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Play… Probe… Pound and Rebound

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

If you are a competitive tennis player, you are invariably going to encounter a totally unfamiliar opponent. Granted, we often seem to find ourselves playing the same old collection of tennis foes. However, from time to time, we invariably will face the "new person."

Since we have never played against this individual, she or he is an unknown entity. We don’t have any experience from which to draw… no reference points upon which to gauge our strategies. Unless we have been given accurate information by previous players who have faced this "new person," we are probably without a game plan.

As a coach of a college men’s team, there are always new players on opposing teams. Fortunately, in college tennis, I can coach. I can provide my player(s) with my perspectives on how to play these new opponents. Of course, it may take me a little watching to get a perspective that may be useful. But usually, I can figure out what might make sense for a given player on my team.

However, for many of you, there is no coach to help during a match. Like the pros, you face the "new guy" without any counsel. You can only fend for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong. Many pros will look to their coaches during a match for more than simple support. Although coaching is not permitted during a match in either the ATP or WTA sponsored events, if there is a rain delay, coaches can consult with their players during the break. This can be a real benefit to players. Some years back Jose Higueras gave Jim Courier sage advice during a rain delay at the French Open he eventually won… "don’t stand so far back." These simple tips can work wonders and can actually turn a match completely around.

Well, this month’s column will help you become your own coach when facing the "new person."

The first thing to recognize is that it is normal to be apprehensive about playing a new opponent. In fact, it is wise to take every new opponent as a serious player who is capable of competing well. However, do not let your apprehension turn to fear. Remember that on any given day almost any player can beat any other player…within reason.

This latter statement is critical to keep in mind because most tennis matches are lost rather than won. By this, I mean that winners usually are not the determining factor in a victory. Rather, the player who makes the fewest errors is usually the won who triumphs.

Ranked pros may have difficulty with a "qualifier" who makes it into the draw. Why? Well, the ranked pro probably does not know how to play this qualifier. Her or his strengths and weaknesses need to be discovered. However, most of the time, the seasoned pro will figure out what to do to beat this newcomer…but not always!!!

You will, often times, hear a pro say that he/she simply wants to play his/her "game." Everyone who plays tennis should seek to play his/her preferred "game" at the beginning of each match. If you are a big baseliner who likes to hit out, start your match with this approach in mind. If serve/volley is your strength, start your match with this strategy.

You may lose a game or two with this approach, but if it is truly your "game" it is worth starting out "with the one that brought ya." The problem is knowing when to abandon this initial "game."

The traditional rule of thumb is: if you are losing badly (more than one break) in the first set… or are down a set and a break… you need to change your game plan. The problem with this rule of thumb is that it may result in "too little, too late."

I like to use a different rule of thumb when considering deviating from a preferred playing approach. I like to count points… regardless of game scores. If I find myself losing more than two points for every point I win, I know I have to change my approach.

If I am losing two points to every point I win, I will hang in a little longer with my initial strategy…unless the opponent is hitting lots of winners. Then, I know that I have to change my approach post haste…or the match will be over before I know it.

If you are in the position of needing to change your initial game plan, you need to move away from this Play Mode and very quickly go into what I call Probe Mode.

Probe mode is really an effort to discover what your opponent doesn’t like. Why? Well, you want to start giving this opponent lots of what she/he doesn’t like to hit. I have never met an opponent who doesn’t have some shot(s) that give her/him trouble. The idea of probing is to find out what these are.

How does one probe an opponent? Well, you need to hit with variety. Apart from hitting to both forehand and backhand wings, you need to change the spin, pace, bounce height and angle of your shots. Move your opponent. Hit straight at your opponent. Bring your opponent to the net. Try a moonball or two. Take the pace off of your shots and force your opponent to generate his/her own pace. Mix up the spins and never let the opponent see the same ball twice. Try hitting short angle shots that force your opponent to run outside the sidelines. Drop shot the opponent and see what happens. In short, hit every shot in the book and see what results.

You would be amazed at how that incredible forehand breaks down when the opponent is moving forward to hit it off a ball that bounces with slice. Serve and volley oriented players may fall all apart when they see lots of high bouncing moonballs. Players who can retrieve just about any ball seem to be a little less threatening when you hit right at them.

I am absolutely convinced that through trial and error and careful monitoring, any player can discover how to beat any other player. The problem may be that time is running out before the new strategy can be fully executed. For me, tennis is like a game of chess. I truly enjoy learning what my opponent likes or does not like.

Years back, I happened to sit next to Pancho Seguro at the US Open. He was discussing the match loudly enough for me to hear his words. Without fail, he would identify a player’s weakness, and sure enough, the weakness would eventually reveal itself. Bob Brett is one of those coaches who knows how to analyze a player for weaknesses. Certainly, Brad Gilbert is the modern day master guru for discovering what a player needs to do to win… even if it is winning ugly.

The point is that when making a strategic change during a match, you need to have a new approach that is based upon knowledge of what is likely to stop your opponent from continuing to win points.

Frequently, the solution involves a particular combination of shots. For example, hitting to the opponent’s forehand without much pace followed by a short angled shot to the backhand wing may present a real problem for your opponent. Keeping all the balls hit to the forehand bouncing low and all the balls hit to the backhand bouncing high may be the combination that elicits errors from your opponent.

If there is one single shot that forces errors from your opponent, consider yourself very lucky. More often than not, combinations are the answer. Sometimes moving an opponent in and out (not side to side) can be the answer.

Once you have a new plan or approach in mind, you need to go into what I call Pound Mode. If you have discovered a crack in the opponent’s armor, you need to pound the weakness relentlessly. You want your opponent to know that you have discovered this crack! Believe me. When you do this, the tables can turn quickly in a match.

However, do not be surprised if the newfound success is short lived. Sooner or later, quality players find ways of adapting. That weakness can sometimes disappear as quickly as it came. That is why you need to be ready to go into to Rebound Mode.

Rebound mode means that you are willing to change your tactics frequently. You are constantly monitoring the status of your opponent. You move to any strategy that may have the effect of disrupting any new found rhythm or confidence your opponent may have discovered.

As a coach, I have frequently seen my players return to their preferred game approach during the rebound phase. However this time they enjoy success!!! In long three set matches, a player may have to change game plans quite a few times to win.

Now, some players that I term Type A players may find all of this a bit difficult. (See my previous article: Type "A" or Type "B" Player?) Unfortunately, I have seen far too many college players rush their way to a loss by being unwilling or unable to change.

During the 2004 Australian Open, one of the finest matches pitted Andre Agassi against Marat Safin. Safin won the match in five sets. If you watched carefully, both players were probing and changing as needed. Marat Safin, who is not noted for his ability at the net, was actually willing to serve/volley to upset Andre’s rhythm. It was a great match.

Why did Andre lose? Well, in my mind, he is basically a Type A player who learned to be more cerebral about his game with the help of Brad Gilbert. Eventually, as fatigue set in, Andre just kept trying to outhit Safin with respect to pace. Safin loves pace.

So, when playing a new player or a player whom you have not played for a while remember the following plan:

  1. Start by attempting to play your game.
  2. Don’t panic, but when it is time to change your game plan, begin to probe.
  3. If you have probed effectively, you will discover one or more weaknesses. Make certain you pound these weaknesses relentlessly. Don’t be subtle about it. Just hammer away until your opponent finds a way to deal with these troublesome shots and/or combination of shots.
  4. Unless you are very fortunate, you will eventually need to rebound. Return to your original game plan, and be willing to change to any plan that brings desired results. Do not be surprised if you change plans quite a few times during a long match.

I am sure that if you follow this procedure in matches with unknown or new opponents, you will experience the kind of results that will make you 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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