Me and the Ball Machine

Sometimes a good idea comes bundled with a very bad one. My good idea was simple: go use the ball machine at the tennis club I recently joined. My bad idea was also simple: go at 3:30 in the afternoon of a very hot summer day in Houston, Texas.

For those of you wondering, I checked the temperature when I got back home: it was 99°. And there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

A few days ago I joined the Bay Area Racquet Club, a nice joint with ten lighted courts that’s relatively close to home. I tried the place out a couple of weeks ago, and liked everyone I met: all good people who simply like to play the game. And one of the main reasons I joined was the fact that members get to use the ball machine as often as they want.

Now, I’ve never used a ball machine. Not sure I’d seen one in person before, either. But I was quite curious about trying one out. Probably because of the Andre Agassi stories about how his crazy dad rigged ball machines in their backyard so Little Kid Andre could hit thousands of balls over and over again. I was also drawn to the machine because of the upgrade it represents over a backboard, and you could argue, a group drill. Here are some of the advantages:

– You’re standing in your normal position on a tennis court, and the net is in play. Not only that, but you actually get to place your shots within the court.

– You get to pick the speed, spin, and direction in which the yellow balls come at you. And naturally, you can pick the speed at which the machine feeds you balls.

– You get to hit around 100 tennis balls without stopping. If you want, those could be 100 backhands. Or 100 forehands. Or 50 backhands and 50 forehands.

Anyway, most of these benefits were not clear to me as I walked into the BARC at 3:30 pm today. As I made my way to the clubhouse, I should have known that it wasn’t a good sign that all the courts were empty. Everybody else had the good sense to stay indoors.

The very nice lady at the clubhouse taught me how to set up the machine, a green Playmate model (interesting name, eh?), and then I was fortunate to meet the BARC’s owner just as I was tugging the machine into my assigned court. He set it up for me, and all of a sudden, I was ready.  Here were my initial settings: interval was set towards the slower end (I’m not in the greatest shape in the world), speed was set a little higher than the midpoint, and the ball was supposed to come without much spin up the middle of the court.

I was so excited that I barely stretched before using the remote control and starting to hit.

The first five or six balls I hit were forehands. I immediately loved the pace of the machine: the balls were landing around the baseline, and the speed resembled that of a very good club player. But after the fifth or sixth forehand, I did something strange: I started hitting only backhands.

Why is this strange? Because my backhand sucks. I have a one-hander, and though I now more or less understand what’s going on on that wing, I still can’t do nearly as many things with it as I wish. It’s a survival shot – if it lands inside the lines, it’s a victory for me.  I guess this is a consequence of my late start in tennis: I was 24 years old when I picked up a racquet for the first time. And while I partook in plenty of group drills during the weekends of my initial year playing the sport, I never had the individualized attention that a weakness requires.

Also, since I’m competitive and like to win points/games/matches, I’ve tried quite hard to hit as few backhands as possible whenever I hit with someone.

So now that I was being fed ball after ball (and there was no embarrassment possible, since I wasn’t letting a partner down), I suddenly had the need to hit 100 backhands. I’d never done that before in my life. And you know what? It felt good. I missed quite a few of them – it was my classic routine at first: the ball would fly into the back fence, or land in the bottom of the net. And most of them were cross-court (for someone like me who loves backhands down the line, I struggle mightily to execute that shot). But around ball number 50, I remembered the basics: bend your knees, focus on the footwork, plant that right foot at the right time, and move forward. All of a sudden, better backhands were being hit.

Not great – but better.

After collecting the 100 balls, it was time to practice the shot I can actually hit sort of well: the forehand. I don’t know how this became a strength for me, but it did. The forehand has always seemed very natural to me. I think I have a simple enough swing (with a continental grip) that I normally don’t screw things up. With my forehand I can actually put the ball in specific places of the court. Though that wasn’t happening as I was being fed balls up the middle of the court under the Houston sun. I couldn’t find the right angles to hit my favorite shot: the cross-court forehand. My inside-out forehand is not that great, but at least I was hitting those over the net. Still, it was great to feel how my swing felt more and more confident.

After the ball machine ran out of the little spheres again, I paused for my first water break. It was freaking hot. So very hot. I could feel the heat coming through my shoes: I was on an American hard court after all.

For the next 100 balls, I decided to have the machine send one ball to my forehand corner, and one to my backhand corner. This was quite a bit of fun, mostly because I was now able to hit my beloved cross-court forehand as I remembered I could (I only started playing again two weeks ago after a yearlong hiatus). I was now trying different things with my backhand: I was trying to hit one drive backhand and then one slice backhand. My first few slices were atrocious: they floated so high, and landed long. A disaster. I was also trying to mix in cross-court backhands (with some success) and down the line backhands (with very, very little success). On the forehand side, I was mostly trying to hit cross-court and down-the line, though I did manage to hit a very pretty forehand dropper at one point. I celebrated it, though the machine wasn’t really going to chase it down.

It has to be said, picking up 100 tennis balls is not a whole lot of fun. I had one of those baskets you just plop over the balls, but still. It was so damn hot, there was no chance for cloud cover, and I felt like a rotisserie chicken out there. But the balls were collected, and I decided to try something new: I’d keep the settings more or less the same, though I raised the height of the balls slightly. I was now going to hit volleys, with one ball coming to my forehand volley, and one to my backhand volley.

Now, for someone who likes to hit volleys as much as I do, I sure suck at them. Again, very little training, and even though I know the basics (punch it, don’t swing, cross your feet, keep your eyes on the ball), I normally find a way to screw up the actual shot.

However,  something strange has happened in the past two weeks: after just two group drills at the BARC, I’m hitting forehand volleys better than ever. I have no idea how this is happening, but I’m thrilled. It’s just a great feeling to hear the pop come out of the racquet and see that you’ve hit that shot correctly.

My backhand volley is another story. For some reason, even though the whole sequence of movements seems extremely natural for me, I’ve been messing this shot up for years. This is when I started cursing in Spanish after each framed backhand volley.

It was like having a good student be paired with a hopeless one: with my forehand volley I was able to direct the ball where I wanted, and was starting to experiment with some drop volleys. With my backhand volley? Just getting it over the net was difficult enough.

And so went another 100 balls. After the last one came, I slowly realized that my time in the sun had come to an end. I was exhausted. But more than that, I felt like the sun had baked me, like those chickens slowly rotating in a supermarket oven. It was too darn hot, I had run out of water, and I felt like my body sent me an ultimatum: one more round of balls, and the consequences might be quite unwelcome.

So I slowly picked up all the balls, looked for some more water from the coolers the BARC has on every court, and slowly made my way back to the clubhouse to return the green machine.

I really think that if the weather had cooperated I’d have hit at least 200 more balls. Probably all backhands. I kinda want to go back again tomorrow and hit some more. Being alone with the ball machine was a great experience – partly because I didn’t have an old Armenian ex-boxer yelling at me every time I sent a ball into the net.

Seriously, though, it was just great to be able to get those repetitions on my shots. That’s something you don’t normally get to do: I’ve recently played three mixed doubles matches, and I think I hit one drive backhand total. And while it was fun to play, I sure as heck didn’t improve my backhand by not using it.

Since I started playing as an adult, I appreciate every chance I get to get better. It’s just fun to improve -particularly when it’s something you love to do in the first place. And I feel like the green Playmate will help me overcome some of my (many) deficiencies.

If only it could teach me how to serve.


Juan José loves a well struck backhand down the line, statistics that tell a story, a nice lob winner, and competent returns of serve.

2 Responses

  1. Or
    Or August 24, 2013 at 1:41 am |

    Great story, we have a similiar arc – tennis wise, I started playing at 25 myself, shortly after joining TW. I’d love to have a chance at a ball machine, I really feel like my tennis is regressing these days.

  2. Benjamin
    Benjamin August 25, 2013 at 4:44 pm |

    Love this post. I joined a club in Los Angeles recently and use the ball machine every Sunday afternoon. Even though “hot” here is not really THAT hot (I’m from South Texas) the courts are pretty empty. Which means I can just concentrate on hitting. I have a routine:
    1) first batch: all forehands. Some days I work on cross court, other days down the line. Just depends.
    2) second batch: all backhands. I also have a one-handed but it tends to be my stronger stroke for reasons unknown to me. On a good day I can really rip it and actually run around to use the backhand, which drives my instructors nuts.
    3) third batch: modify settings to high velocity and high frequency. Stand at the net and hit volleys, alternating between forehand and backhand every other ball.

    One note about the heat… I love playing during the hottest part of the day. But only in California. A few summers ago on a trip back to Texas I played at noon… and had to stop because I thought I was going to throw up. That’s never happened before and hasn’t happened since.

Comments are closed.