From the legendary Chris Evert and Andre Agassi to Fabrice ‘The Magician’ Santoro, Justine Henin and today’s pros like David Ferrer or Sara Errani, ‘small’ players have not only made their mark in the sport of tennis, many times they’ve flat-out dominated.
Some succeeded because of their laser-like forehands (Agassi) while others dominated because if their inimitable backhands (Evert and Henin). However, no matter what shot they employed as their best groundstroke, all of these ‘small in stature’ stars had many of the same qualities shorter players everywhere need to succeed no matter the era.
In today’s times where bigger and stronger players seemingly have even more of an advantage because of technologically-advanced racquets that make creating power a walk in the park, smaller players face as big a task as ever when it comes to overcoming the superior power of their bigger counterparts.
Tough task or not, small tennis players are still succeeding in a big way today and thanks to this list of the top five tools that all small tennis players need, you can too.
One thing all small tennis players need to have is a great ‘set of wheels’. Generally, this isn’t much of a problem for smaller players, mostly because they don‘t have a whole lot of cumbersome weight to carry around.
However, just because someone is ‘small’ doesn’t mean they’ll automatically move well, so I suggest a multitude of footwork drills that are designed to increase coordination, balance, agility and cardiovascular capacity.
Either purchase an agility ladder or use erasable ‘sidewalk chalk’ so you can draw your own ladder or geometrical-shaped agility figure whenever you go to your local court. Just know that the benefits of using an agility ladder and geometrical figures are absolutely stupendous as I can attest from firsthand knowledge.
Another way for ‘small’ tennis players to increase their speed and improve their footwork is to use the court itself. My junior players run ‘suicides’ across the width of the court, touching each and every line along the way. This longstanding ‘basketball’ drill has proved to be extremely beneficial to all of my junior players in both, increasing speed and stamina.
Last but not least, another way that tennis players, (not just smaller ones), can improve their footwork, cardio capability and ‘wheels’ is to jump rope. There’s a reason that boxers and now, many of today’s MMA fighters, have used the age-old training method of jumping rope and it’s because of its many benefits.
Jumping rope may be known more as a cardiovascular exercise, but it also improves muscle tone, leaping ability, timing, agility and coordination. Smaller players that depend on having strong legs and plenty of stamina will find jumping rope to be an exercise they can’t live without.
Ever notice how accurate the majority of small tennis players are with their groundstrokes?
Well, if you haven’t, you should take note!
If you watch today’s smaller players like ATP stars David ‘The Pit Bull’ Ferrer and Kei Nishikori or their WTA counterparts, Li Na, Sara Errani, Dominika Cibulkova and Francesca Schiavone, you’ll notice that each of these players has a high proficiency level when it comes to being accurate with their respective groundstrokes.
While bigger, stronger players may be able to use sheer power to seize a small opening and ‘rip’ a winner, smaller players generally don’t possess that kind of ‘one-hit winner’ power. No, most small players need to take two or three shots to finish off a point even if they’re on the offensive, so being highly accurate is critical.
To improve my student’s groundstroke accuracy off of both wings, I give my juniors a ton of shot-making and accuracy-building drills that also help improve endurance and cardiovascular conditioning. My proven ‘two-foot’ groundstroke accuracy-improving system teaches players how to consistently hit in the corners without trying to ‘paint the lines’ too often.
You too can set up some zones to hit in and improve your accuracy. Start by seeing how many shots out of 10 you can make to each corner off of each wing. This will give you a great idea of which of your groundstrokes need the most accuracy improvement.
While bigger, stronger players can ‘go for broke’ a bit more often with their groundstrokes, this style of play often results in more unforced errors than normal. Smaller players need to be consistent with their groundstrokes even if they have high accuracy proficiency.
Being able to hit 15 consecutive shots that all land inside the court gives smaller players that many more opportunities to run their now, pooped-out opponents and finish off the point with a flurry.
Just think….players like now, World No.4 Agnieszka Radwanska, World No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki and World No. 18 Jelena Jankovic have become elite, world-class players because of their groundstroke consistency and in spite of not owning very much power when it comes to groundstrokes. No matter what level you play at, when you can combine consistency with good accuracy, you’re going to win your matches far more often than not.
If you’re small and you’ve already mastered the ‘great set of wheels,’ accuracy and consistency aspects of the game, then the next thing you’ll need to do is be able to outlast the vast majority of opponents you’re going to face. What this means is that many times, you’re going to have to dig deep into your reservoir of endurance and show your opponents what running is all about - just like Ferrer and Wozniacki often do.
Many times, both of these pros will simply wear out their opponents by hitting a succession of well-placed groundstrokes until their opponents start to lose their legs and will to continue. By getting to a lot of balls and keeping a high number of simple groundstrokes deep into the court, you’ll find that many times you’ll be able to win matches on your endurance alone. A mixture of cardio-based on-court drills, combined with some explosive wind sprints or sprint-types drills, will quickly improve your cardiovascular capacity and endurance.
5. Mental Fortitude
The final and most important tool that all small tennis players need is a healthy dose of mental fortitude – and I do mean a healthy dose!
As I tell all of my junior players and their parents, generally, if two players of equal or near-equal playing ability take the court for a match against one another, you had best believe the player with the stronger mind is almost assuredly going to walk away victorious more often than not.
If you watch enough professional tennis, you’ll see this scenario play out time and time again no matter what the size or gender of the players are. Look no further than at the mentally formidable Ferrer – or even better – the unflappable Roger Federer, though he certainly doesn’t classify as a ‘small’ player.
If you watch either player, you’ll notice that you can never tell from their body language or facial expressions whether they’re ahead in a match 6-2, 5-1 or whether they’re on the wrong end of a potential match point in a grand slam event. Being able to keep it together mentally when all hell is breaking loose is an undeniable strength unlike any other and a tool that all tennis players, not just small ones, need to have in abundance.