So you’re comfortable with groundstroke rallies while operating primarily from the baseline, but are struggling at the net? You’re not the only one. Volleying effectively in tennis requires a different technique compared to your baseline forehand and backhand strokes.
Mastering the technique is an art and requires careful review of your movement, racquet position and prep, and swing. The ability to volley well can be a tremendous addition to your stroke locker. Whether it’s the classic serve and volley, where you put the opponent under pressure with a strong serve, and follow it up with a volley winner, or when you’re trying to throw your opponent off by moving up to the net during a standard baseline rally, mastering the volley technique can allow you to kill rallies effectively and elegantly.
What Is A Volley?
Simply put, a volley is a stroke played before the ball bounces in a player’s court. This loose definition extends to other sports too, for example, in soccer, a volley is a shot taken by a player when the ball is off the ground (i.e., in the air).
Typically in tennis, a player intending to volley a shot will do so by advancing closer to the net, anticipating the direction of their opponent’s shot, and stroking the ball before the first bounce. In the singles game, volleys are usually intended to either kill the rally on the shot, or put the opponent under pressure with the volley, and kill it in the following shot.
Naturally then, rallies for the most part, do not involve too many volleys. Doubles tennis on the other hand, sees a lot more volleying due to the advanced position of one of the pair of players. Their position at the net naturally means they’ll be taking shots prior to the bounce.
Are There Multiple Types Of Volleys?
Yes! And the technique for each type varies. A player’s choice of volley will usually depend on the following factors:
- Speed of incoming shot
- Height of incoming shot
- Position of opponent
I will discuss the specific volley types and associated techniques below. However, I highlight the above factors because one of the key conditions in volleying the ball correctly is anticipation.
In the GIF above, see how Dominic Thiem moves toward the net even before Novak Djokovic has hit his shot. The anticipation of where the ball is going to arrive, even before the opponent executes his shot, is key in the Thiem’s ability to kill the rally with the volley (and earning a clap from Djokovic). While you can work on practicing your racquet prep, and stroke technique, it is equally important to work on your anticipation. In some cases, this may just mean playing more games and improving your hand-eye coordination.
Another good approach is to watch professional games and observe their reactions prior to a volley. Of course, it goes without saying, that anticipation is greatly improved with better fitness. The sudden jolts of movement including a sprint to the net are strenuous on the muscles and may cause injury if you’re not fully fit. Anyway, I digress. Key takeaway here is to work on your anticipation, as much as your technique. Right, what are the types of volleys?
Likely the most common volley, the punch involves the player advancing to the net, and in a short forward movement, “punching” the ball with their racquet to the desired direction. It requires a short and compact swing. Unlike your groundstrokes where you pull the racquet behind your shoulders to gain momentum, volleying only requires a short backswing, and utilizes the speed of the incoming ball to get the shot across.
Another characteristic of the “punch” is that there is a slight downward movement on the racquet when hitting the shot. This is intended to make the ball bounce earlier and take time away from the opponent as they move along the baseline to respond.
As the name suggests, the block volley is a block. It is similar to the punch, but involves no forward movement of the racquet. A player may opt to block-volley a shot when the incoming ball speed is too high, making a punch volley difficult to control. In this instance, the racquet just serves as an obstruction to the incoming shot.
Even though a block volley seems simple (hey, I can just keep my racquet in the path of the ball right?), it is one of the tougher volleys. You have to get the racquet position right, hold the racquet very loosely (even if your instinct is to grip as tight as possible), and keep your eye on the ball while it’s moving at a zillion miles an hour.
This volley is intended to stroke the ball gently into the front half of the opponent’s court, out of their range from the baseline. It’s incredibly effective in a serve-and-volley execution, or to end long baseline rallies where your opponent may be too tired to move to the front of the court. On the other hand, a poorly executed drop (i.e., the ball lands not too far away from your opponent) allows your opponent ample time to react and hit a winner due to the slower speed on the ball from the intended drop.
In terms of technique, the drop volley is similar to the punch volley, with some subtle differences. You should hold the racquet looser than you would for punch volleys, and allow for the racquet to move slightly backward as the shot is being executed. This reduces the forward distance the ball will travel after hitting the racquet, forcing your opponent to advance further forward toward the net.
Another characteristic of the drop is the open-and-upward racquet face. Given the stroke is designed to reduce ball-speed, the upward racquet face allows it to get over the net. If you keep your racquet face more straight, and apply the drop technique, chances are your ball will fall short, or will hit the net.
The drop shot can also be great when you’re under pressure, and have to lunge further for a volley. You can turn the tables and put your opponent under pressure with a well-executed drop.
The Drive volley is the closest you can get to a groundstroke in terms of technique. It is typically used when the incoming ball is at a medium/slow pace with the appropriate height, allowing you to run forward and attack the ball.
The characteristic difference between the drive and the other volleys discussed so far, is that the moderate/slow pace of the incoming ball requires you to generate your own pace, and allows you to make a bigger swing. You don’t need as big a backswing as you would for a groundstroke, but you certainly can pull the racquet back to shoulder level before executing the shot. The Drive is also very popular in a classic serve-and-volley situation.
If a powerful serve stretches the opponent, the return may be slow, and at a height that allows the server to attack it using a drive volley, and killing the rally off in the opposite direction.
The Overhead Smash
Typically a rally-killer, the overhead smash is used for high and slow incoming balls, allowing the player to pull the racquet behind the shoulders, and making contact with the ball over head-height, smashing it into the opponent’s court. The technique here is similar to a tennis serve, with the exception that the ball is moving toward the player in addition to the upward movement.
You obviously don’t have to execute the volley like Superman Sampras above (you don’t need to jump that high), but it makes for a pretty good viewing doesn’t it?
These five types cover most of the volleys you’ll see in professional games and play in your own matches. The half-volley deserves a special mention (even though it’s not strictly a volley). This is when you hit a shot right as it bounces up from the court.
It’s somewhere in between a ground stroke and a volley. In some sense, the half-volley is easier to control in terms of the direction, as the bounce slows down the ball and gives you a tad more control. However, it is also harder to time as you have to pick the opportune moment to execute it after the bounce.
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Volleying - Frequently Asked Questions
- Work on your anticipation. This is the main factor in my opinion for executing good volleys. The earlier you judge the opponent’s shot, the more time it gives you to advance to the net, choose the type of volley you’ll play, pick your spot, and execute.
- Practice the different volley scenarios. Have a partner shoot balls at you varying the height and speed of the ball. You can simulate scenarios where you actually know the type of ball coming to you (so you can perfect your technique), or have your partner vary the speed and height of the ball, this helps with improving anticipation.
Why is the volley important? Why can’t I primarily focus on ground strokes given they are the majority of the rally?
Of course ground strokes are important, no doubt about that. However, the volley adds another dimension to your game. You can kill a rally off right after a powerful serve with a well-executed volley. It takes time away from your opponent. In a situation where you’re under pressure and have to stretch for a shot near the net, you can counter-drop and put your opponent under pressure. It’s just a great shot to have in your locker.
How do you position yourself to hit a volley on either hand when you are not sure of the ball direction?
The key is to have an agnostic racquet stance when you are moving. In many cases, you can judge the direction of the opponent’s shot earlier depending on your previous shot. However, with advanced players, you cannot assume anything. When you move forward to the net, make sure your racquet is in front of you, as opposed to either side (forehand or backhand). As soon as the ball hits the opponent’s strings, you should be able to pivot the racquet to either side in order to hit the volley. The common theme again, is anticipation. The earlier you can judge the ball, the quicker you can get into position. A good example to observe here, is the racquet position of the player at the net in a doubles game. Notice how both net-players have their racquet in an agnostic position.
Volleying from the baseline is uncommon. Think about it. Volleying requires for you to hit the ball before the bounce. If the ball is still in the air while you’re executing a baseline shot, chances are the ball is going out, and you should let it bounce to be sure. Obviously, uncommon does not mean it’s impossible. There are situations where a ball travels high and far enough and may still provide an opportunity to volley, it’s just not that common.
Volleys are essential strokes to add to your stroke-locker. They give you flexibility and allow you to kill rallies, flip under-pressure situations to your opponent, and throw your opponent off by moving toward the net as they are executing their shot. The technique is definitely different from your groundstrokes, and requires a lot of practice to master. In addition, volleys also require good anticipation skills.
The decision to volley or not, or what type of volley to execute (punch, drop, drive, etc) needs to be made in split-seconds. For this, your hand-eye coordination is key. You should be able to judge the pace and height of the ball before the opponent has swung his racquet, and make your move based on that judgment. In cases where you miscalculate, you need to adapt quickly.
For example, if you anticipated a slower moving ball and advance for a drive-volley only to be surprised by a powerful drive from the opponent, you need to quickly adapt to a less aggressive volley like a punch or a block. Unlike with groundstrokes, you don’t have the time that the bounce gives you, so quick decision making is essential.
So, are you ready to volley? The ball is literally, in your court (but not on it, you have to volley it before it bounces).