Here we are in May. The clay court season for the pros is upon us, and the French Open at Roland Garros will be the crescendo. Those of us north of the equator are probably in high gear for outdoor tennis. Many of us may be lucky enough to play upon clay.
We have probably dusted off and refurbished our equipment; put ourselves in better shape, and hopefully, we have found our outdoor games, again.
Recognizing that many of my readers are beginning to play or prepare for competitive tennis, and having just finished my season as the Head Coach for Albertus Magnus Colleges Mens Tennis Team
I decided to dedicate this months column to basic strategies.
In some ways, clay court tennis exemplifies the basics of strategic tennis. Granted, serve/volley is not the norm and big serves are slowed down considerable by the red dirt. Rallies are long and matches can take forever. However, to survive at Roland Garros, I believe each player must return to fundamental tennis
the kind of tennis that most of us play
when we are playing well.
Now, it is important for readers to remember that there are times for thinking and times for not thinking when competing. I do not advocate thinking during points. Rather, I encourage each player to try and be on "autopilot" from the beginning to end of a point. However during points and especially during changeovers, players may want to think, analyze and assess what is going on in their games. Learning to do this is part of the mystery of tennis.
As you begin your outdoor season, recognizing and perhaps recalling some of the basic strategic rules and guidelines of the game will go a long way toward helping you progress throughout the summer. Thus, this months column is dedicated to helping you get off to the best start possible.
Just remember to practice according to these principles. In this manner, you have an "autopilot" that will work effectively. This frees you to be mindless during the points.
- GET THE FIRST SERVE IN
We all wish we were blessed with an Andy Roddick serve. "Free points" that are derived by aces are always a welcomed sight. However at Roland Garros, the serve is significantly diminished in pace by the surface. The pros dont get as many "free points." But they still strive to get that first serve in. Why? Well, I did some informal record keeping during my season with the team that I coach and our opponents. Guess what? A player who gets his first serve in will win the point about 70% of the time! The keys with respect to first serves are depth and placement.
Pace is an added benefit, but even slow serves that land deep in the box force the opponent to stay back on the return. If the serve is placed to the opponents weaker wing, the likelihood of a winning return diminishes significantly. Practice serving with targets that are located deep and at each corner of the box. As the season progresses, try to add the ingredient of pace. Remember that if you always get your first serve in the box, you will never double fault.
- POUND THE OPPONENTS WEAKER SIDE
This is the most basic strategy in the game of tennis. Yet, it is one that many players neglect to even consider as they compete. Each of us has stronger and weaker shots. Usually, we are cursed with a weaker forehand or backhand wing. In observing many college and recreational matches, it amazes me how often a player will serve and hit to an opponents better side. Sometimes, I have seen players "wake up" in the middle of the match. However, this frequently is an awakening that is too late or forces a longer match than is necessary. During the warm up, you need to assess which side is the stronger side for your opponent. I suggest that you hit a hard groundstroke directly at the opponent. Whichever side (forehand or backhand) she/he moves to use in her/his reply will tell be the stronger wing 95% of the time.
- RALLY CROSSCOURT AND APPROACH DOWN THE LINE
These two principles are critical to percentage tennis. The geometry of the game dictates that, more often than not, these are the best shot selections. Certainly, you will see these principles in effect at Roland Garros, and subsequently, at Wimbledon. Rather than give you a lengthy explanation in this column as to why these principles are so important, I will refer those who are interested to one of my previous articles: Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game The narrative and diagrams in this previous column will make the benefits of these principles clear, I assure you.
- HIT HIGH MORE THAN HARD
Getting your groundstrokes to land deep in the opponents court forces him/her to stay back. Their angles and shot selections become more limited. There are two ways to get the ball to land deep: hit it hard and low to the net or hit it with less pace but much higher over the net. The latter approach is, far more often than not, the better choice. First, it allows you to hit with a more relaxed stroke. Second, it provides for a greater margin of error
especially if directed cross court. Third, the bounce is higher, and this can sometimes prevent an opponent from pounding a reply. Fourth, this approach affords you more time to recover and get into better court position. Lastly, the overall effect of this approach takes less energy. Thus, you become less fatigued. So, when you are rallying, do as the Aussies suggest
give the ball some air.
- NEVER CHANGE THE DIRECTION OF A DIFFICULT BALL
It never ceases to amaze me how daring players will be. A ball that is hit hard, with lots of slice will be hit to a player. She/he will immediately try to change the direction of the ball
sending it down the line if it came crosscourt and vice versa. Players will be way out of the court and attempt the down the line winning shot
usually without success. Each of us has limitations. Some shots (given pace, spin or direction) are just difficult for us. When these situations arise, send the ball back from where it came and hope that the next shot is more manageable. If this is not possible, lob! Sure, some of these lobs will be put away by the savvy and skilled player. But, some wont. Remember to always force the opponent to hit another shot. Dont give your opponent a "free point" by making an error. Tennis is a game of which player makes the fewest errors. It is not a game of which player makes the most winners. This is true at every level of the game!
- CLOSE THE NET WHEN YOUR OPPONENT IS OUT OF COURT
I realize that for many of us the only time we come to the net is when it is time to shake hands. I realize that many of us lack confidence in our volleys. But, the simple truth is, that when your opponent is running back or pulled out wide, you want to rush to the net. Usually, a simple volley or an easy overhead will present themselves. So often, I see the groundstroke-oriented player stay at the baseline when there is an opportunity to get to the net. Volleys and overheads are essential strokes on every surface and at every level of the game. Work on these strokes. Practice them regularly. Equally important, give yourself a chance to use them with less risk when competing in a match.
- VARY YOUR SPIN
This simple strategic approach can pay big dividends. Mixing up the spins on the strokes you give your opponent can upset his/her rhythm. In addition, you may discover a particular spin, delivered to a specific part of the court that the opponent finds difficult. Pushers instinctively know the value of this approach. They are simply looking for a way to help you lose. Well, most of us have been taken to the cleaners by a pusher at one time or another. This aspect of their strategy is one we can all apply and one that will provide benefits in many situations.
- PLAY IN/OUT TENNIS
Generally, we tend to think of tennis as a game of angles, which it is. We think of moving our opponents left to right, then, right to left (coast to coast). Well, another way of looking at the game is by moving your opponent in (close to the net) and out (back behind the baseline). Again, this is a technique that pushers often utilize. Better players will usually counter with crushing or angled volleys when they are moved into the net. But if you are playing the classic baseline king/queen, this strategy may win you some points. It is not a strategic approach that will win you a match, but it can get you some critical points when used judiciously.
These eight strategic principles are the foundation of my game. Over many years, I have learned hard lessons when I have deviated from this "core." Depending on your skills, fitness and weaknesses, some of these may not be completely applicable to your game. But in time, I assure you that they will be.
By developing these core skills, I assure you that this summer you will become a tennis overdog.