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When The Wind Blows

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

One thing that certainly characterized some of the match days at this year's U.S. Open was the presence of wind. Quite frankly, I believe that the vast majority of tennis players (pro, collegiate, intermediate and recreational) will admit that the absolutely most difficult physical conditions in which to play involve wind.
From my own experience as a player and as a coach, I can certainly state with confidence that my players and I dreaded playing matches in windy conditions more so than extreme heat or even extreme cold. Given that many of the collegiate matches that I coached were played outdoors in early spring and late fall, windy conditions were quite frequently present.
Well depending on where you live, you are probably ending the outdoor season of play (north of the equator) or beginning the outdoor season (south of the equator). You, too, will probably find yourself playing in windy conditions.
This month's column is dedicated to helping you come to terms with how to play your very best tennis in this most difficult of conditions.
The first thing to realize about playing in windy conditions is that these conditions are the great "equalizer." Any player may find that she/he is capable of beating a superior opponent or losing to a less gifted player on windy days. Indeed when coaching, I would always remind my players NOT to judge their tennis skills or prowess on windy days. Truth be known, tennis played in the wind is basically a crap shoot. Anything can happen, and anyone can win/lose.
The realization and acceptance of this reality is the first and most important aspect of learning to play your best in windy conditions. Why? Well, you need to be very forgiving of your errors, never take any opponent for granted, and one needs to have much patience when competing in the wind. You really can't fight the wind. You really can't control the wind. But, you can learn to work within the wind... hopefully, working better than your opponent.
Really in examining windy conditions, there are some distinct varieties of windy conditions.

  1. A consistent wind that blows north/south. Tennis courts are created with their baselines in the "north" and "south" ends. Thus, a north/south wind puts the wind at your back or in your face depending on which end of the court you are playing.

  2. A second kind of wind is where the players experience crosswinds. By this, the winds are consistently blowing either to a player's left to right or right to left, again depending on which end of the court you are playing.

  3. A third kind of wind condition that can occur is where the wind is intermittent. It is present at times (regardless of its direction) and at other times it has subsided.

  4. The last wind condition is where winds are swirling. By this, I mean that the wind is almost always present, but its direction is frequently changing.

From a practical perspective, each time you play in windy conditions you need to determine which of these four are evident, and what direction the wind may be blowing. It should be noted that I ordered the above 4 conditions where they are ordered in terms of difficulty upon one's play. Situation 1 is a bit easier to deal with than situations 2, 3 and 4.
I am frequently amazed at how many players are not fully aware of the specific nature of the windy conditions in which they find themselves competing. The directions in which nearby flags are moving are one indicator. Simply tossing a small ball of paper in the air may give some wind information. But, the best way to truly understand the wind conditions present is to practice before a match on the courts where you will be competing, as close to the competition time as is possible.
A general piece of advice that must be taken when playing in the wind is that the player must focus more intently upon the ball and its path. Granted, we always should have our focus on the ball when playing tennis. But, extra attention must be given during windy situations. When playing in the wind, try to really focus on the spinning of the seam on the ball as it travels, and I make a special effort to really "see" the ball as it bounces on my side of the net.
Generally speaking, every stroke should be executed with a shorter backswing and a complete follow though. This includes volleys. The shorter backswing allows you to make quick adjustments to the ball's movement and path after it has bounced on your side of the net. Believe me, these adjustments are critical and the wind will invariably force one to adjust constantly. The full and complete follow through will make certain that the stroke itself is full and fluid in nature. It is quite easy to fall into the habit of poking or stabbing at balls in windy conditions rather than truly stroking each shot.
With respect to serves, try to toss your ball as low as is viably possible. In this way, the ball is less likely to be blown away from an ideal contact point. For those of you with a high toss, this may not be possible. In my mind, every player should develop the most compact serve motion and lowest toss possible. Still, I recognize that for some, a higher toss and a full, circular service motion are so ingrained that changing them is not really viable. If this latter situation is the case for you, I suggest that you take many more practice serves before your match to learn what adjustments you may need to make to be successful in the match.
In windy conditions, you need to force yourself to take many little steps and to avoid big lunging strides. Here again, you will find that in the wind, you will need to make little adjustments in your movement to accommodate the erratic movement of the ball after it bounces on your side of the net. Allied with this, one probably wants to try and stay up on her/his toes (balls of the feet) more so than would normally be the case. Being up on your toes will help you with last minute body movement adjustments. When playing in the wind, I find that I always am experiencing more discomfort in the calves of my legs due to being up on the balls of my feet so often.
Lastly, the player must try extra hard to avoid any head movement while making contact with the ball... regardless of the specific stroke. "Freezing the head" while making contact better assures that your body will maintain proper balance throughout the stroke. The temptation to watch where your shot has landed is even greater than is normally the case when one is competing in the wind. One definitely wants to "quiet" the head during a match played in wind.
From a tactical perspective, there are some principles and guidelines that need to be followed even more closely than would normally be the case.
First, the player must make certain that he/she should provide a greater margin for error with respect to each shot. Instead of going for the "lines," the player must seek to keep the ball at least one or two feet away from any line... including the service line. Control is very difficult in the wind. Even if you are a tour pro, controlling shots in the wind is difficult at best.
Allied with this, players should play percentage tennis more so than they might in more normal conditions. For those of you who are not familiar with the principles associated with percentage tennis, I offer the following columns from my archives: Percentage Tennis...the odds are in your favor and Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game. Risky and/or overly aggressive tennis styles most certainly are to lead to frustrating results.
Trying to hit winners in the wind is usually an exercise in futility. In windy conditions, one must be absolutely certain that she/he can execute the shot so well that it will indeed end up a winner. This is more difficult than one imagines. However, I have found that volleys that are struck with a "winner" in mind are more likely to be successful than those struck as groundstrokes... or even overhead smashes.
In the wind, the player who can keep the ball in play is almost always the player who prevails. For aggressive big bangers, windy conditions are a nightmare. I have seen many big hitters blast their way to defeat by trying to play their "typical" strategy in the wind. Smarter... not stronger, is the rule when playing in the wind.
So, let me give you some specific tips regarding the typical wind condition situations that I described earlier.
When the Wind is Consistently Blowing from Behind

  1. Don't be afraid to hit a very hard first serve. Big flat serves become even bigger when the wind is at your back. The key is to try to keep the serve passing low to the net. If you do, you will find that your serve lands near the service line with lots of pace. Even if you miss some first serves, keep trying this serve. Sooner or later, you will find your bearings, and then, your first serve will probably win you some "free" points.

  2. Kick serves are usually very safe, and yet offensive, second serves. Their topspin is normally enough to make sure that they drop in safely, but deeply, into the opponent's service box.

  3. From the baseline, don't be afraid to hit big, flat groundstrokes. However, you once again need to make certain that they pass lower to the net than you would normally prefer. The wind at your back will carry them deeper into your opponent's court, and they will certainly pack some pace.

  4. If you lob, try to strike defensive lobs. I know this may seem strange. The fear is that such a lob hit with backspin will float deep and out. The secret here is to really strike them so that they are hit upward at a very vertical angle. Hit them high and short. The wind will take them deep, and most likely, confuse your opponent as he/she decides whether to hit an overhead smash.

When the Wind is Consistently Blowing in Your Face

  1. The big, flat, first serve rarely pays dividends with the wind in your face. Still, I see many players really muscling their first serves thinking that they have an automatic safety margin. Generally, their serves either land too short or out. In the process, they are expending lots of energy trying for the power serve. In my mind, the slice serve is the best first serve when the wind is in your face. You can normally hit this fairly hard. The sidespin will help you control the serve, and its bounce may be exaggerated by the wind. I have seen many slice serves that have been outright aces when directed wide to the deuce court and into the body of the opponent when served to the ad court.

  2. On second serves, I recommend a flat serve that is carefully directed, but hit at a lower pace. The flat serve can usually be directed effectively to the forehand, body or backhand of the opponent, if you don't try to hit the serve too hard. A nice, relaxed serving arm and motion is the key here.

  3. When hitting groundstrokes, I try to hit many shots with slice. I hit hard slice shots that travel low to the net and hard hit "floaters." The former lands a bit shorter in the opponent's court, but usually bounces very low. Given the modern player's use of the semi-western and western grips on the forehand wing, these low bouncing slice shots force your opponent to bend low to get "under" the ball. Over time, this takes a physical toll on your opponent. The hard hit "floater" will probably not land out. When it bounces, it has no pace, and sometimes, the ball will actually bounce a bit back toward the net. Either of these forces the opponent to generate his/her own pace. Frequently, they will over hit resulting in a groundstroke that goes out or into the net. On the forehand wing, I try to hit flat groundstrokes that are hit with three quarter pace. I find that I can easily control the direction of the ball even though it is hit flat. By mixing these three up, I can frustrate my opponent as he tries to deal with the wind and my changing spin/pace. In reality, my strokes and the windy conditions can destroy any rhythm that the opponent may establish.

  4. When lobbing, I find that one can really hit out on the topspin lob and still have it land in bounds. These "moonballs" can really wreak havoc on one's opponent.

  5. Lastly, don't be afraid to try the drop shot when the wind is in your face. Even a drop shot hit from the baseline (normally fatal) can be effective when the wind is in your face. Drop shots are just not as risky as they normally can be.

When the Wind is a Crosswind
If a player is lucky, she/he will find crosswinds that are relatively even throughout the match. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that no wind is really all that consistent and this is true of crosswinds.
The crosswind will either be blowing the ball to your left or to your right. You need to be patient as you adjust for the wind's impact upon the ball's flight. Don't be surprised if one minute the crosswind is very forceful and the next minute it is less intense. Crosswinds present a very unique and unpleasant challenge. But, you can learn to adjust your placement.
Most important, try to keep hitting your ball flat and try to keep it passing lower over the net. These two actions will minimize the impact of the wind on the ball and allow you the best chance of directing its path carefully to adjust for the crosswind.
On groundstrokes, volleys and serves, simply try to keep the ball landing in deep in the center of the court or in the center of the service box. On overheads, you really need to take very little steps to adjust for the constantly changing direction of the lob. When hitting overheads, simply hit them softly and in the center of your opponent's court. Let him/her try to take your smash and hit a reply. Close the net to be able to hit a volley off of this reply.
The golden rules in crosswinds are:

  1. Hit flatter strokes and serves.
  2. Don't hit any stroke too hard.
  3. Try to center your shots as much as is possible.
  4. Don't try for winners. Rather, let your opponent make a mistake.
  5. Be patient!!!

When the Wind is Gusty, Inconsistent and/or Swirling
These conditions are every tennis player's worst nightmare. These conditions defy any clear advice and/or strategy.
Usually, there is little that one can do but try to keep the ball in play. Serves are going to go errant. Groundstrokes will be difficult to control. Smashes are a problem to hit.
In these conditions, my best advice is to try and serve/volley and chip/charge. You shorten the length of time that the ball is in the air and are usually not lifting the ball's path to a high trajectory. Gusting, swirling winds are usually more pronounced the higher the ball travels.
Racquet Tensions
I know that recreational players may not be able to afford multiple frames. But if you are a serious competitor, you really need at least 4 identical frames. Two of these four should be strung at your ideal tension. One should be strung 2 or 3 pounds lower, and another should be strung 2 or 3 pounds higher. So if 55 pounds is your ideal tension. One should be strung at 52 or 53 and another at 57 or 58.
If you watch the pros in windy conditions, they will change frames frequently. In north/south winds they will use the higher tension frame with the wind to their back and the lower tension frame when the wind is in their face. In effect, this helps keep your strokes more consistent in terms of racquet head speed and finish.
In changing crosswind conditions, you may change a racquet frame when the wind is up (the higher tension). When the wind goes down, you may return to one of your two "ideal" frames.
Apart from wind conditions, it is always wise to have two frames that are strung identically, one frame strung tighter and one strung lower. If you are playing indoors or in stable conditions outside, you can switch to another frame if your ideal frames are "failing" you. A simple change in frame can make a huge difference when things are not going well for you. After all, you have nothing to lose but the match.
If you are an avid tennis player, you will eventually play in windy conditions. They are not fun!!! Anything can happen, and anyone can win. However, if you pay close attention to what kind of conditions you are experiencing and employ some of the aforementioned suggestions, I am sure that you can prevail and remain 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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