A volley in any sport is a shot that is hit before the ball hits the ground. In tennis, generally a player hits a volley when in a position near to the net, though there are certain volley shots that can be executed from mid-court or nearer the baseline.
A volley in tennis, as in many other sports is an attacking shot, reducing significantly the time your opponent has to return the ball. It is usually a pretty powerful shot and when well directed, can win a point outright. Being near the net means that the volleyer is able to direct the ball through a wide variety of angles and can make it impossible for the opponent to return the shot.
A volley is generally played as a player is advancing to the net in order to try and close the point. Often what you see in a game of tennis is a player volleying the ball twice in succession to win the point, the second volley a ‘put away shot’ and moving closer to the net in the process. For this reason, it is unusual that a volley is hit in the ‘last quarter’, in the area between the base and service lines.
Great volleyers of recent times include; Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and our very own Brit, Tim Henman, who is widely touted to be the best volleyer in the modern game. Sampras was a great athlete and was particularly famous for his spectacular "diving volley".
Some great volleyers of old include; Vinnie Richards, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Martina Navrátilová.
Perhaps most important of all when preparing to execute a volley shot is the positioning of the feet. As seen in the video by Brent Abel it is very important to align your position with the incoming ball by moving your feet, rather than reaching out to the ball with your arm. Stretching your racquet out in this way can cause you to unbalance, resulting in a poor connection with the ball.
As explained in the following video from Rick Macci the amount of racket swing that you put into a volley shot is also highly important. A ball that approaches you at speed should be volleyed using the racket to simply block the ball, often referred to as a stop volley. If you turn the racket head slightly in a stop volley, you can achieve some backspin which will cause the ball to fall short with little bounce. A slower moving ball however, can require a much deeper swing and is often called a deep volley.
There are various types of volley shots that can be played in a game of tennis. Volleys can be roughly divided into four groups: high volleys, low volleys, backhand and forehand volleys.
High and low volleys
High volleys are taken when the incoming ball is over waist height and can be either hit or blocked. Low volleys are almost always invariably blocked. As seen in the previous video, although you can take a short swing at a volley shot, there is actually very little follow through on the ball.
It is important to maintain the wrist in a tense position when dealing with either a high or low ball and to keep the wrist position behind the line of the racquet head. Maintaining a strong racket head should be enough to return the ball back over the net to your opponent, without having to swing at the shot.
As a rule, most high volleys should be hit with length and speed, whereas low volleys usually demand a softer touch and consequently fall a little shorter. A volley hit with more swing and speed can be driven aggressively downward, as in a normal ground shot. Drive volleys of this nature, if well executed, are an excellent means to reduce the time your opponent has to react and an opportunity to approach the net for that point winning shot.
Forehand and backhand volleys
Forehand volley shots more or less mirror a conventional forehand shot. The continental grip is often favoured when executing a forehand volley as the hand position does not have to be changed. An eastern grip could, however, offer more possibilities in terms of putting topspin or backspin on the ball, that can make that volley an even more devastating shot. To give your forehand volley shot more power, a two handed grip could be adopted, something used to devastating effect by Pancho Segura in the 1940s and 50s.
The backhand is a difficult shot to master in terms of shot consistency and accuracy, as you are "pulling" across the ball and it is therefore more tricky to time. It can be prudent to use a two-handed backhand shot when starting out as a player, until you have the strength in your backhand to rely solely on one hand. Many top tennis players chose to use a two handed backhand when volleying the ball.
The purpose of a volley shot is to be attacking and aggressive and hopefully force your opponent into a weak reply shot, or none at all. Overall, there is little swing in a volley shot. A strong, stable racket head must be offered and a punchy shot delivered as a result.