Ball Machines Step Up The Game
In the last decade we have seen technology evolve exponentially in almost every facet of our lives, and tennis is no exception. The most visible may be electronic line calls in many professional tournaments, but for club and recreational players, technology is most evident in ball machines.
The days of knuckle balls coming at you like a Little League pitch are over. Air propulsion has given way to robotic machines that can zip balls at you at alarming speeds, with an array of spins that would make Ilie Nastase jealous. Like so many things in our lives, now there is an app for that!
Machines that can be controlled from an app on your smartphone are available from both Lobster and Playmate, while others offer remote controls on small computer keypads. Either way, the machines of today can do so much more than feed you balls at the baseline. They can impart spins, speed and diversity that your opponents cannot even dream of and can provide a full workout or even play a match with you.
The ball machine is no longer just for getting some hits in when you can’t find another player. Many of today’s models can be used to simulate every shot imaginable. Several models can store your favorite drills, eliminating the need to waste balls and time with machine set-up. Your favorite drills and settings can be saved and quickly accessed each session so you can get straight to work. It is as simple as downloading the free app to your smartphone or tablet. With the Playmate models, you can even watch a brief video of a drill on your phone or tablet so that you can understand it, and then go right into the drill on court.
One thing is for sure — the ball machine never gets tired, so you are sure to get a great workout. Most players are fairly stationary when using a ball machine, having it feed forehands or backhands to the baseline. Those feeling more ambitious may have the machine oscillate to move them along the baseline, but today’s machines are capable of so much more.
Stan Oley, USPTA teaching pro and national sales manager for Playmate (playmatetennismachines.com, 800-776-6770), has developed a program called Fit By Tennis in 60 Days (FBT60.com) that utilizes training drills with the ball machine along with a nutrition plan. “The feed rate of the ball machine is one of the most important aspects of the tennis portion being successful,” says Oley. “The feed rate should be set so that when your struck ball passes the ball machine, the machine throws another ball, simulating an opponent.” This alone assures the player of a great workout.
Lobster (lobstersports.com, 800-210-5992) offers apps for iPhone (and iTouch) and for Android, which can remotely control five of the company’s machines. To operate via smartphone, the Lobster Wi-Fi Remote Control receiver is installed at the factory, then the user simply downloads the free Lobster Sports Remote app from either iTunes (for iPhone/iTouch) or Google Play (for Android). Lobster offers two different apps for iPhone: the Remote Control App or the Ultimate Control Remote App, which can program custom court drills.
The Shotmaker Deluxe from Sports Tutor (sportstutor.com, 800-448-8867), which is the company’s top-of-the-line professional ball machine, can be a formidable opponent. With the push of just one button, Player Mode (patented) simulates a player on the other side of the net. Just push either the Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced buttons, and Player Mode automatically picks an appropriate speed and spin, and then changes both the side-to-side position and the depth of shots just like you were playing someone of that ability.
The Boomer from Robot Optimizer (tennisrobot.com, 888-826-6637) which is based on the Sports Tutor Shotmaker Deluxe platform, takes player simulation to another level by utilizing a camera to actually play a match with you. You can set your expertise level and do battle with the machine. Boomer announces the score, calls lines and can even dish out some trash talk while giving you a formidable match.
Market Your Program
With all the technology available, every facility should re-evaluate their ball machine program. Yes, the machines are not cheap, but if marketed properly they can yield a great return on investment.
Teaching pros can incorporate them into lesson plans, taking a more active role in helping the student develop proper stroke technique through repetition as well as strategy, shot combinations, court coverage and transitions.
Once members see the benefits of practicing with a ball machine, they will include regular sessions into their routine. Facilities should consider ball machine clubs or package deals for ball machine time to encourage their regular use. Having periodic “How To” clinics to highlight the various advantages will expose the benefits of the machines from honing members’ shots and strategies to the fitness element.
See all articles by Bob Patterson
About the Author
Bob Patterson , the founder of the RacquetMAXX customization service, is a Master Racquet Technician with more than 20 years of experience. He was RSI's Stringer of the Year in 2005. He is Special Projects Manager for Tennis Industry magazine.