When I was taking Latin in high school, I will never forget learning the origin of the word sinister...on the left. Being right handed, I had experienced some of the sinister power of lefties when I played high school and college baseball...the lefty curve ball was murder! So, when I began to play tennis, I wasn't really shocked at the advantages lefties hold in the game. For years, I dreaded playing lefties...and my win record certainly underscored my fears. I discovered in speaking about my fear of lefties with left handed players that they, too, hated to play their own kind.
Fortunately, I have for the last two months practiced three times per week with a hitting partner who is a lefty...and has been ranked #1 in Men's 45 Singles in New England by the USTA. After much frustration, a lot of trial and error, and persistency, I can honestly say that I fear the lefty significantly less than I did three
So, what follows is my advice regarding the infamous lefty opponent. Let me assure you that there is hope...even if you are a lefty.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE PLAYING
Crazy as it may seem, we frequently do not become aware of our opponent's dominant side until well into a match. Why should we? After all, the vast majority of opponents are right handed. However, I constantly pay attention to a person's dominant side...on and off the court. I watch how people will write, what arm they wear their watch on, what hand holds the fork, etc. In fact, it has become a little obsession with me.
Well, when it comes to tennis, I not only want but actually need to know if my opponent is left handed.
Why, because where I stand, how I return, and to some degree how I play is determined by this knowledge.
It is imperative that you develop this awareness at all times. In fact, the first question you should ask yourself during the warm-up should be: Is this person a righty or a leftie. Get in the habit of knowing the answer to this question each time you play a new opponent (I am assuming you know the answer already, if you have played the opponent before...at least I hope this is an accurate assumption.)
THE LEFTIE SERVE
The most formidable weapon a lefty has is her/his serve...particularly to the ad court. Lefties impart the opposite spin to the tennis ball as opposed to right handed players. This results in serves that curve differently and bounce differently than that from a right handed player. These can wreak havoc upon even the best returner. In fact, sometimes the return is seemingly impossible to hit with control. So, what can a righty do?
Well, to begin with, you must stand a little bit left of where you normally stand to return serve. This simple movement will put you in a position where your "right hand grooved" returns are more likely to be immediately effective than if you stood in your normal spot. However, this means that you are conceding a bit the out wide serve in the deuce court and the "T" serve on the ad side. This is not that dangerous because these are the two serves that are usually most difficult for the lefty...not impossible...just a bit more difficult. Placing yourself properly for the return sends a signal to your opponent that you are ready and looking for the spin serves that cause the most trouble. Hopefully, she/he will decide to use them a little less frequently.
The lefty slice serve and the lefty kick serve can often be the most troublesome to righties and lefties alike.
My friend Peter MacPartland has a slice serve to the ad court that can actually pull you into the adjacent court! Well, maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but it certainly seems this way. To return this type of serve, some adjustments need to be made. First, you absolutely have to see the ball and its bounce clearly and intently, if you expect to return successfully. (Refer to my previous articles See the Ball and Many Happy Returns) Second, you must offset the spin and your naturally ingrained muscle memory by returning down the T when receiving in the deuce court and down the line when receiving in the ad court. Trust me, until you really get accustomed to the lefty spin (which does happen as the match unfolds), these are the only two returns that you should try. Going crosscourt from the ad side when receiving the lefty slice serve out wide will almost always result in a netted or wide return. Save these returns for the later games in the first set or even into the second set...when you are more likely to have your lefty bearings.
The lefty kick serve is best used when he/she is serving to the deuce court. So, be on the look out for the distinctive behind the back toss and arched back. Move to your right when you see this motion and return the ball crosscourt. This crosscourt return is essential to offset the different spin. If you are seeing the kick serve coming at you in the ad court, still try for the down the line return. Again, you can vary your returns later on in the match when you have become more accustomed to the lefty spin.
Some players find that moving in helps negate the affect of the lefty spin...in that you are taking the ball more on the rise. Others claim that moving back is better...giving the ball time to complete its spin path. Personally, neither of these have been helpful to my returns...but, they may work for you.
What has helped me immeasurably is an awareness of stance. My returns improved 100% when I deliberately held a nearly completely open stance when returning the lefty serve. This is a particularly difficult stance to keep when the ball is traveling out wide on either side. Yet, the more I try to
keep my stance open at impact...the better and more consistent the return. I haven't really figured out the physics of this, but nonetheless, it has worked for me. I would be curious to learn from you if this action is helpful (send me a message with your perceptions).
If you know you are going to be playing a lefty in an important match or tournament, try to practice returns from a lefty a few days before and/or the morning of the match. If you don't have a lefty partner, have a right handed player stand at the service T and serve wide serves to you in the ad court. The wider the angle, the better. It is not as good as the real thing, but it's better than nothing. The idea is to get visually and muscularity acclimated to the different serve look.
A final note regarding the lefty serve to the ad court. Since the ad court is where most games are won or lost (30/40, 40/30, Ad in, Ad out), lefties have a major psychological advantage. They know that their best weapon can be used when it counts the most. That's why it is imperative that you relax and focus on a clean
return on these points. These are not the times to take chances or go for winners. Simply get the ball in play as best as you can. This is playing the percentages and minimizing this lefty edge.
REMEMBER WHICH SIDE IS THE LEFTY'S BACKHAND
Some time ago, a friend of mine made the statement that lefties' backhands are usually their stronger side.
The reason for this, he said, is because righties hit so many forehands crosscourt to the leftie's backhand.
Thus, it develops more than his/her forehand. Well, frankly, this doesn't ring true given my analysis of both pro and amateur players. Grips, body stances and confidence make for a stronger wing...not whether you are lefty or righty. Frankly, Rios' forehand is his better wing, while Korda fairs better off the backhand side.
I think playing to the lefty's forehand under the assumption that it will be weaker is just ill-founded.
Every player has a stronger and a weaker wing. Good players attempt winners off their strong side and try to remain consistent on their weaker side. Judge a lefty's stronger and weaker wings by observation and experience...not by some silly myth. Then, craft a plan that hits more balls to his/her weaker side and fewer to the stronger side. This is prudent strategy. If possible, craft a plan that forces your opponent to hit to your stronger side from his/her weaker side. I guarantee you that you will be pleased with the results.
RETURN THE FAVOR
Being a somewhat vengeful competitor, I believe turnabout is fair play. So, I have spent many hours perfecting my wide slice serve to the deuce court. This is essentially doing to the lefty what she/he does to you on the ad court. Pulling her/him out wide to hit a backhand return in the deuce court really feels good.
However, it is never quite as effective because lefties are already accustomed to the righty spin...after all, they play us all the time!
THE BEST SOLUTION
Believe me, playing a lefty regularly can make all the difference in your game. You perceptually, psychologically and muscularity can get familiar with the lefty's game. So, try to train with a lefty
whenever possible! If you have no left handed tennis playing friends, look for a local pro who is a
lefty and train periodically with her/him. Spend lots of time on return of serve, hitting back the lefty
slice backhand (which often has a bit of side spin that is opposite to the right handed players').
Trust me. Practice regularly with lefty and you'll soon be a tennis overdog that is not in his/her right
Good luck in your game!
PS: It's that Holiday Time of Year, again and I want to wish each of you the Happiest of
Holidays and a most wonderous New Year!!! You make mine!!!