Many years ago I was watching a match in Japan between Andres Gomez and Aaron Krickstein. I was sitting close to the court and realized that I was watching something very different from anything I had ever seen before. I was watching a table tennis rally! Both Gomez and Krickstein were trying to produce a rally that was dominated by the flight of the ball rather than where the ball was bouncing. They were controlling the ball inside a tight “funnel” of arc through the use of topspin.
Today that might seem normal but back then it was the beginning of a new era in tennis.
Long before this, Bjorn Borg had changed our perception of topspin in tennis. Borg hit the ball with much more arc than any other player at that time and years later while watching that match in Japan I was witnessing the beginning of a post Borg era. The younger players coming through such as Krickstein and Jimmy Arias were hitting tremendous topspin on the ball and in the process were increasing the speed of the rally.
These evolutionary steps from Borg to Krickstein are important and they are exactly the steps I use today to teach players the value of topspin and how they can use topspin to increase the speed of their groundstrokes, and yet still retain control of the arc.
These steps are:
1. Learning the importance of Arc
Borg introduced us to the importance of the arc. He was able to stand deep in the court and rally all day without error because the ball was crossing the net higher than anyone else and dipping well inside the lines.
Have your players rally across 3 courts at diagonally opposite sides. Rally from court 1 all the way over to court 3, using court 2 as the “net”. Encourage the players to hit heavy topspin looping shots. Before long the big muscles will begin to hit the ball and the player will begin to lift off the ground to hit the high bouncing ball.
If there is an umpire-stand in the middle of this drill even better!
I have also used flat tennis balls that don’t bounce much and sometimes have used balls out of a bucket of water. This takes the life out of the ball and creates a very physical workout for the players involved.
2. Creating a physical presence with big Forehands
The next generation after Borg realized that if they were able to comfortably control the arc of the ball through heavy topspin, they could also increase the speed of the ball without the fear of it flying out. This generation began to develop huge forehands and physically muscle the ball, and their opponents, around the court. Andre Agassi and Jim Courier were another two successful players to come out of this era.
After the 3 court topspin drill I have just described, bring your players back to one court. Place a “short” target in the middle of the service boxes and stand the players back to the fence. Now have them rally from deep at the back fence, attempting to hit the cone target placed at the service boxes.
Make sure the players maintain the arc from the previous drill and again allow the whole body to lift off during contact.
3. Taking the ball early to increase the pressure
The next stage of this topspin evolution came when players began to move closer to the baseline. Agassi was famous for his ability to stand on the baseline and take time away from his opponents. Another player who changed his position on the baseline was Thomas Muster. Muster was known as a player who could chase balls all day but wasn’t able to attack the point because he stood too far back from the baseline. When Muster began to stand closer to the baseline during the rally exchange his opponents immediately felt more pressure and Musters ranking soared. Players like Muster, Agassi and Courier all had Borg’s arc, forehands from the Krickstein and Arias era, but began to stand closer to the baseline. Muster, Agassi and Courier all became #1 ranked in the world.
Instruct the players to stand with their heels inside the baseline to rally. Encourage them to increase the speed of the ball while still maintaining the topspin arc. Have them resist the temptation to step back on deep balls.