"What do I need to do to win matches against better players?"
Truly, if I knew a simple answer to this question, I would be a wealthy man. In reality, the answer depends on your skill level, experience in competing, style of play, and of course, the types of players that you want to beat. If I were to play any pro on either tour there would be little hope that I would win many games... not to mention winning a set. They are just that much better than I.
However, each of us can beat players that are seemingly better than our normal competitors, if we add some weapons to our arsenal of shots. So, I am dedicating this month's column to helping you expand your repertoire of shot options.
In my mind, if you are an intermediate to advanced player, there are five important shots that you must have to beat the better player. Some of these, you may already have... some may need to be acquired. But, I assure you that you need all of them, if you are truly looking to move up the tennis ladder.
Not surprisingly, the first of these five shots deals with the serve. Now, those of you who read my column regularly know that I advocate spin serves that land deep in the service box. Even if these spin serves lack pace, they are not likely to be returned aggressively... if indeed they do land deep in the box. I would rather see a spin serve you direct to the opponent's weaker wing than to see a big, flat serve that may come back at you harder than you served it... presuming it lands in the service box.
However, there is one "flat" serve that I think every player should strive to develop. This is the "jam" serve. By this, I mean a serve that is hit hard, with little spin and that lands deep in the box. But, this "jam" serve is directed at the receiver... not away from her/him.
I try to use this serve as a first serve and I target the opponent's hips as my aim point. I usually try to hit this jam serve to the hip that is associated with the opponent's weaker wing.
I have found that even when the receiver does get her/his racquet on this type of serve, it usually is a weak return. When I hit this serve, I immediately take a step forward after making contact with the ball. Why? Well, I am expecting a weaker reply that often times will land a bit short in my court. By moving in, I am ready to put this weak return away for a winner. If the return does come back at with me with pace, I simply take the ball on the rise and use the opponent's power against him. This takes some practice to learn, but I am a devotee of taking as many balls on the rise as is possible.
Occasionally, you will be facing an opponent who has no problem with this type of serve... but this is very rare. If you do face such an opponent, it will not take you long to realize this fact. Anecdotally, I must confess that the opponents that seem to be out of shape and slow of foot are usually the ones who return the jam serve best. The fit player who moves with grace and speed is often times at a disadvantage when given this "jam" serve. But, there is only one way to know for certain... experiment with it.
Now, you cannot use this serve for every first serve. If you do, the opponent will expect it, and he/she will run around to hit his/her favorite groundstroke. But, you can use it every third or fourth point with success.
To practice this serve, use an empty tennis ball container and place it deep in the center of the service box. Try to serve with pace and attempt to knock this container over. Believe me; it is not as easy as it may sound.
The second shot that every serious player must have in her/his arsenal is the "short ball put away." How many times have you had a short ball and either netted the put away or hit the ball out? Probably more often than you would like to admit or remember.
The pros actually practice this put away regularly. Their coaches will rally with them, and then, deliberately hit a short ball. The pro will rush in, setup and literally crush the ball for a winner.
The problem is that most of us never really practice this shot. When we get the short ball, we salivate at the prospect of hitting a winner. But, often times, we over hit or net the shot.
Have your practice partner or teaching pro give you this short ball drill. Start a rally of groundstrokes that are hit deep. After three or four successful passes over the net, have your hitting partner hit a deliberately short ball. When this happens, you need to move quickly, setup quickly, but hit deliberately. Make sure that your hitting partner varies when she/he hits the short ball during these rallies. You want to have to react rather than know when the short ball is going to be struck.
By hitting deliberately, I mean that you need to take a shorter backswing, hit with a full follow through, keep your head motionless through the entire stroke and finish the stroke completely.
In my observations, most players miss these put aways because they are not freezing their heads at the moment of impact. Rather, they are too concerned at looking where they want the ball to go. Thus, they lift their heads prematurely.
If the shot is truly a put away, it should not come back. There is no point looking to see where it lands. If your opponent calls it out, it's out (unless you have an umpire on court and appeal the call). It is better to allow for a little more margin of error and not look to see if the ball lands in. If your opponent does get to the shot, her/his reply will probably not be strong. Thus, as soon as you hit the shot, move forward to the net... in the hope of hitting a volley for a winner, or if your opponent lobs, you can hit the overhead smash. In either case, hit your volley or smash away from your opponent and realize that you probably do not need to "crush" either shot.
The third essential shot for the competitive player is the drop shot.This shot can really win you lots of points, particularly on clay or grass. The key ingredients in being successful with this shot include the following.
First, do not hit drop shots unless you are near or inside the service line. Drop shots hit from deeper court positions usually sit up for the opponent and end up being put away for a winner.
Second, make certain to impart backspin on this shot. Truthfully, I try to hit these drop shots with both backspin and sidespin. Why? Well, if your opponent does manage to track the shot down, the spin makes his/her reply a bit more difficult to execute.
Third, play drop shots early on in a match or when you are ahead in terms of the score. Many of us tend to hit drop shots out of desperation, when we are losing. Drop shots require a relaxed arm and wrist. Usually, we are not relaxed when we are losing.
Practice hitting drops shots with a hitting partner. Again, start a groundstroke rally. Have your hitting partner hit a ball that bounces high and lands in the court well inside the baseline... preferably near the service lines. Step in as you would for a put away. However, this time, hit the drop shot. If possible, hit the drop shot at an angle... away from your opponent. This will increase the chances that he/she will be unable to reach the shot before its second bounce.
The fourth essential shot is very similar to the drop shot in its effect. What I am referring to is the stop volley.
Stop volleys are shots that literally drop over the net. To hit the stop volley you need to soften the stiffness in your wrist at the moment that the ball makes contact with the strings. Just loosen your grip slightly at the moment of impact. This takes timing. You also want to be very close to the net when you hit this stop volley.
The time to hit stop volleys are when your opponent is deep and has hit a shot at you that does not have too much pace or too little pace.
If the shot has lots of pace, you will probably find that the stop volley usually becomes nothing more than a weak volley. The opponent will step in and put the ball away for a winner.
If the shot has very little pace and/or excessive backspin, the stop volley will probably drop into the net.
Here again, practice makes this shot more reliable during matches. To practice this shot, have your hitting partner hit to you while you are near the net. Have her/him hit at you and away from you with varying pace. Each time, try to hit a volley that literally dribbles over the net. After a short time, you will begin to get your bearings and be better able to judge which balls can be hit for a stop volley successfully and which ones cannot. If you are playing on a clay surface, do not forget about this shot!!!
The fifth essential shot is the topspin lob. This lob is one that is essentially offensive in nature. Harold Solomon (a legend) made a career out of this shot. Virtually every groundstroke he hit was a moonball (really a topspin lob). If you look at old videos of Bjorn Borg, he would definitely use this shot on clay and at times on faster surfaces like grass.
Being able to hit topspin lobs is a very valuable skill. First, topspin lobs will buy you time in a point, and allow you to get back to center court more easily.
Second, topspin lobs bounce high, and usually, your opponent cannot hit a clear winner off of them. Pushers, however, will almost always try to hit a short, slice shot off of these lobs. So, when playing a pusher, be ready to move in for the put away. Frequently, the pusher can hit these slice shots with some pace. So, the ball may skip and/or stay very low. It is essential that you setup early for these shots. Anticipation is the only way that you can get an edge up on the accomplished pusher.
Third, topspin lobs keep your opponent back and away from the net. Obviously, this is where you want your opponent... especially if she/he likes to volley.
Lastly, topspin lobs can be used successfully in doubles or in singles when playing a net rusher. If you have a good topspin lob, you can actually return serve in doubles by lobbing over the head of the net player. When playing a net rusher, mix up passing shots and topspin lobs to keep him/her guessing and honest.
Topspin lobs can be very risky on windy days. Why? Well, the ball travels a greater distance due to its high arc. Thus, the effects of the wind are more pronounced. When the wind is in your face, the danger is that the ball will land too short. When the wind is at your back the danger is that the ball will go long... although this latter situation requires a simple adjustment in the amount of power you put behind the moonball.
Still, I cannot tell you how many points I have won simply by hitting lots of moonballs. They may not be exciting, but they do the job.
So, if you are like many players and want to move up in the ranks, your chances will greatly increase if you can incorporate these five shots into your game. If you do, I am sure that in no time, you will become a