By: Jim McLennan
Golfers do it, and they do it many, many times. Baseball batters do it. But somehow the dry-run, the rehearsal without the ball hasn't really caught on in tennis. But whether it comes to getting a feel for a new swing path, or the nuance of a slightly different grip, nothing compares with the ritual of the dry-run, the deliberative rehearsal. Your tennis game is a subset of the habits you have acquired, and truly, rehearsing may be as good if not better than the real thing (hitting the ball) if you are working on a specific skill.
Some years ago Tom Stow suggested/required a 5 minute footwork drill for me, where I moved back and forth to forehands and backhands, rehearsing without the ball but with a specific focus. Shoes quiet, balanced, stopping on the back foot, stepping in for rhythm, and so forth. Forehand, backhand, but with this proviso, and I can see Tom at this point saying, "Do this gracefully, and don't ever expect to play gracefully until you can do this without the ball." Powerful stuff. Practicing without the ball, but with a specific intent.
Pete Fischer – Importance of Dry-Runs
Some months ago I met Pete Fischer, former coach of the young Pete Sampras, and studied his methods. And sure enough, there were many, many dry-runs, practice swings without the ball where Pete made the slightest adjustments to his pupil's balance, arm position, elbow, and more. Again, dry-runs, iterative practice without the ball, rehearsing to get the feel of a stroke to then repeat when the ball somehow gets in the way.
And that leads me back to my first coach, Blackie Jones. He taught with questions, and I can remember difficult moments when I stumbled over a question, unable to see his line of thought. I use a similar method today, and am amused at how many of the kids fake the answer by altering the sequence of the words used in the question (I blame the state of our educational system for the shocking lack of curiosity I see in our kids). But the question of the day for Blackie was as follows, "There are two elements in the serve, the toss and the swing. Do you think it is better to swing at the toss or toss the ball at the swing?" At this point Blackie paused, and was fully prepared to wait for an answer.
The Service "Swish"
So here is the drill. Mimic the entire service motion. Start to finish, tossing motion and swinging motion, but without the ball. Use your eyes just as you would normally, feel your balance, note the rhythm, and look for and try to hear a distinct "swish." Now repeat the motion and attempt to place the swish in the same location. Note, if you cannot reliably repeat the swish without the ball, there will be little chance of coordinating that motion with the ball. More dry-runs. Now attempt to actually "see" the "swish." Obviously impossible, but this gives you practice in keeping your eyes up at contact.
What is the big deal about the swish? The swishing noise the racquet makes will indicate the moment of greatest racquet speed. And as you refine the swish, both in location and by minimizing effort, you start to get an idea of your "spot," the location of greatest racquet head speed. And ultimately, precisely where to place the toss. And more than this, precisely where the toss should "peak."
Rehearsal. Iterative practice. Without the ball. Again, again, and again.