Here we are in May. By now, I am hoping many, if not most, of you are able to begin outdoor tennis practice and competition. I realize that south of the equator things are beginning to get colder. I am fortunate enough to have readers from all over the world.
However, I tend to focus on my small part of the planet which is north of the equator.
Being an avid reader, you will not find it surprising that I have collected many tennis books. Some of these go back to the days of Bill Tilden, while others are much more contemporary. I spend quite a bit of time reviewing all my literature. After a recent review of some older texts and instruction books, I realized that there are some common elements that transcend the traditional and modern forms of our wonderful game. These "universals" are principles that every player, regardless of playing level, must know and respect.
I grant you that in reality there is always a good reason to break any "rule" or guideline associated with tennis. Indeed, each of us has our own unique style of stroke production, court movement, and strategic approach. In my mind, one of the things that makes tennis so appealing is that there literally is no single right way to do anything. Consequently, there are always new ways to play and improve one's overall game.
This said, I must confess that there are some "golden rules" which more often than not should be honored. What amazes me is that these same principles were written in the 1930's and are put forth in modern, instructional, tennis books. I like to refer to these as common denominators in the game.
In that many of you may be gearing up for the summer months of competition (recreational, league, interclub or tournaments), it is important to keep these common denominators in mind as you progress through the season.
Recently, I watched one of my good friend's son compete in a USTA tournament. The young man was ranked high and in his first round drew an opponent about which he had no knowledge. Literally, his opponent was new to the area. As always, this young man approached his match by attempting to play "his game" which built upon a big first serve and a powerful forehand. The rest of his stroke arsenal is quite well developed, but the serve and the forehand are the foundation of his game.
Watching the match unfold, I could see my friend's son become unglued after the first set. He won this first set in a tiebreaker, but the tiebreaker was extremely long in duration. Clearly, the set could have gone either way.
Ultimately, my friend's son lost his match to this "new kid." While charting his match and watching his form, I realized why this young man lost the match in three sets. Yes, part of the problem was his attitude and mental fortitude as the match progressed. But more important, this young man began to deviate from the aforementioned common denominators. In short, the real problem was that my friend's son did not stick to the time proven principles of the game.
Well this month, I want to review for the reader what I believe to be universal principles or common denominators which should guide every player's approach to competing. No doubt, there are exceptions to these. However, the overall percentages suggest that adhering to these basics will yield the most positive results possible.
Never Change a Winning Game
This would seem to be the most common sense principle and one would expect that most players would not need to be reminded about how important this principle is. Usually, players do not change a winning game. However when the player is experiencing success and is winning handily, the temptation to change tactics is often times too great to resist.
The player winning feels confident. In her/his mind, the match is really over (a thought that almost always leads to certain death on the court). So, the winning player decides to use the match as a means of adding variety to her/his overall game. She/he will begin to hit shots that normally would be avoided. I have seen players who are winning who will deliberately attempt to win points off of their weaker wings when they are significantly ahead of their opponents. In fact, I have seen players who will attempt shots that they never make because they believe they are secure in the score!
If you are playing a competitive match, you want to win as quickly and decisively as you can. There is no reason to change what is a winning game. Simply stick with what is working until it no longer may be working. (Sometimes, winning games become less effective as your opponent becomes familiar with your strokes and tactics.)
Always Change a Losing Game
This is the aforementioned principle in reverse. The real question here is, "When is a losing game truly a losing game?" After all, sometimes momentum changes and what wasn't working before is beginning to win points. Sometimes being patient with your game style and game plan is all that is needed.
Well, my firm index for changing a losing game is simple. If you have lost a set and are down a break, you need to change your game! I will grant the reader that it may be necessary to change a losing game before the score becomes this critical. Generally speaking if you think a game plan or approach is not going to win you the match, you are probably wise to try a different approach even if the score is relatively close.
Whatever we believe or feel when competing becomes a reality. This game involves many mental factors. Perception is reality in tennis.
So, what should you change if you need to change your game? This is definitely a difficult question to answer and the answer(s) vary from player to player. You may change the pace of your shots, the spin of your shots or even the overall approach from an attacking style to a counterpunching style. The only way you will know what to change when you need to try a different approach is through trial and error... and by keeping a tennis journal of what does or does not work.
I encourage each player to keep a tennis journal. Record you insights from practice sessions. Jot down the "cues" that allow you to reclaim shots that seem to have abandoned you. Keep a profile of each opponent you face... what are his/her strengths and weaknesses... what works and does not work with each individual player.
The only way to truly know your game is to keep records. This is why charting matches is so important. Knowing your opponents' games is equally necessary. I assure you that on either pro tour, the coaches for the players keep detailed records on opponents.
Slow Down a Losing Game and Speed Up a Winning Game
Overall match pace is a facet of the game that players rarely consider. We rarely evaluate whether we are playing points quickly or taking our time in between points and games.
More often than not, players will rush a losing game. Less frequently, a winning player will slow things down in terms of match pace.
It is almost a psychological given that a player will rush things if she/he is losing. It is similar to people when people are nervous and reading a speech. They read at a very rapid rate in the hope of "ending the trauma." When a player is losing, the natural inclination is to move quickly to reclaim your game. The player doesn't take as much time in between points, and doesn't really use changeovers as a means to rest and regroup. Nerves can create a sense of doubt and maybe even panic.
A seasoned player will have a firm set of rituals which he/she will use in every match. When serving, these rituals are absolutely essential. When receiving serve, however, rituals are equally important. If you look at the top pros on either tour, they have a set of rituals for the returns. Rituals help "anchor" players and keep them playing at a relatively consistent pace.
Where pace can be affected without awareness is during the playing of points. Sometimes, we are attempting to win points too quickly. We go for the winning shot a bit too early. We lose patience and do not wait for the right opportunities to attack.
Generally, players who are winning keep up their pace. However if a player is not in good shape, she/he may find that in the latter stages of a set or match the overall playing pace slows down a bit. Sometimes, winning players become a bit complacent and take their competitive level down a notch. Frequently, this will slow down the match pace.
From a mental perspective speeding up (or at least maintaining) the match pace associated with a winning game keeps the pressure on the opponent. Slowing down the match pace when losing can frequently calm a player's nerves and unsettle the "flow" that the opponent is enjoying.
Keep Your Shots Deep in the Opponent's Court
Watch a match, or better yet, video record one of your matches. Count the number of shots that bounce on or in front of the service line (closer to the net). Even with pros, the number of "short" balls hit will surprise you. With recreational players and intermediates, the number will astound you!
Ideally, every ball you hit other than a serve, a drop shot or sharply angled winner will land somewhere between the service line and the baseline. This is the heart and soul of groundstroke based tennis.
There are two ways to get the ball to land deep. First, you can hit the ball with lots of pace and have it travel low over the net. Second, you can give your ball some "air" and take pace off of the ball. In this latter case, you hit the ball higher over the net. Guess what?
The pros will hit plenty of balls lower to the net with incredible pace. This is why they are pros! Clearly, this is a riskier way to keep the ball deep. But on the pro level, the skills are so well honed that it is not as risky. At times, the pace of these groundstrokes will elicit an error from the opponent... particularly if he/she has to run to make the reply.
For us mere mortals, hitting a ball a bit higher over the net and with less pace is the more reliable method. In addition to increasing the likelihood that you will control the ball deep without hitting the net, this approach requires the expenditure of less energy. If you are feeling fatigued, this is definitely the approach you want to adopt. Granted, you probably will not hit as many winning groundstrokes with this higher ball, but you will hit fewer errant shots.
By keeping your opponent deep in her/his court, you prevent the opponent from having the capability of hitting severely angled shots. The closer the opponent is to the net, the greater range of angles she/he has.
Pushers and counterpunchers know the value of the high, deep groundstroke. I have seen many "big bangers" lose matches when they face these types of opponents. Remember, there are no "style points" in tennis!!!
Never Change the Direction of a Hard Hit Ball
This is probably one of the most frequently ignored principles among the common denominators.
Too often, I see players who will take a crosscourt shot and attempt to hit their reply down the line when the cross court shot has lots of pace. Changing the direction of the ball is difficult enough. When the ball has lots of pace behind it, the process is even more difficult.
When I coach, I have two simple rules. Don't change the direction of a cross court ball unless it is within your power range AND only if it forces your opponent to run.
The second rule is, don't be afraid to change the direction of the ball when it is coming at you down the line. The geometry associated with hitting a shot that was sent to you down the line is such that the crosscourt change of direction automatically will put your opponent on the run. Running shots are usually more difficult than shots that do not require movement.
As a caveat to this rule, I will state that slower surfaces like clay do allow for more changing of ball direction. Why? Well, the slow court surface takes pace off of shots. Thus, you are more likely to be able to control the change of direction.
Hit Your Groundstrokes Cross Court
Obviously, a player cannot hit all his/her shots crosscourt during a match. Sooner or later, you will either hit down the center or down the line.
Still, the percentage shot is crosscourt. The margin for error is much greater for crosscourt shots than for down the line shots.
In a typical match, about 75 to 80 percent of all groundstrokes should be hit crosscourt. For recreational and intermediate players, this rule is critically important. Granted, the pros may not always stick within these parameters, but then again, they are the pros!
Hit Away from Weapons and to Weaknesses
Every player has shots which are weapons and shots that are weaker. It seems obvious that if one hits to the opponent's weaker wing the likelihood of winning the point increases. If this is possible during a match, by all means do so.
Frequently, a player knows how to guard his/her weaker wing. Trying to always hit to the weaker side will result in having to change the direction of the ball more often. If these changes of direction are viable, by all means go for it.
Perhaps more important is hitting away from the opponent's weapons. In the match that I described at the beginning of this month's column, my friend's son is blessed with a huge forehand groundstroke. He hits it with lots of pace and can control its direction. In part, his opponent beat him because the opponent found ways of hitting shots to his backhand side. When the opponent did hit to this young man's forehand, the opponent hit the ball high, deep and with little pace. In essence, this forced my friend's son to generate the entire forehand pace himself. Needless to say, this at times made what would normally be a winner into an errant shot.
Here again, knowing your opponent's strengths and weaknesses through either scouting and/or keeping a tennis journal help enable you to hit to the weakness and avoid the weapon more frequently.
Break the Rhythm of a Winning Opponent
Let's face it. Sometimes we face an opponent who is either really "on" and/or is a superior player. It is easy to get discouraged when playing such opponents, and at times, I have seen players simply give up and tank the match.
In these situations, I believe your best option is to attempt to break the rhythm or "flow" of the opponent. In essence, you want to disrupt your opponent's comfort.
The best way to do this is to simply never let the opponent see the same shot twice in a row.
I realize that this is far easier said than done. So, how does one break the opponent's rhythm?
Vary the pace of your shots. Change the spin on each shot. Move the ball around the court... left and right... and in and out. Hit some balls very high with topspin (the moonball). The more "junk" you can hit the better. In many ways this is part of what the traditional "pusher" attempts to do. I rarely have heard anyone say that she/he enjoys playing a "pusher."
The goal of this tactic is simple. If the opponent is forced to hitting many different types of balls, the likelihood of an error... or even the likelihood of frustrating the opponent... increases significantly. Once a player is taken out of her/his comfort zone, anything can happen.
Freeze the Rabbit and Run the "Slug"
Some players have great court movement and can run to put a racquet on virtually any ball hit on the court. Frequently, these players have great stamina. I call these players "rabbits." They are fast and can run all day. Indeed, they are at their best when hitting on the run.
With this type of player, I hit at least 50% of my shots directly at him or her. Granted, the opponent will hit a reply, but usually the reply is not as difficult as what they present you with when they are on the run. Rabbits want to run. By directing your shots at them, you are in effect frustrating them and taking them out of their comfort zone.
It is not as common, but on occasion you will face the slow moving, easily tired opponent. Usually, "pushers" present themselves in this way. However, they frequently are a bit more mobile than they pretend. When I am playing an opponent who is either fatigued and/or not fleet of foot, I will hit corner to corner and make him run. If he is a pusher, he will make my task more difficult by hitting balls to me that have little pace and are likely struck with slice. Many pushers will even lob these backspin "floaters" to allow themselves time to get back to center court in addition to providing no pace.
Most slow moving players are competing because they know how to avoid being put in the position of having to run. However, the wise and patient player will forget about pace and worry about placement. Putting each ball in alternating corners will force the opponent to move! Sooner or later, this forced movement will take its toll, and when it does, you will be able to play "your" game with greater effectiveness.
The temptation for "big bangers" is to rush the process. They will try to hit to each corner with lots of pace on their groundstrokes. They will go for early winners in the point. These are exactly what the "slug" and/or pusher wants. They know that once the "big banger" starts making errors, she/he will probably get angry and are more likely to self destruct.
Next time you are at a public library, seek out what tennis instruction books they own. Take a peek at their contents. Year after year, decade after decade, whether traditional or modern game oriented, it is highly likely that these common denominators are put forth as guidelines. Indeed, Bill Tilden in his writings recommends most of the above despite the fact that he was playing on grass, with wooden racquets, wearing long pants and using a single grip for virtually all of his shots (the continental grip).
This tennis season review these common denominators and let them serve as guideposts for how you practice and compete in this wonderful game of ours.
I assure you that if you do, you will soon become a