Five essential clay-court lessons from Barcelona’s Sanchez-Casal Academy
Spain has jumped to the forefront of tennis training in recent years. Recently I got a firsthand look at some of the techniques taught at the Sanchez-Casal Academy, on the outskirts of Barcelona. The intensive instruction on the red-clay courts, which emphasizes footwork and court awareness, gave me a perspective on the Spanish philosophy of building your game from the ground up. Here are five important lessons I discovered.
1. TRANSITION WITH THE SWINGING VOLLEY
The Spanish game is built on sound, consistent ground-stroke play. The number of hardcharging net-rushers who have come out of the country can be counted on one hand, with fingers left over. But this doesn’t mean they lack volleying skill. They’re just extremely selective about the occasions in which they approach. When given the chance to attack a floating, tamely hit ball in the midcourt, they capitalize by using the swinging volley. Unlike a standard first volley that relies on good placement, the swinging volley delivers a damaging blow. It’s a statement shot that sends a clear message to your opponent that poor defense will be dealt with harshly.
The same upper-body turn, racquet acceleration, and heavy topspin utilized on your baseline ground strokes can be translated to the midcourt. Since you’re taking the ball directly out of the air, timing the stroke properly may be a challenge. Ideally, you would like to make contact a little bit higher than usual while still coming up and over the ball. Using an upward swing will add some topspin and control to an otherwise aggressive shot. Keep your momentum moving through the swing, which will propel you toward the net. It’s more popular to hit the swinging volley off the forehand side, but with practice you can become equally effective using the backhand.
2. USE SIMPLE STRATEGY
Applying numerous strategies can muddle your execution. Competition builds pressure, so when it comes to match play keep your tactics simple. For the Spanish, there’s no big secret—hit the ball to the open court, move your opponent, and recover for your next shot. This challenges your opponent to respond and allows you to explore his game. Find a weakness and exploit it. The objective of every point is to get to a stage in the rally where attacking becomes a high-percentage play. Continue to work your opponent until you’re rewarded with an error or an opportunity to be aggressive. Getting a short ball is the goal, but remember that consistency will always prevail.
There are a couple of games you can try that will encourage this single-minded strategy. First, play a game up to 11 in which you choose one of your opponent’s strokes to exploit. Tell yourself that for the entire game you’re going to pick on that wing until it breaks. You can either repeatedly pepper shots at that stroke or hit to the other side and attack the open court.
Another game is simply to hit to the open court on every ball. Whichever side your opponent just hit from, aim your next shot to the other side. A little twist to this exercise is to lock yourself into a certain number of strokes before you’re allowed to change the pattern. For example, the ball must cross the net five times to the open court, then on the next ball you hit behind your opponent. This teaches you to be patient when you’re considering changing directions.
3. MAKE STAMINA A PRIORITY
Two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera said that in order to win on clay, “you have to suffer.” For Spanish players, the physical aspect of the game is in some ways more critical than the technical. More time is spent on footwork, movement, and stamina than on how to refine a swing. The drills that build confidence by repetition also build physical strength, so players don’t fear staying on court for a long time and going deep in rallies. It’s difficult to beat a player who can absorb pressure, stay in the point, and challenge your consistency.
To improve your on-court resilience, drill as though you’re simulating a lengthy point. For instance, try this 10-ball exercise: Stand at the baseline and have your partner move you side to side by alternating feeds to your forehand and backhand for three strokes apiece. Then move up for a midcourt ball that you punish with a transition ground stroke. Continue forward for a first volley (or you could try a swinging volley) around the service line and close in on top of the net for a second volley. Finally, have your partner throw up a lob that you must retreat for and smash. Repeat the sequence until you can’t continue. Do your best to keep all 10 shots in the court.
4. BUILD CONFIDENCE THROUGH CONSISTENCY
Don’t miss. It may seem like an unrealistic goal, but if you trust your strokes and your ability to hit one more shot than your opponent, you’ll have belief in your game. Building confidence through consistent repetition is a major facet of the Spaniards’ drill work. The same drills Emilio Sanchez practiced with his coach in the 1980s are still very much a part of the current training regimen. The player on the baseline is asked to hit aggressive topspin drives directly back to the feeder, who’s at the net. The feeder pops the ball back and the player must respond. The emphasis is on producing spin for control, clearance over the net for safety, and ultimately the ability to rally for 10, 20, even 30 shots without an error.
As you can tell, the ability to hit a reliable ball is held at a higher premium than the ability to hit winners. Here’s a great game to improve this skill: Play points up to 11 with a partner in which the ball is fed from the baseline and winners aren’t allowed. You can hit the ball with good pace and spin, and you can move your opponent around. But instead of trying to hit a finishing shot, you’re hoping to draw an error. Remember that your two main obstacles are the net and the lines. Good height on your shots will clear the first hurdle, and brushing up on the ball to create topspin will conquer the second.
5. CREATE A WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BALL
Movement and proper positioning are critical to executing sound shots. To optimize your swing, you have to know where you need to be in relation to the ball. Too close and your stroke will feel cramped; too far away and you’ll be stretched.
To reinforce this, players at the academy are asked to respond to a variety of feeds that alternate between deep and short balls to simulate an upand- back pattern. The purpose of this drill is twofold. First, it helps players recognize what constitutes a good hitting position: Through trial and error, players will realize where they need to be to produce their best shots. Second, they improve their ability to actually hit these shots by repeatedly reading the incoming ball and reacting. Players are encouraged to keep their feet active and knees slightly bent to better their movement. You want to imagine that there’s a ceiling above your head that forces you to stay low. This stores energy in your legs that you can unleash into your swing. The drill is simple and classic, but as the number and variety of the feeds is increased, so is the difficulty level.