In a game of tennis, there are multiple types of shots you can use to return the ball over the net. One of the most common shots in tennis is called a volley. But what is a volley and what makes it unique?
A volley in tennis is a shot where a player hits the ball out of the air before it has a chance to bounce on their side of the court. It’s a common shot used while advancing towards the net and is unique because the mechanics of it require more of a block and less of a swing.
In this article, I’ll go into detail about what a volley means in tennis, where the term comes from, how to perform a volley even if you’re a beginner and why it’s such an important shot in tennis.
What Is A Volley In Tennis And Where Did The Term Come From?
Volleys are an aggressive shot in tennis where a player quickly returns the ball over the net before it has a chance to bounce. You can hit volleys anywhere on the court, but they’re typically done closer to the net.
Usually, a player will hit a volley when they want to get to the net. Put simply, volleys offer the best opportunity for a tennis player to advance to the net and gain ground on their opponent.
Aside from the overhead smash, the volley is considered one of the more aggressive offensive weapons in a player's arsenal.
In my opinion, the volley in tennis is the best “equalizer” type of shot in the game. And while it’s more commonly used by the server, a good volley shot can be made by anyone, anywhere on the court, and at any time during the point.
And most importantly, a perfectly executed volley can swing the momentum of the game in an instant! But where did the term volley come from in tennis?
The word “volley” is a clue into tennis’ rich history as a sport. Because tennis originated in France way back in the 11th century it should come as no surprise that the word volley is indeed French as well. Volley is the french word for “flight.”
Which is apropo because to volley in tennis literally means to hit the ball while it’s in flight, before its had a chance to bounce. You could say that in tennis, “to volley” means to hit the ball out of the air on the fly.
While a volley is an extremely useful shot during a tennis match, they’re not always easy to execute properly, and they require a lot of technical practice. In my opinion, it’s one of the more technical shots for a beginner to master.
Additionally, there are multiple types of volleys that you can hit depending on your strengths and your position on the court. So, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with each one of them if you want to maximize a volley’s benefit during a match. Keep reading to learn more about each type of volley.
Related: Confused by how many let serves are actually allowed in tennis? Here's the simple answer.
Why Is The Volley Important In Tennis?
Volleys were a huge part of tennis strategy back in the 80s and 90s because of the popular “serve and volley” concept that was born in the 1940s. But, as racquets became lighter and string technology grew far more powerful in the early 2000s, the game became a “baseline” dominated game.
Because of the development of racquet technology in such a short period of time, the game began to benefit those who could generate massive power and massive spin from the baseline. This put less of an emphasis on volleys and more of a focus on ground strokes that could pracrtically peal the tape off the court.
In a way, volleying in tennis has became a lost art. And while the volley may not have been used much in the 2000s, the shot has never lost its effectiveness.
But like all trends in sports, these types of things are cyclical. Now, winning at the net and consequently volley shots are making a comeback!
Essentially volleys are an “attackers” type of shot that allows the server to go on the offensive, and forces their opponent to react quickly. The less time your opponent has to analyze a shot, the better. This alone allows volley shots to be extremely effective; even in todays game.
Volleys are also helpful if you’re playing on an old or uneven surface. On courts like these, the ball may bounce irregularly, and throw off your groundstroke return. If you can eliminate the bouncing aspect by hitting a volley, you don’t have to worry about a bad bounce messing up your shot.
And when executed to perfection, a well timed volley offers you putaway angles that can be almost impossible for your opponent to predict and return with any chance of an attack shot of their own.
In short, just because volleys went out of style a while ago due to sophisticated racquet technology benefiting powerful groundstrokes, players nowadays are re-appreciating the cerebral art of a perfect volley that can still fit nicely into anyone’s game. Including a pro’s.
How To Volley In Tennis For Beginners And What Mistakes To Avoid
As I mentioned above, volleys can be extremely effective but they can be as difficult to fully master as they are effective.
Why are volley shots in tennis so difficult to learn and master? Volleys require a unique blend of proper arm and elbow technique while also requiring you to suppress the desire to “swing” through the ball.
Good volley technique requires you to think of it as more of a block type of shot versus something you swing at or swing through.
Mastering the volley shot in tennis comes down to 5 simple steps. Changing your mindset, learning the “L” hitting form, keeping your elbow in, using your off hand properly, and hitting the ball out in front of you.
Let me explain. Let’s get into each step in more detail.
Step 1 - Change Your Mind Set
The first step to mastering the volley in tennis is to change your mindset about the shot itself. The body will follow the mind.
So, despite the volley being an offensive, aggressive shot, start by changing your mindset and begin to think of it as more of a blocking type of shot where you’re a wall.
“Being a wall” is a great metaphor because think, for a moment, about hitting the tennis ball off of a practice wall. It quickly ricochets right back at you.
The same effect can and should be seen with an effective volley.
Step 2 - The L Shape Ready Position Technique
The second step is arguably the most important, because everything starts in the ready position. For volleys, being in the right kind of ready position is critical.
The most effective ready position for volleying consistently is to have the racquet head up at chest height and out in front of you with your dominant hand forming the shape of the letter “L” from your elbow joint up to the tip of your racquet.
If you’re right handed, your right elbow should be bent at about 90 degrees so that it forms the shape of an L all the way up the head of the racquet.
Form that shape with your racquet out in front of you ready to attack with your feet shoulder width apart.
Pro Tip: This should be your default ready position coming out of a split step.
Remember, if you’re a beginner, keeping that racquet up is key. Too many novice players let their racquet head drift down. You’ll lose precious seconds during a match trying to get your racquet back up when a ball is struck at you.
Don’t waste time, be ready and have your racquet up and ready. Trust me, those seconds matter.
Step 3 - Keep Your Hitting Elbow In
My third step for learning to volley is all about arm and elbow technique….especially for your hitting hand.
At this point you should be in the “L” ready position. It is sometimes easier to see the “L” shape if you keep your hitting arm’s elbow tucked in tight towards your hip bone.
This is absolutely crucial for keeping the L shape but also for keeping proper volley elbow position.
If you’re right handed, pretend your right elbow is attached to your right hip. This will allow you to have the proper form and keep you from over swinging. Again, this is crucial for proper volley form.
Remember, a volley is not much of a swinging shot. Most of the time, it’s a block. By keeping your elbow in, you’re preventing your arm from over extending and inadvertently going into a swinging motion.
Most volleys fail because we choose to swing too much and allow our arms to come out wide like a traditional forehand. Instead, tuck those elbows in.
This doesn’t change no matter if you’re hitting a forehand volley or a backhand one. That elbow should be tucked in tight, and over the hip bone.
Step 4 - Off-Hand Placement
The next step to learning how to volley in tennis revolves around hand placement of your off hand, the hand not holding your racquet.
If you’re right handed, and hitting a forehand volley, bring your left hand in towards your stomach. If you want, you can actually use your off hand to help keep your right elbow in by placing your left hand under your right elbow.
This is actually how pros teach this technique. So, for good practice, use your off hand to keep your dominant hand’s elbow tucked in right. This exercise will keep you from coming out wide and swinging.
Once this becomes second nature, you can release your elbow but it's not a bad idea to let your off hand drift under your elbow so that your muscle memory takes over and you know to keep your elbows in.
Watch the pros, their off hand will come under their hitting elbow because they’ve had this technique drilled into them from hours of practice.
Their off hand isn’t grabbing their elbow (not anymore) but it's there as a reminder. Feel free to do either as you learn good form.
For backhand volleys, your off hand does something a little different. For backhand volleys, your off hand should be bent forming the shape of the letter “V” and your elbow should come up to shoulder height.
During a backhand volley, your hitting hand’s elbow is tucked in by your hip bone still but your non-dominant hand should be bent and the elbow up almost mirroring the movement and angle of your racquet head.
Step 5 - Hit the Ball Out In Front Of You And Step Into It
The fifth and final step to hitting a volley in tennis is to hit the ball out in front of you and let your momentum provide the power.
Don’t wait for the ball to come to you. Strike while the ball is out front ahead of you and step aggressively towards it. Regardless of whether it's a forehand or a backhand, step into the ball while it’s out front.
Stepping into the ball is what gives the shot the power it needs. You don’t need loads of power for the volley shot to be effective. And if you’re swinging to generate power during a volley, your form is most likely a little off.
Instead, step aggressively towards the ball and let your momentum from the step create the power.
Remember, you’re a wall blocking the ball quickly back to the other side. Your momentum from the step inward, combined with proper technique will generate all the power you’ll need to put it away.
What Is The Difference Between A Volley And A Half Volley In Tennis?
The difference between a volley and a half volley in tennis is simply a bounce. Where a volley doesn’t allow for the ball to bounce and is hit out of the air on the fly, the half volley is a shot that is struck immediately after a very short bounce.
Technically speaking, a half volley is not a volley at all because it allows the ball to take a short bounce (very short). But because the ball is not allowed to come back up much at all and is struck mere seconds after bouncing, the term “half volley” was coined.
Think of it as tennis’ “bang bang” play where a player is running up towards a drop shot that was hit at them but he or she cannot get there in time to hit a volley out of the air, so instead the player times his or her momentum perfectly to strike the ball immediately after it has bounced.
This immediate strike results in a shot that comes off the racquet head much like a traditional volley with little to know swing involved.
The result is a shot that is awfully similar to a regular volley.
Click here for my complete beginners guide on the half volley.
Are There Different Types Of Volleys In Tennis?
In tennis, the 5 most common volleys you’ll see are the forehand volley, the backhand volley, the slice or cut volley, the topspin volley and the swing volley.
There are some secondary specialty volleys that I’ll also cover but these are purely situational based on the court position and the shot coming at you.
The 5 Most Common Volleys In Tennis
Let’s walk through each of 5 main volleys I’ve outlined above and where you might use them.
1 and 2: Forehand And Backhand Volleys
These are the two most common and general types of volleys in tennis: the forehand volley and a backhand volley. As their names suggest, the forehand volley is hit using your dominant hand to hit forward, and the backhand volley is hit with your other hand with the back of your racquet towards the ball.
Generally speaking these two volleys are used to take pace off the ball and rebound it back over the net using the power generated by your opponent against them.
Forehand and backhand volleys are not special and only require the elbow technique I’ve already outlined for you. They’re not fancy or flashy. They’re reliable shots with little to no flare for the dramatic.
The backhand volley is a little harder to master because the backhand shot in general is a harder shot to master for most players.
3: The Slice Or Cut Volley
As you get better at volleys, the natural progression for the shot is to add some spin to them. The most common spin put on a volley is backspin using a downward cutting motion. Think of it as if you’re cutting down through the ball.
You can slice or cut at the ball ever so slightly regardless of forehand or backhand court position.
Cut volleys are best performed in the middle of the court when you have time to run up to the ball and tee up your cutting motion.
Whether you call it a “slice” or a “cut” the motion is the same. You’re coming down on the ball like you’re slicing fruit from top to bottom. Be careful not to lose proper arm and elbow technique. Don’t come up with your racquet too high and come crashing down on it.
Instead, keep that elbow in and as your making contact with the ball, incorporate a slight cutting motion coming down on the ball. With todays racquets and string technology, it doesn’t take much to put spin on the ball.
The cut volley is especially useful when your opponent is back at the baseline and you can put backspin on the ball making your volley drop and then come back at you…using their own court position against them.
Ideally, they won’t have time to get to the ball AND it’ll bounce and roll further away from them.
This type of volley will also sometimes set you up for another volley, if your opponent can get to it.
4: The Topspin Volley
The topspin volley is the exact opposite of the cut volley. Instead of cutting down, you’re sliding up on the ball.
Be careful not to put too much swing or spin action behind this kind of volley. You may want to give into your impulse and make this a mini topspin shot that feels like your traditional groundstroke topspin that you hit from the baseline.
Don’t do it.
Instead keep that elbow in, as usual, bring you racquet up as your strings make contact with the ball and allow for a subtle follow through.
This type of volley works great for players that are quick because if done properly, this shot will pick up speed after the bounce and be harder for speedy players to get to.
This is a great type of volley to speed up the ball.
5: The Swing Volley
If there was ever a volley shot in tennis where the arm mechanics of a traditional volleys are allowed to be thrown out the window, this is it. The swinging volley is the only volley that calls for full arm extension and has the feel of a ground stroke even though the ball never bounced.
The swinging volley is only reserved for shots coming at you that are a little bit higher and a little bit slower than normal.
If you’re in position and don’t need to let the ball bounce but yet the ball’s height is essentially the same height as a traditional ground stroke shot, go for it! Go ahead and tee up on it as if it were a normal topspind ground stroke.
This type of volley is great for put-away shots or passing shots to win the point.
Situational Specialty Volley Shots
Also knows as the drop drop shot volley. A drop volley is a very soft shot where the ball will land just past the net on your opponent's side. If you use this shot at the right time, your opponent won’t have time to get to the ball, and it’ll bounce multiple times, thus giving you the point.
A block volley is when you essentially “block” the ball with your racket, like a wall, with little to no movement. Block volleys are usually hit when you’re playing closer to the net and you must act quickly to return the ball.
They’re the ideal volley for when a ball is blasted at you because you won’t need to generate any power of your own for it to be effective. You’ll use the power of the shot hit at you to rebound the ball back quickly to an area on the court you opponent cannot get to.
A lob volley is a good shot to use when you’re close to the net, and so is your opponent. To hit a lob volley, turn your racket to the sky and hit upward so the ball arcs over the net and over your opponent. Your opponent must be near the net for a lob volley to be successful.
Ball placement is crucial for this type of volley and may take practice. Think of it as a drop shot but one that floats over your opponents head back towards the baseline.
A half volley is one of the more complex shots to hit since the timing has to be just right. For a half volley, the ball is hit right after it bounces and before it reaches the peak of the bounce. The half volley shot is achieved with precision and adequate positioning.
If the shot isn’t hit correctly, players can accidentally hit the ball into the net or scrape the ground with their racket.
Tennis Tips For Better Volleys
If you’re looking to improve your effectiveness and accuracy of your volleys in tennis, focus on two fundamental areas: your footwork and your grip.
Here are a few tips to improving your volley:
- Keep your body moving forward towards the net when you hit a volley, not moving sideways or backward. When you hit a volley, you want to have power behind it, so the shot is strong. This is done by always moving towards the net and stepping to the shot. This is crucial for most types of volleys.
- Make sure your feet are in the right position to volley. You should have them at a 45-degree angle relative to the net. For a forehand volley, your non-dominant foot should be forward, and for backhand volleys, your dominant foot should be forward.
- Grip is important when hitting a volley. Most players use a continental grip to volley, which is a grip where you hold the edge of the racket parallel to your arm. The other option is to use the eastern forehand grip where your hand is parallel to the racket's face. This grip isn’t as popular, but it still works for a volley. For a simple way to learn the popular continental grip, watch this video from Sikana English on YouTube:
Check out my friendly guide on tennis tips for beginners.
What Is A Volley In Tennis - Final Thoughts
Being able to volley in tennis is an important skill for any player to have. There are two basic types of volleys that you can hit, the forehand and backhand, and once you’ve mastered those, you can learn the many other types of specialty volleys.
When hitting a volley, make sure you move forward, hold the racket properly, and have your feet in the correct position. Next time you have a tennis match, give these tips a try and you’ll be hitting more accurate volleys in no time!