Getting from an NTRP 4.0 to 4.5 is a tall order. I’ve heard that moving up in NTRP rankings is exponential. So, going up from 3.5 to 4.0 is twice as hard as going from 3.0 to 3.5. A lot of people top out at 4.0 and it’s usually for a couple of reasons; they’re aging/injured and can’t get enough court time to get better, they’re not working on their stroke and hitting with correct form, they can’t move well.
Here’s a quick guide on NTRP rankings for anyone interested. I find this to be pretty interesting because they include ages.
I started out a self-rated 4.0 and I probably would have lost matches at 3.5. I was out of shape and inconsistent but I had the foundations of decent stroke mechanics from playing high school tennis. I should mention that I had a fair amount of coaching in high school and might have been able to walk-on to a crappy DIII school. I had a one-hand backhand and typical big serve, big forehand. I probably had below average volleys and terrible footwork.
Get coaching to make sure your strokes are solid
When starting out, I’d recommend getting a significant amount of coaching. If you can find a top-level junior or college player to coach you, you’ll be really well served. Usually you can pay them less and they will have a very in-depth knowledge of the game with good mechanics. Some drawbacks of this are, they may not have the patience a teaching pro might have and they may not be able to communicate as well as some pros. Regardless, you’ll find that finding the right coach for you takes time. Don’t be afraid to try new coaches, there is no rule that says you have to stick with one forever.
After your stroke production is sound and repeatable, hit the ball machine and find a hitting partner. Ball machines are good when learning a new stroke but you won’t get ball machine type balls in a match so I would suggest hitting with a partner at least 3 times for every 1 ball machine session. The ball machine will help with cardio and maintaining good form when you’re tired.
Improve conditioning and footwork
4.0 tennis is all about consistency and point construction. Hit a consistent ball, move well, and be in good shape and you’ll do well. You’ll find a big spread of player types in 4.0 from big hitters that make lots of errors to back-board guys with ugly form. I struggled a lot against the back-board guys that hit lots of slice. I struggled against them because I didn’t have the necessary footwork to get in position and get low to pick those balls up. Even if I did get the ball, I would put it in a weak position and I’d be in trouble for the next ball.
Want to immediately get faster and have better footwork? Split step. You’ll have to consciously make an effort to do this until it becomes a habit. Its waayy too common to see 4.0 guys flat footed between shots. You almost never see 4.5 players flat-footed between balls.
Everyone goes to the backhand
Its the default shot and for good reason. Almost everyone has a weak backhand that is error prone. If you can build up a steady backhand that does not product errors and keeps the ball neutral, it will take you all the way to 4.0 quickly.
My one hand backhand was killing me at 4.0. I just didn’t have the footwork and natural timing it required. High balls to the backhand killed me. I made the decision to switch to a two hand backhand. I knew I was going to suck for a few months but I went to drills classes, hit on the backboard and made an effort to improve it quickly. A year later I won my first tournament and a couple of months after that, I won a 4.0 Major Zone (big tournament in Texas that had a draw of 64). That was my last year at 4.0.
All serves matter
I just wanted to smash serves like when I was a junior. Basically, I went 99% of max for my first serve and then tried to get my second in which was basically a 75% of max. Needless to say, I gave away a lot of free points through double faults. If I had a bad serving day, I would lose. It’s important to build the full repertoire of serves including slice, flat, kick/topspin, and varying paces. Placement and consistency are probably the most important things to have at 4.0. You want to keep your position neutral at worst and set yourself up for offense. If you’re going for aces, only do it at 40-0 or 40-15.
Kick serves are incredibly effective at 4.0. It gives you a high % serve and it is often difficult for the returner to be offensive on. I am still working on a true kick serve at 4.5 but I played lots of 4.0s with good kick serves. If you play doubles, kick serves are an amazing asset to have.
What does the top of 4.0 look like?
Here the earliest video I recorded that shows me when I was a 4.0. I got bumped up to 4.5 a couple of months after this video. I am in the white long-sleeve t-shirt and hitting with an NTRP 4.5 (orange shirt) in this video.
As you can see, I had decent strokes but I struggled with positioning, footwork, and unforced errors. I still had a lot of work to do on my mechanics for serve, forehand, backhand, and volleys.
To summarize, here’s what it takes to get to 4.5
- Increase your fitness and have better footwork (split step!)
- Build a reliable backhand that keeps the ball neutral
- Improve consistency and stroke mechanics
- Work to your strengths
- Practice matchplay
- Have a reliable 2nd serve