Last month, I dedicate my column to helping each of your resurrect or refresh your basic stroke production. Probably more than any other single aspects of our wonderful game, players spend most of their time and effort on improving strokes. This is not to say that such dedication is ill founded. However, there are other basics that need to be deliberately fashioned.
Recognizing that March is the month that many of my readers will be moving outside to practice and compete, this month's column is probably well timed. In addition to simply perfecting strokes and movement, each player needs to have strategies in place. Tactics need to be developed and honed. The principles which govern our great game need to be addressed in an attentive and deliberate manner.
So, let's begin with some universal principles. These principles apply to every style of play and are really apropos to every surface upon which tennis is played.
Maintain Balance in Every Stroke
Clearly, this may seem easier said than done. However if you were to hit every stroke from a solid, balanced body "platform," the number of errors you commit would drop dramatically. Yet, few players give any real time to working on their body balance.
Several factors can be isolated and controlled as a player attempts to improve her/his stroke balance.
First, one's center of gravity is of key importance on every stroke. Generally speaking, the center of a player's gravity should be below the ball throughout the stroke or at a parallel height to the ball. Grips determine where your body must be to make ideal contact with the ball.
To some degree, this principle may be less applicable to those players who opt for the western forehand grip and decide to go "airborne" as they hit groundstrokes. In this latter case, the center of gravity for a player's body may actually be a bit above the height of the ball at the moment of impact.
Regardless, each of us should strive to be in control of our body's overall balance as we move to the ball and make contact with the ball. I grant you that this is not always possible. When in an emergency situation and "on the run," we may be unable to maintain a real balance. Indeed, we may be stretched to the limit, and the best we may be able to achieve is to place our racquet strings on the ball. Fortunately, modern racquet technology and string technology make these "off kilter" shots much more viable and likely to be effective.
However, the norm should be to try and anticipate where our opponent's shots may be going (best achieved by carefully watching the ball come off the opponent's strings), and to move to these shots in a timely and balanced manner. For most of us, we need to get our center of gravity below or level with the apex of the ball's bounce as we make our replies. Even with volleys, it is always desirable to be below the ball if at all possible. Certainly, serves and overheads automatically dictate that our center of gravity is well below the ball at the moment of impact.
The problem with focusing upon one's balance and center of gravity is that this "attention" can take away from our focus on the ball itself. There are two simple ways to seamlessly improve movement and the placement of our center of gravity when approaching the ball.
With groundstrokes try to approach the ball with your belt line (waist) at the same level as the ball. This will automatically force you to bend your knees prior to making contact and allow you to be "centered" without having to take any real concentration off the ball.
For volleys, practice approaching the ball with your head at the height of the ball. On high volleys, you will be fairly erect and capable of really "sticking" your volleys. On low volleys, you will find that you are truly bending the knees deeply and able to make a more forceful volley.
Both of these techniques can easily be practiced. In time, they will become second nature. You will find that you are automatically and without any conscious effort putting yourself in the best possible body position for any groundstroke or volley.
As an aside, trying to freeze your head (allowing no head movement) at the moment of impact with the ball may help to achieve an overall body balance during stroke production. This "quieting of the head" and making certain that you finish your strokes fully and consistently greatly aid stability during stroke production.
The 80% vs. 20% Rule
Years back Peter Burwash (the well known teaching pro) wrote about what he called the 80% vs. 20% rule. Simply put, Burwash reminds us that about 80% of all our shots should be hit crosscourt, and the remaining 20% can and should be hit down the line. In truth, Peter Burwash's advice is in complete keeping with the "geometry" of playing tennis. The net is 6 inches lower at its center. When hitting cross court, de facto the "length" of the in-bounds hitting area is increased. Hitting down the line may seem like a winning thing to do, but the geometry and odds do not favor shots hit in this manner.
Some years back, I dedicated an entire column to the geometry associated with tennis. Rather than reiterate all that is in this initial column, I will provide the reader with this link: Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game.
Translating Peter Burwash's insight into more practical terms, I would ask the reader to ingrain the following into his/her memory... When in doubt, hit cross court!!! This simple axiom implies that one needs a good reason to hit down the line. For example if your opponent is drawn wide out of court and is not really fleet of foot in these situations, hitting a somewhat slower paced shot down the line may result in a clean winner. This is particularly true if this down the line shot is directed to the opponent's weaker wing.
It is probably best to take a little off the pace of this down the line shot to assure placement. But, be prepared to follow the ball to the net to hit a volley or overhead should your opponent scramble and make a reply off of this "winner."
When you practice and play practice sets, try to hit most of your shots cross court. Cross court drills are the most important in this great game of tennis.
If you do follow Peter's axiom, you will probably find that points last a bit longer. This is particularly true on slower surfaces like clay. However, most intermediate, and some advanced players, are very impatient. In charting many matches, I can honestly say that a point where each player hits a minimum of three shots is the exception not the rule. The 80/20 rule requires nothing more than patience. In cross court exchanges, the player who tries to hit down the line first is often times the loser of the point.
Never Hit the Same Ball Twice
In the modern game, power has become the norm. Racquets are more powerful. Players hit big, powerful groundstrokes. String technology has improved both spin and power potentials. It is not uncommon to see intermediate and advanced players who literally try to hit every shot with as much power as is possible. Some of these players can actually succeed in dominating through power. However, most cannot.
Whether you are a "big basher" or not, one principle of this fantastic game is true. If you hit the same type of ball to an opponent over and over, she or he will eventually adapt to it.
To illustrate my point, think about the return of serve. A big server has an edge until the returner becomes acclimated to the serve. Each of us has experienced this phenomenon. Granted, sometimes this is not enough to win the match. But unless the server varies things a bit, each of us can eventually return the serve.
Every player needs to provide variety in his/her shots. By varying power, spin and placement, a player can always be assured that his/her opponent cannot easily "groove" on shots.
I once had a number one player on my collegiate team who was truly gifted. He could crush every groundstroke off of either wing. The problems would arise at times in the second and third sets. Yes, the first set would be dominated by my number one player. However by the second set, the opponents usually would have a better ability to handle my guy's power. At times, he would lose the second set albeit by a small margin in the score. If it went to a third set, the odds favored my guy's opponent. Why? He refused to vary his groundstrokes. He committed to powerful groundies and was not about to abandon what was his "comfort zone." No matter how I tried, I was never able to convince him to vary the pace, spin and placement of his shots to avoid this trap.
To win matches, a player cannot be completely predictable. I would argue that even the best pros on both tours know that sometimes simply hitting a powerful topspin groundstroke, followed by three quarter paced slice groundstroke, then hitting a high, slow paced moon ball may be the best way to disarm an opponent.
Practice varying your groundstrokes. You may not have to vary them that much during a match, but if things get a bit dicey, you may find that this is the way to maintain dominance.
Hit In and Out
This simple tactic can go a long way against some opponents and on faster surfaces. In essence, this tactic forces another type of "shot variation."
Most groundstroke players get lost in the "coast to coast" (side to side) rallies very much the norm in the modern game.
If you are a wise player, you may find that it is worthwhile to take some time to learn the in/out game of tennis. Put simply, one attempts to hit a ball deep then hits a ball that brings the opponent to the net. If the opponent makes a reply off the short ball, an offensive (topspin) lob forces him/her back to the baseline again.
I wouldn't build a strategy upon this tactic. Once an opponent realizes that this is your pattern, you will find that you have to retrieve severely angled volleys and/or drop shots. In addition, you may find that you are on the receiving end of overhead smashes.
Still, this tactic is one of the spatial variables that can make a difference in a match in which you are losing momentum.
Most modern players never fully practice serve/volley and chip/charge strategies. So, the in/out tactic puts most groundstroke players on the defensive... albeit not for many consecutive points.
I personally have won some key points using this approach. I am blessed with the ability to hit great moon balls off of either wing. Add the drop shot or "dink" to the equation, and you can truly catch an opponent off guard. In addition, the running in and back will help to fatigue many opponents.
Learn to Play the Net Game
The modern singles player has for all intents and purposes abandoned the net game! As I photograph pro events on both tours, I am amazed at how often these pros will not initiate a net game strategy.
This is not all that surprising. Let's face it. The person at the net can be more easily passed with modern racquets, strings and stroke techniques. As some players will confess, "The only time I want to come to the net is to shake hands at the end of a match."
Still, there is clearly a place for serve/volley and chip/charge strategies and tactics.
The problem is that we practice volleys... not how to play serve/volley. In addition, I rarely see anyone who is playing singles attempting to chip and charge on the return of serve.
Every singles player needs to have a true and reliable net game and net strategies in her/his arsenal!!!
Obviously, taking time to practice and play doubles will help in this regard. But, doubles is not the only time to use the net game approach.
When practicing, take a day every so often where you and your hitting partner must play serve/volley and chip/charge. First, have one player serve and volley while the other plays the common groundstroke game. The key in having the server win points is to get the first serve in, place it more often to the opponent's weaker wing, and to be expecting to hit two volleys to win the point. After a bit, reverse roles.
Take another practice day and dedicate it to chip/charge return of serve. Again, one player stays back and serves. The other will attempt to chip the return, and then move forward to hit a volley or two. The returner will learn to take the serve "on the rise" and will at times be forced to hit half volleys. Placement of the return may at first be difficult, but in time, this will be more comfortable and controlled. After a bit, the players reverse roles.
Court movement when playing serve/volley or chip/charge is really simple. Always follow the path of the ball you strike. For example, if you serve wide and follow your serve to the net, simply follow the path of the serve you have struck. You will automatically be moving more to the wider side of the net for your first volley. Similarly if you chip your return to the center of the court, follow the path of your reply which will automatically place you moving to the center of the net.
Doubles competition and practice will help you in your net game. But, it is important to note that net play in doubles is not identical to net play in singles. In doubles, there are two bodies on the court. Passing shots are minimized and center shots maximized in doubles. Quite the opposite is true in singles. In singles, one needs only follow the path of the ball that one hit to know what is the best possible court movement given the possible replies.
Varying and Experiment with Your Return of Serve Positioning
The serve is obviously the most important stroke in our wonderful game. However, it is closely followed in importance by the return of serve.
Generally, I see recreational and intermediate players who always assume the same exact position on the court when returning serve. These players rarely if ever vary where they stand on either the ad or deuce courts.
When returning serve, one needs to take into consideration things like: court surface, the power level of serves, the amount and nature of the spin, whether the server is left handed and elements like wind and sun.
Quite frequently, a returner needs to slightly change her/his position. Moving left, moving right, moving back or moving in... all are variables to consider.
With left hand servers it is often times best to stand a little more to your left, especially in the ad court.
With powerful servers, moving back may seem the best option and indeed it may be. But, sometimes moving in and taking the serve more on the rise gives better results.
My point is simple. If your return of serve is costing you points because of aces hit against you or because you cannot get to the ball cleanly, it is probably time to change your court positioning as you receive serve.
Know Your Opponent's Trigger Number
In watching and charting many, many matches, I have become aware that almost every player has a preferred number of shots before he/she pulls the trigger and attempts a winner.
Even the pros on both tours (who have been taught to be selective) will have a predictable number of shots that transpire before they feel compelled to try for something big or an outright winner. I can only guess that this is part of each tennis player's DNA.
On clay and very slow surfaces, the number of shots that a player will make before seeking to end the point is a bit greater than when playing on faster surfaces. Clearly, grass and carpet surfaces do not lend themselves to long rallies in comparison to hard courts and clay courts.
Next time you play an opponent, count how many times she/he strikes a ball before trying for a big shot or even an outright winner. If you are playing on the recreational or intermediate level, you will be surprised at how small this number may be. In my experience and observation, players at these levels tend to either go for the big shot or are hitting an errant shot after striking the ball only 2 or 3 times.
Granted, there is no truly hard and fast number associated with a given point. The nature of the shots you hit dictates whether a big shot or winner is viable. Still, the number is almost always predictable given the surface.
So, how does one use this? Well if you know that your opponent is likely to pull the trigger on the third ball he/she hits, you can feed her/him something more difficult and/or at least be prepared to move to her/his shot with more anticipation.
Allied with this, it is important to know your own "trigger number." Tennis players are generally not patient enough. The old adage, "keep the ball in play" speaks to the eager nature of many players. If you normally try for the big shot or winner on your third strike of the ball, be careful when you reach this number! Be patient. It may very well be that you can tee off on this shot. But, you want to be certain that there is a good reason for this aggressive shot. Avoid falling into a pattern of impatience.
The seven items listed above are universal. Regardless of your natural approach to this great game of ours, you cannot totally avoid addressing each of these factors. The problem for many may be that they rarely focus attention on these factors when practicing or competing.
Once you spend some time this spring focusing upon each of the above, I am certain that your overall performance will rapidly improve. Soon, you will become a tennis overdog!