A browsing through the Internet will show many players and coaches who believe that playing tennis well is about perfecting your swing; if you could only learn to swing like the pros, you could play like them. But there is much more to it all.
If a pro swing could guarantee success, tennis would be quite easy. Most average athletes could learn to imitate a perfect swing, like dancers learning a new step, in a couple of months – watch the video, stand in front of the mirror, work on different parts of the swing until you can swing identically and voila – Nadal, Djokovic and Sharapova here we come – the clones are taking over.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The perfect swing is an illusion. During a game, every single stroke is different because every single ball is different. The fundamentals remain the same, and given a solid technical base, what separates the best players from the rest is their ability to adapt their swing pattern.
Variability is inherent in tennis, and therefore the ability to return diverse shots effectively is the ultimate goal of technical training. Do not seek to swing perfectly, learn to adapt.
Since variability underlies the game, the best way to improve is not by hitting similar shots over and over with a pro or rallying with a partner. True improvement requires embracing unpredictability.
One way to do this is by playing as many diverse opponents as you can. This will expose you to all sorts of balls, high, low, hard, spinning, and so forth, providing a perfect opportunity to learn how to adapt your swing to the incoming ball.
However, this is only half the battle. The other half is incorporating as much variability as possible into your own shots.
For most players, ball control means being able to hit the ball in the desired direction, but ideally you need drills providing you ample opportunity to send and receive balls with unlimited combinations of speed, spin, direction and height.
For example: instead of hitting crosscourt backhands for 30 minutes, hit five minutes high backhands to each other, five minutes slice backhands, five minutes one hits high the other one attacks shoulder-level shots, five minutes one hits deep and the other alternates hitting one short backhand and one deep backhand, and so forth.
Use your normal drills but vary the height: low, up to four feet over the net, medium between five and 11 feet over the net and high, over 12 feet. Experiment with the length of your shots: middle of the service box, around the service line and close to the baseline. Hit at different speeds: slow, medium and fast. Mix up the spins: flat, topspin and slice. And experiment with different directions: right, middle, left.
Practicing like this will not only develop your ability to mix your shots in a game but more importantly it will teach you to adapt your swing as needed and this is what ultimately separates the best players from the rest.