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Other Directed Tennis
Ron Waite, USPTR
One of the wonderful things about this great game of ours is that you don't need perfect strokes to play well. I look at folks in their 80's playing doubles. Yes, they are stiff. Yes, they have strokes that have become more chops and pokes. Yes, they are not going win any style points. Fortunately, this game isn't based on style points. Rather, it is first and foremost a game of placement, spin, power and mental fortitude. One needs to be able to move, but as we age, it is not surprising that doubles becomes the preferred form of our game.
As I age, more and more of my body parts break down. I look at my strokes on video these days, and it is difficult for me not to become depressed. After a torn rotator cuff, back difficulties, a knee that should probably be replaced and other health issues; I am unable to have the fluid and properly executed strokes that I once possessed. I cannot really compete in the same manner as I once could. My physical limitations are definitely increasing each year!
However, the other day, I played a pro set against a very good, collegiate player and surprisingly eked out a win! My movement was compromised to be sure. My stroke production was awful in terms of form. I am not "match tough." So, I asked myself the question: "How was I able to pull off this unlikely set victory?" (The truth be known, it was a very weak victory 8-6.) The answer?
I put my mind into an "other directed" frame!
Now, most coaches will tell their players "Play your game." This is really well founded advice, and I don't mean to negate its importance. If you are a skilled player, prefer to play a particular style of tennis, and are not limited by injury; you probably should begin approaching every match by playing your own game.
But, there are times when one needs to realize that a preferred game plan/style is not going to cut it. It could be that the opponent is particularly able to take advantage of your playing style. It could be that you have not sufficiently been able to practice and prepare for the match. It is possible that injuries inhibit your ability to play your normal style. It is in these situations that playing an other directed approach may be the best course of action.
Some years back, I identified what I believed three distinct type of players. "Type A" players are those players blessed with weapons and usually attempting to play a power-oriented match. These players don't really think too much. Rather, they simply hit the cover off the ball, and when they are on their game, they are formidable. Most junior, collegiate and intermediate players are "Type A."
"Type B" players are generally very cerebral or "heady" competitors. They may or may not possess great weapons. Pushers are always "Type B" players, but they are not the only variety. Anytime a player is "thinking" about ways of frustrating an opponent and/or helping her/him lose, a "Type B" approach is in effect.
The ideal for all players is to become a "Type C" players. Here the player is both capable as a "Type A" player, but knows when to switch to "Type B" strategies and tactics.
The career of Andre Agassi is a great example of a player who started out as a very talented "Type A" player. Nick Bollettieri's coaching of Andre as a youth developed a very aggressive style of play. Andre would simply go out on the court, and play his best tennis... which was often times sufficient. Andre would hit the cover off the ball on virtually every stroke and was one of the best players ever when it came to returning serve. In addition, Andre had a huge forehand. He was blessed with some significant weapons.
Unfortunately, Andre's game became a bit predictable for his opponents. At one point, Andre's ranking fell into over 100 in the world! There were a variety of reasons for this decline.
Andre took on Brad Gilbert, author of Winning Ugly, as his coach. He took a step backwards and began to compete in Challenger level events instead of Grand Prix events. During this period, Brad taught Andre a variety of tactics and strategies. By honing these on the Challenger tour, Andre's "real" opponents were not aware of these changes. Given Andre's extraordinary talent and competitive nature, he was a quick study. But little by little, Andre began to attempt to "weaken" opponents' games rather than simply dominate opponents with his own preferred approach. Brad taught Andre how to be a "Type B" player.
After this transition and learning period, Andre became a true "Type C" competitor. His impressive record of Grand Slam victories subsequent to Brad's coaching gives strong support to the value of adding "Type B" thinking to a "Type A" player's arsenal.
For those of you who are interested in reading my initial column on player types, here is the link: Type "A" or Type "B" Player?.
My aforementioned victory was truly a miracle, and if I had to replay the set, the outcome would likely be very different.
In dealing with my health and physical limitations, I have had to change much in my stroke production. I have had to move closer to baseline in rallies and switch to a full, western, forehand grip. (My normal grip is a semi-western and I like to stand about 2 feet behind the baseline when rallying.) By moving closer to the net in rallies, I reduce the amount of running I must do. The full, western grip allows me to take the ball on the rise which increases my topspin and requires me to hit with less "muscle."
Normally, my backhand is two handed. The problem with this for me is that it requires more running on my part. I still use this as my primary backhand, but I hit lots more one-handed slice on this wing than would have been the case in the past. Indeed, I can stretch to get wide shots with this slice and save myself a full step in running.
Volleys have never been my strongest stroke. However in the above match, I took the net much more frequently than I normally would. My goal was to hit short, angled volleys that forced my opponent to run. Really, my volleys were more blocks than true strokes.
I have no real ability to move back well for hitting the overhead smash, but fortunately, my younger opponent always tried to pass me when I was at the net.
The first step in being other directed is being honest about one's own limitations. Believe me. I have many limitation these days!!!
The second part of playing other directed tennis is to realize what are your opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
The basic premise of other directed tennis is to hit shots to your opponent that exploit his/her weaknesses and that minimize the number of shots that the opponent hits that exploit your weaknesses.
Other directed tennis requires careful observation, patience and the willingness to hit any shot in any manner. In truth, other directed tennis requires that a player be willing to forsake what may be comfortable in favor of that which is effective.
If you are familiar with your opponent, make some written notes about your impressions of what she/he prefers and does not prefer. Basic questions that need to be answered are:
- What is the opponent's better wing... forehand or backhand?
- How hard does the opponent like to hit his/her groundstrokes?
- Does the opponent possess a powerful first serve?
- How would you describe the opponent's second serve?
- Does the opponent move well from side to side (coast to coast)?
- Does the opponent move well forward to the net?
- Does the opponent like to hit balls that come at him/her with lots of pace?
- In an "emergency" situation, does the opponent play it safe and keep the ball in play, or does she/he seek to end the point by hitting a winner?
- Is there a particular spin that the opponent dislikes? (e.g. biting slice)
- Does the opponent avoid net play?
- How often does the opponent attempt to hit down the line? Is the opponent more likely to hit down the line on the forehand or backhand wing?
- How forgiving of himself/herself is the opponent when he/she makes a major error and/or misses a sitter?
These are just the basic questions that one needs to answer before a match begins. However sometimes, one faces a new opponent and has no past experience upon which to rely. In these cases, the answers to the above questions must emerge as the match unfolds. Still, the warm up can reveal much. In an article that I wrote some time back, I address the importance of winning the warm up. The reader can access this article at: How to Win the Warm-up.
So, the obvious question is "How do I play 'Type B' Tennis?" Here are some of the most commonly effective tactics used when you are attempting to frustrate your opponent and help her/him lose.
- Hit at least 70% of your strokes to the opponent's weaker wing. Now, some opponents have a pretty good, weaker wing! Still, your odds are better hitting to this side. In addition, you are letting the opponent know that you know which side is the weaker wing! This can unnerve many big banger players who want to simply dominate the match.
- Run the turtle and freeze the rabbit. If your opponent has great movement side to side, it makes no sense to force him/her to run. This will just result in you having to run more! Better to hit at the "rabbit." As I stated in last month's column, this is one of the common denominators in the game.
The player without movement or who is not in great shape should be made to run. Unfortunately, the reality is that there aren't that many competitive players who cannot move.
- Hit high balls that land deep, but do not have pace! Mix in some hard hit slice shots whenever viable. Generally, the player who wants pace is easily frustrated by having to generate her/his own pace. Powerfully hit slice will frequently elicit a weaker response from the opponent if not an errant shot. Pushers instinctively utilize these shots... frequently with excellent results.
- Powerful players are impatient. They want to win every point quickly. The longer you can make the point, the more likely it is that this type of opponent will become frustrated and make an error. Pancho Seguro was a master of using this technique. He would rally using what he called the "center theory." Every ball would be hit to the center of the opponent's court, but would always land deep. Yes, there will be times when the opponent will hit an outright winner by angling a reply. But, this is not as easy as it seems. Sooner or later, the opponent becomes impatient and believes that every groundstroke can become a winner. The idea is to make points as long as is possible... without having to run to retrieve your opponent's replies.
- Allied with the center theory is serving the first serve directly at the opponent with as much pace as you can comfortably control. Eventually, the opponent will adjust his/her position to prevent "jamming" serves. Once this occurs, just hit to the side of the opponent where there is the most space.
- Bring the opponent to the net whenever possible. It is amazing that many skilled players can't defend the net well. Don't always try to pass your opponent. Instead, hit the topspin lob and immediately move forward to take the net yourself. It is amazing how many younger players are ill prepared to hit overheads or to run back effectively to hit a reply to the topspin lob.
- When you have your opponent running to his/her forehand side to hit your shot, leave the down the line option open. This is an extremely low percentage shot, especially when hit on the run.
- If possible, never let the opponent see the same ball twice. Vary your spins and pace to avoid allowing the opponent to get into a "groove."
- Once you believe an opponent is anticipating where you are directing your shots, hit a shot that lands behind the opponent. Nothing frustrates the self impressed player more than having a winner hit behind him/her.
- Every time your opponent makes an errant shot, ask yourself why did this occur? Players generally make errors in predictably consistent ways.
- Try to learn your opponent's patterns of play. When you are other directed, you would be surprised how easy it is to anticipate where your opponent is likely to hit her/his shot given the court position, the amount of movement to get to the ball required, the spin and pace of your shot, and whether the opponent's shot was struck with a backhand or forehand.
This aforementioned collegiate player is very used to power and actually thrives on opponents hitting big groundstrokes. He has a huge first serve, but frequently faults by trying to hit it with too much power.
I employed the "center theory" with my serves and my groundstrokes. These seemed to frustrate him and capitalize upon his impatience.
I noticed that every time he was running hard to his forehand side, he would attempt a down the line winner. Unfortunately for him, he only made about 2 out of 10 of these shots. I did my best to setup this scenario on critical points like 40-30 and 30-40.
Once I realized that he was a bit frustrated, I began to bring him to the net. He did win some of these points but frequently he would either miss the volley or leave me with a sitter.
By crowding my baseline and hitting with a full western grip, I was able to unsettle his timing and movement. Balls were coming back at him more quickly than to which he was accustomed. I kept the center theory approach until he began to be able to take my groundstrokes and hit winners with consistency.
At this point, I began to roll my forehand at a severe angle and without pace. As soon as I hit this shot, I moved forward to the net and to my left. He would scramble to the ball, and would almost always make a shot that cleared the net. However, he never lobbed me and his replies were always weak and high. I simply blocked a high volley to the open court to win the point.
On the backhand wing, I avoided the center theory approach by hitting every backhand with as much biting slice as I could to the ad court. Although this was his weaker wing, he usually was able to hit a reply that was more difficult to handle. My guess is that we split even with respect to the number of points each of us won in this situation.
Very rarely is a player so unaware that he/she doesn't adjust to what is coming his/her way. This collegiate player began to realize that the way to beat me was to run me as much as possible. He began to take pace off of his groundstrokes and started to put emphasis on placement. Given my bad right knee, I can honestly say that this tactic was effective. Unfortunately for him, he realized this a bit too late.
In this match, the better player lost!!! My tennis friends were surprised to see me playing any competitive tennis. I am in good shape, but my physical limitation and "refashioned" groundstrokes make me a very vulnerable opponent. In first game of the match, I must confess that I was quite nervous and had so many self-doubts.
But, one of the great advantages of focusing upon other directed tennis is that it forces you to forget your weaknesses and focus upon your opponent's. I approached the match as a "puzzle" of sorts. In essence, I asked myself what could I do that would create problems for him? I spent time in between points and during game changeovers figuring out how I would try to solve the puzzle. This attitude took pressure off of me. Win or lose, I was having fun discovering what I could do to frustrate my opponent.
If you have worked hard on developing a game strategy and tactics, you should never deviate from these unless there is a clear and good reason to do so.
For me, there were many clear and good reasons not to play my normal game. Age has taken its toll on my joints, speed and flexibility. Injuries and health issues present challenges that I didn't experience in my 40's. Not being able to play competitive tennis has resulted in my adopting "teaching pro" strokes. Feeding balls to students clearly can ruin strokes. I know that my groundstrokes and volleys lack perfect form to say the least. I had good reasons not to play my preferred, groundstroke oriented game. I also had many good "excuses" to explain any loss that I suffered.
But in the end, adopting a "Type B" player attitude and style of play enabled me to squeak out a victory. A victory is a victory... regardless of the score. Fortunately, there were no judges measuring the beauty of my stroke production. Thankfully for me, there are no style points.
I am hoping that this article will inspire those who for whatever reason(s) cannot play a "Type A" style of play. In addition, it is my hope that when a "Type A" player is experiencing an "off day" or a significantly superior opponent that she/he will consider the "Type B" option.
I remember watching Brad Gilbert when he played on the ATP tour. Meaning no malice, he did play and win ugly! I strongly recommend reading his book, if you have not yet done so.
In the end, the goal is always to become a "Type C" player. However to realize this goal, sooner or later, you will need to come to terms with the "Type B" playing style.
If you do spend some time experimenting with playing this "Type B" style, I assure you that in those seemingly impossible situations, you can become a
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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.