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Dave Rineberg's Coaching Corner: Two shots that separate the winner from the loser on clay

Dave Rineberg in Opinion 16 May 2018
  • Dave Rineberg is back with another installment of his Coaching Corner
  • Rineberg is the former hitting coach of the Williams sisters and has coached 26 top-100 players
  • Read on as Dave talks us through the two shots that separate the winner from the loser when it comes to clay-court tennis
Rafael Nadal on his way to a tenth French Open title (ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Clay-court season is upon us again and there are two shots - the backhand slice and the backhand drop-shot - which separate the winner from the loser on this unique surface.

It’s that time of year again where white socks turn orange, the kick serve takes the place of the power serve as most effective and the average shots per points goes from 3 to 7 shots. Yes it's red clay season and that means all are adding tactics and shots to their games in preparation for the upcoming French Open. 

There are two shots in particular that can often separate the winners from the losers and both shots are played off the backhand side. Those shots are the backhand slice and the backhand drop-shot. A player can get out of a lot of trouble or create instant offense with both of these two shots. Even players who are not known to hit either shot will attempt both because of the tempting advantages. So what is it about the backhand slice and backhand drop-shot that helps a player win on clay? 

Let’s take a look at their uses:

Dominic Thiem prepares to hit a backhand slice against Rafael Nadal in Madrid (OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)
1. Use the backhand slice to neutralize a ball’s high bouncing topspin. The backhand slice is a counter-shot to the high topspin shot that players will hit to your backhand side on the slow red clay courts. 

When a ball has a high bounce, it takes more strength and effort to add power to the shot using your normal two-handed or one-handed stroke. It is efficient to hit down through the high bounce with a slice stroke which has a neutralizing effect to the forward topspin bounce because it counter-spins the rotation of the ball.

2. Use the backhand slice and drop-shot for low balls. The high to low swing path of the backhand slice is best for handling low balls because it’s easier to get an edge of the racquet under the ball and add the spin needed to give it lift. 

These low balls can also be hit as effective backhand drop-shots, depending on the amount of spin you are able to produce. The drop-shot can turn a defensive situation quickly into an offensive one.

3. Use the backhand slice to reach wide shots and the drop-shot for offense. The points on a clay court can last a long time and take you to the furthest parts of the court. There will be times when you will be pulled so far off the court or get so behind in your footwork that you can’t get your feet set to hit a full stroke. 

In these times of trouble, the extra reach of the backhand slice will aid you in your defense to stay in the point, and the shorter, more compact swing of the backhand drop-shot can quickly turn defense into offense.

Petra Kvitova on her way to the Madrid Open title (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP) 
The technique for hitting both the backhand slice and drop-shot are similar. Both have a swing path from high to low, but it’s the angle of descent that determines how much spin you will put on the ball, and whether your ball will slice deep or drop short.

To hit both high and low bounces follow these steps:

  • The set-up. Set your elbow right up under your chin as you take your racquet back. In this position you should feel that your racquet face is positioned behind your head. That position of the racquet face behind your head is the secret that most pro-players use in their set-up.
  • The swing to impact. Swing down and through the ball so that the tip of the racquet is angled down towards the clay at impact.
  • The follow-through for low balls. Pull the arm and racquet across the front of your body with the tip of the racquet continuing to point down, and follow-through up the other side of your body with the handle of the racquet pointing up as your arm continues to lift. Keep the handle of the racquet pointing up as your arm lifts. This is not only going to help you lift the low balls, but also add spin. Experiment with how high you can lift the racquet with the handle still pointing up on the follow-through.
  • The follow-through for the high bounce. Set the elbow, arm and racquet in the same way, but now attack the ball with the racquet tip angled up at the sky, instead of down at the clay. Swing around and down through the ball trying to keep the handle of the racquet pointing down throughout the follow-through.

The Tip: To feel the difference between the backhand slice and backhand drop-shot, you must experiment with the racquet face angle at impact and the angle of descent into impact. These two factors are most important in seeing what kind of spin you can produce.

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Dave Rineberg's Coaching Corner: Two shots that separate the winner from the loser on clay

Formerly the hitting coach of the Williams sisters, Dave Rineberg is back with more expert advice for livetennis.com - this time, he talks us through the two shots that separate the winner from the loser on clay courts: The backhand slice and the backhand drop shot

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