If I had it my way, I would be constantly playing against different players that would challenge me in multiple ways.  For example, I would practice against a big server to work on my returns and a strong counter puncher to work on my controlled aggression.  Unfortunately the amount of players and time we have are limited so we have to make the most of what practices we can do.  This is why I have used many different tactics to get the most out of my practices.  Here are a few tips for you to try depending on the type of player you are practicing against.

Practicing with a non-match player

I have a very solid tennis player that I’ve hit with but he wants nothing to do with a match so we just hit.  No points, just hitting.  This can make practices seem less intense and also give you a false sense of you hitting well when there isn’t any pressure put on yourself during the hit session.  There are ways around this.  First, I will play points in my head up to a set.  So every ball that I drop feed I’ll say a score to myself.  This keeps me focused and puts added pressure to my playing.   To increase intensity, I first will make sure I wear shorts with large pockets so we can hit as many balls as possible with fewest breaks.  High reps always trump low reps when you are hitting.  Lastly, see if you can end practices with a tie-breaker or just serves and returns.  Even if they don’t want to play it out, it would be good practice to start the point, which is critical in tennis.

Practicing with someone that only plays matches

Some players just want to play matches.  First of all, you should have a few of these players available to connect with to make sure you are getting match experience.  There is a huge difference between hitting well and playing well so find people to play matches!  There are a couple of guys I know that will only play matches and I’m usually pretty rusty.  If this is you, come into the match with low expectations.  You have to remember (see my last blog) that if you haven’t put in a lot of time to prepare, you can’t expect too much.  This allows you to work on things during your match.  For example, try hitting some drop shots or slicing your backhand.  See what gives your opponent trouble.  The more you are in tune with how you are playing in your matches the better you can make your practices.  For example, if you realize your return is not very strong, get someone to serve at you in practices to improve that shot.  No matter how you play in the matches, make sure you pay attention to things you can do next time to put a better effort into your match.

Practicing with someone that is out of shape

This has been a common experience of mine.  I have met many players that are good but haven’t stayed in shape so they have limited energy and mobility to play well during the practice.  Obviously if you were playing a match and you didn’t know this person, you would take advantage of this situation but knowing that you want to get the most out of the practice, a different strategy has to ensue.  I will often try to hit cross-courts with them as well as play out points cross-court.  This allows me to work on doubles strategy and not worry about the player getting too tired to put up a good effort during our practice.  If I sense any lagging I’ll be the first to ask for a water break to relieve the pressure from him that he is holding up the practice if he took a break.  Another good idea is to hit right at their stronger side to make it harder for you to get to the next ball.  This will help with your ball control and movement.

Practicing with someone that is not as good as you

This can be a great practice if done right.  There are two things I will do when hitting with someone I know I can beat.  Both relate to giving him/her the best opportunity to win.  First, I will focus on a shot that I struggle with.  So if I struggle moving forward, we will play out points and every short ball I move in no matter what.  You can do the other way around with this if you have poor passing shots, meaning give a short ball on purpose to force your opponent into the net to work on your passing shots.  If my backhand is something I am working on, I will run around all my forehands to hit as many backhands as possible.  Another way of doing this is to assess what the patterns of your opponent are.  If they tend to hit all their backhands cross-court, I will hit all my shots to their backhand to ensure they hit it to mine.  Another method is to go towards their strengths.  I just did this in recent practice of mine where we played out points and as soon as I won the first game, I knew it would be more difficult for me to win if I hit every ball at his forehand.  If you pay enough attention to what your opponent has to offer, you can really make this a great practice!

Practicing with someone that is better than you

This is sometimes nerve racking as the common thought is you do not want to waste your practice partner’s time.  I always ensure they get something out of it.  For example, I have a good serve so I’ll make sure they get to return or play out points with me serving.   Also, I try to keep in good shape so that we can run drills that will get us to hit a lot of balls but it doesn’t necessarily keep either of us from getting a good workout in.  The more your practice partner feels like it was worth their time, the more opportunities you will have to hit with him or her!