Much has been written about the merits of tennis ball machines for practicing your shots, and to develop timing and consistency. For instance, in his autobiography, Andre Agassi reveals how his father insisted that he hit 2,500 balls a day fired from The Dragon, a ball machine that he (Agassi’s dad) had modified to blast the ball at 110 mph from an extreme height. But for every champion who’s grown up hitting with a ball machine, you could probably point to many more who’ve grown up practicing against a wall or backboard – particularly those who come from less privileged backgrounds, because let’s face it, a Lobster Elite or Tennis Tutor Prolite is still a significant investment for many.
So how do the two different approaches measure up? Is a tennis ball machine really worth the money, or should you rather be buying some bricks and a bag of cement instead?
There are a couple of problems practicing ground strokes against a wall or backboard. First is where to stand: too close and you won’t have enough time to complete your follow through before the ball’s already coming back at you. And it’ll also be bouncing on your toes, which is OK if you’re practicing half-volleys, but not so great for ground strokes. On the other hand, stand too far back to give yourself more time and you’ll find it harder to maintain a drill because you have less control over where the ball rebounds to. You also may find you get very good at hitting shots from knee-level, but that’s not where you’ll typically be hitting them from on the court. Some backboards solve this problem by enabling you to adjust them at an angle from vertical so the ball is deflected somewhat on an upward trajectory after hitting the board.
The other problem is you have no idea where your strokes would land on the court – perhaps you’re hitting your balls too long or too short. Sure you have the line that represents the net, but it’s a crude approximation, especially since it doesn’t allow for the fact that the net is supposed to be six inches lower in the middle than at the sides.
By contrast, you almost always use a ball machine on a real court, so none of these restrictions apply. Any half-decent machine will let you control the frequency of balls coming over the net, so you should have enough time to complete your stroke and get in position for the next one before it arrives. Likewise with height and depth of the balls being delivered.
Ball machine 1 – 0 Backboard
Backboards are actually great for practicing volleys, particularly if you can angle them up a bit – then you can really hit down on the ball as you would on court. It’s also a pretty good exercise to practice against an uneven wall sometimes – the unpredictability of the bounce really tests your reflexes.
Ball machines are also good for volley practice – typically you dial up the frequency a bit and can hit a lot of balls in a short space of time. Again, you normally have the advantage with a machine of practicing on a real court, so can aim for your targets.
Ball machine 2 – 1 Backboard
With a bit of practice it’s possible to approximate an incoming lob by hitting the ball so it bounces just in front of your backboard, then rebounds off the wall with a high trajectory – possible, but not that easy. In my opinion a tennis ball machine wins hands down here because you can set it to deliver the ball in the right areas and concentrate solely on hitting your overhead, rather than confusing yourself by first setting up the lob. And because you normally aim to hit the smash fairly powerfully, it’s more important with this shot than most to make sure you’re placing it within the court.
Ball machine 3 – 1 Backboard
Well, of course you don’t need either backboard or ball machine to practice your serve – just a court, and perhaps some empty ball canisters.
No points for either on this one.
With some of the more expensive machines on the market these days it’s possible to program in entire sequences of shots, simulating playing against a real opponent. But with some practice there are some drills you can also do against the wall. Figure eights, for example, where you alternate hitting down the line and crosscourt on both the forehand and backhand sides – this is really good for developing consistency and being able to maintain a rally, plus you’re forced to move your feet to get into position for each shot, so it’s a really good workout too.
Ball machine 4 – 2 Backboard
Number of Balls
One significant advantage of playing against a backboard is you don’t have to buy practice balls by the bucketload, as you do with a machine. You can quite easily practice with a single ball, although you’ll save yourself a lot of to-ing and fro-ing by having a half-dozen or so. Still, it’s nowhere near as bad as needing 50-100 balls before you can head out.
Ball machine 4 – 3 Backboard
So overall, practicing with a tennis ball machine comes out on top in my opinion – one of the main reasons being that you’re playing within the confines and measurements of a real tennis court. But don’t despise hitting against the wall either, especially if you don’t have time to get down to the court – you’ll be surprised at the difference a regular 10 minute hitting session can make. But of course, nothing beats hitting against a real opponent who’s doing their best to beat you!