, time how long it takes you and try to get quicker each time. Alternatively, do the drill using your backhand, or stand further away from the net – this will help you practice low volleys.

Now you need to speed up your volleys. Stand one to two metres from the net and face the back of the court. Have a partner feed you balls and shout “hit” when the ball is about to go over the net. Spin around and volley the ball back – this will increase your reaction times and, when you come to hitting volleys in a match situation, they will seem much slower. Ask your partner to vary the balls they feed you, sometimes on your backhand, sometimes on your forehand.

The final drill should enable you to volley any kind of shot your opponent sends your way. Player one (P1) stands on the service line, the other (P2) on the opposite baseline. P1 feeds P2 balls – they can return with any shots they like, but P1 must return with a volley no matter how awkward the positioning. Each player should stay in the same place on the court and each ball should be played out. Whoever wins scores one point and the first to 10 is the winner.

What am I doing wrong?

Most problems stem from players swinging their racket back too much: remember, this is a punch, not a groundstroke. Take your racket too far back and your contact point goes behind you, so the ball will fly off wide to your dominant side on the forehand, and too far the other way on the backhand.

Different strokes: what happened to serving and volleying?

For most of its history, tennis has been a game in which two very different styles of play have coexisted, and competed on roughly equal terms. Those styles are: serve and volleying (coming to the net at every opportunity) and “staying back” (coming to the net as rarely as possible). Most of the greats have deployed one approach or the other: Laver, McEnroe, Navratilova and Sampras were all serve-volleyers; Bjorg, Connors, Seles and Agassi were all baseliners. When graphite rackets came along in the 1980s, it was widely predicted that they would tilt the balance in favour of serve and volleying, because their most obvious effect was to speed the game up, favouring big serving, “boom boom” players such as Boris Becker and Goran Ivaniševi´c.

But, oddly, the reverse has happened. In the last decade or so, serve and volleying has become much rarer; these days, almost no one does it. This is even the case on grass, the surface that has traditionally most favoured net play. Before 2000, the vast majority of Wimbledon champions (male ones, anyway) were serve-volleyers; now it would seem an aberration if the title didn’t go to a baseliner. What accounts for this dramatic turnaround is one of the great mysteries of the game.

Usually, serve and volleying’s decline is explained by the fact that, in the last decade or so, tennis balls have become heavier (and therefore slower), and that the courts at Wimbledon have slowed too. This, however, can only be a partial explanation, because even if balls and surfaces have slowed a bit, the game is still much faster than it was in the era of wooden rackets, when serve and volleying was common. Clearly, other factors are involved.

Two things spring to mind: racket technology and fitness. Although the initial effect of graphite rackets was disproportionately to help big servers, over time it has become apparent that they have helped strong baseliners even more. The best players these days – such as Federer, Murray and Nadal – can generate frightening power and accuracy from the back of the court. Moreover, because they are so fit, they can run almost everything down. This means that it has become extremely difficult to beat such players by coming to the net – because they will almost always get to your approach shot, and be able to hit a winning passing shot. Aggressive baseline play, in other words, has improved to such an extent that it has rendered serve-and-volleying ineffective.

Will this state of affairs ever change? It seems unlikely, because as rackets (and fitness) go on improving, this will aid baseliners even more. But, of course, you can never predict these things. If Federer – a player who is almost unique in having the game to be both a baseliner and a serve-volleyer – worked on his net play a little more, perhaps he would discover the trick of beating Nadal.

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