Tennis uses words and phrases that sound familiar to those used in other sports, but have specific meanings for tennis, including “rallying,” “volleying” and “groundstrokes.” Groundstrokes include different varieties of forehands and backhands, while volleys include most balls hit out of the air. Understanding the correct lingo will help you keep pace during clinics, drills and team workouts.
A groundstroke occurs when the ball hits the ground and then you hit it back over the net. Depending on which side of your body you hit the ball, the groundstroke is either a forehand or a backhand. The ball can only bounce once before you hit it if you are playing regular tennis, and twice if you are playing wheelchair tennis. Your shot must clear the net and land in bounds on a fly for it to be good. Your racket may cross the net after you hit a ball on your side of the court, but you may not touch the net with your racket or interfere with your opponent’s play. An exception to balls hit after the bounce is the overhead. You hit this shot after the ball lands and bounces over your head, or you can hit it out of the air. The overhead is usually not referred to as a groundstroke, even if you hit it after the bounce.
A volley occurs when you hit the ball out of the air before it can land on the ground on your side of the net. Exceptions to this are the overhead and the serve, which is a shot you hit after you toss the ball out of your hand and strike before it hits the ground. You hit forehand and backhand volleys, with most usually hit in front of the service line, near the net. You may hit a volley from anywhere on the court or outside of the boundaries, but you must put it back into your opponent’s court without it hitting your side of the court. The reason you may hit the ball while you are standing outside of the court is that you might not have time to get out of the way, you might not be sure the ball is going to land in or out of bounds and because the ball is not out of bounds until it lands. The rule for your racket crossing the net after hitting a volley is the same as the one for hitting groundstrokes.
Most players hit one-handed forehands and two-handed backhands. A two-handed forehand is a rarity, while one-handed backhands are common at all levels. The modern two-handed backhand uses the trailing arm to drive the racket, as opposed to the old-style two-handed backhand, which used the trailing arm to stabilize the backhand. For a right-handed player, the left arm is dominant on a two-handed backhand. Depending on the angle of the face of the racket at impact and the spin this imparts on the ball, you can hit slice, topspin or flat groundstrokes, which also refers to the type of ball you hit. For example, you can hit a ball with slice or hit a slice backhand.
Volleys are usually hit flat or with some underspin, with swinging topspin volleys a rarity used by more advanced players. The swinging volley is usually played from close to the service line or farther back when a player is out of position and needs more depth and power on the volley than a short “punch” volley can create. When the ball lands so close to you that you must hit it immediately after the bounce with almost no swing, this results in a half-volley. The shot is technically a groundstroke, but because it’s hit with a short, volley-like motion, tennis players call this a half volley. In other sports, people might use the phrase “volley for serve” to refer to a rally that results in the winner getting the first serve. Tennis players do not use this phrase.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.