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Michael Emmett: “Short Court Tennis is a Waste of Time”

Can someone please remind me why tennis players worldwide are still engaging in the silly practice of short court for a warm-up? Warm-ups are meant to be quick, engaging and useful. After two minutes we should be sweating. The way most amateur members stand on the service line and bunt the ball back-and-forth is a colossal waste of time. The short court warm-up was designed for pros who are still striking the ball in a full athletic swing generating tons of spin, however, unlike most amateurs; they are maintaining the shape and speed on the ball while contacting it in the perfect strike zone. Short court is not for everyone.

Written by: Michael Emmett

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***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs.  He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet.  Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada.  Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s.  Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***

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Can someone please remind me why tennis players worldwide are still engaging in the silly practice of short court for a warm-up? Warm-ups are meant to be quick, engaging and useful. After two minutes we should be sweating. The way most amateur members stand on the service line and bunt the ball back-and-forth is a colossal waste of time. The short court warm-up was designed for pros who are still striking the ball in a full athletic swing generating tons of spin, however, unlike most amateurs; they are maintaining the shape and speed on the ball while contacting it in the perfect strike zone. Short court is not for everyone.

If it was up to me I would ban ‘mini’ tennis forever for all club players. Most people in the tennis industry agree with me – it is extremely ineffective. As the Director of Tennis at the Mayfair clubs I see it constantly – and it rarely works. This is another example of how we are all just a bunch of sheep as we continue to do this fruitless exercise because we see other more experienced players execute it to perfection.

However, for most it’s pointless and completely unproductive. Whatever you are doing inside the service line can be accomplished from the baseline. If you are so inclined to stay close to the net for a warm-up then make it worthwhile and go volley-to-volley. In other words, get your eyes focused and your feet moving in a game of ‘reflex volleys’. This is a great way to get the motor running.

If you can’t keep the ball in the play for more than six hits (with the correct speed and spin) you should be backing up to give your partner/opponent more of an opportunity to bounce the ball in front of you. More time and more space is always the answer if you are struggling. Standing in no man’s land or about 2 meters inside the baseline is a suitable solution to this ever rising problem. Hitting the ball with topspin, controlling the depth, and landing it in the ideal spot for the person on the other side of the net is a difficult task to say the least. My guess is ten percent of the recreational members can do this properly (inside the service line) and gain the benefit it was intended for.

What I see are terrible habits that come from this drill. One of the biggest issues with club players is a lack of racquet speed. Standing inside the service line and guiding the ball back to your opponent exacerbates the problem. Swinging out or hitting with confidence on every ball is a major issue with most 4.5 and below amateurs – most don’t do it. Once the players move back they are not warmed up and they have just wasted ten minutes on a task that has netted no results. 60 minutes of court time is costly and wasting ten minutes can be extremely frustrating. Unless you are out there for a social session and gossiping with your fellow member, short court is not for you. Most members who start from the service line position are constantly talking and not focusing on the task at hand. And therefore, a coffee in the restaurant is probably a more realistic activity.

Short court tennis should mimic a ‘real’ stroke and if it does not then it’s a waste of time. It’s a smaller version of the long, arching, penetrating groundstroke. The difference is mini tennis shots travel about 40 feet while the normal baseline shots are in the 60-70 foot range. To dip the ball over the net with some spin and speed takes an enormous amount of skill. The hand action (brushing) needs to be spot on. And both players need to have equal dexterity to master this exercise. As I said earlier – this is only for the very advanced player. Two 5.0 tennis players can make it work but they must work collectively to extend the rally past ten shots.

If you are going to use the mini tennis exercise and make it beneficial then you must focus on three things:

  1. Footwork: The point of short court is to warm up effectively and feel ready to play once the match begins. This should include a split step every time your partner hits the ball, taking little steps (to nowhere) between each shot, and setting yourself up for each groundstroke as you would on the baseline.
  2. Technique: This is extremely difficult for most recreational players. Simply put – you need to be using full groundstroke mechanics on both forehand and backhand while keeping the ball inside the service boxes. In some cases this is NOT realistic and that’s why I’m adamant that this skill is ONLY for the pros. They are the only ones who can control the speed and rhythm of their swing on a continual basis.
  3. Have a Goal: This is massive. Don’t just aimlessly hit the ball back and forth, have a goal that makes sense for you and your partner (unless it’s a match) and then focus on your own goals and forget about them.

In summary I would skip the short court exercise forever. It is too cumbersome for the ‘average’ player and produces limited results most of the time. Start in 3/4 quarter court and get the feet going right from the get-go and gradually get the spin and speed on the ball where you are feeling comfortable to move back to the baseline for a more standard warm-up. The objective is always to be ready to play once the first serve has been struck. Five minutes on a stationary bike or a quick three minute is jog is all you need to get the heart pumping and the joints limber. This habit will be much more contributive then anything you might do on the tennis court. Time is so valuable in the winter season in Toronto on the tennis courts; don’t waste a portion of your time doing a discipline that is counter-productive, futile and unnecessary.

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