While working with a student who started playing only six months ago, and having a chance to watch him play socially, he asked the “burning question”: How can I hit the ball better?

Since there can be numerous answers to that question, I suggested he think in terms of a rhythm pattern: 1 (racquet back), 2 (step), 3 (hit).

So much of playing tennis successfully is about timing, i.e., getting in the right position to make good, clean contact with the ball.

As soon as the ball leaves your opponent’s strings, that’s when No. 1 has to happen – racquet back. Doing this immediately determines whether you’re going to hit a forehand, or backhand, and creates more time for you to be prepared to field and hit the ball. This also helps to be more relaxed through your stroke.

Many times, players wait to get their racquet back until after the ball has bounced on their side of the court. This means it might have gone 80 percent of its total distance, and your racquet is zero percent ready to hit it.

Not only would this make a player tense up, it makes for late hitting. Chronic late hitting is a main ingredient of the tennis elbow recipe.

Having your racquet back allows your brain to get your feet moving to the ball. By the time it bounces, you should be close to executing No. 2, a final step forward into No. 3, hitting the ball.

A good way to start conditioning yourself to use this 1, 2, 3 rhythm: rally with a practice partner and, as the ball comes off their strings, say “racquet back” while moving toward the ball.

Next, when the ball bounces, try to time yourself to take your final “step” and then “hit.”

This could also be practiced with a ball machine. Either way, learning to get the racquet back early means your backswing is virtually complete well before the ball crosses the net, making it easier to transfer your weight forward, through the stroke.

When done correctly, the ball leaves your racquet with an almost effortless, no resistance feel and a solid “pop” coming from the strings – one of the sweetest sounds in tennis.

Along with getting the racquet back, a simultaneous “split-step” to a crossover first step is worth practicing, in order to get to the ball quicker while being ready to hit out in front rather than late.

Because tennis is a rather quick sport, the better your timing and balance, the better your game will be. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!

Lou Marino is a USPTA Cardio and youth tennis coach who lives, teaches and provides custom-hybrid racquet service in the Bluffton-Hilton Head Island area. lwmarino@hotmail.com