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Alex Robertson
By Alex Robertson on June 13, 2024

Building Rallies: A Step-by-Step Conditioned Game

I must admit that I sometimes struggle to come up with topics for our blog content.

I have been writing articles for over three years now so I'd like to start by giving a big thanks to all of our long-time readers, and, a big hello to all our newer readers!

Anyway, often when I'm struggling with inspiration, I don't want to make the mistake of just writing about a random topic for the sake of it. If nothing else, I'd much prefer to write something that can help our readers.

My go-to topics in this situation are often drills and training routines that I do myself, and, I actually did a training session last night with a drill that I think is really beneficial.

It's a conditioned game that is built up throughout the session and, the main benefit/goal of this conditioned game is to help players learn and improve their ability to build rallies.

It essentially involves building on your length and back-of-court game to put your opponent under pressure and open up opportunities to take the ball short at the right time.

It's also simple and pretty straightforward, and you don't need to play at a particularly high standard to do it (plus, it can be tweaked even more to make it easier and harder).

Anyway, let's talk about this conditioned game from my training session and how it helps players learn and practice to build rallies from scratch...

Everything above the service line (straight)

So, like any good training session or drill, we're starting slowly!

We're just starting with straight drives only for now and everything has to land above the service line on the front wall.

You can volley here, but, everything has to go to the back of the court. No short shots allowed.

Now, I know this doesn't sound like a conditioned game and that it's closer to a drill right now, but, the sole purpose of this straight game is to help you warm your shots up, we're not really getting into the tactical side of things just yet.

You only need to do a couple of minutes on the forehand and backhand sides to get a feel for things and prepare yourself for the full conditioned game to begin next!

Everything above the service line (cross court on the volley)

Now we open up the rest of the court by adding in the cross court.

You can only play cross court on the volley and every shot still has to be above the service line.

This keeps the game pretty slow and steady, however, rallies can go on for quite some time so make sure to have regular breaks throughout if you begin to get tired.

You can score if you like, however, that's really up to you.

Personally, I don't usually score this early in the drills because I like to focus on the shots and purpose of the drill rather than just trying to win rallies.

We usually add the competitive element later on in the progression of the conditioned game, but, again, it's really up to you!

Anyway, this condition is a great way to help you start focusing on the accuracy of your lengths and begin practicing to build rallies from that.

This is the first stage of building a rally, and, since everything is above the service line, you've really got plenty of time between each shot to really think about your targets and where you're aiming to move your opponent to.

Like I often mention, it's a great idea to stick some targets down for drills to the back of the court. Ideally, something like a piece of A4 paper that won't disrupt the flow of the rally if the ball hits it is absolutely ideal.

Put it about a racquet distance from the back line of the service box and you're good to go.

Just start with a normal serve and make sure every shot lands above that service line on the front wall after that.

One of the main reasons for the cross court having to be on the volley is because, if you're in the position to volley, that means you're generally in the position to attack and mix things up a little.

You don't have to always go cross court when you volley either, you can just bide your time and if you find that you're effectively pinning your opponent straight in the back corner, you can then throw in the cross court to break up their movement even more.

Full court with one short shot per rally

As we progress to the next stage, you're now allowed to go cross court any time you want, and, you (and your opponent) can also play one short shot per rally.

Remember, every other shot still has to go above the service line until you play your short shot.

One of the main reasons why I like this condition is because, even if the ball is deep in the back and difficult to dig out, you can still lift a high boast and, as long as it hits above the service line, the rally carries on.

Your shots don't necessarily all have to land behind the middle court line or anything like that.

Anyway, now you really get to start reaping the benefits of your hard work to the back of the court.

With the short shot involved, you can now build your rally with those lifts to the back of the court, eventually forcing a weak shot from your opponent, then, you can finally go for that winner.

However, what's great about this condition is that it forces you to make the absolute most of your short shot. You really have to make it count because you only get one chance to put it away, after that, the rally goes on and you've just got to stay in it hoping your opponent makes a mistake.

When it comes to building a rally, it's all about putting the pressure on to eventually set yourself up for that perfect opportunity, however, even in a match, you need to make sure you capitlise on that chance to go short at the absolute right time.

This condition really takes things to the extreme from that perspective.

I find that this condition can really get frustrating at times. It's very easy to make a mistake when you're going for your shot to the front because there's a lot of pressure on getting it right.

Often, I find that I'm going for tighter margins than normal when I only get one chance to do it, so, that increases my chance of making a mistake.

But, that's another benefit of this drill, and that's helping you learn how to hit with accuracy even when there's a lot of mental pressure on you.

With that said, due to the condition, you know for a fact that your opponent is going to have to lift the ball high out of the front corner even if your short shot isn't great, so, you're not punished too badly for an inaccurate shot.

Short shot on the volley

Now, you can go short as many times as you like, but, it has to be on the volley.

Of course, all other shots still have to go above the service line, however, there's a big added threat of your opponent taking it short if your 

This variation can be a harsh lesson when it comes to building a rally. You may have played two, three, four, or more great shots to the back of the court, however, just one weaker shot gives your opponent that chance to put a ball away on the volley.

It's not necessarily a build on the previous condition, rather, it is just another change up to give you a chance to practice different types of winners more often than once per rally.

Going short at the right time sounds easy and simple in theory, but, in practice it can be more difficult.

However, what I find about this condition is that, if you're in the position to volley the ball, quite often, you're also in the position to take it in short.

Generally, you'll be volleying from on or near the T, and, your opponent will be in the back (or front) corner after retrieving your previous shot, so, when you take that volley in short, they'll be under a lot of pressure to move fast to reach your shot before it bounces twice.

In fact, the very fact that you're in a position to volley (and volley short), means that you've done a good job of building the rally to the back of the court in the lead-up to this opportunity.

So, your reward is the chance to finish off the rally with a winner of your own.

Since everything is still above the service line, the pace isn't that fast when you're going to the back of the court, however, many shots are volleying height, so, you have to make sure that your lengths are all as tight as possible.

As soon as a player steps forward to volley and take that ball early, it speeds the rally up quite significantly, so, things can start getting a bit more tiring at this point in the drill.

If your opponent takes their volley in short, this condition really helps you get better at getting yourself out of trouble when you're under pressure too.

Lifting the ball high and deep out of those front corners is an essential part of recovering and keeping yourself in a rally. 

There really are a bunch of benefits to playing this slower, more controlled, and more thought-orientated style of drill.


Photo credit: Steve Cubbins

Second bounce behind the service line

Now, as we move into the second half of this drill, we start to speed things up a bit...

We've removed all shots to the front, however, you can add some pace to your lengths now and even play mid-court kills as long as the ball bounces at least the second bounce past the mid-court line.

Of course, this ups the pace quite a significant amount.

This condition takes things one step closer to a real game situation, as this is generally what all drives to the back of the court in a proper match are going to be like.

However, at the moment, no shots to the front of the court are allowed, so rallies can still be quite long.

Remember, just because you can hit your drives lower and harder doesn't mean that you have to. You can still use the lifts and lobs that you practiced in the first half, especially if you're on the back foot and are trying to get yourself back in the rally.

If you're using targets, move them forward around half a racquet's distance closer to the back line of the service box because, if you want the ball to die second bounce in the back corner from a harder drive, that first bounce is going to need to land a little further up the court.

This condition allows you to build your rally to the back of the court just as you would during a real match, plus, you can volley when you want to, which allows you to keep the pressure on.

Add in one short shot per rally

Now, we add that short shot back in just as we did in the first half, and again, you just get one chance to do it.

But, now you need to make it count even more because if it's poor, your opponent can punish you back by getting on it early and cracking a low hard kill in return (as long as it bounces second bounce past that mid-court line).

Of course, this works both ways since you don't have to lift your way out of the situation if you don't need to either. So, if your opponent goes for their short shot and it's not very good or accurate, you can crack a low kill in yourself as well.

Again, make sure you're building that rally to the back of the court as best you can, forcing that weak shot from your opponent, and, when that ball comes out loose, you can play your drop, trickle boast, kill, or whatever you like.

But, if your opponent retrieves it, the rally goes on!

Short shot on the volley

Now, we again change it to being able to go short as many times as you want, as long as it's on the volley.

Now, the key difference to when we did this in the first half of the drill is that, now, there will be a lot fewer opportunities to volley since balls can be low and hard.

Your drives still have to land at least with their second bounce past the mid-court line, however, this still means that you can hit pretty low on the ball.

This makes things a lot faster, however, you can still add height to slow things down again if you need to.

And, this is where you get to try your hand at building a rally, creating opportunities for yourself to go short, and then capitalizing on that volley.

You'll find that the pace can get incredibly high with this condition.

Both players tend to be trying to volley as often as possible to make the most of the condition. This starts to take its toll physically on both players and mistakes generally tend to creep in towards the latter stages.

This is normal, but, this is also yet another benefit of the drill because it lets you practice building rallies even when you're becoming fatigued, which is exactly what you have to do in a match situation.

Especially in the latter stages of a five-setter for example.

Finish with full-court

Now, depending on how much time you've got left, I personally always love to finish with some full-court rallies so I can put what I've been working on in the session into practice in a real game situation.

Just remember the focus of the training session as best you can during the full-court game, and that's building rallies.

So, use those lifts and lengths to create opportunities for yourself, and, then capitalize on them when the time is right.

Also, just a final note, I've done this session just in a two with myself and a friend, and, in a three (with one person waiting on the back door in between each point and the loser of each rally swapping with that person).

I would say that doing it in a three is better since it can get pretty physically taxing and you get that rest on the back door between some rallies which helps you reflect, recuperate, and also watch the other two players to get some tips from their tactics!

This article was taken from our 'Control the Kitchen' Newsletter, if you're interested in receiving more content like this, please feel free to sign up using the subscribe section located at the bottom left of this page (or underneath the article if you're on mobile), thanks!

Published by Alex Robertson June 13, 2024
Alex Robertson