Read & React
Learning to ‘read’
One of the most important aspects of playing tennis is learning to read.
Learning to read the flight of the oncoming ball, which is what happens in this next sequence of images (and for every other good stroke that requires movement).
In frame 1, as soon as the ball leaves Steffi’s opponent’s racket, she reads where this short ball is going to bounce and she reacts accordingly, in this case by moving into a sort of forward lean, which shifts her gravitational center (but such jargon is often a hindrance to learning for the many).
Not only has Steffi read that the ball is going to bounce short, but she also works out the ball’s travelling line:- if she’s going to hit a good forehand, she needs to move beyond this line (otherwise she’ll be too close to the ball).
In 2 & 3 Steffi has gauged the travel line and she is side-shuffling both up the court and beyond the travel line (see later), intending to both meet the ball forward of her body, and also out to the side, giving her forehand room to flourish.
In 4 her turn of the shoulders becomes complete, as she readies herself to sweep the racket head into a looped preparation for the impending hit.
Note that Steffi has read in an instant where the ball will bounce, and sets up accordingly.
Run the frames again and you’ll get a good idea of how lively legs make a perfect contact possible:- to get a ball past Steffi it helps to have a rocket launcher (and one such launcher was called Monica).
Read React 2
For most players, the shorter ball that Steffi dealt with previously is the easy one, and in this long sequence, Yevgeny Kafelnikov deals with a more difficult deep, high-bouncing ball to his baseline.
So does he stand on the baseline and deliver an abbreviated, all-of-a-rush stroke?
He’s more than capable of cracking a half-volley, for sure.
But he chooses not to – instead, Kafelnikov reads the flight of the oncoming ball and reacts in 1 with a shove of his left foot, which starts his backward shift.
Semi-Prepare Before Moving
With his grip sorted out, Yevgeny’s first two moves are to react by shoving off with his left foot, and turning before he moves.
Well, there’s little benefit in staggering backwards like a drunkard.
And as well as facilitating an efficient side-shuffle backwards, his immediate and full turn gets the lion’s share of his stroke preparation done – dusted – out of the way.
Run 1 thru 4 and note that he is gripped up and ready to go, and he delays his looped preparation because if he loops too soon, he will have to pause mid-way through his stroke, which defeats the purpose of a continuous loop.
Note that the elbow is pulled back behind his body, and you can see his loop is cocked like a trigger, just ready to roll when the time is right.
Might as well throw in an animation of the full movement: Here, Yevgeny:
1: Reads the travel line of the ball
2: Gauges the ball’s bounce
3: Turns, gripped-up and with the elbow of the trigger arm ‘cocked’
4: Side-shuffles way back and gives the ball time and space to fall.
5: He times his loop to perfection, so a continuum of racket head speed meets ball at the right time-and-place, delivering an upsky trajectory – with right-angles racket face – into a Connect 3 that has been perfectly adapted to the circumstances.
A Word For Beginners & Parents
The easiest way to learn to read is to do so in stages. And if you are a parent teaching your kids, you should start by ‘feeding’ balls to your offspring for which no movement is necessary.
To illustrate this, I’ve adapted the animation of Kafelnikov to make it look like he isn’t moving anywhere and the ball obligingly falls into the Connect 3 zone – all he has to do is time his loop and swing to meet a perfect contact (above).
And these are the kind of balls that parents should be supplying for their kids – start by developing a perfect contact, on a perfectly ‘fed’ ball, and gradually add movement with shorter, deeper and wider balls.
That’s constructive progress – smart progress.
You can do it without ever having to say much (everything you need is conatined on these pages).
And – generally speaking – it works…
… oh, and please don’t say ‘move your feet.’