In many ways, a tennis ball machine is the best partner of all. A tennis ball machine does not have expectations– it is not disappointed when you unsuccessfully attempt a new technique. A tennis ball machine does not get tired or complain after feeding you a hundred lobs. It does not suffer from inevitable “human error” or inconsistency when providing the shots required to perfect your strokes.
A tennis ball machine is also the best opponent. A tennis ball machine has no competitive inclinations– it does not will you to make a mistake and it does not make questionable calls. It is not lurking on the other side of the net as an unnerving adversary. It is equally skilled in all strokes, so as to best prepare you for any type of player– including the dreaded left-handed or “no fault” opponent– but without the consequences of a lost match.
A tennis ball machine simply contains fuel for the only way to master this sport– practice, practice, and more practice.
Most players will agree that tennis consists largely of mental challenges. When utilizing a ball machine, a player can focus solely on recalling the basics and refining new skills, as other unnecessary obstructions– such as feelings of embarrassment, pressure, or a need to impress– are eliminated. Most importantly, a ball machine is an unparalleled source of repetition, which is the absolute key to maintaining the level of practice that is required to become a successful tennis player. Rumor has it that when Andre Agassi was young, his father made the champion hit 3,000 balls a day from a ball machine.
While backboards are, in my opinion, an under-utilized alternative, and instructors are an indispensible resource, a tennis ball machine is the only way to ensure the acquisition of all that encompasses a masterful tennis player: mental strength, agility, consistency, cardio, footwork, agility, speed, recovery, stamina, and proper execution of the spectrum of requisite strokes.
There are many drills, accompanied by seemingly endless variations of those drills, that allow players to learn, practice, and perfect the skills needed to conquer the court. A full machine should typically be dedicated to one drill, but of course, the number of times a drill is performed and which drills are selected on a given day of practice varies depending on player level and the strokes that need the most attention. Consider using targets for each of the drills as individual incentive or a friendly group competition: a small pyramids of cones, tennis ball hoppers, or anything roughly 2’ by 2’ in size.
The repetition setting, found on machines such as the Lobster Elite Freedom Tennis Ball Machine, allows for consistent practice and refinement of skills, reinforcement of newly-learned techniques, development of strategy, and the identification of weaknesses. The large ball capacity and battery size of this machine allows for extended play, as it holds 150 tennis balls and provides 4-8 hours of full charge (with an additional option to purchase an external battery pack for 4-8 hours more).
- Forehands down-the-line only
- Consider including alley shots if practicing for doubles play
- Backhands down-the-line only
- Forehands cross-court only
- Backhands cross-court only
- Forehand cross-court, forehand down-the-line
- Backhand cross-court, backhand cross-court
- Forehand approach shot, forehand volley
- Special focus on topspin
- Backhand approach shot, backhand volley
- Forehand volleys down-the-line only
- Forehand volleys cross-court only
- Advance to extreme “put-away” angle shots
- Backhand volleys down-the-line only
- Backhand volleys cross-court only
- Forehand volleys down-the-line, forehand volleys cross-court
- Backhand volleys down-the-line, backhand volleys cross-court
- (Offensive) Forehand drop shots
- Focus on underspin
- (Offensive) Backhand drop shots
- Set targets on both corners of the baseline
- Vary the height
- Touch the net with your racquet between each shot to practice adjustment of position
- The Lobster Elite Freedom Machine allows for up to 50-degree lobs to practice overheads.
- Set targets at the left corner, center, and right corner of the baseline
The random oscillation feature promotes footwork and anticipation. The three-second intervals demand mental and physical agility, and simulate real match play so that a player can practice switching between groundstrokes. Players can also set the depth settings so that the machine will place balls close to the net and further away to the baseline. The Lobster Elite 3 is the only ball machine to offer a two-line feature with variable depth settings, and the Lobster Elite Grand 4 boasts a three-line function. This means that an individual player can practice front-to-back as well as stretched, side-to-side play at various depths so as to best simulate a real opponent. Additionally, the machine is useful for multiple players or multiple lines of players when working on a drill, including doubles practice.
- Receiving forehand drop shots
- Return to baseline each time
- Receiving backhand drop shots
- Alternating forehand and backhand volleys down-the line
- Focus on quick thinking and adjustment skills, as well as hand and eye coordination
- The feed rate on a machine such as the Lobster Elite can be set as fast as one ball every two seconds, and speeds may reach up to 70 miles per hour. This is ideal for working on volleys, as quickness and footwork drills at the net are crucial. For beginners, the machine can be set slower so as to ensure time to set up shots or to change positions between alternating players.
- Alternating forehand and backhand volleys cross-court
- Alternating forehand and backhand groundstrokes down-the-line
- Corner-to-corner oscillation setting/random horizontal speed
- Focus on recovery to the center baseline
- Excellent for “stretch shots” or experimenting with a one-handed backhand slice
- Alternating forehand and backhand groundstrokes cross-court
- Start in the wrong corner of the court to practice hitting backhands or forehands on the run
- Set the machine on 'random' and force yourself to hit only forehands
- Another “extreme” suggestion for which we can thank Andre Agassi
Additional Drill Suggestions:
The revolutionary design of modern tennis ball machines, such as the Lobster Elite, launches balls across all corners of the court, simultaneously randomizing speed, spin, and trajectory so as to offer all possible combinations. Thus, variations of “repetition” and “real play” drills seem infinite.
- Use the machine to experiment with strokes that vary by player preference, such as a one-handed backhand groundstroke or volley.
- Simulate return of serve
- Often cited as the area most in need of improvement and the least practiced
- Improve on reactions to ball speed and underspin/topspin opponent shots
- You can simply create topspin or under spin by programming the settings (which makes you wonder how the professionals managed before the dawn of ball machines). You can adjust the setting all the way to number four on topspin and see if you can handle the bounce or turn it to under spin and try to control the popular cut shot.
Some machines such as the Lobster Elite come with three additional pre-programmed six-shot drills that are invaluable as they simulate the most common styles of play encountered on the court. Every player can place almost every single opponent into one of these categories:
- This setting simulates those players who try to wear down the opponent physically and mentally (mostly mentally) by waiting for the other to make a mistake.
- I have unfortunately been this player. I have seen some of the best players defeated by this type of player. And I have competed against this type of player…which made me feel guilty for the times that I resorted to this strategy myself. In any event, learning to hold your own against an opponent who is perhaps less skilled, but nonetheless extremely consistent is imperative.
- A drill that uses the back court with different types of spin.
- Power Baseliner:
- This setting represents a player who has an “attack” style, known as “first strike” tennis. The player is explosive in stroke selection, playing with pace and aggression.
- A drill that uses full back court with little spin and more ball speed.
- This setting encompasses the player who relies on variation and strategy, and who excels in identifying opportunities for “approach and put-away shots.”
- A drill that uses full back court and front court with some top spin and less speed.