Here are a few observations of singles tennis strategy, some
conventional and some new. Strategy can be defined simply as how you
plan to win. Great teachers deliver memorable sound bites. Dennis Van Der
Meer: “attack the short ball.” Jim Verdieck: “get in a position to volley away from the source.” A successful high school coach once told me, “Hit it at his
backhand and go to the net.” Jack Kramer boiled it down to “Find out what
your opponent can’t do and make him do that.”
Tactics are the tools you use to implement your strategy. Coach Jim
Leighton defined the “basic unit of play” as: the approach shot, the passing
shot, and the first volley.
In Leighton’s book Inside Tennis, Techniques of Winning, Coach Leighton
pointed to Wayne Sabin’s ABC’s of Tennis Strategy:
• Hit it in
• Hit it deep
• Hit it to your opponent’s weakness
• Move your opponent side to side
While there is truth to the old suggestion of staying out of “no-man’s
land” on a tennis court, mid-court shots (approach shots, service returns,
balls hit on the rise…) must be mastered. These shots establish an
aggressive court position. Given two right-handed players, Leighton and
Sabin suggest a firm approach down the line at the weaker backhand.
This is intended to force a weak passing shot to be volleyed to the
One of nine players is left-handed. The two-handed backhand is often
your opponent’s better passing shot. Differing opponents dictate different
approaches, as do your own abilities. However, there is a common thread
in all of these suggestions—tennis players are statistically vulnerable to
firm attacks on their backhand.
The success of the Spanish players, most notably Rafa Nadal, is reason to
examine a new version of a conventional attacking approach shot. Witness
the wear of the grass at Wimbledon. No longer is there a serve-volley alley
of brown on the court. There is a new pattern of wear. There is a circle of
wear just inside the baseline that indicates a shift in post-service attack Once the server serves, he takes an extra step into the court. Not to serve
and volley, but to establish an aggressive position inside “the Circle.” What
is hoped for is a defensive return. A shortened whipping, topspin ball
taken inside the baseline can put more pressure on the opponent than the
conventional, underspun approach shot. The modern player’s ability to hit
on the rise has created a new game.
A trump card, based on this idea, is the shot Nadal uses so effectively
against Roger Federer. Nadal’s shortened, topspin, cross-court attack from
the Circle on Federer’s backhand is an effective tactic. As great as Federer
is, the relentless pressure from Nadal’s stinger from the Circle eventually
yields unforced errors, a short ball, or an open court.An on-the-rise approach from within the Circle can produce more pressure than a volley from behind a serve, or a traditional underspin approach shot. The reason, of course, is that most volleys and approach shots are underspun and lack the speed of an aggressive, stinging,
What about right-handers and the Circle? The answer is the inside-out
forehand, turning three-fourths or more of the court into forehands.
Running around your backhand is nothing new. While some frown on it,
given a much better forehand than backhand many players use their
footwork to turn marginal backhands into more potent forehands. The
most effective of these forehands are hit from within the Circle.
One may argue that a forehand from the Circle leaves one vulnerable
to the down-the-line passing shot, and that’s true. It’s much like the left
hander’s hooking serve to the right hander in the “add” court. When
McEnroe leftied his hooking serve there, only a few players, including Bjorn
Borg, had an ability to pass him, threading the needle to a very difficult
down the line spot to hit. But the percentages were in McEnroe’s favor, as
the percentages favor the stinging pressure of the Circle attack. (the Circle
in figure 10 is marked as lighter green, in front of number 1.) There seems to be a battle for position in The Circle in many of today’s
strategies. If a good coach teaches a player to implement the Circle tactic,
they should also teach how to defend it. Deep, well-hit service returns can
force the attacker back. Ground strokes are now required to be heavier and
deeper. These shots run the opponent out of the Circle and now you have
a chance, with better ground strokes and returns, to get yourself in the
Circle, thus turning defense into offense.
So, you now have some more shots to perfect: The Circle attacking shots
and the inside-out forehand from the backhand side. Remember you have
to have good leg and footwork to do this, and you must hit more balls on
the rise. Your goal is the Circle Stinger, which now has the advantage of
being cross court and at the backhand.
A few more tactics:
Even pros should play more balls cross court. Cross-court balls are
safer. Hit one more cross-court ball before you try a counterpunching,
two-handed backhand down the line. It is more difficult to change the
direction of the ball from a timing perspective. Those backhands are often
late, sliding wide off the sideline. Watch for yourself and you’ll believe.
As Yogi Berra has said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” I spent
another great week at the U.S. Open. Even against the world’s best
approach shots, passing shots hit soft enough on an angle create errors
or vulnerable volleys.
And while conventional wisdom says don’t drop shot on a hard
court, Federer, Nadal, Verdasco, and other top professionals now use a
forehand drop shot, hit with disguise from the Circle to the open court
of any surface. Once you establish the dominance of the Circle Stinger, this
shot becomes another weapon. It takes great touch and a lot of practice Women and junior girls should develop use of the short corners on your
opponent’s court. If I had any advice to young girl players, it would be to
make your opponent move up and back. Most girls don’t practice these
shots enough. Learn how to move up and back yourself. Practice the
footwork and force your opponents to prove they’ve done the same work.
The week before the U.S. Open, Mardy Fish beat Andy Roddick in a
memorable match in Cincinnati. Mardy played excellent defense with a
cross-court, looping, forehand flop shot. When an attacker with Roddick’s
strength is hitting a forehand so well, the flop is effective, yielding fewer mistakes. You can’t out hit some players’ best shots. A deep, looping top-
spin cross-court ball can’t be easily attacked. Great players like Fish, or Gael Monfils, swing the racquet head at different speeds. They don’t pull the
trigger until they’re in the Circle and ready to fire. Be patient.The hardest time to play is when you are ahead. I watched a top 10 men’s
player get up 30–0, 40–0, or 40–15 in several key games. But he didn’t play
those points tough and eventually lost the games. Don’t play loose points
when ahead. And don’t play loose games when up a service break. When
you do, pressure shifts from them to you. Stay hungry when you’re ahead.
A closing thought:
The point penalty system and cyclops line-calling machines have helped
control the poor sportsmanship that once damaged the reputation of
tennis as a ladies’ and gentlemans’ sport. Innovation in the rules and
technology have returned respect to the game. These are positive changes
for a great game that is still evolving strategically and is as fun to watch as
it has ever been. Let’s not move back in the other direction.
Here are a few observations of singles tennis strategy, some