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Playing in the Zones

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

As I begin this month's column, I suspect that some of my readers will think this is a column dedicated to "playing in the zone"... a reference to the mindless, automatic pilot tennis that each of us wishes we could play every match. Alas, I will be addressing this mental aspect of our game in an upcoming effort.
What I mean by playing in the zones is really a reference to the spatial aspects of playing our wonderful game. Many if not most players do not really think about the spatial aspects associated with offensive and defensive play. Really, "percentage tennis" suggests that the savvy player always is aware this important component.
In his seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey recognizes that there are certain "awareness's" that a player must notice as she/he hits each ball. Briefly, these include:

  • Know where the ball is.
  • Know where your racquet head is.
  • Know where you are on the court.
  • Know where your opponent is on the court.

Tim Gallwey recognizes that there is a difference among: awareness, attention, concentration and focused concentration. If you buy into Tim's theories (and I do), you need to move from wide span awareness to bullet-like concentration at the moment of impact with the ball. One never wants to take his/her eye off the ball. But, we do not always focus upon the ball with the same level of concentration as we should have when we are executing our strokes and making contact with the ball.
I like to view this process using the analogy of a cone. As the ball is approaching our opponent, we want to have a wide span of awareness. Our eye follows the ball, but we are able to "see" holistically. We see where our opponent is positioned (and perceive any movement) and we are aware of our own position and movement. This is very similar to the wide opening of a cone.
As our opponent begins to execute her/his stroke, our concentration begins to focus on her or his racquet movement and moment of contact with the ball. We track the ball as it moves toward us. We begin to move to the ball to make our own reply. We are aware of our racquet and its head through our sense of feeling. We begin the process of preparing to strike the ball. These perceptions represent the narrow middle of a cone.
Eventually, the ball bounces on our side of the net. The path of the ball as it makes its bounce and how it travels after the bounce now has our complete concentration. The cone is beginning to narrow even more. Lastly, we rivet our complete attention on the moment of impact. We never really "see" the moment of impact, but we focus upon our psychological and perceptual perception of this critical moment. If we have truly focused in a bullet-like manner with respect to our concentration, we hit the ball sweetly and our head lingers or pauses for a fraction of a second as we complete our follow through. This represents the very narrow open at one end of our hypothetical cone.
Once the follow through is fully executed, we raise our heads to see where our shot has traveled, where the opponent is and any movement, and where we are on the court. In reality, we have traveled full circle and our again at a wide span awareness... the wide end of the cone in our analogy.
It is this wide span awareness that I wish to address in this month's column. For our discussion purposes, we will address two of the four concerns when one is looking at the "whole." These are: where is your opponent and his/her movement and where are you (and any movement) on the court? Given these two factors, you are in one of three different postures:
  • Defensive posture
  • Neutral (or rally) posture
  • Offensive posture

It should go without saying that attempting an offensive reply from a defensive position is a low percentage option. Neutral or rally positions should be used to literally keep the ball in play in a manner that prevents your opponent from securing an offensive position or posture. Many of us do not take full advantage of our offensive positions. Given an offensive posture, players fail to hit aggressively. Frequently, these latter omissions can leave the door open not only for lost opportunities, but actually, the opponent may be able to secure an offensive position or posture.
Below, I am going to provide you with two graphics. The first graphic shows how your side of the court can be divided into zones.
The second graphic illustrates your opponent's side of the court and the areas where he/she is most likely to be in a truly defensive position. When your opponent is in one of these blue areas, she/he is very vulnerable... particularly if you are in an offensive position on your side of the net.
It is these blue areas (when you are the opponent) that you seek to avoid. If you find an opponent hitting balls that force you into one of these blue zones, you need to discover how to prevent this from reoccurring. I grant you that sometimes this is not always that easy to discover.

As you can see from the diagram above, you are always in a defensive position when you are significantly deep behind the baseline. In clay court matches, you may actually find yourself playing much deeper than is normally the case when you are playing on a hard court or faster court surface. Thomas Muster and Sergei Bruguera were able to rally well on Roland Garros' clay courts from these deep positions. Most of us are not that talented even when playing on clay. Regardless of surface, the goal when this far behind the baseline is to simply hit a high, deep, topspin shot. The goal is to be able to clear the net by many feet (six or more), and thus, keep your opponent back. Moonballs are the norm from this position on the court. But when you are scrambling back on the run, a high, deep, defensive lob that is hit with slice will do. It is somewhat natural to believe that you will hit your ball out if you lob from this defensive zone. More likely, the ball will land shorter than you anticipate. So, don't be afraid to put some "umph" into your shots from this far back. If you can, try to place your lob so that it lands on your opponent's weaker wing. Finally if you do hit a sliced lob, be prepared that the opponent may reply with an overhead smash... either the ball lands short and/or the opponent may let the ball bounce first. In these situations, it is usually best to run for the open court to cover this smash. After all, you have a 50/50 chance of being right, and usually players try to hit their overheads away from you.
The rally zone is where 80 to 90 percent of your groundstrokes will be hit. The major problem for many players is that they attempt to hit winners from this position. "Big bangers" are the most frequent violators. If your opponent is out of court, you may have a chance of winning the point outright. To do this, the odds suggest that more often than not you will need to hit your "winner" down the line. This decreases your odds of success because the net is higher by six inches, and because you don't have the "length" of court available as you would with a cross court reply. Both of these reduce your margin for error, and thus, create a less than "percentage tennis:" situation. The smart play from this rally position is to keep hitting deep with 70 to 80 percent of your shots going cross court. Have patience. Sooner or later, an "opportunity" will present itself, or your opponent will lose patience and make an errant shot.
If you can step into the inside of the baseline to hit a groundstroke, you are definitely in an offensive position. Your possible angles have increased and the time that your opponent has to get to your shot has decreased. Andre Agassi was the master of this type of offensive groundstroke. He would move a half step forward after each groundstroke. Eventually, he would be 6 inches to a foot inside the baseline. From this position, he would whack a big shot that forced his opponent to run! He won many points this way. Of course, Andre had an uncanny ability to take the ball "on the rise." Most of us need to wait until a slightly shorter ball comes our way, and then, move in to hit an offensive groundstroke.
The danger zone is often referred to as "no man's land." When you are in this area of the court, you frequently cannot hit a well executed groundstroke, and you are not in position to hit an easy or likely to be successful volley. More often than not, you are forced to hit a half volley. Obviously, one wants to avoid this area! Pushers have an uncanny ability to force us into this danger zone. If you are in the danger zone (and it will happen), I have one simple rule: "bunt" the ball away from your opponent and charge the net to take her/his reply as a volley. If you take my advice, just follow the path of your "bunted" or "poked" shot. By following the path of your shot, you will automatically put yourself in a desirable volleying position at the net.
A few steps closer to the service line, and you are in the put away zone. Here, the best option is to go for a clean winner. Hit a groundstroke with authority! You don't have to kill the ball to make a put away. Just hit a firm groundstroke that directs the ball away from your opponent. Force her/him to move to make a reply. Of course as soon as you do hit the put away, charge the net to cover a possible reply with a volley. Again, simply follow the path of your put away ball and you will automatically be in proper position to cover the most likely replies.
Unfortunately, the volley zone is not frequently exploited in the modern game of singles. There is a good reason for this. Modern racquet technology, sting technology and faster hard courts make passing shots easier. It is harder to get close to the net in the modern game. Balls just travel faster these days! Still, every player can probably find a way to "work" his/her way to the net. The difference in the modern game is that your first volley will probably be made fairly close to the service line. The modern player needs to anticipate needing to hit two volleys to win the point. So, hit your first volley deep. Charge the net... again following the path the ball associated with your first volley. You should be in good position to hit a second volley for a clean winner. Unless you are very fast to the net and/or play serve/volley tennis, you will need two volleys to win the point. Still, the volley zone is one of the most potent offensive areas on the court. I see many players who literally do not take advantage of opportunities to make it to the net.
So as a brief review, the three areas or zones where you are most likely to be able to hit shots with an offensive intent are: the aggressive zone, the put away zone and the volley zone.
Two zones to avoid if at all possible are the defensive zone and the danger zone.
Finally, remember that the rally zone is a neutral zone. Most of your groundstrokes will be struck in this zone. The temptation is to think of it as being an offensive opportunity. More often than not, this is not the case!

Now, we need to examine your opponent's side of the court. One should easily be able to "flip" the previous "zone" graphic to realize the offensive and defensive postures in which your opponent may find herself/himself. But, I have discovered a more simplistic way of knowing when to hit at my opponent "aggressively." Our second graphic shows in blue where I find my opponent's position being weakest. I refer to these as "attackable positions."
Simply put, anytime your opponent is in one of the blue areas, there is a very good chance that you can execute a shot for a winner. If you look at these blue areas, they indicate that your opponent is either very deep in his/her own court (the defensive area) or has been forced out wide on either side of his /her court.
Whenever I see my opponent in one of these blue areas, a little alarm goes off in my head. I immediately sense his vulnerability; I immediately attempt to hit a shot that is likely to be a winner. Indeed in practice sessions and/or practice matches, I have forced myself to devise aggressive shots whenever my hitting partner enters one of these blue areas. At first, I lost some points being overly aggressive or not knowing what shot to actually hit. But over time, one learns what is viable given one's arsenal of executable shots.
When my opponent is in the deep blue area of his court, I immediately do one of two shots. I either hit a drop shot (if I am inside or near the baseline), or I rush the net looking to hit either a volley or an overhead smash. Given my skills and proficiency, these are the only two options I elect to use. Some of you may have a great short, topspin shot that can be hit at a severe angle. If so, this may be a viable option for you.
When my opponent is in either of the blue areas on either side of his court, I again do one of two things. I will hit a deep, medium paced groundstroke to the open court. I use this option most of the time as I can execute with a good degree of confidence from the rally zone, aggressive zone or the put away zone. If I am closer to the net, I will dash in quickly to close the net as fast as I can. Then, I execute a volley that is really just a "blocked" volley. Again, I hit this to the open court. The deeper my opponent is (even though he is out wide) the shorter and more angled I make my volleys. So if my opponent is deep in one of the side blue boxes, I will hit my volley almost as a drop or stop volley angling it as far to the opposite sideline as I can. If you are an accomplished doubles player, you may want to consider hitting a forceful volley that lands at the feet of your opponent. I have seen this option work very well. More often than not, the player who executes this option has quite a bit of doubles experience. More and more, I see modern players (particularly) juniors who can hit devastating "swing volleys." Regardless of where these are directed, they almost always elicit an errant reply from the opponent or are an outright winner. Regardless of which type of volley you hit, always prepare for a possible reply. I have seen some amazing footwork and speed in my day. The player who anticipates your volley can sometime get to it and make a good response. As a senior player, I find this not to be the case these days. But, there are juniors and young adults who have incredible wheels.
So as I end this month's column, I encourage each of my readers to truly be spatially aware when competing. The key is to spend practice time working on understanding the zones and recognizing the attackable situations. Experiment with different shots when you are executing an offensive shot. You need to learn what will or will not work for you in these situations. Also, learn to restrain yourself and to develop patience when you are in the rally zone. Finally, discover ways that you can work your way into the net.
The goal is to craft points in a manner that affords you many offensive shot opportunities. In addition, you want to avoid defensive situations. You can't avoid them entirely, but you can find ways to keep yourself alive in the point when you are forced into one.
Most of your shots will be struck in a neutral (neither offensive nor defensive) position. The best mindset for these neutral points is to execute each shot as perfectly as is possible. Avoid mishit shots. Avoid over hitting your shot. Move your opponent around, but execute most of your groundstrokes cross court. Let your opponent change the direction of the ball. As you finish each shot and once again take on the wide span awareness, be cognizant of any opportunities. Remember on all levels of the game, more points are won by the opponent making an error, than a player making winners.
Integrate a spatial component to your practice sessions and your matches, and I assure you that in no time you will 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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