Third-ball attack training is typically a drill where one person serves short with backspin, and a training partner returns by pushing long for the server to attack. It is an important element of your training.
Footwork, placement and consistency drills should make up the majority of your training, but none of them will help you if your opening topspin is inconsistent, or doesn’t exist. If that's the case, your opponent will be able to attack first, or you will get stuck in backspin rallies.
So, let’s look at some of the ways your training may be lacking in this area...
1. Serving with more than one ball in your hand
Players often grab a handful of balls from a bucket or their pocket and simply begin serving them. Stop! Third-ball attack is a match situation practice, so you should do everything possible to simulate real match conditions.
If you have more than one ball in your hand, your ball toss will be slightly different. Practicing this way could lead to errors when are using only one ball – in a match!
Linked to this, is having objects on or around the table when practicing, such as nets, ball buckets or trays etc. All of these things scream “training environment” to your subconscious mind, and will not help train your focus for match situations. Keep these things far from the table, or at least under the table and out of sight.
2. Serving differently than you would in a match
Some players use different serves, or don’t try for the same amount of spin on their serves, when practicing third-ball. Maybe because they don’t want to serve faults.
But, as long as your practice partner is of a similar standard, think of third-ball practice as an opportunity to hone your serves as well - and get used to the types of return that will come from them. You’ll also be doing a good service to your partner as well, allowing them to improve their service return.
3. Not using your best return
Somewhat linked to the above... if it’s your turn to return serve, you should be using the opportunity to practice your best, fast and long push returns. This can be difficult if your training partner is not using their best serves.
A specific example is when the server is serving little or no backspin. It becomes very difficult to push effectively. So, if you know your partner can serve better, encourage them to do so!
4. Pushing serves you really shouldn’t
This is a more advanced tip: If both partners are proficient at serving short most of the time, they should encourage each other to attack instead of push if a serve goes long or high, or has weak spin.
This encourages the server to serve better and really watch the receiver’s intentions. It also prevents the receiver from practicing passive shots against attack-able balls.
5. Not practicing different placements
It’s important not only to practice cross-court attacks from the forehand and backhand corners, but also down the line from both corners, and to the center.
And what about when the ball comes to your middle? Will you move to attack with your forehand? And where will you attack to?
Remember, by telling your partner where you’ll be attacking to, there’s a higher chance they’ll get the ball back, which is better for both of you. Also, once you get used to attacking from one place, tell your partner to vary their push placement between two or three different places, or anywhere on the table.
In summary, think about the places where you have difficulty in a match making the first attack from and to and you’ll know where to focus your training time.
6. Not thinking about the fifth-ball
After making a good third-ball attack, your fifth-ball should be at least as strong again. Don’t get caught off guard by a good block. This is an excellent time to combine your footwork drills with your fifth-ball attack drills.
Say you have been practicing forehand side-to-side footwork. Why not tell your partner you’ll be making the first attack crosscourt from the forehand corner and ask them to block the next ball to your middle, to which you must also play a forehand? If you’re ready for a real challenge, tell them they can block anywhere!
As the attacker, it’s important to practice being the one who makes the first free placement in a rally, but it’s equally as important to allow the blocker to take that role sometimes too, to improve the attacker's reaction speed and footwork, and allow the receiver to practice better blocking.
Once again, think about the situations where you have difficulty in a match after making the first attack and you’ll know where to focus your training time.
We hope these tips bring more intensity to your third-ball attack practice, and with it more rapid improvement!
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by Jackson Meyn