This month, I want to dedicate some space to the strategic aspects of tennis. Hopefully, you have already read my previous column on percentage tennis. Any strategy you decide to build must fall within the parameters of percentage tennis if it is to stand a fair chance of success. In addition, any well founded strategy must account for your strengths and your weaknesses. Finally, winning strategies are simple!
Some years back, an adage attributed to Yogi Berra came to my attention. It goes something like this:
"you can't think and play baseball at the same time." It was true for baseball, and I think it is true for
tennis. I have seen many a player "think" her/his way out of a match. So, how does one strategize without thinking?...well, obviously, you can't. But, having a prematch strategy frees you to play without thinking.
If this prematch strategy fails, you'll need to adjust. The real questions are: when should your adjust and
how should you change. We'll get to the answers to these questions...but first, some simple truths.
There are no style points in tennis!!! If you win the point...you win the point. It doesn't matter how hard the ball was hit...whether you served and volleyed...if it was a mishit winner, or if the wind carried the ball to a winning bounce. A point is a point. So, any legitimate strategy that wins the points, games, sets and match is a well conceived strategy. "Pushers" know this all too well and revel in winning the "soft" way.
The eternal strategy in tennis involves getting your opponent to hit to your strengths and not to your weaknesses. This means that you must know what are your weapons and what are not. You need to be honest in this self-assessment. A hard hit backhand that sails long three out of four times is not a strength...regardless of how good it feels to hit it.
Errors, not winners, determine who wins the match. We all love to think that when we win a match it is because we were hitting winners. Really, matches are determined primarily by who hits the fewest errors.
So in reality, a truly aggressive game is one that attempts to "help" your opponent hit more errors. This is critically important to understand and accept!
Given the above, each player should attempt to develop a strategy or "gameplan" before each match. This gameplan must account for the following: your "natural" or typical approach to play (e.g. baseline, serve and volley, all court), the surface, the conditions (wind, sun, etc.), your opponent's "natural" or typical approach to play (try and scout your opponent before the match if you have never played him/her before), and your own energy/fatigue factors. For example... playing serve and volley, on a red clay court, in
swirling windy conditions, against an opponent with great passing shots, when you are feeling fatigued...
doesn't make much sense. It is amazing to me how many players go onto the court ready to compete with no gameplan or with one that just doesn't make sense. Knowing what you are trying to do in a match before it is played greatly increases your chances of success. Also, it frees you from thinking during points.
Instead, you simply attempt to execute according to a plan that has already been thought out. In part, this is why the pros have coaches...to determine the gameplan. Unfortunately, most of us don't have a coach. So, we need to determine our own strategies...but, we do need to have them!
Discovering your own winning strategies takes some time and some attention. First, it is a discovery process that never stops evolving. It means you must play different opponents, different surfaces, different
conditions and try different strategies. It means that you must be prepared to lose in order to learn. However, you will only learn if you keep track of what happened and why. I keep a tennis journal that tracks my opponents, gameplans, results and analysis of why things happened. Over time, I have learned some very valuable lessons. I truly believe that you will never reach your full potential as a tennis player until you take the time and commit to keeping a daily tennis journal. Martina Navratalova kept such a journal at the suggestion of Billie Jean King...her results speak for themselves. Record what worked, what didn't and why...how you felt and why...create a player profile on every opponent (you'll probably see her/him again). The toughest questions to answer are the "whys." Seek the counsel of your teaching pro, school coach, or even a trusted hitting partner as you try to understand why things happened in your match. From time to time, have your match videotaped. You will begin to understand a lot more about your strategy (or lack thereof) by watching such a tape.
Really, strategic variables are relatively finite. There are only so many things you can do differently.
With this in mind, I offer the following strategies. They are simple...and thus, useful. Write them down.
Carry them with you in your tennis bag. If you need to change a strategy during a match, refer to this list.
Sometimes, trial and error is the only way to discover a winning strategy.
Obviously, the eight suggestions listed above are ways to change a losing game. The obvious question
is: "when should I change my gameplan?" Here is my advice. If you are down a set and a break you
need to change your gameplan. If you lost the first set 1-6 or 0-6, you need to change your game plan.
If you won the first set, lost the second set and are down in the third set...you probably changed strategies
without realizing it. Go back to what was working in the first set. Chances are it will work again.
- Pound your opponent's weakness. For example, if your opponent has no backhand, hit to it at least 80%
of the time. If the weakness isn't trememdously weak, hit to it at least 60% of the time (this is what is
meant by the phrase: "exploit a weakness by going through the strength first") In this latter situation,
you would hit to the opponent's strength in a way that forces him/her to move then you hit to the
- Get every ball back...preferably high and deep. In this style of play, you become a human "backboard."
If possible, try to hit high, deep, topspin "moonballs." This type of shot affords you the greatest margin
for error, keeps your opponent back, and allows you to more comfortably return to the center of the
court for the next shot. This strategy requires patience and guts.
- Never let your opponent see the same ball twice. Against very steady players who "groove" as a match
progresses, I have found this approach very effective. Hit each ball differently from the previous stroke.
Change the ball height, spin, pace or depth. Hit pace and then "junk" (hard/soft). Hit a deep moonball
then a ball that lands close to the net (deep/short). Hit topspin then hit slice to the same side (forehand
or backhand). When you have to rally, hit deep balls that land down the middle of the court. I realize
that this type of play isn't pretty and requires the ability to hit different shots. However, it can be
tremendously effective...ask any "pusher."
- Go for the winner on your third stroke. I have had much success with this strategy. Basically, I try
to keep the ball in play until my third stroke. If the point lasts that long (you'd be surprised at how many
don't) I automatically go for a winner. This winner can take the form of a volley, a groundstroke, a drop
shot or even a lob. No matter where I am on the court, I try for some shot that will be a clear winner.
My guess is that I win about 60% to 70% of these...actually, these are good percentages!
- Move your opponent and creep in. This is usually a favorite strategy for almost all players. The problem
is that we don't move forward after each stroke. Watch Andre Agassi when he is moving someone
"coast to coast" (from corner to corner). After each stroke he makes, Andre takes a half or even a
quarter step forward. By "creepin" in like this, Andre increases his hitting angles and forces his opponent
to scramble faster for each shot. It isn't just enough to move your opponent...you need to "inch" your
way in to a winning position.
- Serve at and hit at your opponent. If you are playing an opponent who gets to everything and can
run all day. this strategy may help. Try to serve 70% of your first serves at him/her. Make these
serves that have pace. Once the ball is in play, try to hit about 50% of your shots at your opponent
(preferably as she/he is moving). Again, try to hit these shots flat with lots of pace. Frequently, the
"rabbit" has difficulty with balls that come at him/her.
- Slow down a losing game...speed up a winning game. This tactic is really not a strategy but has
important strategic consequences. If you are losing or playing poorly, it is imperative to slow
down the overall pace of the match. Be methodical...take your time...relax your muscles...calm your
mind. Conversely, if you are winning, try to speed things up a bit. These changes in pace need not
be overly dramatic. Even subtle changes in pace achieve their desired effect!
- Change the entire software!!! This is a very dramatic strategic change and should only be used as a
last resort. Here, you change the entire style of play. If you have been playing serve and volley, you
go to a moonball, baseline, rally type of game. If you have been rallying and/or playing the aggressive
baseline game, you change to a serve and volley style of play. If you are really down and almost out,
these drastic changes may be all that's left. Remember, the match is never over until the last point is
played. Even this kind of drastic change is an attempt to win. Sometimes, it works.
The time to think about changing strategies is during game changeovers. Sit down, relax your muscles and let your mind consider what changes may be in order. Don't think about strategy changes during games and
certainly not during points!
Finally, remember not to change a winning strategy. In fact, if you are winning, don't think at all! Just
play as mindlessly as is possible (this is a skill that needs to be practiced).
However, all tennis matches have a player or team that needs to consider a change in strategy. Learn
when and how to change strategy and you'll become a tennis overdog!
Good luck in your game!