Finding “The Zone”

Playing in the zone is something most of us “tennis-oholics” dream of doing every time we hit the courts. Most, if not all have experienced it at some point, even if not throughout a whole match. I’m a native of Sweden and in Swedish we relate to “the one” as to be in a trance.  It is this mystical, magical state that we, once we’ve experienced it, all want to be in all the time! Sometimes we feel near it other times everything feels like a forced battle and nothing flows. You may come out and start well and then slip out of the zone and lose focus on what’s important, or vice versa, you play too tentatively in the beginning but find your rhythm after a few games. There have been tons of articles and books written on this subject already. And I’m not implying that the zone only exists for tennis. However, I think that while some factors may be shared, for every sport the feeling is a little different and the road to it takes different steps.

It is important to realize that you can control your own being and playing in the zone. You may not play as well every time based on your daily form but you can find that natural flow if you know how to approach the mental game.

These last 5 weeks I’ve started playing and practicing for my own pleasure. My game had been heading south for quite some time and I accredited it to the fact that I’m only coaching while on court and therefore more or less I just develop bad habits by not watching the ball but the player across the net when we are rallying. I’m always in work-mode, analyzing and dissecting every part of the technical, strategic and mental game.  I decided to recruit some hitting partners and started playing 3 times a week. After a few hours on court I was able to focus my eyes on the ball again and could more and more keep the focus on me instead of glancing across the net all the time. I started finding the feel of the ball and my heavy topspin came back. I could feel the weight transfer in my legs and the drive on the groundstrokes. I started to play points against my hitting partners and things went fairly well. But, there was something missing. I kept feeling as if my shot selection was off. I had the shots but I didn’t put the points together well and I ended up hitting some of my shots very tentatively. I felt a bit flat.

One afternoon my hitting partner told me that he thinks I hit the ball much better when I trust my instincts. He could see how I was processing the shot before I hit it, “over thinking” is another good descriptive term for what I was doing. Trusting my instinct sounded fair enough.  Something started churning in my head. I thought to myself that I’d try to play a full session never deciding where to place the ball but let the ball tell me where and how it wanted to be hit. It was a huge success! With this frame of mind I was able to relax completely and feel almost every shot just before I executed it. My placement got better, I played smarter and higher percentage shots and I started to naturally find my weapons.

Taking on a passive approach to building points actually made me control the game more often.  It made me watch the ball more closely and it gave me a sense of freedom to do what I like to do with each and every ball, not what I think would be the best choice. I encourage you, next time you step on the court to try this outlook. I think you’ll be surprised at how good your instinct is and how much fun it is play this way.

Cathrine Harless

Grip Tension

Many tennis players carry too much tension in their bodies when they play tennis and especially when they play matches. It's easy for one to say "Stay relaxed!" I think it's a useless expression. We don't actually stay relaxed in tennis. We run, we swing, we lunge, etc. However, there is a problem when we tense the wrong muscles or tighten too many muscle in general. An easy way to relieve too much tension and enable lose and fluid swings is too relax the face and the hands. Start by putting a slight smile on your face and let your fingers wiggle slightly every now and then when you are in the ready position. The racquet should be held just tight enough to where it doesn't fall out of your hands. Make it a part of your routine to relax the facial muscle and do some wiggling of the fingers when you stand ready to receive the serve. You'll feel more relaxed and you be able to respond quickly and fluidly even to a fast serve!

Cathrine Harless

Preparing for perfection

If you look at the best forehands the best backhands and, the best serves in today's tennis. They have one thing in common. The preparation phase mimics part of the follow through. When Roger Federer takes his racket back on the forehand with the loop, the loop looks like the reverse of the whip-like motion, or the pronation of the arm/wrist when follows through. Novak Djokovic, who has one of the best backhands in the game, raises and drops the racket and in the follow through he raises the racket back up again at contact to impart power and spin in a similar motion.

On the serve we now see most of the top servers use a "dragging" motion to bring the racket up to the shoulder. This is the reverse of the whip-like snatch when the elbow and wrist pronates over the ball above the head.

My point is that by reversing the follow-through you pre-program your body to more precisely execute the type of shot-technique you desire. 

Using this knowledge will allow you to prepare slightly different for a high finish arching ground-stroke vs. an attacking approach shot. It allows you to just let go in your swing because you've already told the muscles what they are going to do when starting the forward motion. It helps you swing with an absolute freedom and relaxation and therefore you can hit with more power and great accuracy.

If you wish to hit the ball with a closed racket, loop the racket back closed. When wanting a more square racket face on the ball, open up slightly.

Try it out next time you are on the tennis court. If you want to swing with a very closed racket on your ground-stroke, loop the racket back very closed.  If you wish the racket to be more square on the ball, take it back in a loop facing the net.

Cathrine Harless