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Back To Basics

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Ron Waite, USPTR

As we enjoy the holiday season, it is perhaps wise to take inventory of what strengths and weaknesses we are experiencing in our tennis game. New Year's is a time for resolutions. I find that every New Year, I reflect upon my tennis game and spend some time trying to regain my "basics."
Each of us has probably experienced this situation. We are in a match. We are struggling to play a winning game. Some of our strokes may have abandoned us, and our tactics/strategies may be failing us. Regrettably, this devolvement may linger with us causing us to have a "slump" that goes beyond a single game. It is times like these that the tennis player must get back to basics.
More often than not, players in these situations "panic." Frequently, we experience what can be called "paralysis by analysis." We literally make matters worse by trying to "reason" our way out of our dilemma. The result is almost always disappointing and the player becomes increasingly frustrated. Ultimately, this can lead to a very dismal slippery slope.
So this month, I want to briefly review with the reader some of the "basics" in our wonderful game. In some ways, the basics are the foundation of what is called "percentage tennis." I don't play the lottery. Although I have no problem with people who do, the odds are just too great to make much sense. I could play most of my life and never really win a significant amount. In tennis, the odds are too important to ignore. By following some very simple guidelines, the player can greatly enhance his/her likelihood of playing well, and thus, increase the probability of winning.
First, one needs to know what strokes are weaknesses and avoid having to hit them if at all possible. This seems to be obvious, but I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have observed players who attempt to hit the "unlikely" winner or allow the opponent to pound a weakness. For example, a player may have a weak running backhand groundstroke. For whatever reason, this particular stroke is not honed to a point where it is reliable. So, it makes no sense to go for a winner when running to hit this backhand! Yet many times, players do go for the winner. My guess, which is all that this is, is that the player recognizes that this is a weakness and seeks to end the point quickly to end the "fear" of having to hit this shot again. Going for the down-the-line winner that lands deep in the corner seems to be a "logical" way to show your opponent to not repeat her/his shot that put you in this untenable position. What is the ultimate result? You miss the winner and the opponent now knows that this may be a weakness in your game. The smarter play would have been to hit a high, deep shot that lands deep crosscourt. Granted, some opponents would be closing the net in this particular situation and they may be able to hit an overhead smash for a put away. Still the odds suggest that you will be able hit another shot in this rally.
Sometimes an opponent (particularly one who has played against you in the past) knows that you have a particular weakness. Let's say that you are less comfortable with your forehand groundstroke. If an opponent knows this, he/she may hit many shots to this wing in the hope that he/she can force an error. In this case, the best course of action would be to hit a "safe and reliable" reply that is likely to change the rally pattern. For example, hitting a high, deep forehand down the line may be enough to force the rally to be primarily involving the backhand wing. In truth, there are some times that you cannot stop an opponent from attempting to exploit your weakness. But, you can make it more difficult for him/her.
Second, try to hit most of your shots off of your strengths. Again, makes common sense. Most players "instinctively" attempt to hit using their strengths.
For example, many players feel most comfortable hitting their forehand groundstrokes as opposed to backhand varieties. In this example, it would make sense to use your footwork to "run around" your backhand whenever possible. I recall many years back when Jim Courier played on the tour. He would only hit backhands when he absolutely had to do so. Much of his match saw him "running around" his backhand to hit his more devastating forehand. Despite his opponents knowing he would attempt this tactic, Jim was in superlative shape and possessed the footwork and speed necessary to reliably employ this tactic.
These first two "basics" are aspects of our game that each of us should and probably do know. Yet, we frequently forget them when we compete. They are based on an important principle of the game. On all levels of the game, matches are won by the players who make the fewest errors... not the players who make the most winners! There are those times when our games are "on." We are completely in "the zone" and every shot seems to be a winner or near winner. BUT, these are usually very rare. The goal of "getting back to basics" should be to minimize the likelihood of you making an errant shot, and to maximize the likelihood that your opponent will miss her/his shots.
For those of you who enjoy playing doubles, there is a variation of the above principles: Hit most of your shots to the opposing team's weaker player and attempt to have most shots hit by your team's stronger player.
Third, employ the 80/20 rule. I must give credit for this "rule" to Peter Burwash. Very simply put, this "rule" suggests that every player should hit 80 percent of his/her groundstrokes crosscourt and only 20 percent of groundstrokes down-the-line. Truly, this is percentage tennis. By hitting crosscourt, a player is hitting the ball over the lowest part of the net. In addition, the diagonal distance of hitting crosscourt is longer than the distance when hitting down-the line. Thus, the odds of your keeping your shots in bounds are greater when hitting cross court. There are times when hitting down-the-line if the right choice. For example if your opponent is wide out of court, hitting down-the-line and forcing him/her to scramble to make a reply makes perfect sense. However in this situation, the player should close the net in case the opponent does make a decent reply. Being at the net means that a player is more likely to successfully address any reply in this situation with perhaps the exception of a lob. In addition, it makes sense to hit down-the-line when doing so forces your opponent to hit off her/his weaker wing. Lastly, hitting down-the-line is a good selection when you are inside the baseline and can hit a put away. In truth, rallies cannot exclusively involve crosscourt shots. (This may be less true when playing on a slow, clay surface.) BUT, it is probably best to have your opponent hit the down-the-line shot.
Fourth, never change the direction of a hard hit ball. The logic of this "basic" is based somewhat on the 80/20 "rule." However, it is also based on difficulty. When you are given a shot that has lots of pace, it is technically very difficult to change the ball's direction. For example, let's say an opponent hits a huge crosscourt forehand to your forehand wing. It has tremendous pace. Hitting your reply down-the-line (changing the direction of the ball) requires less forgiving timing. The chances of you hitting wide or long go up in this situation. If you are on the run to make this shot, the odds of making an error are increased even more. Finally, it you are changing the direction of the ball off of your weaker wing, the odds of making an error once again go up. In reality, there are times when you must change the direction of a hard hit ball. BUT, these should be kept to a minimum, and when you are forced to hit such a shot, do not try to hit your reply with pace. Rather, use your opponent's pace to generate a deeply hit (preferably with lots of topspin) reply.
Fifth, hit your approach shots crosscourt off of your forehand side, and down-the-line off of your backhand. I must give credit to Arthur Ashe would put forth this "basic" in a video in my collection. It really does work best! If you are going to the net and hitting a forehand approach shot, try to hit your approach crosscourt with topspin. When you are approaching the net with a backhand shot, it is best to hit down-the-line using a one-hand slice. What Arthur doesn't mention in his video presentation is that after hitting the approach, a player should follow the path of the ball to the net. So on the forehand side, the player is moving forward and to her/his left (assuming that she/he is right handed) as she/he follows the path of the ball that she/he has struck. On the backhand wing, the player is moving forward and straight ahead. Again, this follows the path of the ball that he/she has struck. Using these basics does two things. First, your opponent will be moved to a position that is least likely to be favorable. Second, you will automatically be in the best possible position at the net to react to your opponent's reply. I recognize that in the modern game, volleying is not as common as it once was. BUT, there are times when even the big groundstroker should come to the net... if only to add variety to his/her tactics in a match.
So, this is the time of year to re-establish basic principles into your game. Each of us have our own idiosyncratic "basics" which work for us though they may break some of the common "rules." My point is simple. Rediscover the "basics" of your individual tennis game.
I am sure if you do that in the coming year you will become a tennis overdog!
Happy holidays and all the best in 2018!!!

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

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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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