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January 2012 Article

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Don't Be "Left" Out

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Ron Waite, USPTR

If I have had one nemesis over the years that I have competed in this wonderful game of ours, it has been the left-handed player. Granted, "pushers" can be frustrating to play, and often times they can really take you out of your game. But for me, the lefty player is a much greater challenge. With the odds of one out of seven people or so being lefty, you are invariably going to face a left handed player at one time or another.
Don't get me wrong. Lefties still are a challenge for me! But fortunately, I have learned what I need to do to adjust to the lefty idiosyncrasies and play the best possible game that I can against such opponents.
So, I am dedicating this month's column to a discussion of how to approach playing and beating the left handed player.
I am not alone in having difficulty with lefties. Indeed, I have never met a left-handed player who didn't say, "I hate playing lefties, too!"
Even on the pro level, there is a certain fear associated with playing the left-handed player. Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe were certainly rivals during the prime year of their professional careers. Ivan actually enlisted the services of Tony Roche to be his coach. Tony, apart from being a consummate player and coach, was left-handed. Ivan realized that he needed a lefty coach if he was going to challenge John successfully.
Ivan who resided in Greenwich, Connecticut would frequently practice with former tour player Lou Gloria, who is left-handed. I was fortunate enough to photograph Ivan competing before he retired. I must confess that his strokes were rarely "beautiful" in images. (The player who had the most photogenic tennis strokes that I have ever photographed is Michael Stich. There was NEVER a bad image of Michael in any roll of film.) But, Ivan was an extremely talented player, most diligent about conditioning and training, and he always seemed to have a "plan" on how to beat an opponent. Ivan literally, specifically trained daily to beat John McEnroe.
Some of you may be fortunate enough to have a hitting partner who is left-handed. Most of you will not. Still, there are insights and training practices that can help you be more successful against the dreaded lefty.
The first insight that seems unnecessary to mention is that you must realize that indeed you are playing a left-handed opponent! I have known many players who have played an entire set before she/he realized her/his opponent was a lefty! I kid you not! Unless we have played the specific opponent before, the likelihood of not realizing that she/he is a lefty is higher than you imagine.
So, the first and most important insight needed to challenge the left-handed player is to actually realize that your opponent is left-handed.
One of the reasons that lefties present such a problem is that the spin they impart is frequently the opposite spin imparted by a right-handed player. Granted, topspin is topspin and backspin is backspin. But whether you realize it or not, we almost always impart some level of sidespin to the vast majority of our groundstrokes and serves.
Tennis is clearly a game that favors the player who anticipates well and "predicts" the nature of balls as they bounce from the court. How we move to the ball to make contact is something that we take for granted. If we have practiced sufficiently, we are moving in such a manner that we are perfectly positioned to make the impact at exactly the right moment. Believe it or not, there are slight variations that we need to make in our movement and timing when playing a left-handed player. We become so accustomed to playing right-handed players that these subtle differences needed when playing a lefty can actually impact how "sweetly" our strokes are produced.
Let's take a look at the typical, topspin groundstroke produced by the left-handed player. Certainly, the forward spin brings the ball down and into the court. Thus, topspin allows for the player to generate more power while keeping the ball within the lines. Additionally, topspin groundstrokes bounce higher than flat shots. In reality, no ball is hit completely flat (without any spin). But comparatively, there are flat shots and serves.
Many players who finish their forehand strokes over their shoulder and all players who finish across the front of their body (the windshield wiper-like finish) impart a bit of sidespin. For righties, the sidespin is such that the ball travels slightly to his/her right. When the topspin ball bounces, the sidespin produces a reaction that moves the ball slightly to his/her left. These are so imperceptible, that unless you examine the flight of the ball using very slow-motion video, you can't visually see these variations. However over time, our eye, mind and body "anticipate" these variations and we eventually "groove" our strokes to accommodate these seemingly imperceptible movements of the ball.
Now, the lefty does the same in the modern game, but his/her sidespin is the opposite. The ball travels slightly to his/her left and bounces slightly to her/his right.
Depending on how the stroke is produced, this opposite spin consequence may be initially significant. The more open the player's stance and the more across the body the finish (windshield wiper-like) the more sidespin will be generated in the topspin groundstroke.
When hitting sliced backhands, the sidespin may be much more significant. Most of us do not hit a pure, backspin, sliced backhand. Almost without fail, the recreational, intermediate, and frequently, pro players will impart sidespin when they hit the sliced backhand.
Whenever I am playing a lefty, I always play a bit more carefully as I execute a reply to a sliced backhand. Indeed, I will not try to change the direction of the lefty's sliced backhand until I am certain that I am comfortable with how this shot bounces and comes off the court. I always make my reply to the lefty's sliced backhand travel back on the "path" that it originally traveled to me until I am comfortable and confident that I can adjust to the effects of its spin.
Truthfully, the sidespin may be so insignificant that there is little or no "acclimation" needed. This is particularly true regarding topspin forehands. But at times, it may take a player a game or two for her/his natural "adjustments" to be made to account for the lefty spin.
Be patient with yourself when first playing a lefty. Recognize that your non-conscious mind will make the necessary adjustments, if you let it. Don't try to "analyze" what compensations may be needed. Rather, trust your inner mind. Try to focus on the ball more attentively to provide your non-conscious mind with the information it needs to make adjustments. These sidespin effects are never insurmountable, and as I said, they may be of no consequence at all... depending upon the stroke and upon the players.
Where sidespin becomes a major concern is when the lefty is serving! This is particularly true when the lefty is serving to the ad court.
The slice serve can be one of the most effective weapons in the lefty's arsenal. The curve in the flight of the ball is often times clearly visible to the eye. From the receiver's perspective, the ball seems to be moving more to the left. Once it hits the court surface, it tends to bounce a bit more to the right than would be expected.
(For those of you, who are confused by all the different spin directions, remember, the serve is a forehand stroke... not a backhand stroke. So, the sidespin is the exact opposite. In that the serve is a somewhat downward stroke; its sidespin is the opposite of the upward, topspin forehand.)
The net consequence of the lefty's sliced serve is that the player is forced to move to her/his left. Sometimes, the slice can be so significant that the receiver is pulled out very wide. Once the serve bounces, the ball tends to come back in a manner that tends to "jam" the receiver a bit. The combination of these two effects is what makes the lefty slice serve so effective... particularly when serving to the ad court.
Over the course of a match, a player can usually adapt to the lefty's slice serve. The first "solution" tried is to move to the left a bit when returning serve. This may or may not help. However even if this shift in receive positioning does help; you are leaving the center of the court open. Invariably, the lefty will look to see if you have made this adjustment. Then, he/she will blast a big, flat serve down the T. You must be aware of this latter possibility and be ready to move quickly to return the hard hit, centered serve.
I am not suggesting that repositioning yourself for the return of serve is not well founded. Indeed on the ad side, it may be all that is needed to take the "sting" out of the lefty slice serve. But, it may not be enough.
I would also recommend that you make a concerted effort to return every sliced serve crosscourt. Initially, you may need to overcompensate and really try for a severe, crosscourt return angle. But over time, this effort will help you become naturally acclimated to the lefty serve.
Why? Well first, the crosscourt return of serve is the percentage return. You have more margins for error. Thus, a less than effective return is probably not going to put you in a really tentative position. More important, this exaggerated return effort hastens the process of ingraining in your non-conscious mind the necessary, minor adjustments necessary to return the lefty serve with more authority and control.
More and more, you will see left-handed players who have a great "kick" serve. The true "kicker" has both topspin and sidespin. Generally, the sidespin associated with the lefty's kick serve is not as severe as that which is produced by the sliced serve. Still, the slight repositioning to your left as you return and the deliberate and pronounced crosscourt return of serve will help you become acclimated to the lefty's "kicker" more quickly.
If you are fortunate enough to have a lefty hitting partner who can hit the slice serve, you can prepare for matches against lefties quite well. Just be certain to spend lots of time on practicing your return of serve... especially from the ad court.
If you do not have a left-handed hitting partner, you can practice returning serve using the following technique.
Stand in the ad court to receive serve. Have your hitting partner stand at the service line on her/his ad court. She/he should stand close to the sideline to her/his left. Have your partner serve wide serves to you from this position. The angle, and shortened response time generally will help you to become familiar with the lefty's sliced serve more quickly when preparing for such a match. Try to return crosscourt when doing this drill. Your hitting partner should be hitting serves at about three quarter speed to allow you time to move wide and make a solid return.
The above drill is not as effective as having a lefty hitting partner, but it does help.
If you have an effective, right-handed, slice serve, then you can return the favor to lefties by pulling them out of court on the deuce side. Although you will be able to pull them wide, they probably will return a bit more effectively. Why? Well, lefties are used to the "right-handed" bounces. After all, they face right handed players more frequently as well. It is this reality that makes left-handed players dislike playing left-handed opponents!
Crosscourt rallies between left-handed and right-handed players pit one's forehand vs. the other's backhand.
Statistically, I believe (I don't have hard evidence to support this statement) that the majority of players on any level have weaker backhand as opposed to forehand groundstrokes. However, lefties are frequently consistent, if not deadly, with respect to their backhand wing.
Lefties are used to having right-handed players attempt to dominate play by hitting forehand groundstrokes crosscourt to the lefty's backhand wing. Although the backhand side may be the weaker wing for many, if not most, lefties; the left-handed player generally has a very consistent backhand. It may not be his/her weapon, but he/she has probably a very solid backhand.
If you look at Rafa when he plays, his two-handed backhand is not just consistent. It is a weapon. More and more left-handed players are emerging with two-handed backhands. Whenever I see such a player, I treat his backhand with caution and respect.
Still, the odds favor the player who is using forehand groundstokes in the left vs. right-handed, crosscourt rally. The key is to not try and simply win points by hitting hard to the lefty's backhand. Keep the rallies going until one of two things occur:

  • You can draw the left-handed opponent out wide on her/his backhand wing (the deuce court). Then, hit a shot as wide to the ad side as is possible.
  • You elicit a weak reply or short ball from the lefty. Then, you move in for the kill and attempt the put away or winning shot.

As is the case when playing "pushers," it requires patience to play a left-handed opponent. When competing against lefties, a player needs to allow himself/herself the time to become familiar with the inherent differences caused by spin.
Frustration, particularly when returning serve, can be difficult to avoid. But if you trust your non-conscious mind to make the adjustments and keep your conscious mind out of the picture, you will sooner or later find yourself becoming more and more in control of your game.
Lefties are like every other tennis player. They have strengths and they have weaknesses. Trust in yourself to discover the weaknesses. I assure you they exist.
So as we begin 2012, don't let yourself become intimidated by the left-handed opponent. I assure you that if you don't you will soon 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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