You've got the control of the point and everything is going so well. The opponent places a defensive sitter, slightly to the forehand side. All that is left now is to play an aggressive approach shot down the line to end the point. Nothing can go wrong now, right? What happens is pure horror, the ball that was meant to end the point hits the top of the net and gets stopped in its tracks. You are watching the ball bouncing back to your side of the court in pure disbelief. The simple shot managed to turn around the whole point. If only the shot went a little bit higher, it would have cleared the net. So what happened?
Net clearance is something recreational tennis players often struggle with. For some reason, at the club level of tennis these seems to be a common misconception that hitting over the net with minimal clearance is something that we should be aiming for. The lower we go over the net, the better. This state of mind leads to a lot of unforced errors and those “ah I almost got it” shots where ball ends up buried in the net. Is there really any need or actual benefit of hitting those close shots, ones that almost brush against the top of net? The only benefit that comes to mind is that the opponent might stop moving and get fooled by the low flying ball that was never meant to go over to his side of the court, in cases when it somehow does manage to fly over. How about downsides? First of all, low flying balls so often end up in the net. Worst case scenario is when ball hits the cable on the top and starts wiggling like a high wire walker, choosing to fall on your side of the court.
Tennis net is a real danger, but what can we do to prevent net errors? We need to change the way we think. Thinking that we should clear the net by inches is just fundamentally wrong. Those balls usually end up being too short, landing well inside the service box, and then the opponent has an easy job returning those shots since the ball will be bouncing at the perfect, waist height while dramatically losing speed upon hitting the ground. It does feel so good when we hit a ball so close to the net wire and it goes over, but than again it is like we are in a casino playing slot machines - the house (net) always wins!
Here are some tips that you can try out to reduce net errors and to improve your overall tennis game by reducing unforced errors that were produced by shots that went into the net.
When sparring with your partner, try to give yourself a goal to clear the net with at least 20 inches or more. The benefit you’ll immediately see is that your shots will not be stopped by the net and that your balls will be landing with a good depth in the court. Remember, the deeper your shots are, the harder they are for your opponent to return. What you can do is take the portable (mini tennis) net, one that trainers often use for 10s kids training, if it is available at your local courts. Place it in the middle of the court. Bring it close to the court net and then extend it upwards. These portable nets can be lifted up so that you have a physical barrier over the actual tennis court net, barrier that you need to clear. This is how professional tennis players practice net clearance and shots depth. Another trick is to take a rope and hang it over the net. You can tie it at the opposite ends of the court, mimicking a tennis net. Have it about 20 inches higher than the net on the court. When playing with your partner, try hitting over the rope. With some practice you’ll start to form a habit of clearing net with a nice and safe margin.
This is a spot where a lot of players fail to clear the net. When there is a sitter on the forehand or backhand side, we often hit our approach shot into the net when going for the down the line shot. There is nothing wrong with the down the line shot, but what happens here is that the net is simply higher at the edges of the court. Tennis net is lowest in the very middle of the court and gets higher as it approaches the poles on either side of the court. When playing a down the line approach shot, we need to have a nice and safe margin in order to clear the net. When you get this shot, focus on hitting well above the net and more topspin than usually, because the net is really high at the sides of the court.
Don’t worry if some of your shots go into the net. Even pros hit shots into the net. What we can do is to increase our chances of staying in the point by not hitting into the net. Easier said than done, right? Yes, but with practice we can indeed form some good habits of clearing the net with a good margin and then, if we hit enough practice balls, we might start to do it on “autopilot” in important matches. Being aware of benefits and downsides of clearing the net is a good starting point. When you are on the court next time, just take a moment to think about your net clearance and experiment with shots depth and height. Look at the net and notice how it gets higher towards the mounting poles. Sneeky? Try hitting with more topspin and having a nice and full swing with a follow through. This will help you get more depth and height in your shots. In the end, if there would be no tennis net, the game would be so easy and boring so we have to enjoy the love-hate relationship as it makes the game so much fun to play.