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Simple Strategies That Win

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

By the time this month's column is posted, the reader is probably in full swing with respect to her/his game of tennis...forgive the pun. Last month's column on winning matches was very well received and I appreciate the feedback from readers.
Those of you who read my column regularly know that I am not an advocate of conscious thinking while playing points. The more a player is on "auto-pilot" the better... at least, while playing a point. As proof of the truth of my position, ask yourself the following question. Have you ever "changed your mind" during a point only to discover that you hit an errant shot? If you are truthful, you will probably answer a resounding, "yes!" In reality, you "thought" your way into making an error.
This is not to say, however, that there is no place for strategy in the game of tennis. Indeed, it is my belief that both pro tours should allow coaches to be on the court with their charges during matches. Why? I think a coach's advice is the right way to have a player devise or amend a strategy mid-match. The coach is an observer who can see things with less emotion than the player. Thus, the player need only execute what the coach is proposing. This may be easier said than done, but the player is free to do what he/she should be focusing upon... execution.
But, the rules of this game do not permit this on-court coaching except in competitions like Davis Cup and Fed Cup. Besides, most of us could not afford a coach to assist us on the court, nor would it be viable when playing recreationally.
So, we need to be our own coaches when competing in matches. The real problem is knowing when we should "coach" ourselves.
I am a firm believer that each player should begin a match attempting to play whatever is her/his preferred style of tennis. If you are a big baseline hitter, this should be your starting point. If you like to retrieve every shot, this should be where you begin. Should serve/volley be your preference, start the match competing with this approach.
However, there are times when a player needs to adjust and go to "Plan B." This shift need not be drastic in nature. Even slight modifications can make a huge difference in what outcomes occur during the points.
Generally, the rule of thumb is as follows: If you are down a set and down a break, you need to change the game plan. If you are down two breaks in a set, you need to change things. If your game scores when serving are resulting in numerous deuce points, and your receiving games are being lost decisively; you need to rethink your strategy.
Do not attempt to assess the situation in between points in a game. Rather, stick to what you are doing. However during game changeovers, you may want to evaluate and amend your strategic approach.
Sometimes, it is easy to decide on what changes need to be made. Other times, it may be a trial and error process. Still when one is encountering any one of the three, aforementioned situations; a change in approach is warranted and necessary.
Again, I remind the reader that drastic changes are usually not necessary or desirable. If you are a baseline-oriented player and you switch to serve/volley, this is a major change in strategy that probably won't pay dividends.
So with this in mind, I want to present the reader with a brief checklist of different strategies that may work when things aren't going well in a match. I would encourage the reader to print these out and bring them with him/her to the match. Keep these in your tennis bag in case you need to refresh your memory.
In addition, I would suggest that the reader keep a log book associated with these strategic changes. In this log book, record what the situation was that prompted the change in approach. Identify what change you incorporated and why. In answering "why," it may be that you simply suggest that it was through trial and error, and that, there was no real logic to the choice. Finally, record what you believe was the effect of the change. You may have lost the match in the end, but the change may have resulted in better play on your part. Sometimes, I will make notes in my log book about the player with whom I competed. This information may become useful later.
Periodically, a player should review her/his log book to determine what worked and what did not work. Equally important, look for patterns... whether they are successful or result in losses. Over time, you will gain invaluable insights about your strategic options. Eventually, you will "intuitively" know what to do, when to do it and why... when it comes to strategic changes.
Having set the groundwork, let's take a look at some very simple but very effective strategic changes. Really, these fall more into the category of tactics that strategy (the latter is a broader set of tactical changes). But for our purposes, I use both terms interchangeably.

  1. Hit Higher and Deeper
    Simple as this change may seem, it can actually be the salvation for many losing situations. Hitting balls deeper into your opponent's court prevents him/her from being able to reply with shots he/she can hit with a severe angle. In addition, opponent's who hit the ball very hard have a little "sting" taken out of their shots when they hit from way behind the court. You actually have a fraction of a second longer to react and get to the opponent's shots when he/she is deep behind the baseline.
    Watch the pros play on clay. They invariably hit their shots as deep as is possible. Pace becomes less important because the clay takes some of the intensity out of shots hit with power. Long rallies are the norm on clay.
    For most of us, this should be our first "Plan B" regardless of the surface.
    There are two ways to get the ball deep into your opponent's court: hit the ball harder, or hit the ball with less pace but higher over the net.
    This strategy is particularly effective when your opponent likes to end rallies quickly with big winners. Frequently, this approach will frustrate the opponent, make her/him become impatient, and result in the opponent hitting more errant shots.

  3. Change the Spin
    The last thing that a player wants is to have her/his opponent begin to "groove" her/his shots. Sometimes when we compete, an opponent becomes very comfortable with the pace and spin of our shots. Consequently, he/she will begin to "groove" on our shots and hit many for winners... or at least put us on the defensive.
    Simply changing the spin of each shot can often times upset the rhythm of your opponent's shots.
    For example, you may hit a forehand deep with topspin. Your next shot may be a forehand hit with more pace, lower to the net and with no spin (flat). The third shot may be hit with slice off of your backhand wing. Each of these bounces differently. The height of each bounce varies. The pace of each shot is different. It becomes more difficult for the opponent to get his/her "bearings" on your shots.
    It is important to learn to hit both backhand and forehand groundstrokes with each of these three spins: flat, slice and topspin. This should be a goal for each player when she/he practices.
    When employing this strategy, be patient. You may need a little time to get your own consistency when alternating among these three spins. But if you have worked on these during your practice sessions, they will eventually become manageable.
    Here again, you are attempting to take something away from your opponent with this tactical approach.

  5. Think "In and Out"
    In the modern game, the norm seems to be hitting lots of groundstrokes. The serve/volley game is definitely in the minority on most surfaces. Given this, players often times simply try to move their opponent from "coast to coast" (left to right).
    Quite often, opponents are gifted at moving from side to side at the baseline. Indeed, they sometimes want to hit in this manner.
    A strategy that can work is to think of moving your opponent in and out. By this, I mean try to keep your opponent deep for a few shots (with or without moving her/him), and then, bring the opponent into the net.
    Many modern players hate to be at the net. Their volleys are not what they should or could be. The key is making certain that you bring your opponent to the net when he/she must rush to make the volley.
    You don't have to hit drop shots to bring the opponent into the net. Rather, just hit a shot that lands short... but only when your opponent is deep.
    For example, let's say that you have been moving your opponent around the baseline moving her/him from left to right. You hit a deep, angled shot that forces your opponent to be out wide on the deuce court when she/he makes a reply. This is one time when hitting something short to the ad court may pay huge dividends.
    Usually in these situations, the opponent who gets to the short shot can only make a weak response. Be prepared, however, that she/he will indeed make it to the short ball. A short drop volley or a high lob is the most common reply. You need to be prepared for one of these. Opponents who are fleet of foot may be able to strike a decently hit deep volley. More often than not, she/he will angle the volley crosscourt over the lower portion of the net.
    Sometimes, you will be less than perfect when hitting the short ball. The opponent may come in and put the ball away for a winner. Do not despair. Just hit the ball more softly. Eventually, the opponent will be scrambling to make a reply to your short ball. These "weaker" replies are when you can often times hit a clear winner.
    I have seen many modern players in matches that I have coached lose a match because their opponent began to think of the court in terms of short and long.

  7. Run the Turtle and Freeze the Rabbit
    The value of this strategy became abundantly clear to me some years back when I was watching Michael Chang play a match, here, in New Haven. Now, Michael was the ultimate retriever. He could literally run down almost any shot... and did!
    Some players hit better while on the run, or at least, can make shots that we mere mortals cannot. Other players are not so gifted. In fact, some players really don't have the speed, endurance and/or mindset to hit well while on the run.
    In this tactical approach, one must determine what kind of opponent he/she is facing.
    If you believe that the opponent is like Michael Chang, try to hit the ball at your opponent. In the match referenced above, Michael actually lost the match as a result of his opponent hitting at him. Yes, Michael could hit well, but he was not known for his crushing winners. By hitting directly at him, his opponent was able to neutralize what Michael wanted... to be moved around the court. I would refer to Michael as a "rabbit." He was extremely quick and seemed to get to every ball. You were probably not going to beat Michael by trying to run him into the ground. Remarkably, some players did take this approach, and at times, Michael would cramp. But even then, Michael had the intestinal fortitude to continue to track down shots. Truly, he was a remarkable "rabbit."
    Conversely if you believe that your opponent does not hit as well on the run, or is not in good aerobic shape, you may want to deliberate try to run this player as much as is possible. I call this type of player the "turtle." Hitting more severe angles (without too much pace and allowing for a reasonable margin of error) may be what is necessary to turn around a losing game. This specific approach is a bit more difficult than hitting directly at the "rabbit." Why? Well, you are hitting balls at more severe angles. This is by its very nature more risky. But here again, be patient. After a few errant shots, you can get your bearings and find the pace, spin, depth and angle mix that will force your opponent to be on the run.

  9. Run Around Your Weakness
    Each of us has a weaker wing when it comes to groundstrokes. More often than not, it is the backhand side... but not always!
    Watching Jim Courier play during his prime, the benefits or "running around a weakness" were made very clear. Jim had a great two-handed backhand. He could hit it with pace, spin and direction. But, it was not as good as his forehand.
    When Jose Higueras began to coach Jim, there was a pronounced change in Jim's approach to the game. Whenever possible, Jim would run around his backhand and hit a forehand. I can still recall Jim standing near the ad court sideline ready to hit the forehand angled shot. Sure, there were times when Jim's opponent would hit down the line. Fortunately, Jim was always in top physical shape. He would almost always track down these shots and hit a forehand reply that landed deep in the opponent's deuce court (crosscourt). If the opponent did approach the net after hitting a down the line shot, Jim was ready to hit a passing shot... one of his strengths.
    Running around a weakness requires more energy and can fatigue the opponent who is not in shape. But, it can turn around a match! The hard part is learning when and how to begin the run around. Again, this is something that should be worked on during practice sessions. Each player will discover what shots are viable for "running around." Once you have run around your weakness, it is often times easy to keep hitting during rallies in this manner.

  11. Play It Completely Safe
    When playing a truly superior player, there are times when the best course of action is to play it safe. By this, I mean that you play "percentage" tennis. Some years back, I dedicated an entire column to this topic. You can access it at http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_97_2a.html.
    Suffice it to say that playing it completely safe and playing percentage tennis involves the following as essential components:
    • Hit every groundstroke crosscourt
    • Approach the net by hitting down the line with slice or crosscourt with topspin.
    • Never change the direction of a ball that is hit to you with great pace, difficult spin or when you are out of position.
    • Don't try to hit return of serves as winners. Just get the return back and deep in your opponent's court.
    • Make sure that every first serve lands in... even if it means taking pace off of this serve.
    • Don't try to hit an offensive shot (a winner or big shot) from a defensive position on the court.
    • Have a mindset where you are literally trying to get just one more ball over the net... regardless!!!
    • Slow down a losing game. If you are meant to lose, don't lose quickly. Attempting to speed things up in these situations will either deteriorate the quality of your strokes and/or get you in a mindset of "tanking" (wanting to lose quickly to end the pain).

  13. Take the Road Least Traveled
    Sometimes (not often), the best course of action is to totally change your strategy. For example, if you are a big baseliner, incorporate more serve/volley and chip/charge into your game. If you naturally like to be at the net, try staying back and hitting big groundstrokes (really go for the winners).
    This is obviously a "last ditch" effort. But, I have seen it work. This drastic change in style of play may be enough to change the momentum of the match. Once the momentum is changed, you may be able to return to your "normal" and "preferred" style of play with greater effectiveness.

In almost all of these strategies, there is an underlying theme: help your opponent lose! As I stated at the beginning of this column, it is important to begin each match playing the game style that you naturally prefer. Do not abandon this style until the situations described earlier come into being. Then, try a different tact and see what happens. Sometimes logic will dictate what should be "Plan B." Other times, it is simply a matter of trial and error. Don't be afraid to move to "Plan C" if necessary.
At times, we are in control of a match. We seem to be dominating and are able to be in a unique comfort zone. Of course, the nature of this game is such that this comfort zone can be taken away from us quite quickly. A match is never truly over until the very last point has been played. For me, this is part of the beauty and fun associated with this wonderful game we play.
When we are not in control, we frequently will try to make a losing game win. This is not usually a successful endeavor.
Instead, we should accept the realities of the current situation and adapt. This adaption is usually best based on the concept of taking something away from our opponent (helping him/her to lose) than adding something to our game (trying to dominate).
It is imperative that each player spend regular practice sessions working on alternative game plans. Frequently, we simply practice what game style, strokes, etc. that we prefer to execute during competition.
Well, this is fine when things are going well. But when things are not going well, each player needs to have the confidence to change her/his game plan to a "Plan B" and maybe a "Plan C or D."
Flexibility, adaptability and patience are the foundation for consistent winning in tennis! Once you have accepted this truth and worked on the game plans that will serve as your backup strategies, you will invariably become 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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