Training the First 4 Shots

The Use of Targets and Zones in the First Four Shots

Setting up target areas in the first four shot sequence for both players is a great way to set a framework for them to begin the process of automatic play. Targets can create a fun and challenging training environment that can inspire and gain a player’s engagement in practice.   A great practice for motivation is using target zones that are challenging and realistic, if they are too easy or nearly impossible then motivation can be difficult to muster.  The use of a very small bullseye target within a larger zone area is very helpful to define a specific center of the area which aids the player in their minds eye to attend to that specific spot. How we define success in the hitting of targets is mainly based on the level of player.

Two challenges that work well with players when developing these first four shots is the Serve Depth Challenge and Return Depth Challenge.  Making the ball land deep in the service box and in the backcourt is key to keeping an opponent from attacking your serve or return and help you get the upper hand on your opponent.

Serve Depth Challenge:

1.  Place two yellow court lines inside the service box about two feet or 1/2 meter inside and parallel to the service line.

2.  Players that make their serve land between the yellow court lines and the service line score three points.  Any other place inside the service box, score one point.  A missed serve out is zero points. Sometimes its wise to make a serve in the net a negative point to motivate a player to play the ball higher over the net and create deeper serves.

3.  Players with higher performance levels can be challenged to hit 1/4 meter (one ft.) square boxes marked by yellow court lines on the inside corners of the service box or whatever area is decided to train for accuracy.  Player receives three points for making shots in the specific smaller target area, and one point for anywhere else in the service box.

4.  The main objective for the server is to become more and more intentional about placing each ball in a target area or zone within the service box. Without a target or zone, the player may be tempted to just getting the ball back in play rather than improve their ability to play the ball closer to a specific section. If a player double faults they lose one or two points depending on their skill level or how much a player or coach wants to underscore the importance of placement over power.

5.  The server’s S1 shot can be emphasized in sequence with the serve.  If the S1 (first shot after the Serve) shot lands in the backcourt (back half of the big rectangle between service line and baseline), the player scores an additional three points.  The serve player earns one point if the S1 lands in the opponents service box, zero points if the shot misses in the net, deep, or wide. The point system keeps the intensity of the game challenge at a high level and earning more points than your opponent is always more fun!

We are living in the golden age of the returner with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray being amongst the greatest returners of all time, and in the WTA tour, it feels like there are almost as many breaks of serve as there are games where players hold serve. Developing strong serve games will help players hold serve more often and put themselves in a position to have more confidence and win more points.

Return Depth Challenge:

Set up the court with a line that is approximately six feet inside the baseline.  I like to use a few of the yellow plastic court lines you can find through various vendors. When a serve returner hits inside the last six feet of the court, they get three points.  Every shot between the service line and the six foot line is worth one point. If it’s a point play situation, then I also reward five points if they make a clean winner on the return.

Some variations that can help refocus players include penalizing players who hit short or in the net. You have to be careful using negative points, because the assumption is that will be rare. If players begin to accumulate negative points, it can create a confidence problem. Balls in the net can be negative one, two, three or more points. Be wise in your application of those, based on the ability of players.  Low intermediates may or may not be helped by losing point on poor performance, but gain much more confidence when they do score.

Sometimes a comment about how obvious the outcome is when the ball goes into the net makes a world of difference. There is a 0% chance of winning the point when the ball goes into the net.

You can also choose to score the returner’s +1 shot, and that can create a subtle but important shift in their mentality to keep the pressure on the opponent on consecutive shots.  A variation of this is incorporating angled targets, and/or drop shot targets for the +1 ball to help players take advantage of creative combinations after a strong deep return. So, you can keep the same three point scoring for a deep +1 shot, or you can reward another target area that keeps the pressure on the server.

The Serve and Return Depth Challenges can be played together with two players or as part of a larger team  to a determined score or players are attempting to score as many points as possible within a specific time frame (ie. 3, 5, 7 minutes).

Depth Rally Challenge

Since approximately 25% of all points will end within five to eight shots, and another 10% after nine shots, it’s a great idea to train players to maintain depth control for a great period of time.  Longer rally points are not worth more than shorter points, but they can feel as though they are worth more to the player who has invested so heavily mentally and emotionally in them.  I implement this depth rally challenge at the beginning of every training session for a player to find good spacing, rhythm, timing on their groundstrokes.

Many times the player who unintentionally hits a short ball gives up a huge tactical advantage to a player who has maintained great depth of shot, or who hits short intentionally to pull their opponent out of position.  The challenge here is to have a player practice their ability to maintain a deep rally with their opponent.  It’s ideal to continue to use whichever scoring system you started with to reduce confusion.  In my experience using three players per court is ideal for this challenge.  Players and coaches can be as creative as they desire to make this challenge fit their needs for an individual player or team of players.  Here are couple of ideas to set up this challenge for two or three players per court.    

Two players per court.  One player attempts to score points, call them the ‘scoring’ player.  The other player is called the ‘rally’ player.  Continue with the yellow court lines two meters or six feet inside the baseline of the opposite court from the scoring player only.  The rally player with the yellow lines, in front of them, tallies points for the scoring player.  If a coach is present during the practice session, the coach can tally the scoring player’s points while the rally player is free to focus on maintaining the rally.  Continue to use the scoring system, three points for shots landing between the yellow court lines and the baseline, one point for landing in front of the yellow court lines, zero points for landing in the service boxes, the net or out of bounds.   The challenge can be timed one, two, or three minutes and then players rotate in their on court roles. Coaches and players can time training sessions based on the skill level of players or if the focus is training physical endurance while maintaining depth of shot. For lower level players, longer periods of time are advisable to help players score more points, and especially to get over what often can be a difficult start to a high level challenge.

Three players per court.  One player is the scoring player and the other two players are the rally players.  The rally players are responsible for tallying the total points for the scoring player.  This is the best possible scenario for all the players and the coach because rally players can keep score as they rally, scoring player can focus on scoring points, and the coach can roam and observe receiving skills of each player. Coaches can look for a particular technical skill to encourage during this live ball challenge. I recommend having one set skill, or one unique to each player, so that players can focus on one adjustment at a time.

Rotate players after a timed session of one, two, or three minutes – scoring points remain the same for specified target areas.  These games make for a fun intra-squad competition, and can also be a team building exercise, when the team is split into smaller teams. It’s a fun way to introduce a competition between players that does not result in a lineup change, gaining or losing status on the team. Playing these games can also be a great way to encourage concentration in the early moments of a practice.