If like me your tennis is dictated by the weather and you play from Spring to Autumn you will have several months off court hibernating from the Winter. When I return to the court in the Spring it is always tough, what was so easy just a few months ago can seem impossible. The racket which fitted into my hand so snugly last season feels like an imposter, a hammer how could I ever play with this thing? Those few months without hitting a ball certainly have an effect on my game, I am terrible. My go to forehand seems to have gone AWOL, my serve hits the back fence as I do more doubles in one afternoon than in the whole of the previous season combined.
It’s a frustrating experience as I trapse around the court, cold because I cant find my rhythm in the rallies my temper is red lining as every shot I play seems to go out. Smashing a racket or hitting a ball out of the courts always seems like a good pressure release. But I wouldn’t do it, it would mean the game is getting the better of me. I can only hope the next time I return to the court I will be a little less rusty.
So what can we do to ease us into the game a little easier? For a start we should all lower our expectations you are not as bad as you think you are. I know runners would never expect to run their fastest times the first training session of the season so why do us tennis players expect us to hit our Federesque forehand straight out of the box?
Think of the first few hits as a process. Try and forget about those shots that go out or bury themselves in the bottom of the net. The more balls you hit, the quicker you will find your rhythm and the quicker your shots come back to you. Your muscle memory will come back but please persevere. There is no set time from my experience of how quickly you will start to feel like you again. It varies, some people can reach their level within a few hours others take lots of tennis before they can iron out their creases in their games.
Hit the ball higher than you normally do. As a rule I ask my students to hit the ball double the height of the net. This will help reduce the number of unforced errors especially when the weather is cold, balls are damp and the wind may have an effect on your game. Until you feel you have the rhythm and feel you once had keep it this way, high over the net. This height will give you depth too which can cause problems for those who are not very mobile.
Stay within the lines. The margins between success and failure on the tennis court are so small even for the pros so when you hit play the percentages and keep it up the middle. Once you start aiming for the corners so early in a season it could have an affect on the process of improvement and have a negative effect on confidence. High over the net, up the middle will give you the greatest chance of success on ground strokes. Try and avoid the temptation to go close to the lines especially early on. Play with margin for error and allow yourself to find your game and with it the confidence will come.
Match play. Play practice sets can also have good effects and reacquaint the body with the speed and challenges of playing tennis. But remember to lower you expectations and remember its about the process not the outcome. Focus on a particular aspect of your game each game and award yourself a grade at the end of the match. I typically like to work on my forehand, get that up to speed as quickly as possible then the other parts of my game come together following it. I know that players will find themselves under pressure and tempers may fray due to inability to do what they could do before. When you find that things are not going well, go back to basics try and focus on doing the simple things well. Keep groundstrokes high up the middle, keep volleys high over the net and certainly do not go for the lines. On the serve remember to get the ball in no matter what.
The curse of the double faults hit my recently and I can honestly say I was like a headless chicken. Rusty, lacking confidence and with no rhythm I could not buy a first serve and I wasn’t confident enough with my game to put sufficient spin on my service to get it in. The key in such a situation which on reflection I can proclaim now is to keep cool. Remember the processes and keep it simple. Play percentages and remember to uncomplicate your game. Play to your strengths and let your footwork get you around the court.
Follow these steps and in time the rusty will disappear and you be swinging like you always did.