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What I Learned About Playing Lefties At The New Haven Open

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

As some of my readers may know, I do lots of sports imagery to augment my income. As a point of clarification, my full-time job is that of a professor teaching at a private college. I often say that I have to work to support my teaching habit.
New Haven, where I live, sponsors a WTA Emirates U.S. Open Series event: The New Haven Open. This year while shooting for the Swiss News Agency, EQ, I noticed that there were quite a few lefties in both the qualifier and main draws.
The average among humans is about 14 to 16 percent of all people are left handed. I am not sure if this year's New Haven Open had a larger percentage, but I did take notice of the number of lefties and what seems to work when competing against them.
Now, each player is unique. There are no true generalizations about right handed or left handed players. But, there are some things that are strategically and tactically important to realize about competing against lefties. Many of my readers have written to me asking advice about playing lefties. Ironically, some of these have been players who are left handed themselves. Apparently, lefties hate playing lefties too.
So, this month's column will give you some of my insights regarding competing against left hand players in a concise and hopefully useful manner. I have deliberately tried to use bullet points and bold type to assist the reader in refreshing her/his memory when facing left handed opponents.
Before I begin, I must tell you that it does take some time to fully be acclimated to playing lefties. When on the tour, Ivan Lendl practiced with left hand player, Lou Gloria, at his nearby Greenwich, Connecticut, residence. Lendl even had Tony Roche, the famous left handed Australian legend, as his coach. Why? Well simply put, Ivan realized that his most common and threatening opponent in semi-finals and finals would be the left hander, John McEnroe. Even the pros realize that lefties require a diligent approach to training, if you want to beat them regularly.
As is the case with baseball pitching, lefties have an edge in tennis! But, lefty pitchers do lose games, and batters do find ways to adjust to the various spins lefties can impart to the ball.
The same is true with tennis. Righties and lefties can beat lefties.
Know When You Are Playing a Lefty
This seems so obvious. But in reality, many players compete against lefties and do not realize that the opponent is left handed until a good portion of a set has been played! Sometimes, we have played an opponent before and know that she/he is left handed. Other times, we are playing a "new and unknown" opponent. This latter situation is when players may not realize that they are facing a lefty.
In every warm-up for every match, make certain you know from the beginning whether the opponent is right or left handed!!! Make this the first question you answer about your opponent.
Spin is the Lefty's Major Advantage
Unless a lefty is hitting everything flat, spin is going to be the opposite of what we normally encounter in tennis matches.
The lefty's serve is the most potent area for taking advantage of spin. In baseball, pitchers can throw what is known as a breaking ball. In these pitches, the ball curves to the left (if thrown by a right handed pitcher) or curves to the right (if thrown by a left handed pitcher). Sometimes, the sideways path of the ball is gradual. At other times, the spin kicks in "late" and the ball seems to be coming in straight, and then, changes direction at the last moment.
Lefties can impart sidespin to their serves. If they do (really a slice serve), the ball travels to the right as it passes over the net. Once the ball bounces, however, the spin causes the ball to break slightly to the left.
The opposite scenario occurs every time a right handed player uses the side spinned, slice serve. However, we see so many right handed players in this wonderful game of ours that we have "software" built into our muscle memory that adjusts for the curve and the subsequent bounce.
Lefties love to serve the slice serve wide to the ad court. This serve forces the opponent to be pulled out wide when returning the serve. The slight reverse motion that occurs after the ball has bounced frequently will force the receiver to "over react" to the serve. In reality, the ball comes back into the direction of the court slightly after the bounce. The combination of the in flight curve and the reverse motion after the bounce makes lefty serves very difficult to return.
Don't get me wrong. The right handed player who hits the wide, side spinned, slice serve to the deuce court is presenting an equally difficult return of serve. However, we see more of these because there are more right handed players. Thus, it takes less time to adjust to these than is the case with the lefty equivalent on the ad side.
The lefty kick serve is most dangerous when in addition to top spin; there is some added side spin. Now, the returner must hit a high bouncing ball that spins a bit "abnormally."
So, what should one do to minimize these lefty serving threats?
The first thing upon which to concentrate is "seeing the ball come off the opponent's strings" as he/she serves. When I return serve, I literally focus my attention on the likely area where the racquet will make contact with the ball during the serve. I do this for lefty or righty servers. But, I make a conscious effort to really focus on this contact point when I am receiving serves from a lefty. The "wind up" or "motion" before the actual contact is made is often times distracting and misleading. Some teaching pros advise watching the ball from the hand that is tossing all the way through the contact. I do not recommend this. Why? It is easy to get caught up in the motion and distracted from paying close attention to the moment that is most important... the moment of contact.
If you pay close attention to the moment of impact, you are "seeing" the serve early. The earlier you can see the serve, the more likely it is that your body will move in the manner necessary to hit a good return.
One must remember that this whole serve and return process occurs in really fractions of a second. There is no time to analyze. One needs to react quickly and authoritatively. Focusing upon the serve contact point is the best way I know to help your "non conscious mind" and body to work effectively in these instantaneous situations.
An added advantage to this "contact point" focus, when returning serve, is that you may be able to detect slight differences in the toss and contact point. Most people do not toss the ball to the same identical spot when serving a big flat serve, a slice serve or a kick serve. The only player that I know who truly could hit all his serves from the same exact contact point was Pete Sampras. "Reading" his serve was difficult to say the least!
If you do notice differences in the height of the toss, the location of the toss, etc., you can begin to program your "non conscious" mind to read the serve at the moment of contact. Notice that I suggest that your "non-conscious" mind can be programmed. The conscious mind is too slow to make the determination and required reaction. Simply pay attention to the contact point, and sooner or later, your "non conscious" mind will get locked into the "meaning" of each toss. Remember, it is our "non-conscious" mind that controls our muscle memory and execution... not our conscious mind.
We drive cars all the time using our conscious mind to "observe" and our non conscious mind to execute. Think of how many times you may have driven from point A to point B while singing along to music, thinking about non-driving related matters or even having a conversation with a passenger.
My point is simple. Let the conscious mind observe. Let the non conscious mind learn and execute.
On a more conscious level, you may want to change the location of where you stand to return serve when facing a lefty.
Most teaching pros and instructional texts suggest that the receiver take a step to the left to compensate for the lefty spin. If this works for you fine. More often than not, the process is one of trial and error. Moving closer to the baseline may be the answer in that the ball has less time for its spin to "evolve" into trajectory. Maybe on the ad court you take a step to the left while on the deuce, you keep your normal position. Sometimes, moving back from the baseline gives you a little more time to react to the spin. There are no hard and fast rules about positioning when it comes to the lefty serve. However, experimenting with different positions can often times provide a solution. Don't be surprised if you need to be flexible and use different positions for different lefty players.
One of the things that I believe many players neglect to vary when competing against any opponent (lefty of righty) is varying the position she/he adopts when returning serve.
Even the pros will frequently take a step forward when returning the second serve as opposed to a first serve. The only way to learn where to stand is through a trial and error process followed by writing down the "discoveries" you realize after the match has ended. Keeping written records of your "discoveries" is a very wise practice.
Spin with respect to groundstrokes becomes most important when the lefty has a good, one handed, backhand slice. Why? Well, the backhand slice can often times be hit with a good amount of side spin. Side spin is less likely to be significant when a lefty hits a forehand or a two handed backhand. Even the one handed, topspin, backhand drive is not likely to have much side spin.
Whenever you see a lefty hitting a one handed, sliced backhand, pay very close attention to the ball as it bounces and its path after the bounce. You may have some difficulty with your replies to these shots at first. But again, paying close attention to the ball as it bounces and its path after the bounce will help your "non conscious" mind to make the subtle adjustments necessary to hit with consistency and control.
Whenever I have played a lefty, I make it a point to try and see the label on the ball as it comes toward me. This enables me to truly concentrate on "seeing" the ball better. With lefties, your vision needs to be sharp.
As a general rule, it isn't percentage tennis to try and change the direction of a hard hit ball, a ball with lots of slice or a ball that forces you to be on the hard run. This "rule" is even truer when playing lefties.
When playing a lefty, I generally advise that a player avoid changing the direction of any shot, until he/she has become acclimated to the lefty's spin.
Tennis is really a game of minimizing errors... not maximizing winners. Almost without fail on any level, the player who wins is the one who makes the fewest errors. Changing the direction of any ball is a bit risky. If it comes to you cross court and you hit it down the line, you are changing the direction of the ball. If your reply sends it back cross court, you are playing a less risky shot. With lefties, the risks involved are amplified. A more cautious approach is needed... at least until one gets used to the lefty's spin.
When serving to lefties, return the favors!!! By this, I mean that a right handed player can serve a nice, side spinned, slice serve wide to the lefty's backhand wing when serving to the deuce court. This is one good reason to work on practicing this serve. It can pay dividends with right handed players who use a full western, forehand grip... but it is a clear "payback" when competing against lefties.
Don't be surprised when returning a lefty's wide serve on the ad side, if you almost always hit down the line. Try to hit cross court. But, it is highly likely that you will not be able to achieve the cross court return initially. As you become acclimated to the lefty's spin serve, the ability to control the location of your returns will improve.
In watching matches with right handed players who are not familiar with playing lefties, I have noticed that the left handed opponent expects the return to be down the line or in the center of the court when she/he serves to the ad side. Be prepared to recover quickly from being drawn out wide on the ad side. Why? Well, the lefty often times hits a cross court reply that sends the right handed returner running hard to the deuce side of the court. However, you need to be balanced in this response. If you immediately are running hard to the deuce side after every return from the ad court, the lefty will simply hit the ball behind you as you run.
The above leads me to impart a very important piece of advice when playing lefties. Be patient and forgiving with yourself!!!
Lefties are sinister (look up the original meaning of the word, sinister). Early on in a match, they are trying to get into your mind. They want you to feel doubt, fear and frustration. No matter what the score in the first set, realize that time is on your side when it comes to familiarizing yourself with the lefty spin.
Forehand or Backhand... Which is the Lefty's Weaker Wing?
I have heard and read many times that lefties have stronger backhands because so many balls are hit from the right handed player's forehand to the lefty's backhand (the cross court match up). Guess what? Skilled lefties are like every other skilled player. Either side can be the weaker wing!!!
Warm ups can be helpful when sizing up a new or unfamiliar opponent. Generally if you hit groundstrokes directly at your opponent, he/she will move to reply using his/her stronger wing. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule. But in my experience, it is more often true when examining recreational, intermediate, high school, and even, collegiate players. Of course, the best way to determine the weaker wing of an opponent is to scout her/him in advance of a match.
Find a Lefty Hitting Partner
The best way to learn to play lefties is by playing them as often as is possible. Lou Gloria, as I mentioned earlier, was a hitting partner for Ivan Lendl. Ivan never wanted to lose his "familiarity" with lefty opponents. He was sure to see John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors in tournaments.
It may be difficult to find a lefty who is willing to be a regular hitting partner. Frankly, there aren't that many lefties around in most areas. Those who are around are likely to be "in demand." Still, the search for a lefty hitting partner is worth the continuing effort.
I won't mention the name of the pro, tour player, but I did notice that this ranked woman had two different hitting partners. Both were male, but one was a lefty. Not surprisingly when she was going to face a lefty in the New Haven Open draw, she practiced with her lefty hitting partner.
If you cannot find a lefty hitting partner, look around for a lefty teaching pro. Granted, you will have to pay to play with this teaching pro, but she/he can get you acclimated to the lefty game, and maybe, she/he will give you some tips on how to play lefties. If you are serious about your tennis ranking, sooner or later, you will face a lefty opponent. Spending some time hitting with a lefty, teaching pro can be well worth the time and investment.
Lefties can be beat... by both right handed and left handed players!!!
Invest some practice time hitting with lefties, follow the suggestions I put forth above, and be patient with yourself when you do face a lefty; all of these will clearly help you 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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