Tennis is a game played between two people. But long before they meet on a court, each of them will have put in countless hours of practice. However, not all practice is created equal. It is not always possible to have a partner at all times, and discrepancies in skill level and experience may be problematic. Also, there is a technical component to tennis that must be practiced in isolation, without the variables of another player. This is where the tennis ball machine comes in.
A ball machine essentially serves the ball to the player.
When choosing a tennis ball machine, we’ll be discussing a few considerations. The size of the machine, for storage purposes. Propulsion, which refers to how the machine shoots the balls out. Oscillation, which refers to whether the machine can feed the balls in more than one direction, better simulating game conditions. And power, meaning, whether the machine operates from a battery or has to be plugged in.
Okay, let’s jump right into it:
The Tennis Tutor is a great deal for the price, particularly because it has varied oscillation and can mimic the conditions of beginners, intermediates, and advanced players. It has so many options that you will be able to run yourself ragged if that’s what you want.
There are three different options when you buy the machine, with more features added at each tier. The price ranges from $1000 to just over $1600. If you’re going to be a long-term player, the high-end model is the right starting point. Developing skill is a matter of years and eclectic practice, and if you intend to play for as long as it takes, you’ll simply have to buy a new model of the Tennis Tutor every couple of years if you start at the low end.
The Tennis Tutor runs on batteries and has good battery life. Fully charged, you can expect to get 4-6 hours of life out of it. It takes 12 hours to charge when fully depleted. If you’re willing to spend some extra money for more life, you can purchase an affordable external power pack to extend it.
One of the biggest hassles about using a machine is picking up the balls to refill it. Most low-end machines only hold 50 balls, but the Tennis Tutor holds 150. This is more in keeping with the amount you’d find at a professional tennis club where people are practicing for long stretches as they work on technique.
Speaking of technique, the Tennis Tutor (the most advanced version with the most features) can be adjusted to shoot balls in any direction, right from the control panel. You can work on foreground or backcourt play, focus on baseline work, running for slices on the perimeter, and more. You can also change the elevation from the control panel, which is rare in tennis ball machines. Most of them require you to make a manual change to the elevation by inserting something beneath it to change the angle, which can be a pain.
Finally, if you purchase the Player Plus model, you get even more options for customization, particularly with ball spin. Most machines only allow you to adjust the topspin of the ball. But the Tennis Tutor lets you choose to put more rotation on the bottom spin, and even from the sides. All in all, you can’t go wrong with this machine.
Lobster Elite 3
The Lobster Elite is an excellent choice of tennis ball machine for someone who wants to focus on lateral, (side to side) movement, but also running from the back of the court to the front. The oscillation can be set so it sends the tennis player from line to line, or from the baseline up to the net. And the rate at which the balls come out can be adjusted, so if you wanted, you could be whipping back and forth working on your forehand and backhand, just like in a furious volley with a real player.
The battery life in the Lobster Elite is more substantial than that of many ball machines, giving you a solid 6-8 hours. Like the Tennis Tutor and other sophisticated ball machines, it holds 150 balls, so you’ll spend more time practicing, and less time gathering tennis balls.
There are several options for controlling spin with the Lobster Elite all of which can be tuned in with the twist of the dial. This is one of the most critical parts of developing an elite tennis game. If you learn how to handle the most severe bounce and spin that the Lobster Elite can show you, you’ll be better prepared when it’s time to face a human opponent.
It’s also incredibly easy to adjust the ball speed on this machine. You can choose to have the balls delivered at anywhere from 20 to 80 miles per hour, which is great for mimicking the starts and stops and infinite variables that a crafty human opponent can throw at you.
You can also adjust the rate at which the balls are fired, even as quickly as one tennis ball every two seconds. This is great for simulating rapid-fire net play.
The Lobster Elite 3 also offers elevation control, so when it’s time to practice returning lobs, you won’t have to use anything to prop the machine up, so the feeder tube is pointing up at a more extreme angle. All in all, it’s another great tennis ball delivery system that, at only 44lbs, is easy to transport and store.
Wilson Ball Machine
The Wilson Ball Machine is still versatile but is a step down from the other two models we’ve discussed so far. It has no problem with horizontal oscillation–meaning it swings from side to side, kind of like an electric fan–but it doesn’t offer the vertical option, so the tube won’t be swinging up and down, giving you a chance to practice returning at different depths.
Now, this does not mean that it isn’t useful. However, it’s not as accurate at simulating a human opponent as some other machines.
However, it comes with a lower price tag than many other models, and as such, may work well as a starter kit for less experienced players.
SAM Tennis Ball Machine
“SAM” stands for Sports Action Machine, and it certainly delivers what is promises. In some ways, this is the best ball machine on the list when you factor in players on a budget. It comes in at under $1000, making it a real steal.
The SAM machine holds a staggering 300 tennis balls in its hopper. That is a lot of practice time before having to collect tennis balls for another round. In addition to that convenience, it offers all of the features that make ball machines so critical for the serious tennis player.
The SAM’s oscillation can be set for vertical, horizontal,or best of all, random. The trickiest opponents are always looking for an element of surprise, and that is what random oscillation will prepare you for.
Speed is easy to adjust, falling well within velocity ranges that will be of benefit to players from beginners to advanced. At the higher ranges, the development of the power game will be undeniable, while at the lower ranges, accuracy and control can be developed with a light touch.
The battery life is good, giving an estimated 4-6 hours. It also comes with an AC converter for those times when you need–or prefer–to use electric power. The SAM is also highly portable and a good match for anyone with limited storage space.
There are many fantastic tennis ball machines out there. These three could be a perfect starting point for anyone interested in developing their game. The best way to learn what sort of player you’re going to be, and what your strengths are, is to practice with multiple machines. You will develop your style, but you will also discover parts of it. Give yourself a chance to learn what you like, and what you respond to the best.
A good ball machine eliminates the need for a partner, during those times when a partner is not an option. The more features you can experiment with, the better prepared you’ll be when it’s time to step onto a tennis court with a live opponent. Yes, you may have to gather up your tennis balls with these machines, but it’s a small price to pay when you consider the leaps and bounds of growth you’ll experience with all of the additional practice.
One final note: it’s easy to fall in love with your strengths on the tennis court, and to rely on them. Perhaps too much. A good ball machine will allow you to work on your technical weaknesses, and there’s no downside to that. Please make sure to focus on your weakest links. It will only benefit your game and make you a stronger player.
You can’t over-prepare for a tennis match. Good luck!