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Third Ball Attack – Toni, Rafa, and Ping Pong
Synchronicity strikes (me) again. Earlier this week I am playing with Alex, who has a very strong ping-pong background, as well as a wicked topspin forehand on the tennis court, and he describes something known as “the Third Ball Attack.” Then later in the same week the analysts at Wimbledon report that in the 2010 men’s final, Berdych was able to return just six balls to Rafael Nadal’s backhand (and in that sequence Berdych won 4 of those 6 points). Add to this, Federer’s woeful break point conversion rate against Nadal in the ad court, and it appears yet again that Uncle Toni my be the unacknowledged genius within the tennis coaching ranks.
Rafa and Uncle Toni on the practice court.
So to define the terminology, in the game of ping-pong a third ball attack describes the scenario where the server hits a powerful attack on his first stroke after serving – the third stroke of the rally. The most common version of the third ball attack in modern table tennis is a shot with enough topspin to land the ball deep on the receiver's side of the table. The strategy of the third ball attach is to cause the opponent to misplay their return of serve, so the server can attack the weak return and finish the point with a stroke known as a power loop, rip, or loop kill.
So, the third ball attack in tennis occurs from the following scenario – strong and often spinning serve that produces a weak return, followed by a flashing forehand topspin winner. Said another way, spin serve that opens the court – neutral return – forehand winner to the open court by the server. Sounds fairly simple doesn’t it.
In spite of the grip change Nadal used at the 2010 US Open, where he served flatter and heavier, especially to the deuce court, in the main he has served primarily sidespin in all his deliveries. Not many flat, rarely if ever a kick, always sidespin. (At this point I would hope a few of our prominent junior coaches could take a moment and rethink why they teach so many of the youngsters topspin serves first, and whether there are any links between this and the rash of shoulder injuries in the junior and women’s professional game).
Click photo: Rafa's sidespin serve pushes the returner off the court and sets up his third ball attack.
Fairly simple. Nadal serves wicked sidespin (think McEnroe) to the ad court. The receiver stretches beyond the doubles alley, way out of position. Up the line opens Nadal for a cross-court winner. Crosscourt plays into Nadal’s fearsome forehand. Not many options really. Djokovic, owner of the games best return, especially on his baseline hugging two-fisted backhand, counters this strategy pretty darn well. But Novak is the exception. Consider, other than Nadal, there is rarely even one other lefty in the men’s top 20, so this serve goes to the backhand, in an era where the game is dominated by the Bollitieri conceived (if not Jimmy Arias inspired) massive forehand weapon.
Some years ago the Third Ball Attack occurred in matches with Lendl and McEnroe, and more often as Mac waned and Ivan flourished. Lendl lost in the US Open final to Connors in 1982 and 1983, to McEnroe in 1984, but then turned the tables winning titles beating Mac in 1985, Mecir in 1986 and Wilander in 1987 (and incredibly lost in the finals in 88 to Wilander and to Becker in 1989). But it was in 1985 and beyond where Mac acknowledged it was nearly impossible to get his return of serve away from Lendl’s punishing forehand.
A Little More About Toni and Rafa
Initially Rafa played two handed on both wings, and though a natural right-hander, Toni suggested Rafa try to play left handed, primarily because it had been so hard for Toni to play against lefties in his own tennis career. As to Rafa’s full western grip, though perhaps this should be renamed simply “the Toni”, they came to this because of Toni’s interest in table tennis, where a similar grip created massive topspin. Further, I believe Toni has said that their reliance on much smaller grips than we normally see in the men’s game comes from the size and feel of a ping-pong handle.
When Rafa serves his extreme sidespin, which totally opens the court, all defensive strategies play into his forehand. And note, this forehand may now be the best stroke in the history of the game, maybe even better than the Sampras serve. Defensive returns played from beyond the sideline and behind the baseline should float to enable the receiver time to recover. No worries for Rafa, any and all forehands of his racquet will keep a vise like grip on the point. If the receiver plays up the line to Rafa’s backhand, that is no better for now Rafa drives the ball crosscourt into the open court.
Click photo: McEnroe's third ball attack also involved a sidespin wide serve but he usually finished the point with an easy volley into the open court.
Djokovic counters this wide serve by positioning himself much closer to the baseline, effectively cutting off the angle. Further, he drives the ball deep, and in many instances this depth and penetration can neutralize Nadal a little. In most instances this one two punch, a wide sidespin serve followed by a wicked forehand is a nearly unbeatable “third ball attack” strategy. Sometimes Roger or Novak can counter with extremely good returns, but by and large Rafa owns the point when serving wide in the ad court.
At the ATP season ending final in London, it appeared Roger positioned more to the side of the court and closer to the baseline, effectively receiving serve with one foot in the alley. And it appeared this positioning neutralized Rafa. But remember, that was a two of three set match, and somehow in three of five Rafa can nearly always find the answer. He said as much in the post match interview after capturing the French title, saying, “I come to the practice court with an open mind, always looking for solutions.”
Right-handers can and do the same thing to Rafa in the deuce court, and the geometry is the same for a right-hander in the deuce using this “third ball attack.” It is just that Rafa is so dangerous when scrambling to cover his forehand corner, and when players employ this strategy against him, they must be ready for yet another of his scrambling-totally out of position-stretched wide-blazing winners.
Next time you take to the courts, instead of blindly striking the ball, take a tip from Rafa and Uncle Toni and try to exploit your own third ball attack.
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