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Offensive vs. Defensive Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Recently, I was asked to observe a friend's son compete in an indoor, junior tennis tournament. His son is a serious player and has played tennis since he was about 7 years old. At 14, he possesses significant skills and powerful groundstrokes. He is a typical Type A player. I wrote an article in the past that explains what I mean by this term, but suffice it to say that a Type A player hits well, has skills, but rarely adapts or changes his/her game plan. More often than not, the modern Type A player has a big serve and hits huge groundstrokes as the basis of her/his approach to the game. You can learn more about what I mean by Type A, B, and C players by going to my previous column Type "A" or Type "B" Player?.
The young player ultimately won his match, but in three sets. He dominated in the first set with a score of 6-2. He lost the second set 4-6. He was able to get the win in the third set with a score of 6-3. His opponent had fewer weapons in his arsenal, was not as mobile on the court, and frankly, was the less gifted player.
So, why did this young man struggle to win? This was the question his father had for me. Apparently, this was not that unusual a pattern for his son.
Simply put, this Type A player suffers from what many similar players face: an unawareness of when he was in an offensive, neutral or defensive position. In viewing many matches over my years playing, coaching and teaching this wonderful game; I can honestly say that there are all too many players who are totally unaware of when they may be in any of the three aforementioned court situations.
Well this month, I want to dedicate some time to helping you know when you are in each of these three positions and to give you some basic advice on how to play when in each.
In determining which of the three situations you are in (offensive, neutral or defensive) there is a combination of elements that must be determined. These include:

  1. Where are you on the court?
  2. Where is your opponent on her/his court?
  3. Are you running hard?
  4. Is your opponent running hard?
  5. Are you hitting a shot which you truly own?
  6. Can you exploit a weakness in your opponent's arsenal of shots?
  7. What is your fatigue level?
  8. What is the fatigue level of your opponent?
  9. What is your mental state of mind?
  10. What is your opponent's state of mind?

Clearly, there are more than these 10 factors that determine what position you may find yourself facing during a given point. However, the last thing I want to do is make you into an extreme Type B player (One who is constantly analyzing and thinking consciously during every point.)
Let's take each of these 10 concepts one at a time. In discussing your court position and the court position of your opponent, the following diagram may help to explain some of the spatial "zones" that every player must accept.
As you can see, I divide the court into 4 distinct areas:
  • The Attack Zone
  • The Caution Zone
  • The Rally Zone
  • The Defensive Zone

You must always know which of these zones you are in for each stroke!!!
This is one of the biggest errors I see among recreational, high school, and some collegiate players. Not knowing what zone you are in may cause you to try an offensive shot from a defensive position.
The Attack Zone is where we all want to be! We can either hit a groundstroke winner or put away a volley from this court position. Getting here is not that simple. But when you are in this zone (whether from serve/volley, chip/charge or a short ball hit by your opponent), you want to end the point then and there.
The Caution Zone is just that. Either you are in the process of hitting an approach shot (which must be placed carefully) or you are drawn into "no man's land" where you are likely to be forced to hit half volleys. The Caution Zone is also where most overhead smashes are hit. Although these can be hit for winners, one needs to be cautious about placement of one's smashes. Too often, a player will net the smash or go for a smash that lands deep/wide. Although the overhead smash is an aggressive shot, it can only be successful if you own it, and are not moving severely backward to hit it. If the lob has backspin, the ball travels more downward off your racquet face (towards the net). If the lob is a topspin lob, it is easy to hit it too deep or wide. So even with overhead smashes, one needs to be cautious. It goes without saying that the backhand, overhead smash (seemingly the most difficult shot in the game) requires careful attention and caution when executing.
The Rally Zone is where about 80% of the modern, groundstroke game takes place. The unfortunate reality is that many players think of this area of the court as a place to hit winners. The Rally Zone is where you keep the ball in play, move your opponent and wait for the right opportunity to move forward or elicit an unforced error from your opponent.
The Defensive Zone (where you are 3 or more feet behind the baseline) is often times confused as being similar to the Rally Zone. It is not! In the Defensive Zone, your goal is to hit deep, keep the ball in play, and perhaps, lob. You need to recognize that you are on the defensive and need to regain court position before you can expect to win the point. Moonballs, defensive lobs and the like buy you time to get back into the center of the court and closer to the baseline.
Reversing the roles of player and opponent needs to be realized as well. You need to know in which zone your opponent is located for every shot he/she makes.
The idea is to have an offensive position (Attack Zone or maybe even a Caution Zone) when your opponent is in a defensive position (Defensive Zone).
It should be noted that whenever a player is running hard, the zone becomes more defensive. For example, a player who is running hard and wide to retrieve a shot that places her/him in the Rally Zone is really in a situation that is similar to being in the Defensive Zone.
If you are running hard, forget about hitting a winning shot. If your opponent is running hard, try to go for a more aggressive reply. This is percentage tennis, and will pay dividends more often than not.
All of us have favorite shots and shots that just are weapons. If you are hitting a favorite shot, you are in a more offensive situation. For example, let's assume that you have a killer, down-the-line, two handed backhand. Well if you are in the Rally Zone and you have an opportunity to hit this shot with comfort, you are in a more offensive situation. Don't expect a winner, but work your way into the net or Attack Zone.
Conversely, let's assume that your one-handed backhand slice is awful. If you are in the Rally Zone and must hit this shot (as may be the case with a ball that just doesn't rise), you are in a bit more defensive position than would normally be the case. So, hit this shot carefully and be prepared for an aggressive reply from your opponent.
Physical conditioning is critically important in this wonderful game of ours. This is particularly true on those hot, humid, dog-days that are common in the summer months.
During game changeovers, you want to assess your own fatigue level and that of your opponent. Fatigue brings out errant shots!!! If your opponent or you are hitting drop shots from the baseline, you are either very foolish, or more likely, you are fatigued. Desperate and foolish shots occur when a player is tired.
If you sense you are tired, try to keep the ball high and deep. Forget winners. Rather, try to keep the points such that you run as little as is possible. For some, serve/volley and chip/charge are the solution. For most, hitting lots of moonballs into the center of your opponent's court is the best course of action.
If you sense your opponent is fatigued, run her/him. Move her/him from coast to coast on the baseline. Hit severe angled shots when you are moving into the caution zone. Keep the points long, but only if YOU can handle the extra energy expenditure.
Tennis is clearly a mental game!!! Every point is a potential mental battle. Each of us, no matter how skilled or match tough we may be, have times in matches when we let down mentally. We lose focus. We begin to think about winning or losing (a certain path to defeat!), or the physical wear and tear is breaking our mental commitment.
If you are in a down mental frame of mind, you need to find a way of playing not one point at a time, but one shot at a time! You need to stay in the present. Forget the mistakes you have made, and don't look for light at the end of the tunnel. Simply hit each ball, one at a time. Trust your training and non-conscious mind to come back and help you regain momentum.
If you sense that your opponent is experiencing some mental lapse, exploit it. Speed up the overall pace of play. Take less time between points. Walk with confidence (real or feigned) in between points and games. Hit as many shots as you can to your opponent's weaknesses. Get him/her thinking! More often than not, he/she will think his/her way to defeat!
Some years back, I wrote a column on momentum in tennis based on the work of Bob Love. For some, this very different approach to the game may be just the key to getting back into a match mentally. You can access the article at The Big "MO!!!".
The best way to implant this perceptual awareness into your memory bank is to spend time on the practice court deliberately giving your attention to court position, movement, shot strengths and weaknesses, etc. Eventually, these will become second nature and will not require so much conscious attention.
I assure you that if you can learn to understand when you are in offensive situations and when you are in defensive situations; you will surely 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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