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Program Director

With realistic random-play options, ball machines enter the “I, Robot” generation.

By Joe Dinoffer

Thousands of players are proponents of ball machines and just love practicing with them. Others, however, simply don’t bother with them. It’s easy to see why ball machines have a large fan club. First, ball machines offer players more balls per hour than match play, or hitting with a partner. In regular match play, the average player hits about 150 balls per hour. But on a ball machine, that same player will hit more than three times that amount, a whopping 650 balls per hour. This is part of the reason that thousands of ball machines are purchased each and every year, and why players at clubs and facilities will rent ball machine time.

Proponents of ball machine use are convinced they make great practice partners. They are always ready to practice when you are, don’t take bathroom breaks or answer cell phones during play, and play at exactly the level you dictate.

On the other hand, if they’re so good, why are there still so many players who don’t seem to like playing with ball machines? It’s because of their belief that ball machines have a single but glaring limitation: They are not realistic practice partners, the skeptics argue, since balls are fed in predictable patterns.

While this has been true for decades, times are changing. We are entering a new and exciting era of ball machine technology.

In the science fiction movie “I, Robot” starring Will Smith, a futuristic world full of service-oriented robots reaches a crisis when the robots start thinking for themselves and conclude that humans are not fit to rule the planet. In the movie, the robots plot and battle with the humans for control. Of course, there is no planned movie on ball machines that have minds of their own, but there is now a new generation of machines that offer realistic random-play options at the touch of a button.

While this virtual reality concept has been offered for years in larger (and more expensive) club-model ball machines, today’s technological advances have made them even better. Many of the full-sized club-model machines now have new features, such as preprogrammed drill sequences. In fact, some even allow users to design their own drills on a PC, download it to a portable control panel, and then practice patterns of play that each user creates to suit their own personal needs.

For individual users, as well as smaller facilities, the march of time now offers more good news. Ball machine technology has even gotten better. Just in the past year, various manufacturers of portable machines have introduced affordable portables that also feature close-to-real-play drilling and “one-touch” technology. Of course, they don’t have all the bells and whistles of their bigger and more expensive cousins, but they perform quite well for machines in the $1,500 to $2,000 price range. Add this virtual reality feature to the other benefits of portables and they seem more and more attractive.

One machine that I playtested features a vertical oscillation option, a feature that randomly feeds balls of various depths, allowing players to practice groundstroke, approach, and volley sequences with ease. Another company now makes a series of machines that offer one-touch drill set-up, since the units are actually preprogrammed at beginner, intermediate, and advanced playing levels. With one touch of a button, the machine varies the feed of each ball with a different speed, spin, arc, and direction for each level of play.

So, whether it’s the most sophisticated programmable machine costing well over $5,000 or a handy and less expensive portable that also boasts some cool features all its own, the future is here and available today. And, no, they are not sophisticated enough to develop a mind of their own. They just do what you ask them to do.

Personally, I hope it stays just like that.

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About the Author

Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional for both the PTR and USPTA. He speaks frequently at national and international tennis teacher workshops as a member of both the HEAD Penn and Reebok National Speaker's Bureaus. He is president of Oncourt Offcourt Inc. and has written 16 books and produced more than 30 instructional videos.

 

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