PRACTICING FROM YOUR COUCH

Certainly everyone can learn from watching the pros, but remember that the tennis you watch on television tonight has very little resemblance to the tennis you play on the court tomorrow. "Practicing" by watching the pros can get tricky.

Here are some suggestions of things you can watch for that all the pros do, and that the rest of us can and should do as well.

* Watch the pro's feet. Every pro you will see on television starts moving before the ball is served and keeps the feet moving until the point is over. Small, quick steps. Every player!

* Notice their visual concentration. The visual concentration of the pros is evident and intense. They start concentrating on the ball as soon as it is out of the can and don't "disconnect" until it is back in the can.

* Look at the positioning and anticipation. The pros take an educated guess as to where their opponent's shot is going. Anticipating is something all the pros do. Yes, even the pros occasionally get caught zigging when they should have been zagging, but trying to anticipate more effectively will make you a better player.

The above are three examples of habits or skills the top pros have that humans should try to copy or incorporate into their own games. Next are a few things that the pros do that you should probably NOT try to copy or incorporate into your game. At least not yet.

* Do not try to hit your first serve as hard or your second serve with as much spin as the pros. First, because you can't, at least not with any consistency. Second, because you don't have to.

* Don't try to hit your shots as close to the lines or the net as the pros often do. Regular humans need a much, much safer margin of error both over the net and inside the court.

* When you are in trouble, don't try to go for a winner. Sometimes it is a pro's only hope, but you have safer, higher percentage options. Try a defensive lob.

* Remember, the pros on television are exceptional athletes and extraordinary tennis players. They have hit more tennis balls by age twenty than you'll hit by one hundred and twenty. They do this stuff for a living. You don't have to try to hit the way they do, and your opponents can't.

PRACTICING ON THE COURT

Okay, you've practiced a bit on the backboard and you've studied some play from courtside, and you even "practiced" a little the last time you watched television tennis. But what really is the most fun and best practice is hitting with other humans.

One way to practice effectively when you're actually playing a set is to try to consciously practice only one or two aspects of your game. For example, concentrate on just varying your returns of serve or focus on your teamwork and your communication if you're playing doubles or maybe your approach shot if you're playing singles.

Concentrating and working on just one or two parts of your game at a time is generally more productive than simply going out on the court and "trying to play better." It goes back to setting simple, attainable goals.

You can also obviously practice on the court when you are not in a match situation. The possibilities are limitless, and the following are some suggestions to get you going.

* Serve and Return. Simple. One person works on serves and the other returns. You do not play the points out. One person serves a dozen or so serves that his/her partner returns. Then switch. These are the two most important shots, and the two that people usually practice the least.

* Lob and Overhead. One person starts at the net and puts the ball in play to the other person in the back court. You play out the points, but the only shots permitted are lobs and overheads. Play to ten points, then switch positions. This is a great workout and great practice for two underpracticed shots the lob and overhead.

* Same-Team Tennis. One player begins the "point" with a serve, and both players try to keep the ball in play with quality shots. You're on the same team trying to set a record for continuous hits without a miss. You can try for 20 or 2,000. You can also say all the shots must go crosscourt or behind the service line or whatever. The variations are limitless. The idea is to keep the ball in play.

* Ghost Doubles I. In this game, the players are not using the singles court but playing diagonally on the doubles court. The server begins the point, and any ball that does not land in the half-doubles court on the diagonal is out.

* Ghost Doubles II. The same as above except the point is not started with a serve. The ball is simply put in play. The point is played out in the doubles court, not on the diagonal but straight ahead. Yes, you get to use the alley.

* Mini-tennis. The court is simply shrunk. The service line becomes the back out-of-bounds line. The serve is underhand and the ball can be hit on the bounce or in the air. You can't stroke the ball, but it can be excellent practice for your foot-work and racquet control.

It is all practice and it all really should be fun. So make up your own games, your own rules, your own ways of enjoying your "practice" time on the tennis court.

FIVE IMPRACTICAL PRACTICING PRACTICES

The following are only five examples of silly things you may have been guilty of when you thought you were practicing your tennis.

1. Practicing mostly what you already do the best. Concentrating too much of your time on the aspects of your game that need the least practice.

2. Not practicing those things that you presently execute the worst. Avoiding working on the aspects of your game that need the most practice.

3. Practicing too long on shots or stuff you never plan to really use in a game.

4. Never really practicing at all. Just trying to win.

5. Forgetting to practice the two most important shots the serve and return of serve.

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