I suspect that most everyone reading this agrees on the importance of developing net skills. I won’t bore you with reasons why, but I will make one prediction. From 2000 to 2010 we saw the game get more aggressive. From 2010 to 2020, as a response, we saw defense become more prominent. As the best players are starting to be able to defend from every position against every attack, I believe that in the next ten years we will see more and more players coming to the net as the only way to finish points. Whether it’s Federer or Tsitsipas, Barty or Gauff, the trend has appeared and I don’t think it’ll go away any time soon.
But this post isn’t about developing net skills – it’s about developing confident net players. And I make that distinction because no matter the skill level, there are still players who are not confident enough to approach the net. There are three challenges that must be addressed in order for a player to have confidence coming in: the three F’s.
1. Fear of getting lobbed
Regardless of age or size, this is quite common. Younger kids stay away from the net because they are too short. Older kids come in, but won’t close the net because they’re afraid of getting lobbed. This is why one of the first skills I teach to build confidence at net is covering the lob. It’s not so much about the smash as it is about the footwork.
There are two key concepts a player must understand. First, the fastest way to move on a tennis court is to run. Ever see Usain Bolt shuffle across the finish line? Running is fastest, and a coordinated athlete can run backwards while keeping their head over their shoulder looking at the ball.
Second, the finish line is the service line. Have a player stand at the service line, racket extended over their head. Lob them and see how close to the baseline your lob lands. It won’t be more than a foot, and that’s without the player jumping. The point? Get to the service line before the ball, and you can cover all but the most perfect of lobs. Beat the ball to the line.
Of course, there are some racket skills required. Namely, being able to get the racket up quickly and jab. Remember, we’re just looking to give a player the confidence required to close the net, and that means handling the toughest lobs. Therefore, they need to be able to hit a “jab” smash while backing up. That means that racket comes straight into the trophy position (no long takeback) and is fired by the forearm. Any bigger swing will make the timing too difficult.
2. Fear of getting hit
Why else wouldn’t a player close the net? Because they’re afraid of getting hit. One of the first skills a player should learn is to be able to block any volley that comes their way. There are a few key points:
They say that good volleyers have good hands, and it’s not for no reason. The hands are responsible for a lot of the ball’s speed, height, and direction, and more importantly in this case, they are the primary tool for handling fast balls at net. The hand, being smaller than any other segment in the arm, moves fastest, and can therefore react quickest. Players must learn to move towards the ball and only open the hand.
Jamie Murray discusses this here:
Larry Jurovich demonstrates some drills to develop these skills here:
As I said, we’re not just developing skills – we’re developing players, and those players need to overcome certain fears in order to be confident. We often think that some players are just naturally confident while others aren’t, but that isn’t entirely true. Thanks to the mind-body connection, we can train our mind to feel confident in stressful situations.
There are two panic reactions to consider. The first is our breath. What do we do when we are shocked or surprised? We gasp – breathing in. What do we do when we are relaxed and confident? We breathe out. The temptation when receiving a fast ball is to breathe in and tighten up, but this will only increase tension and foster a sense of panic. Instead, players should breathe out at contact. Forgetting the technical and physical benefits, this is a great way to trick the brain into feeling confident.
The second panic reaction is a change in posture. Once again, what do we do when we are surprised or shocked? We pop up. Players must learn to stay low with their legs. By preventing the default fear response, we can convince the brain that we are confident and calm.
Lastly, players need to understand how to protect the body. They need to know that the backhand covers 95% of body balls and that in their ready position, the backhand side of the racket should be more exposed than the forehand side.
Also, players need to be able to adjust their impact point to redirect the ball. It’s not much use being able to block a fast volley if it sets the opponent up for another passing shot. However, one doesn’t have time to adjust the body to direct the ball, so players have to adjust the impact point instead, making contact a little later to direct the ball inside-out/down the line, and making contact a little more in front to direct the ball crosscourt/inside-in.
3. Fear of getting passed
To some of us, this may seem counter-intuitive, because the closer you are to the net, the more you cut the angles off. But players often feel that they have more time to react when they are farther from the net. Covering the possible passing shots from close to the net is actually quite simple, and only requires an understanding of the geometry and the footwork.
This won’t be new to any coaches, but it is fundamental for juniors learning to come to net, especially if they feel like they are getting passed all the time. The important part is not just to explain where to stand, but why. Most players are told to “follow the ball” or even, “stand here." The truth is, that doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t build confidence.
First, players need to understand that the closer they get to the net, the less space their opponent has (and if they’re worried about getting lobbed or getting hit, see points 1 and 2). They also need to understand that the court is deceiving – while they may be looking at 27 feet of net they have to cover, the reality is that they are really only responsible for approximately 12 feet – the rest is out of play.
Second, players need to understand how to adapt their position based on the situation, and that’s why it’s important to explain the “why”. Take a look at these pictures and spot the differences.
(photos courtesy of tacticaltennis.com)
Without the lines, who’s to say that a junior will understand the logic? All four are very different, but completely logical when you know the reasoning. Understanding the rationale eliminates uncertainty and builds confidence. Furthermore, it develops a level of court awareness that can help players in other areas of the game.
Even with knowledge of the possible angles, however, covering a 12 foot span can seem overwhelming. With proper footwork, however, it’s quite manageable.
Many beginners or juniors are taught to step across their body to volley. Even if they are taught a two-step volley or to “step out”, it’s not usually for any purpose other than it being “the right way”. But a player with a big, athletic first step (one taken with the foot closest to the ball) will realize that they really do not have to cover that much territory. So long as the first step can cover 2-3 feet, they can cover pretty much any volley easily.
I haven't reinvented the wheel here — in fact, the majority of the material was developed by Louis Cayer. What I hope I've done is present a framework not for developing net skills, but for developing net players, and confident ones at that. I'm convinced that if we can understand our players' mentality and help them overcome their fears, then we can prepare them for the way the game will be played this decade.