Mel Kenny is a writer, based in New York. Follow her on Instagram here. Here, she takes us through the work, anger, frustration and joy that must be endured for perfecting your groundstrokes on court.
In 2001, soft rap overlord Ja Rule released a hit song in which his punctual collaborator, Ashanti, boasted about being always on time. Not early nor late, but dependably where she said she was going to be at the agreed upon time. If this were a song about hitting groundstrokes and not tumultuous lust, we would all know that being on time is never the goal. And so, we are gathered here today to meditate on the virtues of shooting your shot good and early.
The importance of being early is a book we’ve all read before. The beauty of this widely lauded theory is its simplicity—the earlier you strike, the less time your opponent has to prepare and retaliate. That’s the Cliff’s Notes version. But in case you need further convincing about tennis’ most airtight proverb, it’s my pleasure to reiterate:
Hitting a ball late is a generous invitation for your opponent to regain a comfortable, central position from which to ruin your life or at least feel cocky enough to try.
You cut off your opponent’s angles when you hit a ball on the rise. At the risk of not appealing to self-sabotagers, I can confidently say everybody wants this.
Being early means you’re naturally moving forward. Why not storm the net if the mood strikes? As basic geometry would have it, there, it’s easier to use sharper angles that punch the ball toward the sidelines.
It’s all well and good for me to spray the merits of earliness in a digestible bullet point format, but am I, myself walking the walk? Sometimes.
Lateness, along with idle footwork, are a coach’s most frequent critiques, and committing either or both are the foremost reasons I bully myself playing this infuriating sport. As it happens, one influences the other, not unlike a ‘collab house’ full ofTik Tokers.
So, footwork. A ball moves in mysterious ways, and so your feet must move in agile ones. Getting perfectly positioned to strike early usually demands a quick succession of small steps and shuffles, closer to an impossibly tight parallel park than a simple nose-first maneuver. But! Assertive feet are only as useful as your ability to discern what kind of ball is coming your way.
My ability to anticipate balls early is debatable. A flatter, faster ball usually frightens me into a diligent split step and a compact swing—you could say I’m relatively successful there. A slice reminds me that I have not only feet to move, but knees to bend. Heavy topspin quite often muddles my movement and indeed, my timing by a fraction of a second. But there’s nothing that impairs my judgment like a loopy deep ball, in which the temptation to let it drop is obscenely ripe. And I usually do, returning an equally loopy ball of feeble pace and placement. And that is the luxury of time: we work better when deadlines are urgent.
Diagnosing balls and preparing for them is, of course, an incrementally intuitive skill learned and earned by spending time on court. Some early mornings I’ll be in an impotent fugue state and my feet can only move with a lead-like quality, an unshakeable sluggishness that betrays the reality that I sincerely want to be here. Three things to focus on at times like these? 1) Make it your business to make contact with the ball .25 seconds earlier than you think you should. This will never end badly, because recreational players are generally always (at least a little) late; 2) Nobody has ever denied the value of the split step and I won’t either. Timing its landing with the moment my opponent strikes the ball tends to awaken some kind of dormant fire within me to keenly prophesize the nature of an incoming ball, move accordingly and not let its peak become a thing of the past; 3) Consciously uncouple with your dramatic backswing! Make it compact, and enjoy the extra time it affords.
I’ll lay this disclaimer on the table: it is absolutely possible to hit a great shot whereby your contact point is not early, or when the ball is no longer on the rise. Problem is, your percentages are lower this way, and you’ll likely need to add a good amount of pace to make a decent shot. It’s something of a fool’s errand to squander your time, let a ball drop and then try to resuscitate it.
If you must hit a groundstroke late, say, if you’re on the run when your opponent cranks one out wide, I turn your attention to the Nadal method, in which you finish your swing not over your opposite shoulder, but with your racquet hand and forearm above your head, as if you intend to proudly parade your armpit for all to inspect. It's not for everyone. It wasn’t for me until quite recently. But if you’re going to do it, make it good. Example: a desperately impulsive on-the-run passing shot that takes you way off court. Given the precarity of it all, it’s very satisfying when one lands.