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Aggressive Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

One of the most frequent comments made by television, tennis commentators, by coaches and teaching pros is the following: "He/She/You need(s) to play more aggressive tennis."
Aggression is a word that literally means "causing harm or injury to someone without the use of physical force." This definition is definitely NOT what commentators, coaches or teaching pros literally wish the player in question to do.
Aggression in tennis is anything that can "hurt" your opponent's chances of winning and/or put your opponent into a defensive posture. Perhaps a better word to use than "aggressive" tennis would be "offensive" tennis.
This may seem like a frivolous distinction, and indeed, it may be. But, having foreign readers who patronize my column regularly, I want to make certain that there is no confusion, if English is not their primary language. So as I use the word aggressive, I am really referring to that which emphasizes offense in our wonderful game.
In this month's column, I will focus upon what is aggressive tennis, when to employ it and when not to employ it, and when to know that aggression in your tennis game is acting in a counterproductive manner. Before my direct discussion, I want to set the stage for what is to follow by making specific reference to a recently played, professional match.
In watching the Men's Singles Final at the 2013 U.S.Open, there was a major change in the tenor and momentum of the match between Nadal and Djokovic that occurred in the third set. The seventh game of this set was a major turning point in favor of Nadal. Although Novak did attempt to defeat Nadal after this particular game, the match dramatically changed from the seventh game to the match's conclusion.
Djokovic began the match and continued for 2 and a half sets to play very aggressive tennis. His groundstrokes (particularly in the first set) were unbelievably powerful. Their pace was incredible and his ability to control them was astounding. Although he had lost a set he was still blasting groundstrokes and forcing Nadal to scramble to make replies. Whenever there was a short ball hit by Nadal, Novak was in to put it away.
As I watched the match, I could see that Rafa was actually becoming more accustomed to the shots that Novak was hitting. Nadal's replies were hit more deeply and Rafa's shots became more powerful as well. From my perspective, Novak Djokovic sensed this change in Rafa Nadal's handling of shots and realized that the tide was changing.
The seventh game of the third set marked a comeback in the set for Rafa and was critical to allowing Rafa to ultimately win the set. With a two to one lead in sets over Novak, Rafa began to play his most aggressive tennis. Eventually, the fourth set proved to be the final set with Nadal having a powerful and commanding end to the match.
I cite this match because who was playing aggressive tennis and who was not completely changed after this seventh game. Such is the marvelous nature of this great game of ours. It was an exciting match, and provided spectators/viewers with a great battle. The lesson here is that aggressive tennis can be fleeting! From the seventh game of the third set until the end of the match, Djokovic was unable to be truly aggressive while Nadal escaped Novak's early aggression. By the fourth set, it was Nadal who was aggressively controlling the match.
Aggressive tennis is not easy to play, and even when you are able to generate such offensive play, there is no guarantee that it can be sustained for the entire match. If this is the reality for pros that practice every day with the best coaches in the world to assist them, it certainly is the reality for those of us who can only dedicate a part of our lives to practicing and competing in this splendid game.
What may be aggressive play for me may be entirely inappropriate for you, and vice versa. There is no single way to play aggressive tennis! For some, hitting big groundstrokes that force opponents to play "back on their heels" is aggressive tennis. If you are an accomplished serve/volley player, this type of game can be aggressive tennis. Those players who are "retrievers" and somehow get to every ball are playing a form of aggressive tennis. Even the dreaded "pusher" is playing her/his form of aggressive tennis.
So, every tennis player needs to know what kind of aggressive tennis he/she is capable of playing. For talented players, there may be a few forms of aggressive tennis in their repertoire.
Any shot, level of pace, level of control and/or tactical/strategic approach to this great game that a player owns can be a form of aggressive tennis.
During my tournament days, my "aggressive tennis arsenal" consisted of the following: I was primarily a backcourt player who was comfortable being moved from corner to corner. For my age, I was remarkably able to get to many difficult balls. I have a big forehand and good hit winners with it at sharp crosscourt angles or down the line. My backhand is extremely consistent but rarely overpowering. My kick serve was quite good and I would even use it as my first serve. But my real "secret weapon" was my ability to hit "moonballs." Literally, I can hit incredible high, topspin groundstrokes that land within three inches of the baseline off of either wing. These "moonballs" drove my opponents absolutely crazy. They would try to hit low paced, severely "sliced" shots to take this weapon away from me. No worries. I would simply bend my knees deep and hit another big, booming "moonball."
The question we need to ask ourselves is what can be executed well under pressure?!
It amazes me when I work with juniors or with even seasoned intermediates that they do not have a realistic and complete understanding of their strengths. Unfortunately, they can always tell me what they believe are their weaknesses. This is to be expected. Most tennis players simply want to get rid of weaknesses.
Aggressive tennis focuses upon strengths and attempts to use these to their fullest potential.
When you focus upon what you do well in terms of shots, movement, pace, control, game strategies, etc., you are automatically in a mindset that gives you the best chance to take control of a match. Your confidence level increases and you can overcome the errant shots, missed opportunities, and opponent's winners with less mental stress!
Aggressive tennis is advantageous to one's mental frame of mind when competing.
I would suspect that every reader has had days when, for whatever reasons, he/she feels great about the world (apart from tennis). I also know that there are those days when physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; a person is simply "down." Sometimes there are clear reasons associated with either of these two extremes. Sometimes, however, we can't really determine what causes either the euphoria or the depression. They simply occur.
The same is true about aggressive tennis. Some days, aggressive tennis comes easily. Other days it seems impossible. We don't always know why either situation may be in play. However, the prudent tennis player is always looking for connections.
Here are the reasons most commonly associated with a lack of ability to play one's normally aggressive game early on in a match.

  1. Physically, you are fatigued. If not at the beginning of the match, you may become fatigued as the match progresses.

  2. You have played too much tennis and are a bit detached and less enthusiastic and maybe a bit "burnt out." This usually causes a player to be impatient and forces him/her to attempt to play "fast" tennis.

  3. The playing conditions (wind, sun, temperature, surface, etc.) are affecting what you normally can execute flawlessly.

  4. For whatever reasons, you do not believe that you can beat your opponent. You may have played in the past and lost. You may be aware of your opponent's "reputation." You may have had a bad start in the first set and believe that the match is just not winnable.

  5. Your opponent is aware of your weaknesses and controlling the match in a manner that prevents you from playing aggressively and puts you in a defensive posture.

  6. You simply are trying too hard! Instead of allowing your conscious mind to simply provide data to you non-conscious mind (the part of our mind that controls muscle memory), you attempt to consciously control how you execute shots, move on the court and place your shots. You can't "think" and play tennis at the same time!

Whenever you perceive that your aggressive game (whatever form this may take) is not working, you need to understand why this is the case.
The conscious mind needs to ask some questions of itself and make some careful observations. This kind of thinking should be reserved for changeovers!!! When playing a point or in between points, the best course of action is to completely keep the conscious mind "quiet." Thus, each tennis player needs to learn HOW to shut down the conscious, critical thinking mind... and turn it on. When I wrote my book, Perfect Tennis much of its content was directed at helping a player learn how she/he can switch the conscious mind on and off at will.
Almost without fail, a player will not be able to sustain effective, aggressive tennis throughout an entire match. When, as the Aussies say, "you come off the boil" and your aggressive game is failing you, it is important to realize that this is completely normal!!! Rarely, have I seen any tennis match where there were not peaks and valleys for each player with respect to his/her individual form of aggressive tennis.
So the logical question is: "What should I do when I do "come off the boil" and my aggressive game fails me?
In Nadal/Djokovic match referenced at the beginning of this column. Nadal was not aggressive in the first two sets. Although he won one of these two sets, he was not playing his best, aggressive tennis. But, Rafa did remain patient with himself, persisted to try and play reasonably aggressive tennis and had faith that in time his non-conscious mind would adjust and prevail.
For Novak, the aggressive tennis came to him easily in the first two sets. Yes, he was challenged well by Rafa, but overall, Djokovic was hitting his shots with authority and with ease. In the seventh game of the third set, Djokovic faltered. In my mind, he then made a fatal mistake. He believed that he could force himself back into playing effective, aggressive tennis. Novak began to attempt to hit his groundstrokes with more deliberate pace. He attempted to move Rafa around the court more than in previous games. He attempted to hit harder first serves. Simply put, he was deliberately and consciously attempting to do more. In the process, his aggressiveness became unreasonable. He was expecting too much, too quickly. Although he bounced the ball more before beginning his service motion (part of all serving rituals), the rest of his demeanor in the match suggested that he was rushing things.
The conscious mind can determine why something is occurring, but it is the least effective way to resolve a tennis problem. Problem solving is best left to the non-conscious mind. To do this, a player needs to trust his or her training, slow down the overall tempo of the match and let the non-conscious mind re-establish the aggressive game in an evolving manner.
Rafa allowed his non-conscious mind to adjust to Novak's powerful, aggressive game. Nadal waited for his own aggressive game to resurrect itself.
The mental side of this game of ours is so important. Knowing that the conscious mind is always attempting to analyze and solve problems is important. Recognizing that the conscious mind rarely had the real answers is even more important. The real problem solver should be the non-conscious mind.
Let me give you a hypothetical example. Let's say that your normal, aggressive game is built around a big forehand groundstroke which you normally can hit with power and accuracy. However, your opponent is one of those players who just loves it when she/he is given shots hit with pace.
During a changeover, you let you conscious mind determine what is happening. In this case it tells you that you are feeding the opponent exactly what he/she likes with respect to pace. So, many players' conscious minds come up with the "solution." The conscious mind tells you to hit with less pace. You go out and take some of the power off your shots, and in no time, your groundstrokes are landing short, your opponent steps in, and your opponent hits an outright winner. So, the conscious mind says to you, "You took off too much pace." Thus, you go out and try to hit a little harder. Now, you have lost complete control of that powerful forehand. You are hitting balls into the net. You are hitting shots wide. Your muscles are tense. Your mood is rapidly declining. You are on a slippery slope that eventually leads to a loss and frustration. Sound familiar?
Well, let's say that instead of allowing your conscious mind to do anything other than identify a problem, you turn to your non-conscious mind to arrive at a solution. You simply tell your non-conscious mind to do whatever is necessary to correct the problem. You go out and forget about any conscious solutions or adjustments. You simply trust your non-conscious mind, your training and your muscle memory. The non-conscious mind controls the shot production, NOT the conscious mind. You are patient. You focus your eyes on the ball with extra attention to quiet your conscious mind. Your muscles remain relaxed. Guess what? Sooner or later the data that your conscious mind is providing through your senses, and the command it has given to the non-conscious mind, come together and you are now hitting exactly with the right pace... without destroying the "flow" of your stroke production.
Sounds crazy, right? I assure the reader that this is NOT crazy. If you carefully examine the Nadal/Djokovic match, you will see that Djokovic became more "consciously" oriented in his play. Nadal, however, patiently waited for the hours of training, years of match experience, precise muscle memory implanted in his non-conscious mind to come together and "emerge."
Once these all came back to Rafa, his confidence, energy level and determination were immediately improved.
Okay, so let's say you can accept the above as being valid. A logical question would be: "How can I practice aggressive tennis where the dynamics of play change frequently?"
What is my answer? Play lots of tiebreakers!!! Tiebreakers create lots of pressure. You change sides every six points. There is little time during the crossovers for much conscious thinking. The ability to play your form of aggressive tennis can come and go very quickly. All of these factors can condense the attributes of a real match into a practice form that is "realistic" and challenging.
I encourage my competitive "students" to play 12 tiebreakers rather than three sets!
I fully agree with commentators who say that a player needs to be more aggressive when announcing a professional tennis match. Indeed, every player should attempt to play his/her unique form of aggressive tennis whenever possible. There are times during a match when your aggressive tennis potential will diminish. Unfortunately, there are those rare instances when your aggressive tennis game never shows up at all.
The keys are simple. Know what your distinct form of aggressive tennis is. Practice these aggressive forms by playing tiebreakers... not practice sets. Use the conscious mind to do what it does best... analyze problems and provide sense data. Don't ask you conscious mind to come up with answers... simply insights and sense data. Give these insights (even if spoken aloud) to your non-conscious mind. Let your non-conscious mind arrive at the "solutions." Trust your non-conscious mind to do what is needed.
Every day, millions of people drive from point A to point B safely. In truth, their conscious mind is focused upon many other things than driving... music on the radio, conversation with a passenger, daydreams, etc. So, who is driving the car? THE DRIVER'S NON-CONSCIOUS MIND. Literally, we are putting our lives in the hands of our non-conscious mind every time we get behind the wheel. Fortunately, our conscious mind stays out of the way. It simply provides the sense data needed to drive to the non-conscious mind. If we have been trained to drive correctly, have practiced driving sufficiently, and simply trust our non-conscious mind and its muscle memory; we seamlessly make the myriad decisions necessary to get us where we are going safely... without any conscious thinking.
To me, aggressive tennis is a desirable goal. To me, aggressive tennis is based on trusting our non-conscious mind in exactly the same ways we trust it when we drive an automobile.
Understanding how you play aggressive tennis, accepting the reality that sometimes aggressive tennis goes "off the boil," realizing that the conscious mind really is best used to ask and answer questions and not to provide solutions, knowing that your non-conscious mind can and will arrive at the proper adjustments to promote aggressive tennis IF you only let it, will ultimately lead you to 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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