Strategies for Shorter Tennis Players
In the mid 1990s, diminutive Amanda Coetzer was ranked #63 in the world and felt that she had peaked. She told her coach, Dennis Van der Meer, that she was thinking of retiring and going back to college. She felt that she was not able to compete from the baseline on a tour with more and more hard hitters and that if she tried to come to the net, her height made it easy for them to lob her.
Van der Meer suggested two strategies that would take advantage of Coetzer’s strength (speed), allow her to play more aggressively from the baseline, and help her successfully attack the net.
Van der Meer’s plan relied on a simple recognition of physics.
Rather than trying to rely on major changes in Coetzer’s strokes to increase her power, Van der Meer moved Coetzer up closer to the baseline so she could hit the ball earlier.
Remember from earlier articles in High School Tennis Coach that Force = Mass X Acceleration. This means that if you swing your racquet at 60 mph and hit a ball with an incoming ball speed of 30 miles per hour, you will send the ball back with less force than if you swung your racquet 60 mph and hit a ball with an incoming ball speed of 40 mph.
If Coetzer had stayed back and let the ball travel an extra five feet, not only would the ball be slowing down as it traveled those extra five feet toward her, but it would begin losing speed after she hit the ball five feet earlier. So not only would Coetzer initially be projecting a ball with a lower speed, but it would have to travel five feet farther, losing speed every additional foot it traveled. And all the while the ball was in the air during this extra 10-foot span, her opponent would have more time to prepare.
Moving closer to the baseline allowed Coetzer to keep a higher speed on her shots; and since her shots were arriving at her opponent sooner, the opponent now had less time to prepare for each shot.
For help in teaching your players how to hit the ball on the rise so that they can learn to play closer to the baseline, read this month’s skill-building drill.
In order to let Coetzer take advantage of her new position on the court and get to the net more easily, Van der Meer knew that Coetzer had to take away an opponent’s ability to lob her when she arrived at the net.
Van der Meer had Coetzer play several steps farther back than normal for a net player, in order to allow her to cover lobs. This meant, however, that she lost the extreme angles afforded a player when they are closer to the net. Additionally, by playing farther back, Coetzer would be hitting volleys with lower incoming ball speeds, making her volleys less powerful.
Once Coetzer could see that her opponent had hit a groundstroke instead of a lob, however, she would be able to take a few steps in to close the gap and increase her angles.
She would still be at a disadvantage, however, because of her initial position, and so Coetzer developed a swinging volley which allowed her to make up for her deepness in the court and give her stronger volleys.
At the time, virtually no women were hitting the swinging volley popularized by Agassi, but as Coetzer began a remarkable climb up the rankings, other players began adding it to their games.
Within months, Coetzer, on the verge of retirement, went from #63 in the world to the Top 10, peaking at #3.
Coetzer moved on to work with other coaches, and worked on her conditioning, strokes and tactical abilities, all of which helped keep her at or near the Top 10 for five years. However, this little dynamo’s success in a land of giants can be directly traced to her meteoric rise using the two strategies we’ve described here, and which you can use with your smaller players.