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Aggressive Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

One of the most frequent statements you will hear from TV commentators goes something like: "The player needs to play more aggressively." Indeed, I would argue on the professional, advanced and even the intermediate levels; executing aggressive tennis strokes, tactics and strategies is well founded.
Don't get me wrong. Percentage tennis is the mainstay of winning tennis. One cannot defy the "geometric" rules associated with the game. Some years back, I wrote two columns that related to percentage play. You can access these at: Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game and Percentage Tennis...the odds are in your favor.
Percentage tennis is the foundation upon which an individual's game must be based. But increasingly, truly competitive tennis players need to develop what is frequently called an aggressive style of play.
The problem with many commentators is that they assume that the average television viewer understands what aggressive tennis truly encompasses. My hope in this month's column is to shed some useful light on what aggressive tennis may entail.
I must put forth a few caveats. First, players who are less developed in their tennis skills and game should be patient and avoid aggressive play until their games have reached what is at least a USTA NTRP rating of at least 4.0 or 4.5. To truly play aggressive tennis, you need to have reliable strokes, match experience and the at least the beginnings of "weapons" in you arsenal of strokes.
Second, one must always be aware that tennis is a very individualized game. There is no "cookie cutter" or "one size fits all" way of playing this wonderful game of ours. So, one person's aggressive approach may necessarily be the same as the next person's aggressive style of play.
Now, the word, aggressive, normally has a negative connotation with respect to its meaning. Strictly speaking, aggression is any harmful or abuse action or statement that is harmful to another. Generally, we are taught NOT to be aggressive in our daily lives.
In tennis, however, aggression has a different meaning entirely. I would define aggressive tennis as any form of play that allows a player to control a point, game or set while minimizing the ability of the opponent to win the point, game or set. This is quite different from simply trying to keep the ball in play or simply minimizing one's errors.
Aggressive tennis by its very nature is a game of risks. Aggressive players realize that these risks may put them in clear jeopardy of losing the match. Still, they attempt to maintain their aggressive style despite the fact that they may lose some games or sets. For the aggressive player, confidence is an absolute must. One has to believe that she/he will ultimately prevail even if there are some rough patches she/he experiences during a match.
To have such confidence, one must be well conditioned, be in possession of ALL the strokes in the game, and have competed sufficiently to KNOW that he/she can survive losing situations and yet still ultimately win a match. In short, the novice or inexperienced player is NOT likely to enjoy success playing an aggressive approach to tennis. There is definitely a mental fortitude necessary to compete aggressively and survive the inevitable ups and downs that this style of play produces.
Many people, especially junior players, are under the impression that aggressive tennis simply means hitting every ball with more power. I grant you that in the modern game of tennis, racquets and strings truly do naturally enable each player to hit with more power. But, power without control is really useless and normally leads to a loss rather than a win.
Whether one is able to hit with power or not, he/she is definitely going to experience opponents who can hit with power. Like it or not, the modern game of tennis is becoming more and more power driven. Taller players abound on both tours. They usually possess big serves. The contemporary pro is usually supported by an entourage of specialists who are employed to help the player become more fit, strong, flexible, mentally tough and able to execute more shots as weapons.
Although Harry Hopman was the first coach to truly realize the holistic nature of the game of tennis, it is probably safe to say that the modern game has become as much of as science as well as an art.
The higher up you go on the "tennis ladder," the more you will find that powerful and "complete" players abound. The modern pro who is ranked in the top fifty today, would probably be ranked in the top 10 forty or fifty years ago.
This is NOT to say that tennis is no longer a game for the more diminutive player, the pusher, or the serve/volley expert. It is simply to suggest that the nature of the equipment, common surfaces, training regimens and understanding of the physics of stroke production have significantly changed what is the most common "ideal" tennis professional. As I am sure John McEnroe would agree, it is more difficult to be a Stefen Edberg or Martina Navratilova type of player on the tours these days.
Fortunately, we mere mortals are still not without our days in the sun. Intermediate players, high school competitors and collegiate team members still allow for more variety of play that will lead to success. How we achieve our aggressive style of play may not be as limited as it is for the touring pros. But, this of course is a matter of opinion and open to debate.
To truly play aggressive tennis, a player needs to understand that some particulars NEED to be known. These include:

  1. Upon what surface are you playing and how do you normally fare when competing on this surface?
  2. What are the weather conditions in terms of heat, humidity, sun and wind?
  3. At what time of day will you be competing? This is critically important in regard to whether you are a right handed or left handed player.
  4. How are you feeling with respect to energy, fatigue, and of course, injuries?
  5. What are your true weapons?
  6. What are your most common weaknesses?
  7. What is your natural approach when competing? How do you normally like to play in competition?
  8. Have you played this opponent before?
  9. If you have played the opponent before, what are his/her strengths and weaknesses?
  10. What do you assess to be the opponent's game plan?
  11. If you never have played the opponent before, can you "scout" the opponent in some manner before your match?
  12. Given your best assessment of the opponent's natural approach to the game, how do you think your natural style of play matches against your opponent's?
  13. Given your best assessment, what are the overall physical capabilities of the opponent in terms of fitness, speed, and ability to generate power?
  14. Given your best assessment, what is the overall mental fortitude of the opponent? Is the opponent prone to anger? Is the opponent calm in the face of playing poorly? Is the opponent one who never throws in the towel?
  15. Are there court, spectator or other distractions that are likely to affect either you or your opponent?

So having read these questions, how many of you truly ask yourself these questions formally or informally before beginning a competitive match? My guess is that very few of you do. However, I assure you that the pros on both tours (and their coaches) have the answers to the above questions before every match. You can't really play aggressive tennis without this information.
Once you have a grasp of the answers to the above questions (at least as much as one can), you are in the position to determine if, how and when to play your aggressive style of tennis. Once again, it is important to realize that for the vast majority of us who play this fabulous game, there is more than one form of aggressive play. The temptation is to see how much more homogeneous the successful pros have become on both tours. Granted, there are some "deviants" who enjoy sporadic success. But, the commentators on TV are usually correct in assuming that there is a more consistently common form of aggressive tennis played by the touring pros. Probably, the biggest variable that differs among touring pros is whether or not they use a one or two handed backhand. The second most common difference may be whether a pro is truly comfortable and capable at net play. Powerful, groundstoke tennis is the norm among pros on both tours.
So, this leads us to the natural question: "How can I play my own particular form of aggressive tennis?" Well, the answer is one that will vary among most of my readers, and is probably discerned only through trial/error and accurate record keeping. This latter factor is critically important. How we think we play and how we truly play may be two different realities.
If you have a coach, your coach is either formally or informally "charting" your match play. Charting matches (a form of record keeping) is critical in discovering the "realities" of your game. I cannot stress enough how important this aspect of preparation is. In photographing pro matches, I have often times seen coaches taking notes and at times literally charting each shot of the match.
As I have indicated in previous articles, there are apps and programs that one can buy for the charting of matches. I don't endorse any particular app or program, but they are certainly convenient ways of gathering the needed data. If these are not in your budget, you can always copy and paste the chart form I created some years back. Simply highlight the chart listed in the following article, copy and paste it into your MS Word program, and you have a template for printing out. Here is the link to the column that contains the chart: Your Game Can Be "Off The Charts".
Once you have this information and have some answers to the aforementioned questions, you can craft a reasonable strategy and tactics that will be your form of aggressive tennis.
Let me give you a few examples.

  1. If you are one who plays and wins by overpowering the opponent with your groundstrokes (discerned from chart data), you probably need to adjust your style to be aggressive on a slow surface like clay. Why? Well, clay slows down every ball, including big serves. Points don't usually end as quickly. Your aggressive game on this surface may be best played by rallying and moving forward a tiny bit after each shot you hit. Eventually, you will find yourself in a position where you can hit a really sharp angled groundstroke that even the most fleet-footed player cannot track down. Your power is not a weapon on this surface, until you can hit a ball that your opponent cannot retrieve.

  2. If you are a serve/volley player and are on a fast surface, go for this style of play on almost every point. On hard courts that are usually medium paced, only try this on first serves. On slow surfaces, it is probably wiser to attempt the serve/volley on second serves when the opponent is not expecting it, if you can hit a good kick serve. This kick serve is necessary to permit you the time needed to get to the net.

  3. Let's say you are playing the classic pusher. Let's assume that you are a power-oriented, baseline player. No matter what surface you may be on, the pusher will take your power and use it against you. Here, aggressive play may be to mix up the pace of your shots to prevent the pusher from being able to take advantage of your power. Try to keep your game tactics as varied as is possible. Pushers are by their nature "thinkers." They are constantly analyzing what you don't like, which is frequently the "dink" ball placed ever so carefully. Pushers will almost always fair well, if not win, if their opponent is volatile. Anger is exactly what the pusher hopes to evoke within her/his opponent. Here, the aggressive style you need to play is one of patience and a form of play that takes any rhythm away from the pusher's ability to anticipate your shots. It may not seem aggressive play, but for the pusher it is her/his worst nightmare.

  4. Some players are rabbits. No matter what you hit, they run it down and get the ball back. What do many players attempt to do? They try to run the rabbit. They hope that they can hit winners and force the opponent to run until he/she is too fatigued to be effective. Guess what? This is not likely to happen. Rabbits can run all day!!! Here, the aggressive play is to hit more balls directly at your rabbit opponent... especially big first serves! Now, the rabbit is forced to rely upon the quality of his/her shots and not the speed with which he/she is blessed. Here again, simply take a little step forward after hitting each of your groundstrokes. Eventually, you will find yourself in a position to hit an angled winner that the rabbit cannot retrieve. In addition, don't be afraid to mix in some serve/volley. This is especially true if you have a good, hard, first serve that can "jam" your rabbit opponent. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched matches where the rabbit wins because he/she can run to get almost any ball. This makes his/her opponent try to hit bigger shots which leads to more errors. Ironically, the rabbit usually is able to hit his/her shots in such a manner that his/her opponent ends up running as much as the rabbit!!!

  5. Let's say you are playing an opponent for the first time, and know nothing about her/his game skills, etc. In essence, many of the questions that I listed earlier remain unanswered. How does one arrive at aggressive tennis in this situation? Well, always begin by playing what is your normal or most comfortable playing style. However as you play, try to get the answers to these questions as best as you can as quickly as you can. From the answers, you can amend your normal play to become aggressive in effective ways against this "new and unfamiliar" opponent. Needless to say, scouting in advance of matches can help minimize how many times you find yourself in this particular dilemma.

  6. As a last example, let's focus upon score and mental situations. Let's assume that you are dominating your opponent. The score is clearly in your favor, and you are feeling confident. Surprisingly, many players will assume that they will win and begin diminish their "attack" mentality. This is a situation where clearly you want to continue to attack, continue to dominate and continue to increase confidence. Take no prisoners!!! Don't just win the match, crush the opponent. Failure to take this approach (which is extremely aggressive in nature) will probably result in a match that goes far longer than it should, and sometimes, momentum may actually shift to the opponent. Assume that tennis is war!!!

  7. Conversely, let's assume that you are being thorough trounced by your opponent. You are down on yourself and you are almost certain to lose the match. Well, there are two "aggressive" steps that you can take to reverse the tide. First, change what you are doing!!! Hit with more or less pace. Hit longer then shorter shots (moving the opponent in and out). Lob till your opponent sobs! Change the spin on every subsequent shot... topspin, flat, slice... repeat pattern. The first aggressive step is to try to upset the opponent's momentum, and to try and discover what she/he finds frustrating. If the opponent is impatient and is prone to anger, your "probing" may help destroy the opponent's mental fortitude. The second aggressive step if the first step fails is to go for it all on every shot. Don't be at all timid or restrained. Try for the normally impossible shot and/or try to win points quickly. Maybe hit every ball as hard as you can. Yes, this second tactic is very risky... but you are already losing. Why not enjoy the thrill of going for it all? You may find that you can change tenor of the match. You certainly will enjoy going out with a loss more if you hit out than if you tank the match. Tanking is ultimately a very harmful decision. It makes the match less of a match, but more importantly, it weakens you mentally. You can actually enjoy a losing match (apart from the loss) by going for shots like you are a touring pro. I personally have been in this situation more than I would care to admit. But, I can also say that hitting out as if I were Andre Agassi never caused me to lose when I was being dominated by my opponent. On some days, there are opponents whom you are just not going to beat. But if one must go out with a loss, it can be a better overall experience when you end as strong as is possible. On more than one occasion, I discovered something about my stroke production when hitting full out that became useful in the future.

Aggressive tennis is where every serious player of this great game needs to direct her/his efforts. Remember my definition of aggressive tennis: any form of play that allows a player to control a point, game or set while minimizing the ability of the opponent to win the point, game or set.
As you progress as a player (even as a senior player), you can increasingly come closer to the more homogenized aggressive play of the touring pros. Increasingly, you can become the complete, powerful, agile and confident player that you idolize when seeing her/him play on TV.
Aggressive tennis is completely in sync with the nature of competition. The goal, after all, is to win! Aggressive tennis requires hard work, never ending efforts at improving fitness, stokes, strategies, court movement, etc., and an attitude that simply put is: I don't just want to win; I want to dominate my opponent.
This is not an easy road to travel. It is full of ups and downs, and it certainly is risky. But if you can fully commit to developing your own, unique form of aggressive tennis; I assure you that you will be well on your way to 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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