Lobs and overheads are some of the most under-practiced shots in the game. If you are a net player, it’s going to be vital to have a well practiced and effective overhead. The overhead might be the most effective pressure time and space shot in tennis, because you can hit it harder, and from much closer to your opponent than any other shot. If you don’t have reliable confidence to make your overheads or direct them properly to stay on offense in the point, then you will have an inkling of doubt in your net game. Your overall assertiveness at net will be diminished if you secretly dread the lob. However, when you know you can finish, winning over 80% of the points when the opponent lobs, your confidence should soar. Andre Agassi was not very well known for his overhead, but he won nearly 100% of the points when he got one to hit.
Your Attitude Dictates Your Comfort
If you repeat the mantra enough times, “I hate lobbers”, and/or “My overhead sucks”, then you will be living a self fulfilling prophecy. So, go with more of a process oriented, growth mindset of learning gradually first to make your overheads, then to direct them, and finally to gain confidence and clobber them. Generally, one good overhead lesson and a few short hours over ball machine practice can make it great. However, do not ever do a solid hour of overheads, that will kill your arm. If you have a practice partner, ask them to lob to you for five solid minutes to practice against live balls. Once you have a solid overhead, you can play the net, but when you have a great overhead, then you can dominate the net.
Going Up Against Someone Taking The Net
When you face that opponent who decides to take the net away from you, by getting there before you. They may only do that because they know they have to keep you from being there. This is where a well placed lob comes in handy, because you can back them up to the baseline while simultaneously taking the net right back from them. This leads to a bit of a subtle difference in how you play play the net. In moving forward, you want to keep your racquet a bit higher, and stay a bit further back than normal, because the highest percentage shot coming back will be a lob. Hitting overheads while moving forward, are a bit different than doing so standing still or moving backward, so first learn to control that well. It’s something that with a little practice you can master a slightly different approach to the footwork, and in how aggressively you can play the shot. I find that players moving forward, tend to be overly aggressive with the overhead, and tend to blast them long.
Breaking Down Overhead Stats
When I am working with players who are coming to the net more, and we get to taking care of their overhead, I start with some stats. I let them know that if they miss one out of ten overheads, they are still doing well, and if one time the opponent hits a perfect lob, that is still ok. From the remaining points you can still be 70-80% effective. This is true even you are not great up high. If, however, you are missing one out of every five overheads, and the opponent is lobbing effectively more than one in five times, pushing you back to the baseline, then you need to do something different. The root cause many times is that the approach shot did not put the other player under enough pressure to cause a poor lob.
Hitting AT The Other Player
You can move the other player to a certain part of the court and then you can hit at them. This can be done as they recover at the baseline, or as they try to regain their balance from you pulling them forward with a short slice or a drop shot. You first make the opponent move a long distance, then force them to aggressively recover, and if they are in the slightest way too slow at breaking down into a ready position, you can take advantage of their lack of preparation by taking time away from them at that time.
One of the subtle keys to help the ball arrive sooner to take time away is to match the depth of the shot with your opponent’s position. The more the ball bounces in front of them the more time they will have to respond. The further the ball travels in the air before hitting the ground the faster it flies due to the relative lack of friction from not having bounce earlier. Even experienced players can be fooled by a ball that didn’t seem to be traveling too fast, but because it’s trajectory was longer in the air, it arrived sooner than a harder hit ball that landed earlier. A 120 MPH serve will slow to about 85MPH from the baseline to the other service line, but will lose another third of it’s speed immediately after the bounce.
Serve And Volley
The first serve gives the least amount of time for reactions, and coming forward straight in places the most possible pressure on the opponent. The only down side of serve and volley is that the serve must land inside the service box. Compounding the pressure is the fact that the opponent will have to make a strong shot on a first serve return. Being allowed to make a defensive shot on first serve return is preferred by almost every player. A smart returner will adjust after your first serve and volley attempt, and they will begin to try for returns low and/or down the line, as cross court returns make the returner immediately vulnerable to the volley into the open court.
Part of the magic is to train your opponent to try for lower and down the line returns, because then when you are not serve and volleying, you will get more attackable balls. It may take some time for your opponent to shift back to hitting deeper returns.