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Ron Waite, USPTR
We begin the month of September with the last Grand Slam Event of the year... The U.S. Open. Okay, I am biased, but this is my favorite of the 4 slam tournaments. For those of us north of the equator we are still experiencing the remnants of summer weather as we head into autumn. South of the equator, my readers are gearing up for their outdoor season. I think it is fitting that as we up north end our outdoor season and those in the south begin theirs, that the transition is marked by such a great event as the U.S. Open. Okay, enough of my ruminations on the U.S. Open.
Most U.S. outdoor tennis courts are of the hard court variety. In Central and South America, the red clay surface is the norm. Fittingly, both of these surfaces can lend themselves to a particular strategic approach...inside/out tennis!
The presumption is that the aforementioned surfaces are medium fast to slow in the way in which they play. Extremely fast surfaces, like grass courts, many indoor courts, and some outdoor hard courts really do not allow this strategic approach to be successful. I leave it to the reader to determine whether a particular surface is sufficiently slow to permit inside/out tennis. However, newly surfaced or resurfaced hard courts are most likely to be medium fast, and almost all clay surfaces will play slow to medium fast.
So, what exactly do I mean by inside/out tennis? If the reader recalls the tour days of Jim Courier, they have seen this approach to the game played to perfection. Although I do not know this with certainty, I believe Jose Higueras, Jim's coach, was the architect of this game style... at least with Jim.
If you recall, Jim was an incredibly fit player... actually, he still is. He had/has a devastating forehand groundstroke. His two handed backhand was/is a bit unorthodox. When looking at how he struck this backhand, one was reminded of a baseball player hitting at the plate. Don't get me wrong. I would die to possess Jim's backhand. Last year, I had the pleasure of photographing him on grass at a Masters event held at Newport. So, I can personally testify that this stroke is by no means weak... even today!
Still, the manner in which Jim produces his two handed backhand results in a stroke that really is hit a bit close to his body. When stretched, Jim hits the one handed slice with proficiency, but it is not really a weapon for him.
I recall seeing Jim compete early on in his career when playing a U.S. Open. He was very young, and had not reached his prime. At the time, Jose Higueras was not his coach. Jim's approach to the game was pretty much what one would expect in the modern game... coast to coast groundstrokes with a serve that had some pace. He triumphed over many opponents, but just couldn't seem to make that breakthrough.
Once Jose Higueras became his coach, a marked change in Jim's game emerged. He began to run around his backhand to hit forehands. He would literally stand in the ad court and hit forehands crosscourt as often and with as much angle as possible. Because of his great fitness, Jim was able to track down any drop shots that his opponent might attempt, and any down the line shot from his opponent usually found him able to hit great running forehands... often times for winners. In short, this strategy proved very effective for Jim, whom I consider one of the best to have ever played this wonderful game. (Frankly, I don't think he receives as much kudos as he deserves.)
Well this month, I want to encourage readers to experiment with this tactical approach. It is not as difficult as it may seem to the reader, and it can pay huge dividends on the right surfaces. Of course, one can't expect to master this approach to the level of Jim Courier, but as a game plan, most of us can benefit.
This approach is particularly useful if:
These are not prerequisites to the inside/out game, but criteria that make this approach extremely appealing. Still, anyone with reasonably good movement can learn to play the inside/out game.
- You have a powerful, forehand groundstroke that can be struck with direction and control.
- Your backhand is your weaker wing, and opponents seem to exploit this weakness.
- You are comfortable hitting forehands on the run.
- You have a reliable kick serve.
The first battle is learning to run around your backhand. This is generally not something most players do unless they are forced by their opponent's shot to substitute a forehand for a shot normally struck as a backhand.
You need to take some time and practice with a hitting partner or a ball machine. You need to do drills starting from the hash mark on the baseline and running to your left (assuming you are right handed) in a manner that allows you to strike the ball as a forehand. At first, don't try to do this with balls that are landing very wide in the ad court. Start with balls that are landing a few feet to your left. Always return to the center hash mark after hitting the inside/out forehand to begin the next stroke in this drill series. You need to learn to move from the center court to hit the inside/out forehand groundstroke, and this drill will begin the process.
When striking this forehand, direct the ball to your opponent's ad court. Again, you don't want to start out trying to hit severely angled forehands. Rather, just put the ball deep into your opponent's ad court. Don't try for too much pace. You need to become acclimated to hitting the inside/out forehand.
Footwork is essential in learning the inside/out game. The key is to take little steps. Your first step is probably going to be fairly substantial, but after this, little steps are needed to position your body appropriately to hit an effective forehand. At first, you will need to experiment with how open or even angled your stance must be to hit effective inside/out forehands. But, you will quickly learn the right position for this stroke. You truly need to practice moving into the proper position when mastering this stroke.
At first, you are going to feel rushed. You will literally scramble to get over and around the backhand. This is normal. But in reality, you have more time to do this than you imagine.
As you become acclimated to hitting inside/out forehands, have your hitting partner (or ball machine) send balls a bit wider. You will find that in a relatively short period of time you will be able to run around balls that are hit fairly wide.
Don't get me wrong. You won't be able to run around every backhand in a match. Some balls are hit too wide and/or struck with too much pace to hit with anything but a backhand stroke. But, the above drill will give you a sense of which balls are viable and which balls are not. Each player must discover her/his limits.
Once you have discovered how to run around the backhand and what your limitations may be, you want to increase the angle of how you direct your inside/out forehands. To learn how to do this, you can simply stand from a static position in the ad court and have your partner or ball machine feed you balls to your forehand. Try to increase the angle of your shots. You will need to learn to hit with a little less pace and a bit more topspin to really hit a ball that travels short and wide to the ad court... but it can be done.
The first shot hit in the inside/out game should not be very wide. Rather, you simply want to get into the proper position for hitting inside/out forehands crosscourt and begin a rally. As the rally progresses, you will want to be able to vary the severity of your crosscourt angles. Ideally, you are moving your opponent wider and wider... even if these increments are very small.
Sometimes, your opponent will adopt the same strategy and begin to hit inside/out forehands. On very slow surfaces, like clay, you must be very patient and try to be as consistent as is possible. More often than not however, your opponent will be exchanging backhands to your forehands. More often than not, this puts you in the position of hitting a more dominant stroke. Still, you must be prepared for an opponent who is willing and able to trade inside/out groundstrokes with you while rallying crosscourt from the ad side (assuming you are right handed).
The basis of the inside/out strategy is to outlast your opponent in these exchanges. If you have really moved your opponent out wide and/or have received a short ball, you step in and hit the down the line shot for a clean winner.
The temptation is to hit the down the line shot too early. If you hit this shot and your opponent can track it down, his/her crosscourt reply can be devastating. Rather, you want your opponent to become impatient and hit a down the line shot at the wrong time. If she/he does, simply run to the ball (easier than you imagine because your body is already facing in the right direction for this movement) and hit one of three replies:
Do hit a down the line shot, if you have your opponent drawn very wide out of court. Here is where patience pays dividends. If you can slowly move your opponent wider and wider as you rally using the inside/out forehand, you will eventually find that even a medium paced down the line shot will result in a winner. Why? Your opponent will need to move sideways and back to get to your shot. Not many opponents have the anticipation, speed and skill to attempt this.
- A crosscourt shot with pace and topspin that lands deep. This is usually your best option. Your opponent must now run to hit a forehand... assuming she/he is right handed. If he/she goes crosscourt, you are ready to begin a forehand rally exchange. If she/he goes down the line, you are able to get to her/his reply and hit crosscourt for a probable winner. Usually, the impatient opponent simply tries a flat or topspin down the line shot. These are usually not that difficult to handle. For some players, hitting a reply to the down the line shot may be difficult, if their opponent's shot is hit with severe slice and pace. This slice variety is usually a challenge to handle when on the run... particularly with a western or semi-western grip. The key is to not overplay your reply. Simply get under the ball, lift it as high over the net as you can and do not attempt to hit with pace. Just get your ball deep into the opponent's deuce court.
- A crosscourt shot that is hit with a severe angle that pulls your opponent forward and wide. A difficult but not impossible shot if you can roll your forehand crosscourt. This shot is often times a clean winner. Again, the key is not to over hit. Here, less is more. This is not really a viable option if the opponent's down the line shot has severe slice and pace.
- A top spin lob that lands deep in the center of your opponent's court. This will allow you to recover back to center court if you were stretched, and begin the inside/out rallies again when the right backhand shot comes your way. This is usually the easiest option for recreational and intermediate players. It doesn't win you the point, but it does allow you to regroup and begin the process of inside/out tennis again. If your opponent hits that down the line shot that has plenty of slice and pace, hit your lob as a defensive/backspin lob. Really, this latter reply is often referred to as a "squash" forehand.
Do hit a down the line shot if the opponent has come to the net. Why? Well if you hit down the line and your opponent has stayed back, he/she now has the ability to hit crosscourt for a clean winner or a drop shot to the ad court for a clean winner.
When rallying in the inside/out game, beware the drop shot. If your opponent is savvy and skilled, he/she may stop the crosscourt rally by hitting a drop shot that lands short in your deuce court. In that he/she is most likely hitting backhands in the exchange, the drop shot can be easily disguised and executed. Be particularly aware of this possibility if you have drawn your opponent out wide and closer to the net.
If you do get a drop shot, go down the line or lob as a reply. The pros on both tours have skills and abilities that we mortals do not possess. The temptation when running to reply to a drop shot is to try and put it crosscourt for a winner (away from your opponent). More often than not, this is asking too much of yourself. If you have anticipated well and/or move quickly to the drop shot, a crosscourt reply is great. Usually however, it is better to hit a strong deep shot down the line, if possible. This is especially true if your opponent is still wide. If this is not possible, simply try to defensively lob the ball as far crosscourt as is possible. Usually, you will find that this backspin lob lands deep in the center of the court.
If your opponent drop shots you from his/her baseline, drop him/her back. Smart players realize that attempting to hit drop shots from deep in their court is risky at best. Still, some players will attempt to do this, and at times they will be successful. If your opponent hits the drop shot and does not follow it to the net, your best reply is to hit a little dropper of your own. Don't worry about position; just get the ball over the net.
Some opponents may respond to the inside/out game by net rushing. If an opponent is a natural serve/volley and chip/charge/player, she/he will often times try to prevent you from employing the inside/out game by rushing the net. The serve/volley is an effective ploy against the inside/out game in that it prevents the rallies from ever really beginning. Fortunately for the inside/out player, the modern game has not produced many serve/volley players. On slow surfaces like clay, the serve/volley player is at a severe disadvantage even is he/she is accomplished.
Chip/charge players can really wreak havoc on the inside/out game, if they are accomplished. If they are not, they leave themselves vulnerable to passing shots! In my experience, there are fewer chip/charge players than serve/volley players in the modern game. Given modern tennis, you are not likely to see many of these opponents... especially among the recreational and intermediate ranks.
Additionally, you won't see many recreational or intermediate players utilizing the inside/out game. I find this particularly regrettable because it is precisely at these levels that this strategy is most likely to be effective.
The kick serve is a great way to help begin the inside/out game. Kick serves are normally directed at the backhand wing. They bounce high, and frequently are hit with a bit of side spin. Most pros on both tours try to hit a kick serve as a second serve on all but the faster surfaces. More often than not, an opponent will return a kick serve by going crosscourt. If you use the kick serve as both a first and second serve when serving to the ad court, your chances of getting a return that allows the inside/out strategy to begin are fairly high. On the deuce side, the kick serve is usually returned more to the center of the court. But, this still allows you to begin maneuvering to get the inside/out rallies beginning.
If you ever have the opportunity to watch some of Jim Courier's tour matches from the past (on video), or even get the opportunity to watch him compete today on the Masters Tour; you can truly observe this strategy executed at its very best.
So whether you are ending your outdoor season or just beginning it, try out the inside/out game of tennis. Assuming you have practiced this approach and that the surfaces are not too fast, I assure you that in no time, the inside/out strategy will help you to become a
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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.