This was sent in by a young player who is having trouble with an unorthodox opponent.
I struggle against him. I used to beat him by varying my shots, but he returns everything with a chip and just places it around the court to get me moving.
When I used to play him and beat him, my topspin and decent shots placed around the court could beat him easily.
Now that he’s got me moving, I can’t hit as aggressive shots and then the match is pretty equal.
Do you have suggestions for a gameplan?
First, I would check your court positioning. During the rally, are you positioned on the baseline, or are you standing too far inside? Or are you standing too far back? If you are positioned at a good spot in the court during the normal course of a rally, you should be optimized such that any short ball can be attacked, and any deep ball you can return neutrally. This typically means standing 1 foot behind the baseline to 1 foot inside the baseline, depending on your opponent. Simply moving shouldn’t deter you from attacking, but perhaps you mean he really gets you on the run by varying his depth. In that case, try to anticipate where he may hit the ball before he even swings. Also, read my basic court positioning piece so you never feel like you’re being put on the run.
Since he is hitting everything with what sounds like slice (chip), you shouldn’t have to worry about him hitting winners on you. These types of shots that bounce with no pace and a little to a lot of backspin are very difficult to attack, because you have to generate all the pace on your own. That is why I do not recommend trying to hit these shots hard, as tempting as it may be. They look like little powder-puff gifts but really the lack of pace and awkward spin can make them difficult to attack. It is easy to think that your superior technique should mean that you destroy this type of player, but don’t underestimate them. You still have to be smart and pick your times to attack. Remember my piece on ‘Control, Hurt, Finish’.
Instead of going for a winner or a highly aggressive shot, here are a few things you could try:
1) When he hits the ball somewhat short in the court, hit a looping ball down the middle and get into the net quickly. Hitting down the middle gives him fewer angles to pass you. Hitting it higher does a few things – it gives you more time to get into the net, it takes advantage of his non-topspin grip, and it makes him look up, so he wont realize you’re at the net. Since he doesn’t hit with topspin anyway, even if he tries to lob you, it will be a difficult shot since he can’t drop it into the court with spin. You should have time to run back and get it. See my piece on Charging the Net.
2) If you’re around the baseline, try hitting high looping topspin balls. Put as much spin on the ball as you can. If someone has an incorrect grip, there is literally no way they can return a heavy topspin ball that bounces up around their shoulders. They’ll start hitting the ball sky-high, about 10 feet long, or over the fence. Make sure to give your balls lots of height over the net. Too low, and he’ll be able to handle them.
3) Someone who only ever slices the ball is susceptible to net-attacks. This is because the ball does not travel with as much pace, and tends to travel upwards for longer. If you can anticipate when they are going to hit a slow chip ball, charge the net. Your first volley may be from the service line, but you want to be on top of that net ASAP so you can aggressively put away his weak shots.
4) Ultimately if you feel your technique is superior to his, over time his poor technique should break down and lead to unforced errors. If you are simply more patient than your opponent, keep everything in the court, don’t be overly aggressive, and wait it out, then you should be able to win. Try to keep track of where he is making the most errors, and take advantage by hitting to that side more frequently.
So in summary – Check your court positioning, pound the hell out of him with high topsin balls. Sneak into the net whenever you can and pick his little weakling returns out of the air. Be confident that over time your superior technique will lead to more consistency than your opponent.