Control the Rally – Patterns

Here I just wanted to put together my thinking on some fairly common shot selection decisions you will have to make over and over throughout the course of a match. This is by no means me saying ‘always hit this shot’ as situations vary in every situation depending on ball height, opponent, pace, court conditions, movement, etc. Sometimes it’s good to do the opposite of what I recommend in this video, but I just wanted to go over the basic high percentage plays.

I hope it’s helpful, even if it gets you thinking in a slightly different framework, or re-enforces your own thoughts on favorite tactics. For those of you who are newer to the game, perhaps these brief  classroom videos will help emphasize that it’s a thinking game, not purely shot execution.

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How to beat the Continental Grip

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Does this look familiar? Most people use some form of continental grip when they play. This usually involves a slow looping backswing, letting the ball drop to below their hip, and a pretty follow through pose at the end of their swing, with no body rotation. Old people trained in the classical way of playing tennis – back when people used wooden racquets – use this style of play very frequently.

So how do you beat someone with a flat continental grip?

bad contin hi ball

Their key weakness are high balls (see above), especially heavy topspin lobs.  The reason is that since their grip is flat, and they come through at the ball with a level swing, it’s very difficult to generate any pace or power. They either have to hit something awkward like I’m doing above, or they have to move very far back to let the ball drop to waist-height. So either way you’re going to put them in trouble. If you push them way back, they’re going to have to lob it back or hit from way back in the court. This is a great time to go into the net.

Here’s a close-up of how the racquet comes through the swing when using a continental forehand.

How do you beat players that have a continental grip?

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.

Hit your Opponent

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This happens a lot in doubles.

Here’s the scenario – your opponent hits a lousy approach shot, or a bad volley, something that pops up nice and high in the middle of your court. It’s a powder-puff short ball and you have all the time in the world. Your opponent is really close to the net, and you have a second to decide if you try to pass them down the line, crosscourt, or lob. Which do you think is the play that is most likely to succeed?

net guy

Here’s your view.

Most people will answer the above scenario by saying hit it to their backhand side volley. The logic would be that typically this is their weaker side. You’re too far inside the court to hit a topspin lob easily, and the ball you are attacking is high anyway, so it’s hard to swing from low to high on it.

What I would suggest in this situation is trying to hit the ball right at your opponent’s right hip (the hip on your left). As a volleyer, this is the most difficult spot to cover. You can react quickly and stab a volley that is going past you, but it’s very hard to get out of your own way and still maintain control. As the hitter in this scenario, by hitting the ball right at your opponent, you are also hitting over the lowest part of the net, and hitting down the middle, so you’re not going to hit the ball out. You don’t even have to hit the ball hard at them since you are so close to the net. They will have less than a tenth of a second to react, and at best they will pop up a weak ball that you can hit at them again, or then put away.

Some people might claim this is bad etiquette, and maybe if you’re playing with some club nancies then that’s something to consider. But at a high level of play, hitting at your opponent in this situation is a viable strategy. It’s your highest percentage play, and their lowest chance of success. So it is the shot I would recommend. My argument would be that your opponent should not be crowding the net, cutting down all the angles and forcing you to hit a tough shot (around them), when in fact they should be penalized for their poor approach. It is up to the opponent to either stand further back from the net to give themselves more time to respond, get out of the way, or to accept the fact that they might get pegged.

Note – if the ball touches any part of your opponent’s body, you win the point.

Here is the USTA’s stance on the etiquette issue:

Q. I looked through the rules but couldn’t find where this was addressed. What is the rule on intentionally hitting a player. I understand that its hard to prove but how many hard shots at your head/body constitutes a foul? I recently played a match that every time I approached the net my opponent would just hit as hard as he could right at me without any attempt to lob or hit a passing shot.

What can be done about this and is this specifically addressed in the rules?

A: There is not a lot one can do. If the player says I am going to hit you the next time I get an opportunity and does so, that could be deemed unsportsmanlike conduct. Just saying it could be a conduct penalty if there are officials. Other than that, stay alert. There is no rule to prohibit a player from hitting the ball at their opponent at any pace.

Return of Serve Positioning

I’ve already covered in my post on the return of serve that it is critical to be moving into the court before you splitstep, and move towards the ball as it approaches you. Here I want to demonstrate just how important it is to not stand too far back on the return, and to move in to cut off the angle.

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Here I start out about 3 feet behind the baseline, I move in before I splitstep, but because I started so far back, it’s very difficult to reutrn any serve hit into the corners of the box. I have to take two steps on reach an out-wide serve on my forehand side, and stretch weakly as it goes further and further off to the side of the court. I’m also restricted in how far I can move to reach a serve to my backhand. I can’t cover the angle if my opponent hits it to the corner.

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Here, I start off in a position on top of the baseline, with my right foot near the singles sideline. I step into the court with my splitstep, and take a step in further as I move to hit the ball. I have to move a much shorter distance in order to reach the ball, and my return will be a much more aggressive shot. My opponent gets less time to react, and my return is more powerful because the ball speed is higher. I merely have to stand my ground and redirect the shot. Notice that I am standing a little closer to the singles sideline than what people are typically taught (usually taught to stand a half foot away from the sideline). In doing so, I cannot cover a serve that is hit perfectly down the tee to my backhand. If your opponent is capable of hitting a flat serve down the tee to the corner consistently, then maybe adjust your positioning. But in my experience, most people struggle with this serve and get freaked out when you are standing near the doubles alley. They try too hard to hit the perfect serve down the tee, and will either make mistakes, or hit a non-perfect serve that you can reach.

So to sum up —- stand in as close as you can, be aggressive on the return, and cut down the angle.

Basic Court Positioning

1) Core Area will be about 2 feet behind the baseline , and a semi-circle around that center point into the court.

This is where you spend most of the time, and is the zone generally considered the ‘recovery zone’. So after every shot, you tend to recover to this position.

Where you recover depends on where you hit the ball.

If you hit the ball to the place marked O1, then you would recover to X1 – that is, slightly to the right of the centerline, cross-court from the ball that you just hit. The reasoning for this is that should your opponent elect to hit the ball down the line (lower percentage chance of success, more aggressive), there is a tendency for the ball to bounce on a trajectory towards the middle of the court, thus reducing the distance you have to travel. The easier, higher chance of success shot (a.k.a. higher margin shot) is the cross-court shot. This is because there is more area for you to hit the ball into, and the net is lower. So you always want to recover slightly to the crosscourt side of where you just hit the ball.

If you had just hit the ball to spot O2, then you would recover to spot X2, that is, slightly crosscourt of where you just hit the ball.

This whole area in the middle of the court is considered “no man’s land”. You either want to be on the baseline, or at the net. Anything in between is extremely dangerous and you’ll die. You’re too close in to react properly and hit groundstrokes, and you’re too far back to accurately hit volleys.

So if your opponent hits a short ball and you find yourself in this ‘no man’s land’ area, you want to hit the ball aggressively up the line and then approach the net to finish the point.

The reason you hit your approach shot up the line is because you reduce the distance you have to travel to get to the net. Unlike the baseline, you stay on the side of the court that the ball is on. This reduces the target areas for your opponent. You want to stand roughly 1 racquet length from the center line, on whatever side of the court the ball is on. The closer you are to the net, the more you cut down the angle for your opponent, but also you reduce your reaction time. You also must consider that if you touch the net with any part of your body, you lose the point. So generally you want to be 1 racquet length distant from the net when you are in volleying position.

If you hit your approach shot crosscourt, it means you have to travel a greater distance to reach the net and the opposite side of the court. It also gives your opponent more time to reach the ball. It also allows your opponent to hit their passing shot down the line, or hit their passing shot cross-court, behind the direction of your movement. So hitting approach shots down the line is the preferred tactic.

For the serve, you want to stand roughly 1 racquet length from the center T on the baseline. If you stand too far away, it makes it difficult to hit the ball up the middle, and more easy to hit the ball out wide. The opposite is true the closer you stand to the Center T.

When you are returning serve, you must recognize where your opponent is standing. If they are serving from the exact center of the court, there is little risk that they will be able to hit the ball way out wide of the court. Their most likely serve is down the center. You should adjust your position accordingly as you await their serve (r1). Vice Versa for if they are standing very far away from the center of the court. In that case you want to begin your return of serve from as wide as the doubles alley (r2).

Remember, you can always change where you stand when you are returning serve. You can move at any ponit during their serve, and although you generally begin about 1 foot behind the baseline, and 1 foot from the sideline, this is not always the case. Sometimes I return serve from inside the doubles alley. Sometimes, I stand inside the baseline. Adjusting your court positioning throws off your opponent mentally, and changes the time in which they receive the return.

Always move in as you return serve. By moving in, you reduce the angles at which the ball can bounce.

Keep your return of serve motion very compact and follow through.

This video goes over the correct recovery positions pretty clearly. The only problem is that the letters are inside the baseline. In a real game, you would obviously recover to the same positions but behind the baseline.

Depth Dictates Victory

Fortune Favours the Bold – Hannibal

Nine times out of ten I can tell who will win a pro match based on how deep in the court they’re standing and how deep they’re landing the ball.

Court positioning:

Less aggressive < ————————–>More aggressive  | (net)

So where you stand is important. If you are standing way behind the baseline, this is a very defensive place to be. The number of shots you can hit consistently has decreased, and your opponent now has more time to react to any ball you hit at them. You can no longer catch them off-guard with a dropshot, and you must attempt to work your way back onto the baseline by hitting deep balls with heavy spin. Trying to attack from far behind the baseline is a high risk strategy. You also have to cover more of the court if your opponent gets you running from side to side. This will tire you out more than were you to stand in closer.

Generally, the closer to the net you are, the more aggressive your court position. From on the baseline or inside the baseline, you can hit the ball earlier, giving your opponent less time to react. The angles you have are increased, and you have a wide selection of high probability shots to choose from.

In a scenario where one player is standing on the baseline and the other is way behind the baseline, the odds greatly favor the player who is standing in the more aggressive court position. Sometimes it is indeed necessary to play from far behind the baseline, but you should always attempt to recover to the baseline and put yourself in a neutral or aggressive position for the point. If a player is consistently in defensive court position, they do not stand a good chance of winning.

Depth of Shots

How deep you hit your shots goes hand in hand with the court positioning of each player. If you hit your shots consistently near the baseline, you rob your opponent of time and leave them with a limited number of shots to choose from. A ball that lands near the baseline is considered an aggressive shot, and typically will allow you to gain control of the point as your opponent struggles to return it.

Any ball that lands with topspin near the service line will bounce up just high enough to be in your opponent’s sweetspot strike zone, and these balls are therefore considered weak. You are giving your opponent an opportunity to attack, rather than pushing them back into a defensive posture.

Most players focus too much on whether or not they hit the ball crosscourt or down the line, or how close to the line. It would be much more beneficial to focus on hitting the ball deep in the court within 3 feet of the baseline consistently, regardless of whether or not the ball lands in the corner or middle of the opponent’s court.

Charge!

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When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; 
when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near – Sun Tzu

The Chip and Charge

Especially effective tactic against someone who doesn’t hit the corners with their serve, and who is off-balance after their serve.

What you do is stand well inside the baseline, ideally as close to the service line as you can manage while still hitting the ball, and you hit a slice “chip” back to them and rush the net. The ball will come back to them in an unpredictable way, very soon after they serve. The backspin on the ball gives you enough time to get to the net. You should generate forward momentum before your shot by taking big steps into the court before your splitstep. You should be right close to the net by the time they reach your chip.

You’re then forcing them to come up with a passing shot against you, and you have reversed the pressure onto them as the server.

The Lob and Charge

Most people have a very difficult time dealing with high topspin lobs that land deep in their court. Sometimes they’ll bounce right over the person. Sometimes they can only manage to hit a weak ball back, or lob something back at you.

One benefit of charging the net after a topspin lob is that your opponent is looking up to the ball, and they lose their peripheral vision of the net. 9/10 times they won’t even know you’ve snuck in. If they try to hit the ball normally and level it out, BAM you’re right there ready to volley it away into the short court. If they try to hit a lob back, then BAM you’re there ready for the overhead or a swinging volley. This is highly effective against people with bad footwork, stiff legs, and/or stiff arms.

Try hitting high rolling topspin shots to them and see how they react. If they always lob you back, then you know to expect a swinging volley or overhead. If they always hit a weak ball back, then close in tighter to the net and get ready for the putaway volley.

As always, for maximum effectiveness, hit your lob to their weaker side – typically their backhand.