Why you don’t want a “weapon”

Tennis Ronin

Miyamoto Musashi was arguably one of the finest swordsmen to ever live. Born in 16th century Japan, he fought 60 duels (to the death) and won them all. He went on to write The Book of Five Rings, where he discussed philosophy, Buddhism, and combat strategy.

One of his core discussions in his writings is to never overuse one weapon – doing so is as bad as misusing the weapon since it becomes easier and easier for your enemy to find a weakness in your style. He was notable for using two swords simultaneously.

This lesson translates directly into tennis. I hear people saying “I need a weapon!” indicating that they want a powerful forehand crosscourt, or a powerful backhand down the line, or a powerful serve, etc. This is not the right way to develop. Obviously you want every element of your game, every shot, to be a weapon that your opponent is afraid of. You don’t want a weapon. You want about a dozen. If I only truly felt comfortable attacking with angled crosscourt forehands, soon enough my opponent would be able to anticipate that I would hit the ball there. They would begin moving before I strike the ball. It would begin to feel progressively harder to hit that shot and get them running, and I might have to try to hit it closer and closer to the line until I am hitting the ball out and making errors. Then my weapon is destroyed, and my confidence is low.

So stay unpredictable, have multiple methods for attack. Do not seek to simply have one effective weapon, but develop everything evenly. Naturally you will have some shots you favor over others, but do not over-use those shots or they lose their potency. If it seems that you are hitting good aggressively placed shots but your opponent is dealing with them just fine, try adding variety – instead of always hitting rolling topspin to their backhand, hit the ball to their forehand side as well. They may be moving before you hit the ball. It’s hard to identify when they have found one of your favorite patterns, and start to anticipate your shot selection.

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Attack the Short Ball

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. -Sun Tzu

Many people starting out playing tennis do not understand that there are constant tactical decisions that have to be made during each point. In this post I wanted to discuss when to attack and be aggressive.

Ultimately the best time to attack during a rally is when your opponent hits a ball that lands inside the service box and bounces up softly such that you can adjust your position and hit it between waist and head height. At a higher height, you are able to be aggressive in hitting down on the ball. The closer you are to the net, the easier the attacking shot becomes, plus you are that much closer to the net where you can finish the point.

If you are standing on the baseline or further back, it is a low percentage play to try and attack. Your targets are smaller, your margin for error is less. Your opponent also has more time to react.

So during a rally you always want to identify – is the shot my opponent just hit something that I can move in and attack? If so, always attack. The moment they show weakness, you must attack and seize the opportunity to be the offensive player. Never hit a short ball timidly and then retreat back to the baseline. If you do this, you shall never truly beat your opponent.

Shot Selection

Knowing and having proper technique is extremely important, but without proper knowledge of shot selection, you will still struggle to hit the ball consistently. You can have perfect technique on your forehand, but if you try to hit the ball low, deep, and down the line when you are running back and out wide, you will almost certainly lose the point due to poor shot selection.

Understanding what shot to attempt to hit at any given time and position on the court is contingent upon your understanding the risks involved with each position, and the subsequent risks you may face should you decide on a certain course of action. Understanding your own risks translates to understanding the risks of your opponent, and you can maximize your chances of success while minimizing theirs.

So to get into the risk of each shot, there are many factors at play.

  • The net is actually 3-4 inches lower in the center than at the sides. By hitting crosscourt, you are hitting the ball over the middle of the net, and gaining a few inches of leeway from the net.
  • The diagonal distance from one corner to the other is several feet longer than the distance hitting down the line. A crosscourt shot takes more time to travel through the air and to travel the longer distance. This can be good for you if you need time to recover after being stretched out wide, and the extra distance means more margin of error if you hit the ball long.
  • Most people who watch the pros think that they are hitting every ball hard and low over the net back and forth. This is not how good players actually play. They typically hit the ball a good 5-6 feet over the net with heavy topspin. This takes the net out of consideration, and the topspin makes the ball drop back into the court. Ideally you want the vast majority of your shots to be 5 feet over the net, with topspin, landing within 3 feet of the opponent’s baseline, “Deep” in their court. This type of shot gives you the highest margin of safety while inflicting the most stress on your opponent.
  • You especially want to increase your margin of safety when you are being pulled out wide by your opponent. In instances when you are under stress, you need more time to recover and you are likely off-balance. So typically it is best to hit a high looping ball crosscourt. This gives you the most time to get back into position, and it makes it difficult for your opponent to attack.
  • If you hit the ball down the line, you not only have to recover a greater distance (see basic court positioning) to the other side of the court, but you also have less time in which to cover that distance. You are also hitting the ball over the slightly higher part of the net. So down the line shots are more risky than crosscourt. However, they also give your opponent less time to react, and thus can become winners. One way to mitigate the recovery problems with a down the line shot is to follow it into the net. A down the line shot should usually only be played if you are in a neutral-aggressive or aggressive position for the shot.
  • If you are in the middle of the court, it is difficult to generate any angles with the ball, so it is best to hit the ball down the middle of the court with depth and spin, or to hit the ball to your opponent’s weaker side, taking advantage of any technical problems they might have.
  • Hitting the ball down the middle of the court is typically considered neutral, as you are not forcing your opponent to run. Some players are more comfortable hitting the ball when they are moving slightly out wide though, and for these opponents it can be best to hit down the middle. You reduce your risk and increase their discomfort. There is the additional benefit that your opponent may get impatient and try to hit an overly aggressive shot, and that they will not be able to call your shots ‘out’ since they are nowhere near the lines. Hitting down the middle of the court can be great at the beginning of the match, or during any high tension points. If your opponent is likely feel tight, hitting down the middle gives them a great opportunity to screw up.