In my opinion this is one of the hardest shots in tennis and continues to vex good players. When the ball goes up rather than going on the defensive it is best anticipate and have the right attitude. Like with any shot you will miss some but the feeling of having the opportunity to win the point, game, match or tournament on your racquet with an overhead must be your mind set. Missing it is something that may happen but it can be avoided for the most part with the right focus and appreciation of the challenge an overhead causes.
The solution to the overhead for an intermediate and even an advanced player who is having difficulty with it may be the hardest thing to teach. After years of avoiding the shot or just missing shot after shot a pattern of failure is ingrained. It becomes necessary as an instructor to break the pattern with sure guidance and a method to build confidence. Once this is accomplished where the player is not convinced he or she is going to miss but rather they are going to have a good shot at it grooving an overhead becomes much easier. .
One of the reasons an overhead is so difficult is because it requires definite athletic skill that is different from the horizontal running game which operates on the baselines. It is also different from the forward attacking sharp movements of a volley game. It is similar to the serve but in that the overhead requires vertical extension yet the serve is hit from a stationary position. The overhead requires a difficult adjustment from a horizontal game to a vertical game.
The Vertical Game... So when a player hits a lob the game changes immediately from a horizontal flow where the shots are linked in a similar mixture of angles, spins and speeds to a complete break from the pattern. Whereas the player moved side to side or up and back hitting the ball with backhands and forehands now the action required is to hit a falling target down into the court and hence I have labeled it the vertical game.
Instructors, Pros, tennis articles all follow the same general dogma and pattern of teaching which is to get ready quickly by turning sideways, pointing the non hitting arm towards the falling ball, get the racquet back reach up and out hitting the ball with continental grip to emulate the serve and hitting with a kick or topspin by snapping the wrist to insure the ball will bounce high and out of reach of the opponents defense.
This sounds simple enough, yet in practice and even more in matches the theory of a perfect overhead is faced with the reality of the physics of the vertical game. The biggest obstacle to a good overhead is timing the shot.
Before we go into the timing issue there are two types of overheads just as there are two types of serve. A ball coming down in front of you can be moved into and hit with tremendous power and accuracy being more like a first serve. The more likely situation is where the lob is behind or very high requiring a more defensive or second serve approach where the ball is taken slightly behind your head and hit with topspin.
The most common error in hitting an overhead is preparation, being unable to get into the right position to hit and consequently being unable to swing accurately. The second most common error when hitting an overhead is swinging too fast which is caused much of the time by being rushed or being out of position. This will also cause the head to move as the eyes move off the target. A third difficulty which is rarely given focus is the overhead as stated here is a clash of styles within the game. The type of talent required to hit an overhead is not a requirement in the horizontal game and in fact there are few similarities in forehands, backhands and volleys to the overhead in all categories of footwork, weight transfer and swing patterns.
Even the serve does not measure up or provide all the answers to the problems of an overhead. It certainly is the closest measurement yet the serve is created from a static position. The overhead creates a defensive movement to get setup and then the primary focus is to go into an offensive shot. The type of lob thrown up by your opponent where it has backspin, topspin or is defensive or offensive lob forces an immediate judgment as to the height and distance expected from the lob. In preparing for the eventual descent of the lob the receiver must get under and preferably behind the overhead so the shot can be hit aggressively down into the court. The depth of the lob is important as the angle that can be hit is lessened by the depth of the shot. If the position cannot be adjusted to get behind the ball then the player must find the closest possible position and jump in a manner called a scissor kick in order to reach up and also swing up using the type of swing that imparts topspin on a kick serve.
This may be difficult to visualize and so I plan to enter some pictures in this section to illustrate the differences. In any event the whole process is further made more difficult by the factor of the ball is gaining speed as it utilizes gravity moving down towards the court. The opposite is true for everything on the horizontal game as the ball loses momentum and speed as it goes from one side of the court to the other. This disparity or difference is a huge perceptual change for the player and why the timing issue is so often off by a fraction of a second. In this case a fraction of a second will mean the diffence from hitting the overhead into the net or long.
Timing has to be perfect and so the keys to make this happen is a slower more controlled swing to insure that the ball is struck optimally. Overheads are not easy because of this schism between the horizontal game and the vertical game. The serve uses the same familiar swing patterns of an overhead but it is accomplished in a static format. The overhead occurs under game pressures that require the player to attempt to terminate the point whereas the serve is an initiatory process.
Physically, the best way to deal with an overhead is to get prepared early and control the swing in order to avoid being late or over hitting. Mentally the most important advice is to treat the overhead with a sense of urgency as it goes up slow and comes down fast. It is deceptive because of this is anomalous to the horizontal game and if the intensity level of the lob is considered easy think about the fact that the ball is accelerating at an increasing velocity. There is no other shot that does this in tennis.
Practice will make you aware of this difference and it is one of the more important shots for an intermediate player to perfect to have confidence to win big points and keep momentum in big matches.
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