March is clearly a transitional month with respect to weather north of the equator. Many collegiate tennis teams resume competition in this month, and the high school competitors are beginning to gear up for their seasons. Recreational players are seen playing outside whenever possible. For many of us, March truly does enter like a lion and ends like a lamb.
On the pro tours, we find the Indian Wells and Key Biscayne during March. This latter tournament can be extremely challenging for the pros. Why? Well, the element of wind can play a key role in match outcomes.
Most tennis players do not like to play in the wind. All those well-developed strokes seem to have no consistency when the wind makes its presence known.
Still, at this time of year, the likelihood of wind being a factor is greatly increased.
So, this month's column is dedicated to helping you play better tennis in windy conditions. Note that I used the word "better." As a collegiate coach, I often times will remind my players that they should not really judge or evaluate their skills and strokes during windy conditions. I have watched consummate pros like Andre Agassi struggle to hit groundstrokes while the wind swirled. Tennis can be a challenging sport without wind. With wind, tennis can be an overwhelming pursuit.
The first, and most important, thing to remember about playing in the wind is that the conditions do not allow for you to display your normal stroke making ability. In these conditions, players need to take pressure off of themselves and realize that the match is not going to unfold in a predictable manner. In the wind, the better player may certainly lose.
Type B players (those who may not have big weapons but think their way through to win a match) generally fair better than the Type A player (the type of player who goes out with great weapons and simply attempts to play her/his game). If you are in the latter category, you need to remind yourself in a conscious way to "play smart tennis
not big tennis." If you should happen to be a Type C player (a Type A player who can think and adapt like a Type B player), you should probably be writing, not reading, this column.
On windy days, you need to assess what kind of wind are you experiencing. Here is my list of typical kinds of wind situations:
1. A wind that is blowing in your face or at your back. Remember when changing sides, the wind direction changes as well. For this type of wind, you really need to have two game strategies.
2. Crosswind conditions exist when the wind is moving left or right across the court. Again, you must remember to adjust when you switch sides.
3. Intermittent wind conditions are one of the worse situations a player can face. In this scenario, the wind is present, and then, subsides. It can change mid-point!
4. Swirling wind conditions are similar to mini tornados. The wind will literally blow in a circular or funnel-like manner. Again, this presents a major challenge to the tennis player.
To make matters even more challenging, sometimes the wind will shift from one of these four types to another. The change in wind can go unnoticed by the player who does not force himself/herself to constantly re-evaluate the wind conditions.
It is imperative that you re-evaluate the wind conditions at the beginning of each point!!!
If you are serving, make your assessment before beginning your serve ritual. If you are receiving serve, make your assessment before you setup to receive. It is important to make the assessment before beginning a point to allow you to determine the "do's and don'ts" associated with the conditions. Once you have alerted yourself to these necessary modifications, you want to resume the normal process as much as is possible.
From time to time, I receive e-mails from readers who ask me how to hit strokes in windy conditions. Well, there is no foolproof formula for success when playing in the wind, but there are some changes that can be made that are more likely to be successful.
When the wind is at your back, hit balls closer to the net.
The wind gives your strokes and serves more power when it is to your back.
If you hit with normal pace but do not lower the trajectory over the net, your balls will sail deep. When going for a powerful groundstroke winner, I always add extra topspin when the wind is to my back. This extra topspin means my ball is going to drop to the ground a little more quickly. This provides a margin for error when the wind is at my back.
I like to hit my first serves very flat and low to the net when the wind is at my back. The added power that the wind gives my serve makes a good return that much more difficult. On second serves, I will definitely hit a kick serve with as much spin as I can put on the ball. Kick serves that jump up, spin to the side and have extra pace from the wind are really a problem for opponents.
When the wind is in your face, hit balls higher over the net.
On very windy days, the wind can actually take the entire pace off of your shots when it is blowing into your face. I tend to hit my groundstrokes high, with topspin, but with as much pace as I can muster. If I use my normal strokes, my balls are likely to land short in the opponent's court. A cardinal rule in tennis is to keep one's strokes deep.
The exception to this rule is when I am hitting a slice backhand. Here, I try to really hit the stroke with pace, but I am still trying to keep the ball low to the net with respect to trajectory. If I hit a high sliced shot, the chances of the opponent coming in and hitting a winning volley greatly increase. Of course, as soon as I hit this low, driving sliced backhand, I try to get to the net. Passing shots are very difficult to make in windy conditions. Even the modest volleyer can have success on windy days.
Try to play serve/volley and chip/charge on windy days.
Getting to the net on windy days pays big dividends!!! I am not a natural serve/volley player. But, on windy days, I will give it a shot. I rarely play chip/charge when receiving serve, but I will give it go on windy days. Think of it in this way. If you are at the net, every ball can be affected by the wind less than if you stay back at the baseline. Why? When you are at the baseline, the ball has to travel farther to reach you. Why not cut the wind's effect in half by getting to the net?
In crosswind conditions, play "center strap" tennis.
When the wind is coming at you from either side, you must realize that your margin for error with respect to sidelines is greatly reduced. This becomes more evident if you hit your balls high over the net. Why? Well, the ball is in the air for a longer period of time and the wind can affect it more. Try to hit a shot high and down the line in these conditions, and I assure you that you will have lots of wide shots.
Wherever you are on the court, try to hit your groundstrokes over the center strap of the net. If you do this, you will be hitting crosscourt and down the center shots. The down the line shot doesn't enter the picture. But, these "center strap" shots provide margin for error. Remember, the person making the fewest errors, not the most winners, wins most tennis matches.
You can hit your groundstrokes with normal or greater pace in crosswind conditions. Just remember to keep the ball going over the center strap.
When serving, always try to serve down the T (the center of the court) or directly at the opponent. Wide serves are too risky in crosswind conditions. Granted, at times, you may be serving to the opponent's stronger wing. But, at least, she/he has to hit it. A serve that is out requires no skill from the opponent.
In intermittent wind and swirling wind conditions, don't be afraid to "push" the ball.
In a future article, I will address, once again, how to play the "pusher."
On windy days, "pushers" win hands down. Their dinks, slices, mixed paced shots, etc. are perfectly suited for swirling wind conditions. Believe me, I have witnessed many a Type A player lose to a "pusher" in swirling wind conditions.
Now, if you are truly a Type A player, you are not going to like pushing the ball over the net. It just goes against all that you find natural. But, I assure you that it will pay dividends.
Unlike some sports, there are no style points in tennis!!! Either you win or lose the point. Type B players by their very nature are more likely to fair well in windy conditions. Why? Type B players adapt. They do whatever it takes to win. They start playing their preferred game, but are willing to change strategies completely in order to win. Pushers tend to often times be Type B players. However, some pushers are just natural at this style. They don't think their way to winning. They just frustrate the opponent into losing.
In these conditions, nothing is predictable. The wind changes constantly. You cannot realistically expect to play "grooved" tennis in these conditions. So, why not have some fun pushing the ball. You may actually enjoy seeing someone else becoming frustrated by this type of play.
In all wind conditions, focus on the ball!!!
Seeing the ball well in windy conditions is not an option. You must force yourself to focus on the ball, its movement and its bounce. My very first article, some eight years ago, was entitled "See the Ball." I strongly encourage you to follow this link read the article.
When we are "on," the ball is never a real concern. We just naturally see it well and hit it with authority. But, the wind takes that luxury away. You need to really force yourself to see the ball in the wind. When I play in the wind, I am constantly saying to myself aloud, "See the ball." I say this in between points to remind myself to focus.
If you listen to TV color commentators during televised tennis matches, they will often say that a player needs to stick to his/her game. I do not disagree with this approach. It is aggressive by nature and allows a player to do what she/he feels most comfortable doing. Even recreational players should approach a match with a "normal" game plan in mind.
However, every great champion can or could adapt when necessary. Well, windy conditions force adaptation on all of us.
When playing in the wind, try to approach the game more cautiously. Help your opponent to lose. The chances of you dominating the opponent are reduced when it is a windy day. If you can find it in yourself to remain calm and flexible, I assure you that you will find yourself playing the wind as a tennis overdog!