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Toying with Your Opponents
David Smith, Senior Editor TennisOne
It is not uncommon to watch players make errors when they are faced with the so-called “winner” opportunity. That is, when a player has set up a point, usually moving the opponent off the court or moving to the net to attack a weak return, players often tense up and try to hit such shots with more intensity and ambition than the shots that set-up the opportunity in the first place. When players tense up or attempt to hit balls with more authority than is either necessary or than the player’s natural competency will allow them, they often hit these ball out or in the net.
The reason for these blunders is easy to decipher: Players hate to have an opening only to have their opponent run down or retrieve their shots and getting back into the point. Yet, as has been written about many times in the past, the vast majority of points are won off of mistakes made by opponents, not by the number of winners hit.
While I am not advocating dinking the ball when put-away opportunities occur, I am recommending that players use the same stroke intent as they used on the shots that set-up the opportunity in the first place.
I used the word “intent” because you might have a completely different shot with the set-up shot as you would in hitting the so-called winner. In other words, you set-up the point by hitting a nice, deep down-the-line topspin approach shot, yet the following shot will usually require a volley. The intent is to not over hit, run through the shot, or try to crush a big, swinging volley. The intent is to place the ball with a balanced, smooth, well-placed stroke into the opening.
Often at the club, recreational, or even competitive level, players see the opening or the floating return only to over-do every element of the put-away shot: They take a bigger swing which often puts them off balance, they run through the shot with improper footwork, or they simply swing much harder than what is really needed.
So, take a more controlled swing. Even if your opponent is able to retrieve the shot, the result will usually be an even easier ball to finish the point with and you have made your opponent work that much harder.
When I played competitive tennis in both high school and college, I always tried to remain aware of the principle: “Toy with your opponent.” The idea of this phrase was to actually let my opponents get to balls that might otherwise be hit for winners if I were to hit them hard enough or with the best placement possible. I enjoyed watching my opponents run and run and run, always with the idea that I would make them pay for getting the next ball back. This was the basic strategy used by Andre Agassi. It worked very well for him as it did for me.
Today, with the added speed of shots being hit, it is often easy to get caught up in the slam-bam mentality of “bash’em” tennis. Playing with patience takes training and practice, especially with juniors. As I said before, I’m certainly not advocating dinking the ball. The concept is to simply not pressure yourself by trying to hit bigger shots than you are capable of or that you can hit consistently.
Trust your normal stroke, you will find that it is usually plenty big enough to put you in position to win the point. And, because you will miss fewer of these shots, your opponents will have to hit more balls in the court. The results: fewer unforced errors and, more points won.
At the pro level, I believe that Roger Federer exhibits this kind of play. To my eye, seldom does it appear that Federer is hitting bigger on any one shot.
One could argue that this is because Roger’s shots are all struck with a lot of pace but I don’t agree with that at all.
Click Photo: To my eye, seldom does it appear that Federer is hitting any shot bigger than any other shot.
Regardless, Federer is subject to the same human qualities, emotions, and frailties as you or I. The difference is, he has learned to refrain from over-hitting and is satisfied with the knowledge that his normal shots are significant enough that he does not feel he has to go beyond this type of shot-making to finish points off.
We can all learn from this dimension of Federer's play. Instead of changing to a different intent or stroke pattern when presented with an offensive shot, use the same intent and relative stroke speed you would as if the shot were not hit for a winner. Instead, hit as if it were a normal set-up or rally ball. See if you play more consistent and with less pressure.
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