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Decisions: Shot Selection and Court Positioning
About six years ago I was in a press interview at the Siebel Open in San Jose, and the following was posed by another writer to Pete Sampras. “Pete, sometimes your tennis appears simply flawless, as though you play without ever missing a shot, does it feel that way to you?” And though Pete generally conducted these press interviews with detached disinterest, he genuinely warmed to this question, and I will always remember the reply. Pete said, “Actually about once a month it feels just that way, and on those days both my shots and my decisions are perfect.”
Federer slices heavily crosscourt from a cornered position behind the baseline, hitting a wicked defensive shot
Well it is easy to remember his pinpoint serving, routine volleying, reliable return of serve, and his one of a kind, if not signature, running forehand winner, whipped either sharply crosscourt or perfectly up the line. But the other side of the equation may be less obvious but every bit as important. That is, what exactly constitutes “perfect decisions?”
In my mind, this decision thing clarifies the ebb and flow of professional matches, and equally determines your own success or failure on court in each and every match.
And the decisions, or choices either made or not made, flow from court position, the quality of the opponent's shot, and the quality variety of your own tool box. Not necessarily the plan you create prior to the match, but rather this is a discussion of the split second decisions made from shot to shot. That is, if the court is open and the opponent’s backhand crosscourt is somewhat short, can you instantly seize the opportunity and step forward to finish the point with a backhand up the line? But equally can you discern when the opponent’s shot is deeper and perhaps that up the line winner becomes more difficult and less doable. But there is more to this story than simply playing the winner when the court is open.
Martina moves inside the baseline taking the offense with a down the line backhand. This shot will either be a winner or set her up for a finishing volley.
On the professional tour, Federer and Hingis are the two players who routinely make masterful decisions. More than just banging the ball around the court, their variety of shot, variety of pace, variety of spin, and variety of placement enable them to play defense as well as offense, to play from the baseline, the midcourt and the net. And who comes to mind from a previous era that used all the court with truly every shot in the book, John McEnroe of course!
At the simplest level, and this is true for both recreational and professional players, tennis strategy occurs on three levels. First and foremost, reduce your own errors, and do not, repeat, do not, beat yourself. In this storyline there are two opponents, yourself and the other guy/girl, and before you can even begin to concentrate on beating them you must not beat yourself. We have all played matches where errors seemingly flowed from our racquets and in those instances the opponent did little other than keep the ball in play.
Secondly, define and play against the opponent’s weakness. Between their serve, forehand, backhand, forehand volley, backhand volley, and overhead, generally everyone has an Achilles heel (mine is the forehand) and the skillful opponent exploits those weaknesses either throughout the match, or at pivotal moments.
Third and finally, hit it where they “ain’t,” namely when the opponent is out of court play the ball firmly and decisively to the open court.
Federer moves forward inside the baseline driving a topspin backhand up the line.
But once these three issues are under control then the full range of shot selection comes to the fore. Factors influencing shot selection, and by extension factors that can work their way into your own on court play include the following.
Degree of difficulty – just like in diving competition every shot has a theoretical degree of difficulty, hitting a screamer on the sideline is more difficult than pushing the ball back to the center of the court.
Risk and Reward – the screamer to the sideline with obvious risk has definitely more reward. The ball pushed to the center has reward only when used against an error prone opponent. So the reward is contingent on the ability of the player but also influenced by the positioning of the opponent.
Centered vs. cornered – as regards court position, you may either be relatively centered in the middle of the court (at baseline or net) or cornered, that is out of position in the corner at the baseline or at the net.
Martina is stretched well past the baseline and deep into the corner, and plays an underspin backhand crosscourt. This defensive shot gives her a little more time to recover, and forces the opponent to play up the line (the net is higher).
Offense and defense – you may attempt either a shot that intends to win the point outright or leads to a winning position, or simply keep the ball in play waiting for the opponent to miss. These decisions are intertwined with your and the opponents court position and the difficulty of their incoming shot.
Buying and robbing time – as to ball speed; when the opponent is cornered you may rob their recovery time by hitting the ball sooner or harder, or both. When you are cornered and defensive you may slow the ball down to buy recovery time
Angles and court position – as you are positioned deeper your angle of play diminishes, as you move forward your angle of play increases. When Roger or Martina go for the sharply angled drive, they find that angle when playing inside the baseline.
Anticipation – by counting tendencies over the course of a match you may have reasonable expectations about the opponents shot in certain situations. Generally the opponent is more predictable when your own shot has been deep and well placed, and or when the score is extremely close and the opponent goes to their favorite shots.
Over the next few months I want to explore these issues in greater detail.
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
Torque Action on the Serve
In Tennis, appearances can be deceiving and nowhere is this more evident than on the serve. Watching the top servers in the game, you can’t help but notice the tremendous racquet speed generated and power released on the ball. But go out and try to duplicate it and the results are often disastrous. This phenomenon is called “over swinging” and Doug King explores the why and the how.
Biomechanics for Dummies: Nature or Nurture
In part one of his three part series, Happy Bhalla explores the value and significance of sports science in learning and teaching tennis. Sports science is a modern phenomenon, which has been instrumental in dispelling long-held myths and in validating the modern approach to hitting tennis balls. In this first section we exam the science behind sports and the feasibility of the ‘perfect’ swing.
Crosscourt - Roger Federer on the Hot Seat
This week, leading tennis journalists, Matt Cronin and Joel Drucker, discuss number one in the world, Roger Federer and his place in history. Is he the best ever? It's hard to argue when looking at his record over the past couple of years. But before you rush out and place a crown atop his head, Listen to what Cronin and Drucker have to say.
ProStrokes Gallery: Nadia Petrova - Backhand
Nadia Petrova is arguably the biggest serving, heaviest hitter among the crop of young Russian women and has edged into the top 10 this year. She has one tour singles title and 11 doubles titles, prefers hard courts that suit her aggressive game. She looks to finish points early with her big forehand and serve, and is not afraid to come to the net.Check out Nadia's game, exclusively on TennisOne. New this issue, Nadia Petrova's Backhand.
Virtual Tennis Academy
Current professional tour coach, Heath Waters and wife, top 100 and former no. 33 in the world ranked tour player, Lindsay Lee-Waters, are proud to release the first predominantly all streaming video based e-learning tennis instructional website at www.virtualtennisacademy.com
Subscribers will receive personal video tennis instruction directly from Heath and Lindsay as well as mental coaching, sports performance training, and much, more from a hand chosen team of experts currently working with professional tennis players on tour. Now anyone in the world, no matter what level, can receive the same world class training the world's best tennis players receive right from the convenience of their own home.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers
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