I recently wrote a post on watching the ball and one of the primary conclusions was that achieving good ball contact is the result of being able to predict the ball path so that you can set up and get your racquet in the right place at the right time. This is basically saying that a major key to having good ball contact is timing.
And no matter how perfect your technique is – you have a compact backswing with your forearm pronating in a perfect hand turn, you turn your shoulders just so and keep your head down at contact – if you don’t do these things at precisely the right time, you will not hit a good shot, or at least not consistently.
It’s pretty obvious that having good timing is crucial in tennis. So why a separate post just on this topic? I believe that timing is overlooked by some in the coaching community. Many people, particularly newer players, are struggling with timing without even knowing it.
What Happened When I Tried to Learn Technique Before Timing
I caught the tennis bug in the fall of 2012 and only had a couple of months of playing before winter came and I was forced off the court. That winter, I purchased Jeff Salzenstein’s 2-handed backhand course and went to work shadow-stroking in my living room to learn the techniques. I would spend 30 minutes to an hour a few times a week practicing footwork patterns and swinging my racquet around my living room (no lamps were injured that year – that would come later when I learned to volley against my living room wall) and even took videos of myself to make sure I was doing exactly what Jeff was explaining and what Djokovic was doing. Without a ball to worry about I could focus completely on my form and I could develop a pretty strong habit of keeping my head down “at contact.” So by the time spring came, I was convinced that I would go out on the court and be ripping backhand winners down the line.
I was in for a rude awakening. Even though I was confident that my mechanics were solid, I just could not connect properly with the ball. I would practice with a ball machine and while I would hit some good shots, I couldn’t differentiate what was happening in those compared to the ones that would fly long or into the net. I felt like I had no control or consistency on my 2HBH backhand, and consequently, I avoided it like the plague for my entire first full tennis season (on a positive note, I developed a nice backhand slice and inside out forehand because of this).
It’s not that I didn’t try to fix it. I took some private lessons early that season and told my instructor that I wanted to learn to hit a 2HBH. He watched me hit a few, and saw that they were going long, short, into the net, and basically anywhere but in the court.
He immediately tried to pick apart my backhand: “Bring the racquet back higher, bring it back lower, hit the ball further in front of you, take smaller steps, change your grip.” He would suggest a change, and then have me hit 10 or 20 balls to see if anything changed in the result.
As an engineer, I knew this wasn’t a well-designed experiment. My instructor was changing variables on the fly, believing he was only changing one at a time. But since I was a relatively new player and didn’t have a good ability to predict the ball path, I was hitting the ball at different points in my swing and at different points on my strings. Many variables were changing all at the same time, so it was impossible to determine if something like changing my grip was actually having any effect on where the ball was going. If I randomly managed to hit a few good shots in a row, my instructor would beam as though he was on to something, but I knew this wasn’t the case.
Timing and Technique are Both Important
I likely could have hit a pretty good 2HBH off of a tee, but unfortunately this isn’t how tennis works. In Nadal’s autobiography, Rafa: My Story (2011), he discusses how tennis is so challenging because every ball travelling towards you has infinite ball path and behaviour possibilities so every shot you hit is different (see that epic quote at the end of the post).
A study was done on the repeatability of elite tennis players’ strokes, and the result was that each player in the study had consistent wrist and elbow angular positions at contact when hitting forehands, but the angular velocities and accelerations prior to these consistent contact positions varied from shot to shot. So the players adjusted their swing paths to the varying incoming balls even though they made contact with their elbows and wrists in consistent positions.
This says to me that elite players have a combination of good technique (hitting the ball with at least parts of their bodies in consistent positions), and good timing (being able to make adjustments so that they can get into their consistent contact positions regardless of the behaviour of the ball coming at them).
How to Develop Both with Limited Frustration
So now the question is, how do you develop timing and technique as a new player, when it is so difficult to determine if one is working when the other one isn’t there?
- At one extreme, you could develop technique using shadow stroking, then hit a ton of balls without worrying about the outcome until your timing catches up.
- At the other extreme, you could hit a ton of balls without worrying about technique (i.e. however you can keep the ball in), and then once you have a solid grasp on ball path prediction and body awareness, you can learn to hit the ball with proper technique.
In reality most of us fall somewhere between these two.
In my case on the 2HBH I learned solid technique before timing. Unfortunately I wasn’t really aware of this at the time so I spent over a year believing there was a problem with my backhand technique and trying to make changes, none of which improved my results at all. If I’d had a coach who had told me early on, “your backhand technique is fine, just hit a lot of backhands and it will come together,” I think I would have improved much more quickly. Instead, I avoided hitting backhands in rallies and matches and was probably hitting a forehand:backhand ratio of about 5:1, which meant that developing timing on my backhand took that much longer.
The other thing that would have helped would have been to find ways to minimize frustration while developing timing. So instead of going out and hitting backhands during a ladder match, I could have at least started by practicing them in a controlled setting such as by drop-feeding to myself and progressing to a ball machine and then live setting from there. I actually finally did this recently – drop feeding backhands to myself starting at the service line and moving back as I became comfortable and the repetition helped immensely.
On my forehand side, I think I was closer to the other extreme where I hit a lot of forehands with fairly rudimentary technique but got pretty consistent within that stroke and played a lot so developed a good sense of timing. I’ve made changes to my forehand technique over time, the most recent of which was to turn my hand over at contact (rather than after) for extra spin and power. I think I was able to make this change fairly easily since I had already developed good ball path prediction and body awareness on the forehand side. Ironically, on my forehand side, most of my instructors never suggested any changes since I was having pretty good success with the stroke. But I know my technique wasn’t as solid as on my backhand side.
So I don’t think there’s one right answer to which should be developed first: Timing and technique can likely develop together over time. I think it is probably more efficient to learn the proper fundamentals right off the bat rather than spending any time practicing with poor technique.
But at the same time, if hitting with less than ideal form allows you to keep the ball going, have more fun and therefore play more, then I think this can be looked at as practice that develops timing, and technique will be easier to adjust later on because of it.
Remember that Mistakes Can Come from Timing Problems, Not Just Technique
But my main point is that I think it’s crucial for players and coaches to understand that developing timing takes practice. You have to be given time to develop the ability to predict the ball path, get your body in the right position, swing at the right time and be able to make subtle adjustments at the last millisecond to make contact in the right spot.
When a shot isn’t working it might not have anything to do with technique so be cautious of introducing changes unless you’re sure. If you’re out there struggling with your results, take honest stock of where your strokes should be based on how much you’ve played and the quality of your practice.
If you feel confident that your strokes are solid but you haven’t hit many of them, you might just need more experience. Get this by drop feeding to yourself, hitting against a wall, organizing drills with friends, playing matches with different players, or having an instructor hit a lot of balls to a particular shot.
If you feel you’ve put in this work and are still struggling, it might be time to do some video analysis or have an instructor help you look for areas that you could improve in your technique.
My strokes aren’t perfect, but I’m finding that the more I play, the more easily I can make adjustments to them. A improved ability to predict the ball path and a better body awareness help me to adjust my timing to accommodate changes.
Having the discipline to practice the strokes that we struggle with can be challenging, and so can actually making necessary adjustments when we’ve developed bad habits, but it is so worth it in the end. As my backhand improves it’s becoming more of a weapon and less of a liability. Instead of avoiding these in matches I actually look for them so I can continue to improve my timing on that side (and rip some down-the-line winners while I’m at it).
So get out there and hit more balls. Play people with different styles to get variable speeds and spins coming your way. Remember that literally every shot is an opportunity for your brain to store a data point in its quest to develop timing, so hit or miss, every shot is helping you in some way (read more in this post on deep practice in tennis). Yes, it’s important to work on good technique, but without timing we can’t be successful in tennis.
I really can’t emphasize the importance of timing any better than Rafael Nadal. This quote is long but worth the read:
You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one. From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes— shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees— in every shot. And there are so many other factors — the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical. So every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split- second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split- second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try and hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it’s when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true, at speed and under immense mental pressure, time after time. And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train, the better your feeling.
-Rafael Nadal in Rafa: My Story
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you think timing and technique should be developed?
If you’re interested in learning how to maximize your tennis practice to improve your timing more quickly, check out this post on deep practice in tennis.