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The Most Important Strategies for any Player to Know

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Those of you who have wanted to e-mail me recently know that The Tennis Server will ask you to fill out a brief form in order to move your e-mail onto me. Why do we do this instead of posting our e-mail addresses? Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of spam marketers who will forward their promotional products to me, if this practice is not in place. I was literally receiving a hundred or two hundred messages per day before this practice was put in place.

I very much want to hear from you!!! We just needed to set up a screening process that would allow us to receive real comments while preventing the spammers from swamping us with junk.

As proof of my receipt of e-mail, this month’s article will address a common question that I have received from readers. (For you regular readers, I promise to return to my series on Integrated Stroke Production).

Specifically, a reader who has written to me on several occasions asked what would be the most important strategies to incorporate into one’s game, if she/he is playing competitive situations.

Well, there is no simple answer to this question, but I do think that some basic strategies need to be in place, if one wants to compete at a higher level. At the end of this month’s column, I will review them in brief. If you print out this page and put it in your tennis bag, you will have some ideas to consider when things are not going well in a match.

The real difference between quality players and recreational players in my mind is that quality players know how to win when their game is off. Believe me. Everyone has days and matches where he/she cannot play what is his/her usual game!!! This occurs at every level of the game…from pros to beginners.

The natural reaction for a tennis player facing this situation is to panic…and after the panic, frustration and anger set in. Once things get to this point, the match is for all intents and purposes over. The key is to know when and how to change a losing game!!!

That is what this month’s article is all about.

Now, if you are a regular reader of my column you know that I classify players into three principle categories: Type A players, Type B players and Type C players.

Type A players are people who usually play best when they are not thinking. They usually have one of two weapons and expect to dominate the match with these weapons. They rarely analyze their opponents, nor do they adapt their play very much to accommodate different styles of play from their opponents. Frequently, a Type A player will not even know that she/he is playing a left handed opponent until the second set!!! Type A players are usually the first to panic. If their weapons fail them, even briefly, they become fearful and this begins a very negative cycle. Getting out of this cycle is not easy for the Type A player.

Type B players (which is what I am) are players who may have some weapons but usually win because they help their opponent lose. These players are thinkers on the court. They are often referred to as "heady" players. They will adapt as many times as is necessary to win a match. They realize that there are no style points in tennis. They probe their opponents for weaknesses. Once they find them, they will give the opponent lots of what he/she does not like and avoid hitting to the opponent’s strengths. Type B players usually have a wide variety of shots in their arsenal of weapons. To me, John McEnroe was the best Type B player to ever play the game (some might argue that Pancho Seguro deserves this honor, but he was before my time).

Type C players are what we all want to become. A Type C player is a combination of both A and B. She/he has the weapons and begins each match simply playing her/his game. If, however, she/he gets in trouble, the Type B player inside takes over. The Type C player knows when and how to adapt on the court. Andre Agassi began his career as a Type A player. When Brad Gilbert became his coach he moved to a Type C player. I think Brad is doing the same for Andy Roddick. Mats Wilander was a Type B player who learned to add strokes and strategies to his game. He eventually became a Type C player.

Before we discuss simple strategies, the reader must remember what I call the pyramid of priorities in tennis.

First, get the ball over the net. (Hitting the net is, in my opinion, the worst error of all)

Second, the player should try to keep the ball landing deep in the opponent’s court. By this, I mean that the ball should bounce between the service line and the baseline. The closer to the baseline the ball lands…the better.

Third, the player must be able to hit the ball in any direction…left, center or right.

Fourth, the player must be able to impart spin. Topspin is most important, but slice is necessary, as well.

Finally, the player should be able to hit the ball with pace. Unfortunately, too many players (especially Type A players) do not know how to hit with temperance.

The pyramid would look like this:


Topspin and Slice

Hitting in Every Direction

Hitting All Balls Deep in the Opponent’s Court

Hitting Every Ball Over the Net…Even if it is Out

Type B players usually have no problem with this pyramid of priorities and seem to start each match from the warm up to the finish of the match working their way up this pyramid. Type C players usually are ready to hit with power from the outset of the match.

Having said all of this, I would like to give each of you some simple strategies to try in your matches. It should be noted that like strokes, strategies need to be practiced.

The only way that you can truly own a stroke or a strategy is to use it in real competition with effectiveness. Practice sets are great, but there is no substitute for true competition.

I often encourage my students to play tournaments with a view toward learning…not necessarily winning. By this, I mean that the student should play a match using strokes or strategies that are not her/his "natural" approach to the game. Sure, he/she may lose the match…but there is a greater victory…learning!!!

I must admit that it is often times very hard to convince parents of juniors (or the juniors themselves) that this "sacrifice" is worth the price. I remind them that Pete Sampras lost a lot of matches against his peers when he decided to abandon his two handed backhand and adopt the one handed variety. Why did he change? Well, he figured that players with one-handed backhands were more likely to be effective serve and volleyers. His performances at Wimbledon show the wisdom of his belief and sacrifices.

I use all of the strategies that I list below. I am a less than gifted player, and I need to be able to dominate my opponent by helping him self-destruct. Although I am not a pusher…these annoying players know all too well the importance of being able to frustrate your opponent into losing.

Type A players will probably have the most difficult time incorporating these tactics into their games. However, if they truly want to move their games to the level of a Type C player, they will need to be open minded, patient and persistent. I promise them that the dividends are worth the investment.


  1. Run the "turtle." Don’t run the "rabbit." Hit balls that make the player who wants to serve and volley or the player who is not fit in a manner that forces him/her to run side to side. You may lose the first set, but win the match in three. I call these players "turtles." The "rabbit" is the player who is fit and seems to get to every ball. He or she is used to hitting on the run. You would be amazed at how often he/she will become impatient and hit an errant shot when you hit at him/her. Try to keep the ball deep and in the center of the court. If you are going to move these "rabbits" make them come to the net…this is usually not where they want to be.

  2. Never let the opponent see the same ball twice. Most players will groove on your shots no matter how well they are struck after a few games. If you are winning the points, keep up the good work. But, if you sense that the opponent is anticipating your shots or has become used to the pace, bounce and spin of your shots…you need to vary them. My opponents often will say after a match that they could get no rhythm on my shots. Well, varying the height, spin, pace and direction of my shots is the reason why. Some of the players on my team have labeled me "The Junkman." It is a title that I wear proudly because it indicates that I have taken something away from my opponent by varying my shots.

  3. "Moon" till they swoon. The "moonball" (high, deep, topspin shot) is a shot every player needs. It is one of my favorite "weapons" and I can hit this shot in a manner that puts my opponent 5 or 6 feet behind the baseline. I have actually pinned opponents against the back fence when using this shot. It is well worth learning. It frustrates the player who wants and likes pace. It prevents the superior player from hitting winners. Equally important, this shot takes very little out of you. Whenever I need a "rest" in a match, I will play a point or two using the moonball. Even if I lose the point, I have regained my breath and strength. It amazes me how often these moonballs will frustrate the opponent into hitting a shot that has far too much pace or is hit at too severe an angle. In a long moonball rally, I look to do one of two things: wait for a short reply and put away a winner…or hit a drop shot when I am certain the opponent is well behind the baseline. You won’t win any awards for style using this tactic, but believe me; it will win you points and matches.

  4. Hit every shot to the opponent’s weaker wing. Simple and obvious as this strategy may seem, it works!!! I have used it exclusively in some matches. The opponent begins to move over to better cover my shots. Sometimes, the opponent will run around the weaker wing to hit his favorite shot. Yes, I lose some points in this approach. But, it wins more than I lose. It amazes me how many Type A players never truly know which is their opponent’s weaker wing. If you lose two points in a row using this technique…just vary it slightly. Once the opponent is wide (maybe even out of court), hit something short and wide to the opponent’s strong side. By making her/him move forward and sideways, you will be taking a little confidence away from the opponent when she/he finally gets to hit her/his strength.

  5. Get every first serve in Even weak first serves enhance your chances of winning a point. I practice 100 serves per day in addition to my other training. I work mostly on my kick serve. I have served entire matches where I never hit a serve over 80 mph. I have rarely had an opponent tee off on my first serve…even when it is weak with respect to pace. However, I will vary my placement. This is how I keep my opponent "honest."

  6. Take a big step forward when returning every second serve

    Make your opponent pay for missing his/her first serve. The best way to do this is by moving inside the baseline when returning second serves. I make this movement forward very obvious. Why? Sometimes my opponent will attempt a big flat serve as a second serve to try and move me back. Truthfully, this tactic may win him a point of two. But, if he is doing it frequently, he is going to double fault. Once the opponent starts double faulting, he usually misses more first serves. The "heady" player will take something off the first serve to make sure it drops in the box. The Type A player, however, will usually go for more on the first serve…this usually leads to disaster.

  7. Hit every return cross court and do not try to win the point off of the return. Cross-court returns of serve are the safest return possible…even when playing a serve and volleyer. Too often, players will try to win the point off of the return of serve. This is particularly true when they believe that the opponent is not serving big or if they do not respect the opponent’s skills. The truth is that very few points are won off of the return of serve. Playing it safe and getting the ball in play will probably win you more points than you imagine.

  8. Control the "flow" of the game. Very simply, some players like to play quickly. Others will take all day between points. Simply by controlling the flow of the game, you may be taking something away from an opponent. Now, I am not advocating violating the rules of tennis. The play must follow the flow of the server. However, the server must allow the returner to be ready to receive serve. Within these guidelines, there is plenty of flexibility. If an opponent likes to play quickly, slow her/him down. If she/he likes to take her time, try to get things moving more quickly. Allied to this is the old axiom: Speed up a winning game…slow down a losing game.

  9. Control your emotions. I know that modern sports psychologists promote positive emotions when playing tennis. Fist pumping and positive statements can be helpful…look at Lleyton Hewitt…he can fire himself up quite well. However, Dr. Allen Fox raises a very interesting point. If you allow positive emotions in your game, you are probably going to allow negative emotions to show, as well.

    My approach is simple…never show emotion. I try to be Bjorn Borg-like when I play. I figure that if I can look at a winner and an error with he same expression, my opponent will never know whether I am emotionally up or down. Whenever I see an opponent show negative emotion on the court, I am like a hungry lion. I sense weakness and it makes me more of a predator. Type A players are probably best showing positive emotions…but, they need to learn to stifle the negative ones. Type B players are usually better able at maintaining a poker face. Either way, we need to control our emotions. It is well worth the practice and effort.

  10. When all else fails, try to move your opponent in and out. This is a risky and difficult strategy, but one that has won me some matches that I thought were lost. Most tennis players think and move with left to right software. When I have varied spin, height, pace and placement with no success, I usually will go to the in/out strategy. Very simply, you attempt to move your opponent in with short shots, and then, back with high lobs. With quality players, this technique will probably not be effective…but you never know. With lesser players, you may find that "jerking" them around like this is just enough to get them frustrated. Once a player loses composure anything is possible.

Hopefully, my two readers in Venezuela who took the time to e-mail me and ask for such an article will find this month’s column helpful. Tennis is a game where the "better" player doesn’t always win.

Incorporating these simple principles and strategies to your game plan arsenal will, in time, make you the kind of player you want to be…a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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