One of the things that I am constantly reminding (and reassuring) my newer students is: "Tennis is not rocket science, it's about striking a ball and clearing a net."
My other mantra is: "Repetition makes perfect." This seems to help them to relax and focus on visualizing their target, a fixed position well above the net (to avoid hitting into the net and giving away free points to their opponent).
Another fundamental is: nothing will ever replace hitting tennis balls and playing-out points on the practice court, with this one key note: When you practice, you must imagine that you are playing in real competition, meaning a match that counts.
After a lesson, I will often leave my students to pair-up and play a set or two and report their scores back to me when they are finished. This kind of "ups the ante" and provides incentive for students to go for their shots and make their practice time really count. I want them to get used to that "in the gut feeling" of coping with nerves, their desire to play well, going for their shots and winning.
Following these practice matches, the question that I am asked most frequently by students is: "How do I know when I should approach the net?"
My answer (to get them thinking), is always the same: "The best tennis players are always looking to move forward and finish off points."
The great Jimmy Connors, who still holds the record for most career ATP titles (109), could often be overheard coaching himself during close matches: "Keep moving forward."
Moving forward to finish points at the net is nothing new and earth shattering. Roger Federer has often cited his willingness to approach the net and volley as a key factor in his longevity in the sport. (Roger will turn 39 this calendar year, just prior to the U.S. Open in New York.)
Knowing that I have not directly answered my student's question, I will then ask them, "What do you think is the very first indication that you should move forward toward the net?"
Ask 10 different tennis instructors this $64,000 question and you will probably get 10 different answers (I know because I have done this).
Here is the observable, correct answer to that most important question: The very first indication that you should move forward is your own shot.
This may be a new concept to even advanced players because so many things are happening in an instant of time (meaning: the contact event between your racket strings and the ball) and the strategy decision thereafter, but let me explain.
If you feel that you have just "connected," meaning a solid contact event between your racket strings and the tennis ball, or in other words, a deep, penetrating shot into your opponent's court, then you should immediately take two steps toward the net.
Then, if you also see that your opponent has had to turn their body sideways to chase down your shot, you should take another two steps into the court (placing you at about the service line), anticipating a weak, floating shot that you can angle off as a volley or let bounce and crack away a ground stroke winner into the open court.
This advanced tennis concept is easily verifiable by the countless number of times that you will see professional players advance toward the net after they have made a deep, penetrating baseline shot — notably one that they perceive may even be going long.
This also applies when you are serving, but mostly on first serves when your opponent is mentally on defense.
I have been teaching this concept for a number of years, but this is the first time that I have put this concept in writing for all to benefit.
In my opinion, this is the most important tennis article that I have ever written, possibly second only to: "The tennis elephant in the room," published in this newspaper on Aug. 20, 2019.
Just to repeat for emphasis: "the secret" or the very first indication that you should move forward into the court is your own shot.
The best players are always looking to move forward, and any inkling from the contact event (with the ball) that they have hit a deep, penetrating shot should cause an immediate reaction to move forward. This tennis fact is verifiable by carefully watching pro matches on TV or YouTube.
Is there anything that we can do to improve our game while we may be stuck indoors due to weather or the current COVID-19 restrictions? Yes! Watch for my next article for some practical ideas.