Slice Serve Drills and More - Training Poonky, Part III

This third part of drills with Poonky, an eight-year-old from Thailand, covers working on the slice serve, drills for ball control, footwork, reading a short ball and playing a set with modified rules.

If you've missed previous parts, check out Part I, where Poonky warmed up and worked on her footwork and reactions. Part II covered quick preparation and using the body's rotation to make controlled and powerful shots.

1. Developing the Slice Serve

The tennis serve is basically a throwing motion, so kids need to develop a good throw. Obviously, throwing balls and other objects is the main way to practice this, but it can become boring, especially for young children.

The first drill in the video goes like this: Poonky starts on the service line and tries to throw the ball over the net. If she succeeds, she steps one step back and tries again. If she cannot throw the ball over the net, she takes one step forward.

The goal is to get to the baseline and be able to throw the ball over the net.

With kids older than Poonky, the goal can be to throw the ball over the service line or even over the opposite baseline. The forward and backward steps motivate them to try their best and, when they achieve their goal, it raises their confidence in their own abilities and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Next, Poonky hits a few serves while trying to retain the throwing motion and feel from the previous exercise. When I started working with Poonky, she had a typical beginner's serve with a forehand grip and no backswing - she just tapped the ball over the net.

Although she has learned the full backswing with a nice rhythm, her grip is not yet 100% continental (we're gradually moving toward that) and she cannot yet impart slice on the serve every time, which is our goal right now.

The drill that works well for getting the feel for a slice (or topspin) serve is to prepare the racquet with the "edge up," and serve from that position. It's almost impossible to hit the ball flat that way, especially if the server stands with his non-racquet hand's shoulder facing slightly toward his opponent.

Once Poonky hits a few serves and feels the strings brushing the ball (I ask her this), she tries the full slice serve.

Training the serve usually takes about 10 minutes, and then the player loses his intensity because he is not moving. That's why I often do the third drill that you can see in the video, which I call soccer tennis.

After the serving lesson, most of the balls are on the other side of the net, and the goal is to kick them all to the net where we'll pick them up. This drill is excellent for eye-feet coordination, foot speed, balance and many other skills needed for great footwork.

The player should move as fast as possible from ball to ball and kick them to the net. This will improve the above mentioned skills and increase the player's activity, which he will need for the next drill or playing situation.

2. Ball Control, Footwork and Reading a Short Ball Drill

The first thing to work on after (and during!) the basic techniques is ball control. This means that the player can control the shot and the ball's trajectory to make them close to what he wants to hit.

Ball control requires many repetitions, and this training also improves students' timing, balance, technique and many other tennis skills.

This drill, which Poonky does at least twice each week, combines three things we're working on right now: forward-backward footwork, ball control and reading a short ball.

The first feed is always deep and Poonky tries to move backward in the way that we practiced before (see the videos in Part I) - with crossover steps.

Then she tries to hit the ball at me, so she has a target to aim for and is working on ball control. I volley the ball back to her comfortably so that she doesn't have too much trouble moving to the ball.

Poonky then hits a few balls at me, and then I hit a short ball which she tries to see as early as possible. When she does, and runs to the ball, she needs to focus on getting herself sideways before the hit and controlling the shot into the open court.

This drill can be played down the line or cross-court; and it's very realistic situational training for eight-12-year-old kids, who hit lots of shots either very deep and high, or short.

The coach can also increase the drill's difficulty by volleying the ball faster, higher, shorter or more away from the player, while the basic idea remains the same.

3. Playing Points With Modified Rules

If I were to play against Poonky seriously, I would obviously win every time. So how can we play some truly competitive points, where Poonky actually has a chance to beat me?

The drill also needs to encourage Poonky to play tactically smart tennis for her age group. We play the 1, 2, 3 set.

Here are the rules: at 0:0, Poonky starts serving and I play only one ball back. If Poonky manages to return that shot, I will miss.

At 1:0 (or 0:1), I serve and I am allowed to hit two balls, after which I will miss. So for example, at 3:3 (or 4:2 or 5:1) I am allowed to hit seven balls back, and then I miss.

One of the main goals in the tactical part of tennis for young juniors is consistency - get the ball back one more time than your opponent. This, of course, works well on all levels of tennis; just ask Rafael Nadal. ;)

So Poonky learns through this drill that she needs to hang in there as long as she needs to, and she surely will win a point. The coach, of course, can adjust the level of tennis by playing better, being more aggressive on short balls, and so on.

But at the level where Poonky is right now, I just play the ball back deep, usually slightly away from her, and I want to see if she can rally without making mistakes.

Every player has a number of shots where he feels comfortable moving and hitting the ball. If a player is forced to hit more shots than he is comfortable with, his fitness and concentration level drops.

Check the previous article "What is Your Number?" to see why understanding the number, and increasing your own number, of shots in the comfort zone is so important.

So the above drill works on increasing the number of shots that Poonky is still comfortable with; and I, as her coach, can clearly see the number where she starts to break down.

Poonky - a junior tennis player
She also learns another very important mental fact: good players make it more and more difficult to win a set against them. When the set is close to ending (4:4, 5:5, …), good players make few unforced errors, and make you win it.

So Poonky already knows how, and mentally prepares herself, to really grind it out as a set progresses, and not to look for shortcuts, which often result in unforced errors.

Poonky was working very hard on all these lessons, despite Thailand's heat of over 30oC; and I can see a promising future ahead of her. Hopefully we'll meet again...

I also would like to thank Poonky's parents, Khun Gok and Khun Ying, for helping with the taping and allowing me to use the videos on my website. Thank you!



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

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