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October 2011 Article

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Strategies and Tactics

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Readers of my column really do provide me with the right suggestions and directions for topics. Such is the case with this month's column.
Several months ago, I received a very flattering e-mail from a reader. However, he did comment that he believed that I needed to spend more time addressing the tactical side of playing tennis. He raised a valid point, and I promised him that I would put this on my "to do" list for column ideas. I try to keep my promises.
In discussing tactics on the court, we need to be clear about "strategies" versus "tactics."
A strategy is an overall game plan that incorporates specific steps that will be taken to achieve success.
Tactics are specific measures (either pre-determined or improvised) that permit a player to realize a game plan or strategy.

In playing this wonderful game of ours, a competitive player must have both a strategic and tactical approach to each match. However in determining each of these essential components, a player must realize his/her limitations!
I would love to have the serve/volley and chip/charge strategy that Stefan Edberg was so successfully able to execute when he competed on the ATP tour. Yes, I can play either, but they are not inherent strengths for me. If need be, I will employ either, but this is not my first choice for an overall game plan. Each person must be honest with herself/himself and recognize what is viable and what is not.
Recognizing one's limitations is a very useful "tool." Why? Well if we recognize what we can't do well, we avoid the techniques in critical match situations. More important, realization of one's limitations allows for a person to set goals that will improve her/his game! One of the most wonderful aspects of this great game is that there is always room for improvement!
I should mention the importance of setting and achieving goals in tennis. You will never reach your full potential unless you assess honestly, set goals for improvement, and construct viable action plans to realize these goals. Some years back, I wrote an article that addresses the importance of setting goals. You can access it here: http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_99_11.html.
To expand your strategic options, you need to develop more specific tactics. Generally, this requires specific strokes, movement and/or conditioning.
I should also mention that each of you should know what "type" of player you are. This is critical in establishing a set of strategies that will "fit" you. Again, I wrote an article where I describe the two most common types of players. I refer to these as Type A and Type B. Of course, the goal is to become what I call Type C. Rather than belabor the definitions of these player types, I refer the reader to the original column available at: http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_00_11.html. However, the "Type C" player is one who combines the attributes of both "Type A" and "Type B." In my mind, Andre Agassi began as a "Type A" player. Brad Gilbert enabled him to become a "Type B" player. Ultimately, he was an archetypal "Type C" player. Very few of us will ever reach "Type C" play and its limitless strategies/tactics. But, we can all strive to move in this direction!
Lastly, I should mention what are the hierarchical components when playing tennis. Essentially, I see two pyramid-like structures. These pyramids start with the most basic and essential aspects located at the bottom of each pyramid. As you move up the pyramid, the more sophisticated aspects are located. You can't build a good pyramid without establishing its base first!
Regarding Strokes, here is the basic pyramid of tennis:

5. Power
4.Topspin and Slice
3. Hitting in Every Direction
2. Hitting All Balls Deep in the Opponent's Court
1. Hitting Every Ball Over the Net... Even if it is hit out

It amazes me how many players (especially the younger, "Type A" competitor) will start with power... the last element in establishing solid strokes. Regarding where strategy fits into this great game of tennis, I offer the following pyramid.
5. Self-Actualization
4. Strategies and Tactics
3.Visualization and Mental Strength
2. Proper Stroke Development and Stroke Variety
1. Strength, Foot Speed, Endurance, Flexibility, Balance, Aerobic Capability

Note that I place strategies and tactics in the fourth highest position. If you have not developed the first three, you are not likely to be successful with respect to the fourth. I should note that self-actualization occurs in those rare instances where we are playing "in the zone." Nothing seems to go wrong, and everything is effortless. We are merely spectators watching in mindless amazement as we compete at a self-actualization level.
Having established all of the above, let's get to the heart of this month's column.

  1. Simply keep the ball in play. Just get the ball over the net one more time than your opponent.

  2. Hammer an opponent's weakness. If your opponent has a weak backhand, can't move well, or hates a particular spin, etc.; you simply do everything you can to exploit this weakness. Discovering weaknesses in players with whom you are not familiar may take some time. Usually, you can scout a player before a match. Sometimes, the warm-up will betray a weakness. Guess what! We all have weaknesses... even the pros.

  3. Keep your weakness from being discovered. This is much easier said than done. The way to hide a weakness is to execute well in the warm-up, and to not attempt winners that involve the weakness during the match. I have literally coached players who have had no backhand of which to speak. Still in many instances, they hid this weakness by simply hitting safely crosscourt whenever a ball was thrown to his/her backhand.

  4. Out power your opponent. Unfortunately, there are so many young players who use this as their only strategy. They go out on the court and literally try to bash their opponent into a loss. If you have "the goods," go for it. But, I don't recommend this strategy for the vast majority of players. Allied with this mentality, a player may possess a really great weapon... like a big, first serve or powerful forehand. Don't be afraid to utilize these... after all they are weapons. Just don't be seduced into believing that your entire strategy can be built upon power!

  5. Push! I know. We all hate pushers. It almost seems "weak" to play this type of game. Don't let Brad Gilbert hear you think this out loud. He made a professional career out of massaging... not hitting... balls. Even if you are not capable of being a pusher, you can always temper your shots and take pace off of what you send in your opponent's direction. Adopting this strategy of three quarter pace shots may do two things. First, it may add control to your shots. In addition, it may actually frustrate your opponent who feeds off of shots that are hit to her/him with pace.

  6. Serve/Volley and Chip/Charge. Sooner or later, this style of play is going to resurrect itself and become far more commonly played on both amateur and professional levels. Granted, modern racquet and string technology have made the net game a more difficult strategy. Let's face it. It is harder to close the net and not get passed when groundstroke oriented players tee off on passing shots. Like John McEnroe, I have hope for this strategy in the future. Sooner or later, the pros will adapt to the increased speed of the ball. Already, training techniques have greatly improved the foot speed of the modern player. Although many of you may not want to venture into this strategy, I strongly encourage you to reconsider your decision. It may be that serve/volley does not pay dividends for you. But, you would be amazed at how successful chip/charge can be even in the modern game.


  1. Coast to coast tennis. This is really a wise tactic. Moving your opponent from corner to corner means that you are hitting crosscourt. Hitting crosscourt is percentage tennis. Why? Well, the net is lower in the center and by hitting crosscourt you actually gain extra court space in which the ball can land. Thus, you are increasing your margin for error. This type of tennis will force you to run as well, but more often than not, the player who decides to hit down the line will lose the point. To help make sense of this, you may want to read my previous column entitled, Euclidean Geometry available at: http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_98_5.html.

  2. In/Out Tennis. This is probably one of the most underutilized tactics in tennis. Given the fact that most, modern players are not comfortable at the net, why not move them forward and backward. Hit a moonball deep in your opponent's court and follow it with a short drop shot.

  3. Never let your opponent see the same ball twice in a row. Many players (particularly "Type A" competitors) are looking to establish a rhythm when they are in a match. A great way to neutralize an even superior player is to vary every shot. Change the spin, change the pace, change the depth, etc. The goal is to never let the opponent establish a comfortable pattern of play. This is one of my favorite tactics and has won me many points, games and matches. When coaching tennis on the collegiate level, I would be spotting my players 20 plus years as we competed in practice sets. This style of play earned me the nickname, "The Junkman." I take the name as a compliment!

  4. Take a step in after each groundstroke. Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi were masters at this tactic. After hitting a groundstroke, each would take a little step forward. After several strokes, they were automatically in a position to hit a winning put away or charge the net for a winning volley. They were so subtle in this "advancement" that I suspect many of their opponents never realized that Connors and Agassi were increasing their court angles.

  5. Play points as long as is possible. This tactic goes against everything we normally are taught about tennis competition. Still, it sometimes is a great tactic to try and keep the ball in play as long as is possible... even when avoiding hitting winners. Years back, I remember a former player from Georgia by the name of Bob Bull. Bob won just about every ETA tournament in which he competed. In fact, many (if not most) of his opponents simply retired before the match could end. Bob was incredibly fit. He never seemed to go for a winner. Indeed, there was nothing really big about his game other than the fact that he seemed to want to keep every point going as long as was possible. Well, most of us are not as fit as Bob. But if you have an opponent who is the impatient type or is not fit; Bob's tactic will pay dividends... I assure you!

  6. Play inside/out tennis. You may not want to adopt this as an overall strategy, but as a tactic that is employed judiciously, we all can benefit from this form of play. Last fall, I addressed this form of play in one of my columns. The reader can access this at http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_10_09.shtml.

  7. Hit every ball high. Not to flatter myself, but I am a master at hitting moonballs and kick serves. Balls that bounce high and deep are usually not coming back in a manner that will harm you. Indeed, it has been my experience that one-handed backhand players actually become fatigued if you consistently force them to hit high returns of serves and groundstrokes. If you find yourself fatigued in a match, this tactic will slow down the pace of the game, and allow you to "rest" a bit. When training in Florida years back, I was playing on a court adjacent to the Peruvian Player, Jaime Yzaga. At that time, Jaime was on the ATP tour and ranked fairly high. I was losing my match. It was the end of July, and Tampa was hot and humid. Literally, my shoes were a few pounds heavier from the accumulated perspiration. I speak Spanish. Jaime and I were taking water in between our separate, practice sets. He said to me in Spanish. "Lob every ball deep and into the center of the court." I took his advice and discovered that I was no longer running as much. My opponent was beginning to try to hit winners from deep in his own court. I became bold when Jaime said during one of my points that he was watching, "Now, hit a drop shot." I did and my opponent never made it to the ball for a reply. I ultimately won the set but just barely. After the match, Jaime winked at me as I left the court. Back in my hotel room, I reflected on what had occurred during the match. We were playing on Har-Tru clay. So, every ball bounced a bit higher. I was so tired that I was hitting every serve as a kick serve (my normal second serve). My opponent had a one handed backhand. He used a continental grip for all his backhands. Once I started moonballing him, the fatigue factor switched to him. By the end of the set, he was struggling to hit a decent backhand. This lesson from a true pro is one that I never forgot!

  8. Force your opponent out wide. If you are capable of hitting extreme crosscourt shots, you may find yourself a winning tactic. Shots that land a bit short, but force your opponent to be in the doubles alley or wider can win you lots of points. Why? Well, most players don't find themselves having to hit from this wide out. Generally, they try to hit winners. The pros on either tour will be successful in this effort more often than not. But, most recreational, collegiate and high school competitors will hit shots that are errant or allow you to hit a clean winner. This is a great tactic to employ, if you can hit the wide shot.

Tactics are always temporary! You can't employ a tactic in a really repetitive manner and expect to have success. Eventually, your opponent will figure out a way to neutralize the tactic. Thus, I reiterate the importance of developing new tactics to add to your arsenal.
What I have provided in this month's column are just rudimentary strategies and tactics. Pancho Segura's seminal book, Championship strategy: How to play winning tennis is probably the single best "bible" on strategies and tactics that I have encountered. It is out of print. So, you will have to find a used copy. But, it is well worth the search.
So, assessing your game, setting viable goals and expanding your tactics can lead to new and more successful strategies. Once you have an arsenal of strategies and tactics to achieve them, you will invariably discover that you are becoming 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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