SINGLES CLINIC, PART 1
Sometimes singles play feels like an entirely different sport than doubles. Not only is singles is a contest one-on-one, but it's so much more a physical challenge. You're up against not only your opponent but wind and heat and sun, or wind and cold and shadows, and fatigue, and the relentless need to concentrate and stay focused. Aggassi compared singles to boxing, which, though more physically brutal, at least offers the contestants the intimacy of proximity. Not so in singles. There's that net and all that court between you and the opponent, miles of it, it can sometimes seem. And really, the tactical challenges of singles begin with just that: all that turf and only one player responsible to cover it. That daunting fact is the first problem for recreational singles players, how with mortal speed, and all by your lonesome, you're going to be able to both defend and attack the wide open spaces of the court. This tip is going to start with some basics: positioning at the baseline, positioning at net, for the serve and for the return. None of it requires a degree in rocket science, but you do have to put on your thinking cap to understand it.
Informing all issues is this simple idea: the center of the court is not identified by the center mark on the baseline unless both players are standing directly behind their respective center marks. If one player moves toward a side of the court, the other player must also move from the center mark or center service line, for really, the center of the court is not the center of the actual court lines, but the middle of the possible angles available to your opponent. You must bisect that angle of possible shots to be in position.
For each issue, I'm assuming right-handed play for us normal folks. You lefties are already used to being backwards, so it shouldn't matter.
Positioning At the Baseline
DURING A RALLY If I hit a ball to my opponent's forehand corner, on my left, I'll move opposite of him on my baseline, about a yard to my right of the center mark. That will put me in the middle of the three placements with which he threatens me. His first placement is easy to visualize: down-the-line to my backhand corner. When a player hits down-the-line, my sideline will act like a wall, meaning, his shot will be straight as it crosses my baseline, and will stay inside the sideline. However, my opponent's cross-court possibilities are more difficult to visualize. First, he's got two cross-court angles: short and deep. Both angles will penetrate my sideline and land past it on a second bounce. A deep cross-court may not get past my alley on the second bounce, but a sharp cross-court, landing on first bounce near the intersection of the singles sideline and the service line, will clear the alley and land beyond it. As such (and here's the part where you need the thinking cap), the court I have to defend is much wider than the court lines that define it. It goes from the actual singles sideline on my backhand side, to an imaginary sideline about three feet wide of the alley on my forehand side. If I stand behind the center mark, I'm way out of position for the cross-court angles threatened on my forehand wing. Moving three to four feet (depending on how close my opponent is to his forehand corner) to my right of the center mark, away from my opponent and the ball, will put me in the middle of his three possible shots.
Proper positioning at the baseline should find you always away from your opponent and the ball, on the opposite side of your center mark. Primarily, this is to neutralize the cross-court threats, those shots that not only take you out of your sneakers trying to run them down, but out of the court, leaving it so naked, vulnerable and sad.
Naturally, there's an exception to this. Let's turn the example around and say that my opponent is hitting from wide in his backhand corner, on my right. Theoretically, everything's the same; I should move opposite him along the baseline, about three feet to my left of my center mark. But what if the dude can't hit so well down-the-line off his backhand? He wouldn't be alone in this; in particular, it's a hard shot to take a cross-court angle and turn it down-the-line, especially off the backhand wing. If, over the course of the match, I see that his backhand isn't a threat down-the-line, I may move even farther off the center mark away from him, predicting that he's only going to go cross-court.
INSIDE or BEHIND THE BASELINE For typical instances, you should definitely play from two to three feet from behind the baseline. Dreaded No Man's Land has the usual caution in singles as well as doubles: stand inside the baseline and you risk the ball landing at your feet, the most difficult play for a ground stroke. But singles play offers a whole other problem with standing in No Man's Land: get too far inside the baseline and any ball that lands behind you toward a corner is as good as gone. Go ahead, hail a taxi and try to flag the ball down. Forget about it.
Naturally, there's an exception to this. Besides all the court you have to cover to each side, you've also got to cover the court in front of you, the short balls. It can be a long and frightful haul toward net trying to reach those short balls, so good players begin to anticipate them. If I see that I've hurt you with my placement and I think your shot is going to be weak, I'll move about a yard inside my baseline to get a head start on any short ball. I'm guessing here, of course, but I hope to make it an educated one. If, for example, I see you have to half-volley a shot at your feet, or hit a ball high over your backhand shoulder, or one that finds you reaching so far to the side that you're bent at the waist, it's a good bet that I've hurt you and you're going to hit a weak reply. But because it's just a guess, and dreaded No Man's Land is such a fearful place to reside, I only move in about three feet inside my baseline. If my guess is a good one, I've got a great head start to run down your short ball and hit a strong approach shot; however, if you pull a better shot out of your pocket than I thought possible, I haven't committed so far into the court that I can't retreat and become a legitimate citizen, behind the baseline.
CHOOSING POSITIONING or CHOOSING TO BE SET Choose the latter, of course. There are going to be occasions when you get yanked out of your socks, wide of the court. In your struggle to regain position in the middle of your opponent's angles, you may want to take another couple side-steps while he's hitting, or you might even be tempted to turn your shoulders and run toward your position. Dude, don't! Instead, split-step when he's hitting the ball, as you normally would, on your toes, in ready position! If that means you've only recovered to the corner, you'll feel all that open court calling your name, begging you to move and defend it, but it's a hell of a lot easier to accelerate even four or five big strides to an open court from a stopped, set position then it is to put on the brakes and take even one step back toward the direction you just came from. If your opponent doesn't see you stop or square-up your shoulders to net just before he's about to hit the ball, he's going to hit behind and wrong-foot you, and your resultant contortion into a pretzel-like shape won't be pretty.
But what about when you've hit a beach ball of a sitter, and your opponent starts running in for the kill, shrieking and snorting, no matter how unseemly that may be for a female? Then, by all means, guess. Pick a spot and run there in advance of her shot. The odds are only 50-50 that you'll pick the right side, but either side is a much better bet than standing in the middle of the court paralyzed and bemoaning your fate. Maybe your early movement will distract her and take her eye off the ball, or make her change her shot. Maybe not. But guessing and going to a spot before your opponent hits is your only play.
Positioning At Net
LATERAL MOVEMENT Okay, on with the thinking caps again. For singles, position at net is the opposite of positioning at the baseline. Instead of moving away from the ball and your opponent (proper at the baseline), you should move with the ball and your opponent when you're at net. If you play doubles, you already know this principal. Say you're the server's partner and you're facing the deuce court receiver. If the serve goes wide to the receiver's forehand, where do you move? Correct: toward the alley. Where does your partner, the server, move? Also correct: with you, to cover the middle. What do you leave exposed? The short, sharp cross-court: the smallest piece of real estate available for your opponent's attack.
It's the same in singles. If you picture yourself at the T and your opponent moving left to hit your approach shot in her forehand corner, the down-the-line pass is the longest, highest percentage one available to your opponent; the cross-court is the shortest and lowest percentage. That means you've got to cut off the down-the-line and make her hit sharp cross-court, to a smaller part of the court. As such, you need to move with her and the ball, at least a yard to your left of the center service line.
Lateral positioning at net means moving with the ball and your opponent to cut off the down-the-line pass.
Naturally, there's an exception to this. Let's turn our example around and say that you've approached to your opponent's backhand. Theoretically, everything stays the same: you should move toward the ball to cut off the down-the-line threat. But what if the dudette can't hit down-the-line off the backhand, again, not an uncommon problem for recreational players? If that holds true, your life at net just got simplified. Give away the down-the-line side of the court and predict a cross-court pass off the backhand. Or, what if your savvy observations conclude that your opponent favors the cross-court pass over the down-the-line? Break the rule and cover the cross-court.
FORWARD FROM THE SERVICE LINE The lob poses another problem with being all by your lonesome as a singles player. Get tight to net in order to close off passing lanes and to help secure your own winning angles, and you're vulnerable to the lob and without a partner to help out. Oh, so lonely! Because recreational players don't have great backward mobility or great overheads, the lob makes the net a very scary place for singles players. In fact, if you're up against an opponent that only plays singles, don't be surprised if she doesn't even warm up her volleys and overheads. What's the point? She has no intention of leaving the baseline. But if you're the intrepid player with a full court game, and you want to pressure that backboard of an opponent, you should think about moving in to net, with however, some appropriate caution.
First, go back and re-read my tip on Vision. Particularly if you're a singles player, you need to be adept at watching your opponent's relationship to the ball and her racquet preparation. Remember, your opponent's lobs are often your creation; if you hit a really tough approach shot and stretch that player wide or pin her deep, you're obligating her to put up a lob in defense. Learn to see that and camp at the T with a sadistic smile as you await your overhead smash. You also need to read your opponent's tendencies. The first time you hit a crappy approach shot and are whispering to yourself, "Oh, no, I'm doomed!" remember how your opponent tries to capitalize on your weak shot. Big Betty is likely to drive a passing shot; Libby Lobber is going to, well, lob. Watch what card gets laid on the table first, because it's a pretty sure thing that she's going to play her best shot first. And if, God forbid, you hit another crappy approach shot, move early and guess toward your opponent's strength.
Naturally, there's an exception to this. Some players are one-dimensional: they're passers or they're lobbers. Big Bob thinks lobbing is for sissies. Tony Touch wants to kill you softly. If you're lucky enough to come up against a player as predictable as this, then your decision to move in from the service line is simple: get tight to net to defend against the passing shots; camp at the T to take down the lobs.
Positioning for the Return
IN RELATION TO THE SIDELINE Say you're receiving from the deuce court, and the server has a wicked slice serve out wide along with a good flat serve to the T. To be in the middle of these threats, your right (outside) foot should be anchored near the intersection of the singles sideline and the baseline. If you're to favor either angle, protect the sideline, not the middle of the court, even if your backhand is weak and you'd give away your kid's college tuition to hit the return as a forehand. As a receiver, relegated to the corner of the court, with the entire other side wide open, the last thing you want to happen is to be chased, on the run, toward your alley and off the court. No way you'll recover to protect your backhand side after the return. If rather, your right foot begins on the sideline, even a great slice serve out wide can usually be reached with one quick step; you won't have to reverse your momentum to get on your horse and move toward the middle.
Singles receivers should protect their sidelines, standing in the corner of the court, near the intersection of the singles sideline and the baseline.
Naturally, there are exceptions to this. What if your opponent doesn't own a slice serve? Well, especially on the deuce court, you can cheat a step or two toward the middle. The threat of a flat serve out side isn't very great. On the ad court, unworried about the slice toward the T, you can cheat toward the alley and hit that big forehand of yours all day long. Or, on the ad court, thinking about recovering quickly toward your open court, stand at least a step to your right of the sideline. This means you trust your backhand, but, again, there isn't a large threat wide of the court with a flat serve, which a righty must hit on the ad court to take you toward your alley and off the court.
IN RELATION TO THE BASELINE Whether you're behind, on or inside the baseline depends on your opponent and whether she's hitting a first or second serve. If she's got a bomb of a first serve, go ahead, retreat behind the baseline until you feel that you've got time to get your racquet back, step in and hit a good shot. There isn't any rule here. Don't be afraid to get way back if you need to. The only thing that threatens your remove is a slice serve that can land short in the court. Make her prove that she can do that. If not, just stand back. A second serve should let you be closer to or even inside the baseline. Generally, you want to reach slower, second serves without taking more than one step. If you're having to run in and take more than one step, you're too far back. However, remember that if you take the second serve from inside the baseline, you can't simply move laterally after the return to recover toward the middle. That will find you in dreaded No Man's Land, bad, bad, bad. If you come inside the baseline to return, you'll have to retreat behind the baseline as you recover toward the middle.
And, of course, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes, you can get into your opponent's head if you crowd the service line. You've got to have some nerve and good hands to do this, but standing close to the service line can tempt an undisciplined server to try and hit harder and bowl you over. It's a good bet that he won't control that serve, and he'll hit it out. Depending on how fragile your opponent's first serve is, this gambit can be worth the risk. At the very least, it will feel like you're insulting his serve, and everyone knows how guys can get if someone hurts their feelings. As well, I'm a big fan of the chip and charge for recreational players, especially against weak second serves. If you're up in the score and offered a pusher's second serve, what the ultimate insult? Aggression. Charge that cupcake of a serve and take the net behind it. You'd be surprised and delighted how you can erode your opponent's serve over the course of a set by chipping and charging off the return.
Positioning for the Serve
C'mon, you already understand this! If the receiver is in the corner, standing at the intersection of his singles sideline and baseline, his angles to your court are at their greatest. You should stand opposite him, about three or four feet from your center mark, in order to be in the middle of his possible shots down-the-line and cross-court. If you stood tight to your center mark, you'd be out of position for this cross-court angles. Duh!
And, naturally, there are exceptions to this. Remember the dude that can't hit a backhand down-the-line? He's your opponent, and you're serving to the ad court, 30-15. Why not stand even further from your center mark toward your sideline? It will increase your angle toward his backhand, and if the poor mug can only hit cross-court, why not give the down-the-line away? The same might be true if your gal has a weak inside-out backhand from the deuce court. Why not crowd the center mark, giving you a straighter shot at her T and that poor excuse of her backhand, and just give away the inside-out cross-court?
Whoever designed the dimensions of the tennis court had a pretty good sense of the limits of human anatomy, at least for recreational players. It's one big rectangle both to cover and to attack, and a single's player can't afford to be out of position. We may not run as fast as professional players, but there's no reason we can't learn the angles of the court and be in the middle of them.
c Keith Shein
Singles Clinic, Part 2