The Half Volley: Mission Critical Tool for Modern Tennis Net Attacks

When you think of shots that ATP Pros are hitting a lot these days, atomic bomb serves, light speed forehands, and stonewall returns of serve are quick choices. One shot not at all associated with “modern tennis” is the half volley. That's something that McEnroe, Rafter and Edberg, and any old school serve and volley players used to hit, right? That's true, but the combination of grueling physicality and stiffer-than-stone polyester strings have made the half volley a necessary tool for ATP Pros. It's also a shot that aspiring junior players have to learn very early on to keep a competitive edge.

The Pro Tour Half Volley

Serving and volleying is supposed to be a dead form of play at the highest levels. That's not exactly true. The ATP Pro game has become so packed with the best athletes the game has ever seen that players' strategies are increasingly designed to end the point sooner rather than later. The alternative choice is to grind through 20-30 ball rallies every point, and that's a tough way to live when you're playing 20-25 tournaments per year. So when those atomic bomb serves are thrown down, moving forward and putting away the volley is a pretty common occurrence. Here's a good example from the king of clay himself:

Rafael Nadal Serve & Swinging Volley

Now remember those “stonewall returns” and the polyester strings I mentioned? When today's servers move forward what they've got coming at them is the fastest dipping and most consistently powerful returns the game has ever seen. In other words, the chances of them having to hit a half volley on this play are very high (one reason why the serve/volley play as an every point strategy just doesn't make sense). Today's polyester strings, when combined with the high racquet speeds of ATP Pros equal more topspin potential than ever before. Get ready to half volley!

The next most common situation ATP Players are forced to half volley is what's becoming the approach shot of choice: the sneak approach. While serving and volleying has to be used sparingly, those same polyester strings allow for maximum damage from the baseline. The moment one of those 100mph forehands is unleashed, and the receiver appears to be in a defensive or “on-the-run” situation, the sender of that forehand bomb is sneaking in behind it. Just one problem: he's approaching from the baseline, and the passing shot attempt is going to have a lot of topspin. The chances of that passing shot dipping to the court before the attacker reaches the service line are high. Get ready to half volley!

Here's the reigning master of half volleys, ATP #3 Roger Federer to show how to handle the half volley in these situations.

Roger Federer Top Ten Half Volleys

The Junior Half Volley

Today's American junior players are finally catching up with their European counterparts and learning to play full tennis matches on 36 foot (8u), and 60 foot (10u) courts. When they transition from the 60 foot court into 12u play on the 78 foot court (standard court), that's when the half volley becomes a necessary skill. It's certainly a necessary skill for the 14u, 16u, and 18u groups, but it's at the 12u age group junior players need to add it into their game.

I train all my 8u and 10u players to attack the net at the first sensible opportunity (many times the first ball). On those smaller courts, they rarely face a half volley situation because they can get into offensive volley position so quickly. There's also little threat of consistently accurate lobs into these small spaces. When a 10 year old has to move to a full court and cover 9 more feet, the chances of the opponent's reply dipping to the court before an offensive volley position is reached is very high. Without competence in this shot, that player will have to stay back a lot longer. With it, they can force 12u players to do something they don't do well: hit accurate passing shots using their weaker groundstroke.

There are two types of half volleys the 12u player needs to learn:
• underspin (slice)
• topspin

The first one I equip my players with the is the slice half volley. It's far easier and more beneficial for the 12u player to hit this half volley very short, and drag their opponent out of their baseline comfort zone. The average 12u junior tournament player is not adept at hitting on-the-run passing shots from 3 feet from the net – especially with a volleyer waiting to block their attempt into the wide open court. Here's a great slow motion video to show off how this shot is done:

Elena Dementieva Forehand Slice Half Volley

That's not a 12u player (former WTA #2 Elena Dementieva of Russia), but it shows the exact situation that 12u tournament players will have to face when moving up from the 60 foot court.

The topspin half volley is a different, yet equally useful shot. By the time they reach 12u, junior players are so skilled at a topspin motion, this shot can be used to hit clean angled winners from a half volley position. Federer showed that shot off, using a reverse follow through, in the above video link against Andy Roddick. I've even got 12u players who have started using the Federer-inspired topspin half volley return-of-serve (a.k.a. SABR attack). Most 12u tournament matches are played with 25% Low Compression Green Dot balls, so a large percentage of 12u boys and girls serves are vulnerable to this rapid fire attack. It's yet another benefit that the so-called “old school” half volley adds to the modern game. Without it, players at all levels will have to prepare for some long points, as moving forward will be much more difficult. With it, and both ATP and junior players can put a far quicker end to their points!