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Singles Strategy – Reconsider the Paradigm
I have had the opportunity to work with both competitive and recreational players of every age and stripe – adults, juniors, novices, and nationally ranked players. In drills, practice sessions, league and tournament play, my observations generally concern the relationship between their practice habits and actual competitive play. Unfortunately, I believe there occurs an hopeless disconnect between the two. That is, many players practice far better than they play and many players actually practice a form of tennis that is entirely different than what occurs in actual match play.
Click photo: Practices at nearly any
level revolves most around rallying back and forth from the
The professional game influences all of us, with its power topspins, big forehands from the backhand corner, and an emphasis on hitting the ball more than understanding the court. But more than that, the practices, at nearly any level, revolve most around hitting, that is, rallying back and forth from the backcourt. And certainly, with our highest level junior players, this hitting is generally ferocious.
In nearly every instance, when asked about the best part of their games, these juniors unanimously answer, “My forehand.” But to my mind, the answer really is, “If I get my serve (or return) in play and can move comfortably to the center of the baseline, then my forehand is my best shot.” Unfortunately, that assumption overlooks the two most critical shots in the game of tennis – the serve and the return.
So, the tactics and strategy of this model seems to be based on offensive forehand play from the backcourt. But what if the serve misfires? What if the opponent consistently serves to the weaker backhand side? What if the return of serve is so inconsistent that the opportunities to attack from the backcourt are few and far between? How can the big forehand overcome these concerns? Answer: The big forehand will not solve this problem.
Improve the Serve and Return
Want to win more matches? Improve the consistency and reliability of your serve and your return. Get to the point that the two best areas of your game are the serve and the return. Consistently putting the ball in play, as server or receiver, places enormous pressure on the opponent. Not from aces and return winners, but rather from the hard to measure but steadily accumulating aspect of no free points given, no double faults, and no return of serve errors.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of any of our tournament matches, players routinely recall their incredible winners or unfortunate errors on the so called “big points,” but rarely do they ever consider (if even recall) the ebb and flow of momentum that swings due to poor service games or poor return games. So the simple concept of successfully converting the first swing in any point (serve or return) gets undue short shrift. So much so that if you have read this far you may think to yourself, is this all there is to this? Reader, yes this is all there is, but read on, if just for a little more.
Consider the phrase, sometimes heard around the courts, and more often after a particularly disappointing match, “I have never played worse!” If a good server plays a poor returner, if a net rusher plays someone with poor defensive skills, if a player with a good backhand crosscourt plays an opponent with an inferior backhand, these and many more situations would lead to the “never played worse” comment. But, if a deadly consistent server/returner plays someone who relies on a steady stream of free points, unforced errors, and erratic play, then the absence of those free points (though this player may have never really conceptualized his own reliance on these freebies) will actually lead to the same phrase, “I have never played worse.”
First serve to the ad court, Nikolay Davydenko puts the ball in
play, note his neutral court positioning after the service hit – nothing fancy
here, getting the ball in play.
Just that a few days ago at our club one of our players significantly improved her percentage of first serves and returns, against an opponent of similar skill but with less appreciation of this strategic paradigm. As the match wore on, the more consistent player got into each point without the undue stress reliance on pressure filled second serves. Consequently, the other became forced to play nearly every point on maximum offense. She had to win points because so few were being given away on the other side of the net.
The current “factory” tennis model places between four to eight (if not ten) players on a court drilling groundstrokes from a pro who feeds them balls corner to corner. The juniors (or adults) wait in line to bang the ball then diligently move and hit. Sometimes, with four to a court, they endlessly hammer groundies from the back court. Perhaps this is a good way to get a lot of players practicing together, sometimes known as a competitive cluster. But in the final analysis, because of this training paradigm, there is no way to really focus on the nuts and bolts of the game – the serve and return. Consider Bill Tilden, world champion in the 1920’s, who advised simply playing five sets a day to practice for an upcoming event. In the five sets a day model, one would certainly come to understand the importance of a reliable serve and return.
Nikolay simply returns the ball on the backhand side
from the deuce court and quickly recovers – no particular offense, but surely
getting the ball in play.
The following are simple drills that may “hammer” home the simplicity of this concept.
When practicing the serve, remember that all serves are hit with spin, that one is only as good as one’s second serve, and that first and second serves should be more similar in pace and spin than dissimilar.
Set aside ten balls and count how many go into the court. Repeat this process again and again. Once your percentages improve, mark off the corners of the service box – out wide and up the middle in the deuce, and up the middle and out wide in the ad court – and once again count your percentages in every ten serve sequences.
Second, find a practice partner who will serve to you, and repeat this process counting your percentage of returns in every ten shot sequence. Third, keep a 3 x 5 card in your tennis bag, and on changeovers note how many times you went in your pocket on the service game, meaning you had to reach for the ball in your pocket on the second serve, and equally note on that card whether holding or dropping serve.
Interestingly you will find far more drops of serve when too many second serves had been hit, and more often than not, more holds of serves when few if any seconds or doubles were hit. Finally, use the same card to track your percentage of returns in any game. It is not surprising that your breaks of the opponent's serve generally occur when your returns were error free.
Certainly, at the professional level all the men and women have reliable serves and returns, so this concept, though still applicable, becomes a little harder to measure. But watch closely as any set tightens to 5-4 or 6-5 and more often than not the break occurs from poor serving, and the hold occurs from poor returning. Simple as that.
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From the Western & Southern Open
- Del Potro: The Next Big Thing – Juan Martin del Potro, is back from his serious wrist injury and playing at a high level but is he ready to take his place alongside the best in the game?
Surviving TV Tennis Disease
In a couple of weeks millions of tennis fans will gather around their television sets to watch in awe as the best in the business do their thing. After witnessing brilliant shot-making and gravity defying athleticism, these same people will head to the court infected with a severe case of what I call “TV Tennis Disease” otherwise known as “play like the pros syndrome.” Is this a good thing? Depends on what you take away from it. – Greg Moran
Learning Tennis as an Open Skill, part 5
In previous articles, Wayne Elderton has explored the concept that tennis uses "Open Skills." In other words, technique must adapt to the situation one finds oneself in and that learning a swing pattern without the understanding it must be adaptable just sets a player up for frustration and possibly failure. This time Wayne focuses e on training differentiation. And one of the most basic and important aspects of technical differentiation that give players trouble is grips.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Gael Monfils Backhand
This 24 year old Frenchman turned pro in 2004, and is currently ranked 7th – an all-time high. A mainstay amongst a strong French contingent, Monfils has won over $5 million in prize money but holds a mere 3 career singles titles although he has been a finalist 11 times. This former number 1 junior is perhaps the most athletically gifted player on the entire tour, but Gael is still looking for a breakout event. In July of 2008 Monfils hired Roger Rasheed, the Australian coach who shepherded much of Lleyton Hewitt’s career. Rasheed has said, “He is not even close to where I want him to be. In two years time he will be a beast." And to that end Monfils has admitted he wants to become tougher. Time will tell. New this issue, Monfils' Backhand.
TennisOne Writers Store
One of your many new benefits as a TennisOne membership is your ability to purchase selected instructional DVDs at 20% off ($7.50 off each) in our new TennisOne Writers Store (login in first to access members links):
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- "Building Your Serve from the Ground Up," Jim McLennan Members Public
- "Building Your Ground Game," Jim McLennan Members – Public
- "Building a Kick Serve," Jim McLennan Members – Public
- "Underspin Backhand - Weapon," Jim McLennan Members Public
- "Achieving Peak Performance the Wholistic Way: The Mental Game," Happy Bhalla Members – Public
- "Building a World Class Serve," Phil Dent Members – Public
- "Building a World-class Volley," Dave Smith Members – Public
- "Keys to Modern Tennis Technique: One-Handed Topspin," Doug King Members Public
- "Best of Ken DeHart," Ken DeHart Members – Public
- "Corrective Techniques & Myths," Ken DeHart Members – Public
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