January 12, 2009

Why I Love Mini-Court

Around here, warming-up for a match, a clinic, a lesson or drills always starts with "mini-court" tennis. You stand at the service line and your opponent, across the net, does the same. In singles, you're in the middle of the court, at the center of the service line. In doubles, you're on the service line at the back of whatever service box is on the side you'll be playing (forehand or backhand side). Then you just "tap" the ball back and forth with your opponent. The goal - keep the ball in the service box across the net and hit it after one bounce on your side. This is not a volley drill so you don't take it out of the air.

Sounds boring, right? Most people want to rush through this little preliminary warm-up or try to skip it altogether. Even those who play a few minutes of mini-court don't try too hard - they're OK with the ball going anywhere but the opposite service box and don't care if they keep "lobbing" you, with the ball going over you and behind you and into the other service box and onto the next court.

But mini-court tennis can be a very helpful drill. You don't have to take my word for it - I once saw Mashona Washington, a pro ranked as high as No. 50, play mini-court for over an hour! She was just tapping the ball back and forth over the net. And I thought, "If it's helpful for Mashona Washington, surely it can do something for me!"

So here's what I think you can get out of playing lots of mini-court tennis:

1. Mini-court helps you practice placement. You probably know that placement is usually more important than power in ordinary ladies' doubles. In mini-court, the area you are supposed to hit into is only a fraction of the size of the whole court. To be successful, you must place the ball much more accurately.

2. Mini-court helps you practice restraint. Most of us want to hit the ball hard. At least I do. In mini-court, you have to learn to hold back just a little. Unless you're going to put topspin on every ball (see No. 3 below), you are going to have to practice restraint and patience to keep the ball in and to keep the rally going. Restraint can be a very valuable tool during a match when a small tap over the net results in a point won where a hard whack at the ball often ends up in the bottom of the net.

3. Mini-court helps you practice topspin. One way to keep a ball in during a full-court game is to take a full swing at the ball, hit hard and flat and cross your fingers that the ball doesn't go out. Another way is to take a full swing with topspin, causing the ball to drop in at the last minute. In mini-court, you can practice this by taking a pretty full swing at the ball and keeping it in with topspin. You will have to put massive topspin on that ball to get it into the opposite service box, much more than you would usually use in a match.

4. Mini-court helps you with footwork. When you are playing mini-court against someone who really doesn't care where their ball goes, you will find yourself running down all kinds of things. When this happens, don't get frustrated with players who do not know how to do a "proper warm-up." If you can consistently respond to this by not only returning those balls, but also placing them back in the opposite service box, i.e., playing proper mini-court tennis, maybe it is time for you to take on Mashona Washington!

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