Money will not make you a better tennis player

This is a bit against commercial interest, but it’s very easy for people to spend big money and think that their son or daughter will become a better tennis player. I don’t think that is the case. If I (Carl Maes) want to make a lot of money, that’s probably the route that I should be going. But I (Carl) think from an integrity point of view, I (Carl) need to be honest with people. Even if that means losing a client.

I (Carl) often get asked by parents whether “it’s all worth the time and the money?” I (Carl) believe It’s worth it, but that doesn’t mean that your son or daughter will become better tennis players. I (Carl) always try to go back to tennis being a metaphor of life. When you’re on a tennis court, you need to look for solutions. You have to deal with adversity. You need discipline in training. It might enhance your life getting in touch with different cultures on your tennis journey. So, I (Carl) like to focus more on those things because the biggest myth for me (Carl) is that people think that the more they spend on their son or daughter’s career, the better they will get.

That is not the case. Yes, you can go to Barbados or to some faraway country to pick up a few ITF points a little bit quicker than other players who can’t afford that. But I (Carl) do believe that cream will rise to the top. That if you’re good enough, the support will come from somewhere to make it happen. Unfortunately, money is a limiting factor, and we are losing a lot talent because of it. But that doesn’t mean if you have the money that you will become a great tennis player.

The 3 aspects to include in female tennis players warmups

The 3rd shot

Relatively the serve is more dominant in the men’s game than in the women’s game. If the serve is not the most dominant stroke on the women’s side, which stroke would it then be? It’s the return. The return is often the most undertrained stroke in women’s tennis. Now, I don’t want girls to start practicing return from the first moment they start warming up, but there’s another shot that we need to train specifically if the return is so dominant and that’s the third ball, the ball after the serve.

We know from Craig O’Shannessy how important winning or losing points in the first 4 strokes are. There is one great exercise during the warmup that you can do. I’ve (Carl Maes) done this with Kim Clijsters. Kirsten Flipkens, with Elise Mertens and Sorana Cirstea.

Warm up for 10 minutes on the baseline and then have the players step inside the baseline for 2 minutes only. The player on the other side might not even recognize it. When a player goes inside the baseline it’s actually the shot that they receive often after they serve. Because when you serve, you land inside the baseline. You do your split step there and you get this massive return from Maria Sharapova right into your feet. That is a shot you need to practice every single day, in my opinion. It doesn’t need to be for 20 minutes. Just make it as part of your warmup. You’ve got less time because the distance is shorter, you get bullets in your feet, so what you have to do is you need to be a little bit wider and a little bit lower. And whilst you’re doing that, you also don’t have the same time, as you have got with your normal forehand. You would normally load and then you would drive up with your legs, your hips and your shoulder. You don’t have that time. So, what you do during these 2 minutes, is that you stay where you are, wide and low and you just open up your hips and you make sure you can finish with your elbow out in front. So, you focus on the first part, which needs to happen very fast and you focus on the end point. You will see if you practice this with your players, how much more comfortable they will get playing inside the baseline.

Indirectly, subconsciously, they are working on the 3 ball, which is such an important technical stroke in women’s tennis.

The drive volleys

In the very start when you are practicing the drive volleys with female players you can and properly should spend entire drills 10-20 minutes on the drive volley, but when the players have got the basics of the drive volley going forward in their career I (Carl) don’t believe that you need to spend one dedicated drill to drive volleys. Instead spend 2-3 minutes during all warmups as that is enough for feeling, timing and recognition. Ask yourself how many times the girls that you work with smash in a match?

It will properly be close to zero. However, what do we always do when we warm up? We go to the net, we play a few volleys, and then we do a few smashes. Should we do a few smashes as they occur once in a while in a match, sure.

Now, let me ask a second question. How many opportunities when you are watching that match, how many times when they are playing a match do think “Oh, you should have come forward and taken the ball out of the air?” It will be much, much more. So, for me. I don’t want to make it too extreme. Forget about the smash warmup, but make sure that your female players hit a couple of drive volleys in every warmup.

The 70/70 principle

Female players need to be able to play at a certain rhythm and pace, which is almost like a metronome. I call it the 70/70 concept. That means if you receive a ball at 70 kilometers per hour, you need to be able to send it back at 70 kilometers per hour. It could be 80, it could be 90. It’s that principle. You need to be able to find that rhythm and that’s your foundation. Everything that comes on top is extra. If you don’t have that foundation, you’ll struggle very much in today’s women’s tennis.

The execution of the drive volley is easy – the anticipation is hard

Especially in female tennis where there are less opportunities to approach the net with an approach shot followed by a volley the drive volley becomes a very important stroke.

The execution, it’s a little bit easier. It’s difficult in the sense that it’s a high ball and the timing is a more difficult because it’s coming from high out of the air and it’s dropping faster. The moment we make contact, the ball is falling down, whereas in a normal forehand or backhand, the ball will be rising, and it might be hanging still the moment we make contact with the ball. So that’s the difficult part.

But I’ve (Carl Maes) got experience even with younger kids from the age of 8-9 years old, they can take that ball out of the air. You’ll be surprised how quickly even with orange and green ball players; how easy they learn how to time the ball correctly. So that’s why I’m (Carl) saying that is slightly easier.

What is the most difficult part is recognizing the situation when you need to move forward, because if you’re standing 2 meters behind the baseline consistently, by the time you get to this high ball, you might have been practicing this drive volley with your coach where he/she has fed balls from a basket with you waiting inside the court. If you are 2 meters behind the baseline, by the time you get into court, this ball is bouncing and you’re playing a normal forehand or backhand. So, this is why the anticipation and recognizing the opportunity to move forward, is key.

I’ve (Carl) got a small practical tip for everybody that’s listening and likes the drive volley concept. Don’t feed these balls from the middle of the court because players will not play drive volleys when the ball is coming from the middle of the court. First, if you do this for ten minutes, my recommendation would be 5 minutes in the forehand corner and 5 minutes in the backhand corner. Then there’s a small extra caveat I (Carl) think you need to do. Don’t feed the ball with you being in a comfortable position where you are feeding balls from the basket.

Treat your players to this little extra visual feedback and feed the ball whilst you are in difficulties. This might look a little bit strange but try to visualize the following. When you feed this high ball, throw it to the side of yourself, let it bounce first, let it bounce low and you have to stretch for the ball and then feed the ball, because this is exactly what the player needs to recognize on the other side of the net, when the opponent is in the tramlines and you can see the back of the opponent. That’s really when they are in difficulties. That’s the moment when your player needs to come from 1-2 meter behind the baseline to 1 meter inside the baseline, and that is when you feed the ball.

So, two important details don’t feed from the middle of the court, feed it from the corner and pretend as if you are in difficulties. Show them your back and then feed the ball upwards. It will give them a much better recognition when they are playing a rally in the next drill/match.

In the very start when you are practicing the drive volleys with female players you can and properly should spend entire drills 10-20 minutes on the drive volley, but when the players have got the basics of the drive volley going forward in their career I (Carl) don’t believe that you need to spend one dedicated drill to drive volleys. Instead spend 2-3 minutes during all warmups as that is enough for feeling, timing and recognition. Ask yourself how many times the girls that you work with smash in a match?

It will properly be close to zero. However, what do we always do when we warm up? We go to the net, we play a few volleys, and then we do a few smashes. Should we do a few smashes as they occur once in a while in a match, sure.

Now, let me ask a second question. How many opportunities when you are watching that match, how many times when they are playing a match do think “Oh, you should have come forward and taken the ball out of the air?” It will be much, much more. So, for me. I don’t want to make it too extreme. Forget about the smash warmup, but make sure that your female players hit a couple of drive volleys in every warmup.

Why your arm shouldn’t be fully extended in the tennis serve

The easiest test that everybody can is just grab your racquet and extend your arm fully next to your head. Extend it completely as high up as you can and then try to pronate with your forearm. Pronation is the part from the elbow to the hand where we open up the palm of our hand. You see that the impact on the racket head is actually not so big. You see it turn and this is when the pronation is only giving direction to the ball. We go a little bit more out wide; we go a little bit more slice. That’s what the pronation is doing when we have our arms completely stretched.

The same goes if we now go to the upper arm between the elbow and the shoulder, we can internally rotate that as well. You’ll see when you do this with a complete straight arm the impact on the racket head is not so big. It helps the pronation a little bit, but in terms of the racket head speed not much is happening.

Now try to do this same movements with your arm slightly bent, not 90 degrees. It’s a little bit less so if there’s a small bend in your elbow and then do the same movement. We start with the external rotation when the racket going back and the internal rotation. You see what happens with your racket head. All of a sudden, a big range of motion happening with the racket head. So that is why when we are talking about this multi segment serve, starting from the bottom up with our leg drive, hips, shoulders and ending with our arm. Our arm should not be completely extended because we lose too much racquet head speed if we try to hit the ball as high as we can. Clearly, the higher we can hit the ball, the better. But it should not be with the compromise of extending our arm completely because we still need to be able to have a small bend in the arm and a small angle in the wrist as well. So, we can really use this internal rotation to smack that serve.

The zone of truth

It’s the equivalent of the penalty box on the football pitch. You need to get into the penalty box to increase your chances of scoring the point. The zone of truth is a crosscourt shot close to the sideline. But it’s not a deep crosscourt shot, it’s a little bit shorter. It’s in a square just after the service box against the sideline.

I (Carl Maes) call it the penalty box because for me that is a crosscourt shot where you have an ideal combination between having enough pace, having enough speed on the ball and having some topspin to it. If you draw that geometrically on a tennis court, if you’re able to play the ball in that zone of truth, you will make your opponent run 1,5 meters more outside the court. In fact, it’s 3 meters because it’s 1,5 meter outside the court and also 1,5 meters to get back in the court.

So, in that respect, I (Carl) find it a good combination of pace and spin, whereas if you have the very deep crosscourt shot, a good counterattack player can get into the corner and play a good down the line shot. If you have fit enough players that like to change direction, they can really benefit if you play a normal deep crosscourt shot.

Likewise, if you play too short and with too much spin inside the service box, this short crosscourt ball, can put you in danger because it’s too slow due to the spin. So, for me (Carl), this in-between zone, I (Carl) call it the zone of Truth. Particularly it’s interesting in female tennis because in female tennis, there is a little bit less spin. So, we don’t want to ask them to play with too much topspin. We want to focus on that zone. For me (Carl), it’s the penalty box of the tennis court, because if you hit it there, I (Carl) think your chances increase of scoring the next ball.

If you have 3 players on the court – how do you decide what side to have 2 players on?

Let’s have a look at it from a motor learning perspective. When we learn new movements, we do that based on what we feel. In terms of the instruction, you do as a tennis coach certain studies suggest how much and what type of feedback we should be giving to the players.

Now, here’s a very simple mathematical model. If we’re spending 15 minutes on the court and we’re with three players, that means five minutes rotation with these two on one side, one on the other side. I (Carl Maes) would always choose whatever the goal of the exercises is, this could e.g. be the wide defensive backhand.

When I (Carl) have decided what the aim of the exercise is I (Carl) will always try to have two players on the sides of the subject that we are practicing. So, if we are practicing the wide defensive backhand and I (Carl) am feeding this first difficult ball, I (Carl) would have two people on the other side of the net. Now, you could argue they’re going to be two rotations of five minutes there.

So, in terms of numbers of balls that the players are hitting, this is exactly the same as if they were to be there alone for five minutes and two players on my side.

However, spending 10 minutes on this wide defensive backhand end alternating with the other person, it’s also there is in my (Carl) opinion, better and in terms of the feedback that we are able to give and the retention of information will be better.

Imagine that you are playing one backhand and the next point the other player is playing. What I (Carl) as a coach can then do is to provide you with some feedback and you’ve got 10-15 seconds to think about it whilst the other player on court is doing his/her wide backhand.

So, I (Carl) always try to have two players on the side of the goal of the exercise. That sometimes requires some creativity, but I (Carl) do feel that it’s better to have them 10 minutes where they’re alternating shots rather than five minutes and have this short burst of practice and information all crammed into five minutes.

Why you should sometimes practice hitting outside of the court

In tennis, we are always trying to hit the ball in the court. That’s how our scoring system works. We try to play as deep as possible and as close as possible to the line. If we miss the ball by two centimeters, we lose the point. So, we’re always a little bit conservative in exploring what it is to play deep or what it is to play more to the sideline.

Variation Scheme theory takes me back to my days at university. I’m (Carl Maes) a master in exercise physiology, and what we learn in motor learning is to have parameters to execute a certain movement. Now, this principle, if you apply it to tennis and you look from a motor learning perspective, in order to find the sideline or the baseline, we need to learn how to hit out because it’s only when we hit out that we feel the difference on what it is like hitting the ball inside of the lines.

I don’t recommend doing a drill like this the day before you play a match, but on some occasions, we need to let our players hit out on purpose. Let them hit the ball out, because that will, from a muscle memory and a learning perspective make them feel the ball better and know better how to hit a certain target.

An example could be practicing the sliced 1st serve e.g. in deuce side. We want to keep our percentage high on the first serve, but still apply pressure to the opponent. Once in a while when you are practicing the sliced serve try putting some cones in the middle of the doubles lines and let them aim for the cones using their sliced serve. What you will likely experience is that the players will not hit the target that you have put up in the middle of the tram lines, but instead go very close to the sideline of the service box, right where a perfect sliced serve from deuce side of the court is meant to be.

It’s ingrained throughout the years for us to play inside the line. There is an expression to “think outside of the box” and I (Carl) believe that in certain moments it’s very important to also practice “hitting outside of the box” because the variation scheme theory tells us that we need to practice the 2 extremes to identify what’s in the middle.

#95: Carl Maes – Why we sometimes should practice hitting outside of the court


Hi guys, in this episode you are going to listen to Carl Maes. Carl spent 6 years at the LTA as Head of Women’s tennis, he has been the director at the Kim Clijsters Academy and have coached the likes of Kirsten Flipkens, Yanina Wickmayer, Sorana Cirstea and Kim Clijsters for more than 10 years. Carl is currently the Director of High Performance at the Tenerife Tennis Academy where his aim is to establish an international training environment for high performance players and he is further a part of the expert team at Orange Coach Exchange where it’s possible to attend Webinars with all of the experts or smaller “Locker room sessions” with Carl or get his advice all by yourself in 1 to 1 sessions.

You’ll get to know:

  • Why the arm shouldn’t be fully extended on the serve
  • What the zone of truth is
  • 3 essential aspects to include in women’s warm up

Enjoy the show!


01:50 Why we need to hit outside the tennis court
04:25 How to organize the practice court with 3 players on court
07:20 The Zone of truth
10:05 Why the arm shouldn’t be fully extended on the tennis serve
12:50 Anticipation > execution in the drive volley
18:50 The 70-70 Concept for female tennis players
21:05 Practicing the 3rd ball during the warmup for female players
24:20 Put tools in your toolbox and then learn how to apply them
26:50 Making Tenerife the new European Dubai of tennis
28:20 If you have a why you will find the how
30:20 More money poured into your child’s tennis is not always better
30:20 More money poured into your child’s tennis is not always better
32:20 Know where you in the tennis land scape as a tennis coach
34:20 Emotional intelligent leadership
37:10 Zoom out and reflect before you act
40:20 How to reach Carl Maes

The power of practice matches

Previously many coaches were insisting on practice matches much more than today. I (Nick) would say it was normal to practice in the morning and play a practice match in the afternoon. These days, I see especially with the junior players, less and less practice matches, or they just play a quick set or something like this where there is not the same simulation of real pressure. I (Nick) think practice matches should be something normal and the players can learn from them to deal with the pressure in competitive matches better. It’s the closest simulation that we have got.

Q: Why do you think that is?

I think before there was not so many people involved in the younger age in the players careers. Players and parents did what the club coach said and there was no big deal about it. Now the parents are much more involved. More often players are avoiding the tough situations because practice match, especially in the club, against your friends is difficult to handle.

Sometimes it’s okay, to not expose yourself to pressure, but all of a sudden maybe a couple of weeks or even months has past by, and you don’t even realize that you only trained but didn’t really compete. It’s tough for the player. It’s easier to practice. You’re sweating, but mentally it’s tough to go out there in the afternoon and play against your best friend for match. It’s a challenge also for the coaches. Our challenge, because coaches don’t want to say to a parent that the player lost today against a player that he or she is “supposed” to be better than. So it’s sometimes a combination of different reasons.

Nick Horvat’s 5 coaching Principles

I’ve (Nick) been inspired to write my principles down by the words of John Wooden, the famous basketball coach and one of the biggest coaching authorities in our era. Wooden said: “I believe more in the concepts and principles and less in solutions for any specific situation. If the former is good, the latter comes naturally”. This is one of the most important coaching quotes for me because it explains a lot and explains something very essential in coaching.

My first principle is called Power of Basics.
First, is that every complex game pattern in tennis depends on the quality of basic shots. For example, if a player cannot hit a backhand down the line under pressure, every tactical pattern that comes with that backhand down the line makes no sense.

Second, point that a lot of people have a tendency to make things complex and sometimes this is not necessary. People make things complex because they want to sell them. Basics are very hard to sell. From the other side, there is a concept called “Hiding Behind Complexity”. This talks about how people are looking for something to hide behind, while they are actually failing at the very basics. Complexity gives us excuses and sometimes ways out, but many times what really matters is just to show up and do your work.

Finally, my last point here is about coaching. Good coaching is important, but at the end it all comes down to how well players are able to execute the basics. So, it’s great to be able to explain to a player, for example, what’s going on in his/her head or to talk about tactical patterns or game patterns. Also, it’s very important to make a good technical analysis. But for me, it’s only the cherry on the cake. It’s only the final few percent. That’s not going to make someone into a champion.

Let me (Nick) provide you with an example. Rafael Nadal was asked how he practiced his mental toughness. Many might expect him to tell us about a special method. What he said, and I’m quoting:

“You work mentally when you are on the court every day. You don’t complain. You keep the right attitude. You give your best focus to each shot. This is for me mental training.”

These are the basics. They are boring. Sometimes they are not exciting. They are simple, but not easy, and they are crucial. That’s why this is the first of my principles.

My second principle is about choices
This is based on a belief that most tennis matches are won or lost long before they even started. It’s based on a quote from Dr. Deepak Chopra and he says: “Everything that is happening at this moment is a result of the choices we’ve made in the past”.

Tennis matches are won on the practice court, where you show up every day without complaining, on your previous matches, it’s won in the previous matches where you were losing but kept fighting. You didn’t give up in the athletic field where you were running and training and you feelt pain, but you didn’t quit. Believe it or not, even in the restaurant where you order things that you need to order to have the right fuel for the next day, tennis matches are won by showing respect to people that support you. If you don’t make those right choices weeks and months, even sometimes years before eventually you’re going to fail.

My third principle is physical and mental capacity.
I put these two elements together because in some way you can’t really have one without the other. First, physical capacity. This is a must have for every player. From my perspective, it’s not a matter of I can, or I can’t. It’s more a matter of if I want or I don’t want. It’s a simple decision thing. Sorry for being so strict, but this is how I (Nick) see this, and I’m not saying this is easy. It’s far from easy. It’s very hard. But players must take this responsibility and make the most out of what they were given genetically.

Then we have mental capacity. There are two elements of mental capacity. First is mental endurance and second is mental strength. Mental endurance is the ability to keep your focus for longer periods of time or the ability to keep going when you want to quit. By approaching your physical limits in your fitness training, you are also working on that mental muscle because you’re dealing with stress. When you have technical exercises on the court and you keep your focus for longer you are also working on your mental endurance, which is important in tennis. Then we have mental strength, and this is the ability to stay strong in mentally challenging situations. This is where it gets tricky in tennis. You can’t practice this with your physical activity. We’re dealing with fears and emotions. So, this is where most of the players struggle.

I’ll (Nick) tell you one quick story. I was at a tournament a few weeks ago, and the player that I was watching lost in the in three sets. She lost easily in the third set and she played two great sets. The coach approached me after and asked me, why is this happening to her? She’s a good player, but she cannot show it in the important moments. I asked him this:” How many times did she practice her technical and physical skills in the last two weeks?”

He said 5 hours every day, maybe six, except maybe Sunday. I then asked him: “How many times in the last two weeks did you practice mentally challenging situations like the one today?”

And the answer was zero. There we have it, this is a very simple answer to a very complex issue. I told the coach that this player learned something today and if she would be in the same situation tomorrow, she might feel some improvement already. But if and this is where the problem is, if her next mental practice will be in two weeks or three weeks, she will probably fail again. So, our brain is also a muscle that needs to be trained and that is our job as tennis coaches. We need to make sure that our players are spending enough time in emotionally challenging situations. But that’s not enough. We need to hold them accountable for when they are in those situations, hold them accountable for things that they can control, like attitude, body language, et cetera,

That’s the way to improve. When a player is losing in the first round too many times we have to wait for another mental training for too long. So, we as tennis coaches can and has to make some adjustments. First, we need to remake the player’s schedule. Maybe have them play lower-level tournaments where they can get more matches with even higher pressure because you are favored and that’s even better brain training. Second, practice matches are a very underestimated element of training because these days practice matches are more or less like playing a few games, like a warmup. Practice matches can serve as a relatively close simulation of a real match. They need to be approached in the right way, which means don’t play only one set. Play until the match is finished. Prepare for it in the same way that you would for real match and most importantly, hold the player accountable for things that she or he can control.

My 4th principle is repetition
Nothing helps the player to master skills like a quality repetition. The key word here is quality because it includes focus and intensity. Repetition is not enough. You can make two hundred serves and be thinking about something else and you wasted your time. Technical analysis and different coaching methods can help and speed up the process, but after that the player has to go to the court and find his/her own way. Take e.g., timing as a key element, because every player hits a little bit different. One millisecond too early or maybe too late makes the difference between a perfect and, for example an average shot. Timing is the key here, timing is something that I cannot show you, I cannot teach you. You can only feel it by yourself and that’s crucial. That can only be learned by repetition.

My last and 5th principle is called practice what you preach
Many don’t realize how important this can be. Without being a good example with your own personal standards, it’s very hard to get players to buy in to you and your coaching philosophy these days. There’s a point in a relationship between coach and player where the coach has said most of the things, he/she knows. Let’s say most of it is said after 3 months and what’s left is everyday hard work, commitment and routines. It’s all about that. This is where the personal example becomes important. It’s tough to demand from a player something that you are not living up to yourself. Players can feel that. In some other types of teaching, for example, in the classroom where we don’t spend so much time with the students, it might not be that important. But in professional tennis, thirty-five weeks per year with the player. This is where your own example is, a very powerful, and sometimes crucial skill.