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Tennis Blog Page

The Worst Shot in Tennis

Elina Frumerman

By Nick Laham, Getty Images

By Nick Laham, Getty Images

In his second-round match at Wimbledon in June,  Andy Roddick whipped a forehand up the line and charged the net, setting up an easy overhead smash off his opponent's weak reply.

The American leaped in the air and menacingly cocked his arm, but his swing caught nothing but air. 

A moment later, when the ball bounced behind him, he rolled his eyes in embarrassment.

No chagrin was necessary, especially because Roddick has one of the better overheads in men's tennis.

But what Roddick's miss illustrated was the overall state of the stroke — even from its best practitioners.

Once a routine staple of the sport, the overhead has become the worst shot in tennis.

"It's not pretty," says 18-time Grand Slam tournament singles winner Martina Navratilova, who possessed one of the surest smashes in recent history. "The overhead, which is a pretty basic shot, has really gone down the tubes."

These days, it's not uncommon to see players mis-time them into the net or sometimes the stands. They back off. They let the ball bounce. They convert them into swinging volleys. On occasion, they whiff.

"It's like a 50-50 proposition," Navratilova laments.

What's happened to the once-reliable finishing shot?

According to a cross section of current and former pros, a baseline-centric sport has made the overhead an under-practiced, overlooked stroke on the verge of being a lost art.

Never was that more evident than in the 10th game of a crucial third set between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals.

Serving at 4-5, top-seeded Djokovic seized control of the point with a strong approach to the net, eliciting a defensive backhand lob from the Swiss.

Djokovic backpedaled and set up the smash, which he sent long to set up double-break point. He then lost his serve and the set.

"The serve-and-volley game is almost extinct, so if guys aren't at net, they're not hitting overheads," notes Mike Bryan, the No. 3-ranked doubles player in the world with twin brother Bob. "The less you hit, the worse the shot becomes."

A missed overhead has long produced audience gasps. That's because it's usually a gimme winner. But it requires a difficult mechanical chain of skills.

A player must backpedal, cock the arm in a serving position and time the dipping ball like a toss, often while moving. Add in wind and sun, and it can become a nightmare.

"If any player says they haven't sent one into the stands, they're lying," Bethanie Mattek-Sand says.

The Bryans say the best players — Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic — generally have solid smashes.

"They don't miss overheads," says Bob, a left-hander. "All the big guys have great overheads because they are hitting more than the average guys. They're ripping guys off the court who are flinging balls up."

Still, many peg the downward trend to repetition — or lack thereof.

"I don't think it's practiced enough," says Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who recalls enduring plenty of Harry Hopman's back-and-forth overhead drills in his youth.

McEnroe, who runs a tennis academy in New York, got all over American Sam Querrey for his lack of overhead practice when they trained together a couple of years ago.

"He got mad that I only hit like five overheads," Querrey laughs.

These days, many players opt out of the overhead and hit the increasingly ubiquitous fall-back shot: the swinging volley.

"When you don't do it as much, you become insecure and sort of take the easy way out and start doing more swinging volleys," instructor Nick Bollettieri says.

Another factor is that lobs of yesteryear were often of the defensive variety. A player on the stretch had few options in the days of wooden rackets and fewer spin-friendly strings.

"Now if guys get a racket on it, with strings and technology, they can zing it by," No. 28-ranked Querrey says.

The demise of the net game can not be discounted, either, according to former pro Paul Annacone, who coaches No. 1 Federer.

"Basically the net game has totally deteriorated, and that goes part and parcel with it," Annacone says.

Pressure plays a factor, especially with a shot not as regular as it once was.

"You'd be surprised to see how many are on big points," says American Mardy Fish, who has worked hard to shore up his overhead in his late-career revival the last two years.

But former experts in the shot wonder how it has become so woeful.

"I was always comfortable hitting an overhead, even as a kid," says Pete Sampras, whose steadfast smash was as reliable as death and taxes. "It was like an easier serve."

Sampras, second all time with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, says he moved well going back and never panicked when an overhead presented itself.

"It was like take your time, move your feet a little bit and basically hit a serve, but you're hitting a serve from the service line instead of the baseline," he says. "It was one of my best shots."