The Long Gray Wall

When I was a young kid, my mother used to take me with her when she was meeting her friends for tennis. The park where she liked to play had a long gray concrete wall–really long, and really high. This was back when handball was a popular activity. In the evenings, you could usually find three or four handball games taking place simulaneously on each side of the wall.

But during the mornings, when my mom took me to the park, the wall stood empty. I’d bring along my little wooden racquet and hit against the wall while I waited for my mother to finish her game. I wasn’t very good so I ended up doing an awful lot of running as each inadvertently angled shot caromed off the wall. But I was young and energetic, and chasing down my ball to give it another whack with my racquet was all part of the fun.

Later, when I learned to control my shots a little more, I’d go to the wall on my own. I’d deliberately hit my groundstrokes inside-out, working forehands down the length of the wall and backhands on the way back. I could complete three “laps” of the wall before my lungs would give out.

It had been years–decades, actually–since I’d last faced a wall. But this month, as I worked alone in the park on my serving challenge, I decided to give it another try.

My town’s tennis wall isn’t long and high, but narrow and short (and green). Remembering all the running I did as a kid, I was a little nervous facing this puny backboard. Controlling my shots would be even more important.

In truth, the first few minutes were ugly. There was a definite learning curve: how far to stand from the wall, how hard to hit the ball, and how much lift to give the ball based on the height of the wall. Fortunately there was no one around or I might have quit in embarrassment.

It didn’t take me long to get the hang of things, though. After about ten minutes, I found I could control my shots well. And once I re-discovered the knack of hitting against the backboard, I realized A) I still enjoy doing it and B) the wall is a killer way to improve my groundstrokes. Here’s why:

Footwork. When you hit a ball against the wall, the wall sends it back fast. Really fast. Much faster than an opponent or ball machine does. There’s no time to relax between shots–you are always moving your feet. And because you’re never standing still, you’re lighter, quicker, able to position yourself the correct distance from the ball. I found myself making contact with the ball, over and over, in exactly the right spot, with far greater consistency than when I’m hitting with another person. The ball is simply too fast for me to be slow.

Pressure. It’s one thing to exchange groundstrokes in a friendly rally. It’s something else to try to maintain my form under pressure. Pressure can come from aggressive volleyers across the net or just heavy hitters. When strong opponents take my time away, my form can start to break down. But no opponent is better than the wall. The wall will never miss. Hitting against the wall forces me to practice maintaining my form under the most relentless pressure there is. The wall makes me focus on my shot, and only my shot.

Fitness. The wall is a beast. It never tires and it never needs water. You’ll hit many more balls in five minutes against the wall than you’ll hit with a person or a machine, giving you the perfect opportunity to focus on form when you’re running out of gas. If I hit against the wall for twenty minutes a day, no doubt my cardio fitness would improve, as would my running-on-empty form. (Maybe that’s September’s tennis challenge…)

Footwork, pressure and fitness were three of the aspects of consistency I wrote about on Monday. A brief hitting session on the wall works all of them simultaneously. But the time I’m spending on the wall is starting to help my game in other ways, too:

Racquet preparation. I’ve known for some time that I ought to work on better racquet preparation: quicker wrist drop, shoulder turn, and racquet take-back. But when I’m playing against the wall, I’m not “working on it”–I’m just doing it. My body automatically does what it has to do in order to keep up with the pace–did I mention the ball comes fast? Being forced into quicker preparation will pay dividends when I’m back on the tennis court.

Knee bend. Pros are always telling us to bend our knees. Sometimes I do. But usually I just lazily drop the racquet head instead. Despite this terrible habit, I often manage to hit a decent shot, which reduces my incentive to change. Against the wall, however, this bad form doesn’t work. If I try to lift the ball with just my racquet head, it ends up sailing over the short backboard and into the weedy brush. (I hate losing balls over the wall, even old practice balls.) The only way for me to control a low ball is to bend my knees and maintain my form. And when I do, I hit a great shot. (Hmm. Once again, the pros seem to know what they’re talking about.)

Catching my racquet. My coach Tom is always after me to catch my racquet in my left hand at the end of my forehand stroke. For whatever reason (probably simple obstinance), I can’t or won’t do this. But when I play against the wall, I have no choice. If I don’t catch the racquet, there’s no way to get back to ready position before the next shot. The ball is just coming back at me too fast. With the backboard, I don’t even think about catching my racquet. I do it automatically, just from instinct and self-preservation.

Watching the ball. Yes, I should always watch the ball. But it’s hard. There are so many other interesting things to look at: the target I want to hit, the net I don’t want to hit, the opponents who are closing fast. Not watching the ball becomes a habit, ingrained by repetition. When I hit against the wall, there’s nothing to look at. No target. No net. No people. I end up watching the ball by default, and you know what? It really does help. (Go figure.)

Playing against the wall is forcing me to adopt better habits, without much conscious thought and without having to battle my stubborn nature. The only exception is bending my knees. Being robbed of time doesn’t automatically cure this aspect of my laziness. But the wall does penalize me in the form of lost balls, so I now have an incentive to change.

Not only am I improving my consistency by hitting against the backboard, I’m having a lot of fun! Maybe I do want to be a long gray wall, after all…

When was the last time you hit against a backboard? Do you find it helpful?

6 thoughts on “The Long Gray Wall

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  1. It has been a while since I’ve hit against a wall. I must admit, when I say the picture of your wall, I thought “oh my, that’s a small target. This would not go well.” It’s good practice though.

    1. Yes, VERY small target. But you really do make the adjustment you need to make. I had my doubts and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Go give it a try!!

  2. Very insightful post. It makes me want to give the wall a try again. Last time I hit against the wall, which was at least 5 years ago, I stunk! Maybe I’ll be better this go around?

  3. Also, starting out with older balls–not dead, but not fresh out of the can, either–will help. Overly lively balls will make those first wall sessions way more challenging!

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