SINGLES CLINIC, PART 2
Choices, choices, choices--down-the-line, cross-court, sharp cross-court, deep, short, underspin, topspin, moon ball, lob (and there is a difference), drop shot, rally shot, forcing shot, approach shot, offense, defense--and more. The more open the court, the more options present themselves to the player. But it's tennis, right? You've got a frantic fraction of a second to decide, and often your shot is nothing like a decision, at all, just a whack at the ball and hope for any port in the storm, but there are other moments when a placement is there for the taking. Which one? Choices, choices, choices.
There's no clear or accurate way to generalize about decisions that get made in a millisecond on the tennis court, but there are some guidelines that can clarify strategy for singles placements. Here's an example. When I first got the Bay Area, I lived in San Francisco and played tennis at Golden Gate Park, which attracted an incredibly eclectic group of players, among them, one Alex Stopovich, a Russian guy that I swore smelled of Vodka on occasions when we played, and he nevertheless kicked my butt. I figured out quickly that his forehand was his weakness, but pound on it as I might, he usually won and came off the court without a bead of sweat on his brow, whereas I was panting and drained. Finally, I asked him, though it may have been more of a whine, "How come you don't even sweat?" He replied in his thick accent, "Keit"--the "h" in my name was impossible for him to pronounce--"Keit, you hit down-the-line. I hit cross-court." He gave a curt nod and walked away. But the proverbial light bulb turned on in my head. As much coaching as I'd had, no one had ever sat me down and talked about placements for singles.
Cross-Court vs. Down-The-Line
Here's what my nemesis, Alex, was trying to teach me. On a singles court, the diagonal, corner to corner, is over four feet longer than the length end to end. The net is six inches lower in the middle, at the strap than at the posts, and remember, for a legal singles court, stakes must be positioned inside the alley, so the angle from post to the center strap is steeper than on a doubles court. Very simply, it's easier to hit a ball inside the lines when you use the longest leg of the court and the lowest part of the net, cross-court. Defensively, there's another reason to hit cross-court: it forces your opponent to attack your open side down-the-line, so that she can't run you off the court. The return of serve offers an excellent example of this. Relegated to the corner of the court, the returner's primary vulnerability is all the open space on the other side. If the returner hits down-the-line, that allows the server to attack the returner's open court with a cross-court angle, running her past the sideline of her open court and requiring so much more court coverage. If, rather, the returner hits cross-court, the server has to attack the open space down-the-line, where the ball stays inside the sideline, thereby limiting the amount of court coverage required. Those are defensive reasons to hit cross-court, but there's an offensive one, as well. If your dastardly intent is to yank your opponent out of his shoes and off the court, the cross-court is your very best friend. That's why Alex beat me. Because I hit too much down-the-line, I wasn't running him, whereas his cross-courts ran me ragged. For all these reasons, you see more cross-court than down-the-line placements in a typical rally. The cross-court represents a good neutral or rally stroke, a good defensive placement to limit the attack to your open side, and if you get a short ball, hitting sharply cross-court can really open up the court for attack and get your opponent on the run.
Why, then, go down-the-line? Down-the-line placements get to your opponent more quickly than a cross-court because they travel a shorter distance. So, hurrying your opponent if he's out of position toward one side of the court can be better accomplished by a down-the-line to his open side. As well, approach shots are more safely hit down-the-line. Remember, at net we're trying to shadow the ball and our opponent to cut off the down-the-line pass. By hitting down-the-line on your approach shot, you bring your opponent right in front of you, cutting off that high-percentage pass and forcing her to hit one cross-court, to a smaller part of the court. And what about picking on a weak backhand, for example? If your opponent's backhand looks like something picked up at a flea market for seventy-five cents, pick on that poor thing, even if it means hitting your forehands down-the-line and not running her. And what about hitting down-the-line just to be contrary? Not a bad idea, you crazy, unpredictable thing.
Deep vs. Short
Hitting deep is the meat and potatoes of singles play. When I'm coaching juniors, we work on that harder than anything, particularly because kids are short, and the kid that can hit deep and force the other kid to play up over his shoulder is going to be the one that wins. Toward that end, pace is less important than depth, though obviously, if you can hit both hard and deep, you'll get a deserved reputation as a terror. But mostly, it's the lovely sight of your opponent backpedaling toward the fence and reaching up over his shoulder, especially his backhand shoulder, that makes us all misty-eyed with deep, sadistic satisfaction. Nothing quite like it, except those deep balls that land at your opponent's feet and make him half-volley his groundies. These placements, too, will shape a wicked grin on your face. Deep shots cause unforced errors and short balls; the former wins the point outright, the latter allows you to move forward and take command of it. Bottom line, when I coach recreational players, I de-emphasize pace and replace depth as the more offensive tactic. It's hard to see a moon ball as offensive, but making your opponent back up and play up out of the strike zone will win match after match.
Why, then, would you want to hit short? Let me count the ways. What if your opponent is one stroke steadier than you? You're playing well, keeping the ball in play, making good placements, but he's making one more placement than you, and winning. Should you try and hit harder, nearer the lines, more to the corners? Nuh uh. That's just going to take your steady game down into the black hole of unforced errors. What about hitting short and forcing your opponent to play at net? How good are his volleys, his overheads? Try making him play from a part of the court where he may not be as comfortable. And what about the dude that's using a full western grip and loves to hit with a ton of topspin. Your high balls might not be damaging to him. But make him play about six inches off the court and see how comfortable that grip is. And what about diffusing the power of a big hitter? Ashe did this to Connors at the finals of Wimbledon, beating the number one player in the world with short chips that landed near the T. Connors wasn't able to power those shots and Ashe won. Being able to hit drop shots and low chips is essential for a good singles player. You need command of both the deep and the short portions of your opponent's court.
Middle vs. The Corners
If the most obvious thing about the singles court are the seeming miles of open space, hitting the corners is how you exploit that space. Watch the folks from Planet Tennis when they get the opportunity of a weak ball, and they often hit corner to corner, stroke after stroke. The gal on the other side of the net looks like a tangle of legs and arms, just trying to chase things down. Toward that lovely end, the pros will even hit down-the-line after down-the-line, just to keep their opponents on the run. Force your opponent to hit on the run and you'll break his control down. Force your opponent to hit on the run for a couple sets and you'll take the legs out from under him. Really, really fun. But you've got to pick the right opportunity. Hitting the corner means hitting a pretty small piece of real estate, near the lines, and it's a recipe for an unforced error if you choose to do this when you're back on your heels, up in the strike zone and not able to set up in a good position; then, you're trying to make something out of nothing, and alchemy just doesn't work on a tennis court. Look for shorter balls that bring you in, closer to your target, or occasions where your opponent is way the hell over in the next court and your don't have to make a perfect placement to hurt him.
And if you're the victim of a corner shot and run off the court? That's a great time to make a placement toward the middle of the court, deep, if possible. When you hit toward the middle of the court, you minimize your opponent's angles to your side, and you reduce her angles from three to two. If you hit back to a corner of his court, she's got a down-the-line, deep cross-court and short-cross court as choices to hurt you, and those angles represent the widest possible threats. But if you hit to the middle, she's only got inside-out cross-courts, just two options, and both are difficult to place really wide. Even if you aren't on the run, hitting to the middle can be a good neutral placement to make, a great way to wait for an opportunity to attack and not give your opponent anything juicy to hit. It isn't particularly glorious, but good defense is as important if not more important than good offense in recreational singles.
Hard vs. Soft
Let's be honest. Nothing feels so fine as just baking a big groundstroke for a winner. But if we're fully honest, we also have to admit that recreational singles players don't win by blasting their way though matches, unless, of course, they're slumming and playing someone about three levels beneath them. Pace, though, remains the holy grail of singles players, mostly because they watch folks from Planet Tennis, and the balls just keep coming faster and faster. Good for them. Back to Earth, for us. How many times have you hit a return into the fence trying to kill a weak second serve? I thought so; your calculator broke adding them up. Pushers know this, and if you can't stop taking the bait, I strongly recommend a twelve-step program for pace junkies. I'm not saying that you shouldn't go for pace, only that it can't be every shot and that if you try to do that, you're going to beat yourself. Hit hard when your opponent is out of position and pace can help you exploit an open court. Hit hard when you're set and the ball is right there in your sweet spot. Hit hard because you've been hitting slowly and want to mix things up. Hit hard if you're set and the ball is in your sweet spot and your opponent responds to pace with panic or short, punchy swings that fall short. But don't be afraid to hit softly, especially if it helps you hit steadily and deep. Hit four lobs in a row just to watch your opponent start frothing at the mouth in anger. Hit softly to keep a big hitter off her game; let her supply her own damn pace. Hit softly to be unpredictable. When I was a kid, Rod Laver was my idol. One of his hallmarks was mixing things up, not letting his opponent's get into a rhythm. His nickname was Rocket; he could definitely smack the cover off the ball, but he floated shots, hit them with underspin, then with topspin, high, low, short, deep. The variety was incredibly difficult to beat; pace was just one choice among many.
Find a Weakness and Gnaw On That Bone
You get on the court and the guy across the net has a big forehand. I mean, really big. So you say to yourself, "Oh, yeah? I got me a pretty big forehand, too," and suddenly it's tennis at the OK Corral, big forehands a-blazing, except your opponent's forehand is just a wee bit bigger than yours, and if, instead, you hit two shots in a row to his backhand, you'd win most every point. Please, people. There is no shame in winning. Everyone has a weakness, and it's your challenge to find it, exploit it and leave it as a pile of smoking ash, even if that means every shot you hit is to the backhand. Every one. Why not? Why play someone's strength. Of course, sometimes you have to be clever. If the dude runs around his backhand to hit a forehand, you may have to play a shot to his forehand to open up his backhand side. No problem. And it may be that the guy's weakness is his overhead, so you may have to wait for a short ball to hit a drop shot and drag his butt up to net so you can lob him. Or it may be that if you move the guy, his footwork is terrific but if you hit right at him, he doesn't move his feet, so every shot is to the middle. My point is that I've seen way too many matches go down the drain because students played their opponents' strengths rather than their weaknesses. Bad, bad, bad. Heck, I even had one student walk off the court and not realize that she was playing a lefty! No wonder when she kept hitting to the "backhand" corner, the balls kept coming back!
When we come to net, we do so to be aggressive, and that can mean putting the ball away. So much fun! But not every volley or overhead presents us with a winning opportunity, particularly because the easiest putaways are in front of your opponent, to the short portion of his court, and usually off cross-court placements. But what about your first volley, midcourt? If the ball is at your feet, which it most often is, you'd be a fool to try for a drop volley winner. Your shot is just going to pop up, and your opponent come charging in for a pass with homicidal glee in his eyes. Defensive, midcourt volleys should be hit deep, usually down-the-line, the same placement you used on your approach shot and for the same reason, to draw your opponent in front of you so you can cut off his down-the-line pass. If, however, the gods offer you a high ball at midcourt, it's winner time. But remember, we haven't travelled all the way from the baseline to try and hit back to our opponent; we could make that placement as a baseliner. If we get a high, first volley, we should go immediately for a short angle in front of our opponents, easier said than done when the high ball is on the forehand and we think KILL! You know those shots, right, the ones that you hit into the fence? It's difficult to disassociate aggressiveness from pace, but the kill comes softly at net, with touch.
The same discretion is important on the overhead. In singles, you're going to see a ton of lobs if you dare to come in, and they should delight you. The overhead is definitely hit with power, but it's power aimed to an angle that wins, and your ability to convert that winner depends on whether the ball is in front of you and you've got good position. If so, go for it, and bang the ball to a corner. But what if the lob beats you and you're hitting behind yourself, still backpedaling? Then going for a corner with a weak overhead is just going to make it easier for your opponent to pass you. Instead, acknowledge that you're on defense, and hit deep back to the middle of the court.
Once we're all the way in, tight to net, we should be looking to angle the ball away, short, sharp cross-court. But here, too, you need discretion. If the ball is trying to insert itself into your navel, hit deep, toward the middle. If it's coming too fast and low, hit deep, toward the middle. You can still do offensive damage with these placements, rushing your opponent because your ball gets to him quickly, forcing him to make decisions that often result in unforced errors. Wait until the ball is right before you go for the gold and make your winner.
If I'm coaching an A player, I want her to have six service placements to each box: wide, at the body, to the T, with both a flat and a spin serve. Serving should be like pitching in baseball. Throw a fast ball all the time and your serve is going to be creamed. Mix it up, by placement, pace and spin, and you can keep the best returner off-balance. Minimally as a recreational player, you're not going to ace your way through your service games. Rather, it should be your goal and within your ability to make the receiver start the point with the stroke you want her to. Part of that choice may be to exploit a weakness, especially if you're down in the score. At 15-30, against a player with a great forehand and mediocre backhand, you need the first serve to go out wide to the backhand. Period. But it's also about creating expectations and going against them. For example, let's say you've been pounding the deuce court with flat serves to the T, and it's 40-15. That's a great time to hit a spin first serve out wide, slow and soft. After depriving the receiver of her forehand, let her hit a fat one and see if she can make up a two-point deficit with one swing of the racquet. That's one of the reasons we have high fences around the tennis court. Or say your opponent is cheating in her position to hit her forehand. On the deuce court, you need a spin serve out wide as your first serve to take advantage of her bad position and make an honest woman of her, forcing her to hug the sideline so you can more easily place your flat serve to her backhand, to the T. Which means, before you serve, you have to actually look to see where your opponent is standing! Your service choice just might be decided with one simple glance. Practice service placements. It's about ten times more important than hitting your serve hard.
Really, all elements of strategy and tactical command begin with the ability to make placements. I know, I know. Sometimes it's only by the grace of God that you're able to get the ball back between the lines on your opponent's court. But not always, right? Sometimes you've got a choice, and my guess is that if you're a recreational player, in your mind the choices are hard, harder and hardest. Think again, savvy native of Planet Earth. Depending on your opponent, you've got a whole range of choices. Pick the right ones, and the handshake across the net at the end of the match will feel really good.
c Keith Shein
Singles Clinic, Part 3
How To Beat Pushers and Killers