We've talked about the importance of developing patience if we are to be successful, mortal tennis players. Hopefully, you took the drills outlined in my June column to the practice court and are now able to consistently execute all of the cross-court and down the line exercises. If you can't, read no further. I've just put a block on your computer, making it impossible for you to continue this column until you've mastered the drills.
Okay, I was just kidding, but anyway, I strongly suggest that you go back to that column, print out those drills and get to work. Come back when you've got them down pat. If you're truly serious about improving your tennis, these drills will be the foundation from which your game will be built.
I know, it's more fun to play than drill, but far too many developing players make the mistake of trying to play matches, and even tournaments, before they have the ability to rally cross-court and down the line on a consistent basis. This "compete as soon as I can" mentality does far more harm to a player's development than they realize.
Remember, when we compete, the emphasis changes from learning to winning. We get wrapped up in winning the match to the point where we'll basically do anything we can to get the ball over the net. This presents the very real possibility of developing bad stroking habits, which will be extremely difficult to break.
Playing matches before we have a firm grasp of the rallying basics would be like a musician attempting to give a concert before they've even learned how to tune their instrument. Bottom line-----MASTER THE DRILLS!!!!!
If you have worked at, and can consistently execute the drills, well done! You now have in your repertoire the greatest skill that a tennis player can possess, consistency, and it is this consistency will allow you to play a patient, winning, brand of tennis.
Remember, I've said many times that a point between two or four players of equal ability is basically a contest of patience, and it is the player, or team who can be the more patient, executing high percentage shots, that will usually walk off the court the winner.
What are those high percentage shots? Let's take a look at singles first. In it's simplest form, the strategy for singles is as follows:
That's it? Pretty much. Am I kidding? Not at all. Many, many, silly, unnecessary errors are a result of players trying to execute the wrong shot at the wrong time from the wrong area of the court.
- Hit your ground strokes cross-court.
- Hit your approach shots down the line.
- When in trouble, lob.
Rule #1 says that we should hit our groundstrokes cross-court. This is true for a number of reasons. Allan Fox, in his great book, THINK TO WIN, says, "The player best able to win crosscourt rallies will probably win the match. This is, because all else being equal, the safest place to hit ground strokes is crosscourt." Safest means greatest chance of NOT making an error and remember, that is the goal of the patient, mortal tennis player, no errors.
There are basically three reasons why the crosscourt shot is a higher percentage shot than a down the line shot. First, when a ball travels crosscourt, it travels over the center of the net, which happens to be the lowest part of the net. Second, the court is longer on the diagonal than it is in a straight line, which, says Allan Fox, "means, of course, that you can hit the ball crosscourt further and still keep it in the court. A crosscourt shot has, therefore, a greater margin for error."
Finally, when you hit crosscourt, you are in a better position to respond to your opponents return. Fox explains, "Consider the situation in which your opponent hits a crosscourt forehand that lands deep in your forehand corner. What is your highest percentage reply? Should you hit the ball back crosscourt, right to your opponent, or down the line into the open side of the court?"
"Most players," continues Fox, " would be tempted to hit the open court (down the line) because they would get the immediate gratification of seeing their opponent run across the court for the ball. But this gratification would be short-lived. Unless you hit a winner or near-winner, your opponent now has the advantage of court position."
When returning your down the line shot, your opponent can now, "hit the ball cross-court and run you out past the sideline. He runs sooner in the exchange, but you run farther. When you are near the sideline and hit the ball down-the line, you cannot run your opponent any farther than the width of the court. But in hitting crosscourt, he can run you way beyond the sideline. And the closer to the sideline you hit the ball, the wider he can run you."
Simply, by hitting crosscourt, you can make your opponent run farther than if you hit
Down-the-line. Try this drill with your practice partner. Go out on the court and rally, with one player hitting all of his shots crosscourt while the other hits only down the line.
By the way, this is a fabulous consistency drill, but it also clearly illustrates the point. Once you get into a rhythm, you'll see that the person hitting only down the line is doing much more running than the player hitting crosscourt.
By keeping the ball consistently cross-court, and deep, you are waiting for your opponent to make one of three mistakes: an impatient error which gives you the point, a down the line shot which then allows you to hit crosscourt, making them sprint the width of the court, or a short ball. The short ball then allows you to move up and take control of the point with an approach shot which brings us to Rule # 2: hit your approach shots down-the line.
Why down the line? First, when you hit down the line you will get the ball back to your opponent quicker since the ball is traveling on a straight line as opposed to the longer, crosscourt distance. Also, when you approach down-the-line, you are pretty much already in position to best cover their passing shot.
When attacking the net, you want to position yourself on the same side of the court as the ball. By approaching down-the-line, you simply move forward. If you approach crosscourt, not only do you have to move forward, but you also have to move across the court a bit to get to the proper position.
Finally, from a psychological standpoint, when you approach down-the-line, you will always be in your opponent's line of vision as they move to hit their passing shot, adding a bit more pressure to their preparation. If you hit crosscourt, your opponent will be looking at a wide open court in front of them, at least until you are able to get across the court into the proper position.
Remember, these rules are simply the best percentage plays, it doesn't mean that you should ALWAYS hit to these spots. Obviously if your opponent has a decided weakness, you would try to exploit it. For example, let's say that you are playing your friend, Bill, and are presented with a short ball to your backhand.
You know that the percentages say to approach down the line for the reasons I just outlined. However, by going down the line, you are hitting to Bill's forehand, his best shot.
In this instance, you may very well decide to approach crosscourt to Bill's backhand. Yes, you'll have to move further to get into position, but you're willing to take the risk because Bill's backhand is decidedly weaker than his forehand. Remember, percentages are general rules, which need to be adjusted to your opponent's strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies.
Finally, rule # 3 says: "when in trouble, lob." If you remember nothing else from this column, remember this rule. Many players, when put under pressure, will try to go for the big, crowd pleasing, once in a lifetime winner. You can guess what that approach usually brings--that's right--an error.
Better players will recognize when they are not in a great position, and rather than give their opponent a likely free point by trying a low percentage shot, they'll simply hit the ball back high and deep. They are, in a way, starting the point over, saying to their opponent, "I don't like this one, take it back and give me another."
Put these three rules into practice and you'll be well on your way to becoming a smarter, more successful, mortal singles player.