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Court Sense

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Ask yourself this question: "How many times have you hit a ball in a match and had absolutely no clear idea where you were on the court?" My guess is that if you are truthful in your answer, the number of such incidents is greater than you would want to admit.

When playing tennis in a competitive setting, a player must know several things at all times:

  1. Where is the ball?
  2. Where am I on the court?
  3. Where is my opponent on the court?
  4. Given the answers to the above…where do I want to hit the ball?

One of the things that a coach can help a player achieve is a better "court sense" when competing. To help the players that I coach get a better court awareness, I have recently started to tape the court using brightly colored masking tape. In my schema, I divide the court into 9 different areas.

Below is a diagram that illustrates how I divide the court up using tape to create the lines that are evident on the lower half of the court.


You will note in the above diagram that I do not number any of those areas that are extremely close to the net. Why? Well, first of all, I doubt that many of us will find ourselves that close to the net in a match…unless we are playing doubles. Second, if we were this close to the net, we will probably put away any volley we hit, or be lobbed by our opponent. In the latter case, the lob will probably be a winner if hit with any depth.

However, zones 1-9 are areas on the court in which we may actually find ourselves hitting shots when playing singles.

Zone 2 is a rally zone. It is probably the area from which you will hit most of your shots when playing singles. As such, it is a fairly comfortable zone for most players. However, it is not an area from which you can hit many, if any, winners! Even when your opponent is at the net, passing shots are difficult from this area. The potential angles of reply just are not conducive to winning the point outright from this area of the court.

Zone 2 requires patience. It demands that the player keep the ball deep by hitting it high, not hard. Ideally, the reply lands in the opponent’s Zone 2. This is why it is referred to as a rally zone.

If your opponent is at the net when you are in Zone 2, your safest bet is a high, topspin lob that lands deep. Granted, some of these will come back at you as winning overhead smashes, if they are not hit high enough or deep enough. But, when executed properly, this lob will pay big dividends. As your opponent goes back to retrieve the lob, move forward to take the net. Now, you are in an offensive zone and will often times be able to end the point with a volley or a smash.

Unfortunately, I see all too many players trying to hit big shots that are intended to end the point from Zone 2. In all probability, all the player is doing is wearing herself/himself out.

Zones 1 and 3 are definitely defensive zones…particularly if you are on the run! Here the best play is to hit a high, slow paced, lob-like shot that is hit to land crosscourt or to land deep in the center of your opponent’s Zone 2. The temptation when in Zones 1 or 3 is to go for a down the line winning shot. This may work if the opponent is at the net, but not as frequently as you might imagine. Clearly, if the opponent is back, he/she will be able to retrieve your down the line shot and put it crosscourt for a winner.

Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras are capable of hitting these great down the line shots with much success. But, we mere mortals generally lose more points than we win when trying this tactic. Remember, the net is 6 inches higher at the posts, and for all intents and purposes, the court is "shorter" when hitting down the line. Thus, there is little margin for error.

If you are the owner of a great angled, topspin shot, you may want to try hitting it for a winner, when your opponent is at the net and you are in Zone 1 or 3. Most opponents will try to cover the down the line passing shot. However, if you are on the run when you attempt this winning passing shot, you will probably be disappointed in the results.

When in Zone 1 or 3, try to get back into the point…don’t try to win the point.

Zone 5 is a very tricky area of the court. You can hit an outright winner from here or you can setup an approach shot.

If your opponent is out of court or nearly out of court and the ball is coming to your better wing, try for the outright winner. Either go away from your opponent, or if time permits, let your opponent commit to moving to covering the open court. When he/she does this, pause a second, and then, hit behind him/her. Don’t attempt this if the ball is coming to your weaker wing. You will probably make a dozen of these in practice but miss 3 out of 4 when under the pressure of a match.

The safest play is to chip an approach shot deep and follow it to the net. I like to keep things simple. So, I encourage players to chip straight ahead and follow the ball to the net. Sometimes, you can chip away from your opponent and win the point off of an unforced error. This is particularly likely to occur if the opponent has a western grip on the forehand or a two handed backhand. Still, I like to be patient when I compete and have found that the volley after hitting an approach is much more likely to win the point than the approach shot.

Zones 4 and 6 are areas of the court that are conducive to taking risks. If you are in either of these zones, there is a lot of court open to your opponent. Lobs are not a viable option. In all probability, you were forced into either of these zones by an angled shot from your opponent. More often than not, you are not going to win the point from these zones. So, when I find myself in these areas of the court, I go for a winner. In fact, I use my ball machine to practice hitting winners from these zones. Generally, I have a 50/50 chance of being successful when I try for an outright winner from these zones. But, that is with lots of practice. Still, the spatial geometry is against you when you are in these zones. So, why not go for it?

Zone 8 is where most of us want to be! It is clearly an offensive court position…unless of course, you can’t volley. Then, Zone 8 becomes a living hell. This is why I encourage younger players to spend time on improving their volleys. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a junior with great groundstrokes lose to an opponent who brought her/him to the net.

If you are in Zone 8, go for it! Try for an outright winner with your volley. The Australian players live to get into this part of the court…and they never are timid about trying to win the point outright when they get to Zone 8.

Zones 7 and 9 may or may not be offensive positions on the court. It all depends on where your opponent is positioned. If your opponent is behind the baseline, try to hit a short volley in such a manner that she/he has to run the greatest distance to get to the ball. If you use this tactic, make certain that you follow your volley and close the gap between you and your opponent…just in case she/he gets to the ball.

If your opponent is inside the baseline, I recommend that you hit a hard volley that goes directly to his/her body. The idea is to jam him/her with your volley and elicit a weak reply.

If your opponent is close to the net, at least inside the service line, try to hit a high, soft lob crosscourt. This little lob is very hard for a player to smash away. If hit properly, the opponent will have to run back to retrieve the ball. When she/he does this, just move back to the center of the net to cover the widest number of replies. However, more often than not, the opponent will lob back. If she/he does, you will be ready to hit a put away overhead smash.

Next time you go out to play on a hard court, take some masking tape with you…not to worry--it won’t damage the surface of the court. Tape up the court into the zones that I have identified in the diagram above. Have your hitting partner feed you balls to every zone. Be aware of where your opponent is on the court and what zone you are in. Then, practice the proper reply. After a while, try playing a set or two.

I am sure that if you do follow this training plan, in no time, you will be developing a great court sense…and when you do, you will be well on your way to becoming 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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