Trainings

How we met our – calm & reliable – hitting partner (part 1)

19.04.2017
Lobster Elite Grand 5 LE

The most expensive part of rising a competitive junior tennis player is NOT a travelling.  Racquets, strings & shoes can cost quite a lot, but it is just a tiny percentage of a total budget. It can be challenging to pay for a court time, but if you are a member of community tennis club, it is much easier to access tennis courts for reasonable yearly membership fee…

But you almost always need to pay A LOT for a coaching (except if a family member is a coach himself/herself) or hitting assistance. Furthermore, it is also the most unstable part of common “practice construction”. A hitting partner can be sick, tired, demotivated, on the go with other job… or just decide to quite because he does not like you! Usually it happens at the time you need him/her most of all, so you get unexpected & unnecessary trouble!

That’s why we decided to use a tennis ball machine in Sashka’s everyday practice – as an addition to a “live” coach-hitter, not a replacement. In this post I will describe how this idea was born & became reality, and also tell about our first steps to buy & deliver the machine.

NOTE/DISCLAIMER: this is NOT a promotional post. We did have a (modest) discount from the tennis ball machine vendor, but Sashka does not have a sponsorshir or endorsement contract with it. So it is a honest end user’s review (the first of a few) with all “pros and cons” of the gadget.

HOW THE IDEA WAS BORN

As Sashka’s manager, I believe that overall tennis perfomance (if to speak about tennis solely, NOT considering fitness, food, recovery etc. though they all are extremely important) is a sum of 4 (four) main components:

1. Game structure

What game your player plays; what are her/his strengths and weaknesses; what tennis elements and shots your player can rely on to win & what he/she needs to practice just to cover “holes”.

2. Shot selection

To play his/her game, your player must make right decisions. This is why the player needs tournaments & training matches. He/she has to “play own game” under the stress of competition.

3. Technical understanding.

Your player must know how to serve & return right, hit right, move right (and left too) and make a deadly drop shot :). This is exactly what (good) live coaches should do.

4. Technical fulfillment.

Even if your player knows how to hit right, she/he won’t regularly do it, specially during the tournament matches – if the player haven’t made thousands of the same shots during the practice. It is a hard & routine work – it is tennis, baby :).

To improve technical fulfillment, usually you need somebody who hits you a ball to the necessary direction. Again & again. All what you need to do is to fulfill that shot many, many times even if you clearly understand how to do this. It should become automatic for you.

But this “somebody” tends to ask payment for his job, got sick, tired or fallen in love etc. So why not to replace somebody with something?

So we decided to look for a tennis ball machine to partly replace a live hitting partner.

REQUIREMENTS

As we never own a tennis ball machine before, the first step was to make a list of requirements.

First, we wanted a machine which can emulate almost all technical elements of modern tennis, except serve (as “service machines” are very expensive). So we looked for a machine which can shot fast and slow balls, highs and lows, spins, slices, powerful flat shots etc.

Second, we needed a programmable machine so we can put in it our own drills.

Third, we seeked for a bunch of ready, pre-programmed drills (for now, we practically do not use this function).

Fourth, a machine should be compact, battery-powered and trasportable by usual car.

SELECTION

Actually, there is no big selection of ball machines on European market. We found several brands online, like Lobster, Tennis Tutor, Tennis Tower. Some of them are not officially available outside U.S. (this is important because of possible service & maintenance issues). Others are complete enigmas in terms of reviews, tutorials and user’s info available online. After short evaluation we have chosen a brand – Lobster – basing on overall reputation, official presence in Europe and a suggested level of customer support.

ECONOMICS

The main question here is:

was it worth to spend several thousands EUR, including a portion of money raised during Sashka’s crowdfunding campaign, to buy this machine? Was it really NECESSARY?

After Q&A session with Lobster customer support we decided to purchase Grand 5 Elite LE ball machine. This machine costs us around 3,000 EUR including discount kindly provided by Lobster.

Here in Croatia the minimal hourly rate hitting partners ask for their job is around 8 EUR, a medium one is 10 EUR.

So the Grand 5 Elite LE machine equals 300 hours of regular training session!

Currently Sashka works with machine at least 2 hours per day, so it is just 150 days, or 5 months, to get a full return on investments to this machine.

Also, you do not need to feed a tennis ball machine, place it in hotel and pay extra for travelling :). So in future we will take it with us to Sashka’s European tournaments. For now we do not have a car to travel, but somewhen in future we will.

PURCHASE & DELIVERY

Do you remember Sashka’s posts from Hamburg ITF Juniors Grade 4 tournament? Well, we went there mostly because we needed to pick the machine in Hamburg (there is no official Lobster dealer in Croatia, and all logistics options were expensive or non-reliable).

Our beautiful baby - unpacked & assembled!

Our beautiful baby – unpacked & assembled!

We got some problems with Flixbus, as they did not want to accept the packed machine as the luggage (though it was OK by both weight and measurements). But after short discussion, they agreed to transport it.

Finally, we reached Croatia with our new hitting partner in the box. Our next step was to unpack, assemble, test and put it to work.

To keep our posts short, I will tell you about it in my next publication :).

What we have now:

PROS:

– tennis ball machine gives you & your player an independence to work on technical fulfillment where & when you want;

– it is a smart & economically efficient way to develop a junior competitive player – you need 5 months or less to return money spent on it;

– it is predictable, does not have its own ego, won’t go to another player who offers more money :); you can take it to the tour without paying hotel and meal;

– Lobster seems to have good & reliable machines, competitive prices and excellent customer support.

CONS:

– there are no big selection or competition among ball machine vendors;

– tennis ball machine will NOT replace a live coach…

– but live coaches do not like machines as they “eat a coach’s bread”.

That’s all for now. Wait for a couple of days to read about our experience of machine’s usage and see some video in action!

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