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Coaching Tips - General Tactics

Play to the score!

What is meant by 'the big points'? What are they?

Smart players recognise that certain points are more important than others. You might find it a useful exercise to rank them in order of significance, e.g. match point (either way) should rank at number one, set point (either way) should rank second, break point (either way) should come in at three, and game point should take number four, etc. This is all fairly obvious stuff, but the following points must also figure in the ranking order: 30-30, 15-30, 30-15, deuce and the first point of a game.

Once you've got the score-related points ranked, spend some time considering psychological points. For instance, any long rally becomes an important point, as does the first point after a long rally.

Watch how successful players perform on these points. Do they play high percentage? Do they go for their shots more? Do they focus more and summon up more determination? What works most effectively for you? Whatever it is, you need to come up with your most effective plays on big points. Playing these points loosely could undermine a lot of good work!

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Whose side is the wind on?

Why do I always lose when it's windy?

First thing - you've got to accept the wind! No, you've got to LIKE the wind! It's no good fighting it. It's part of the challenge, along with your form and your fitness and your luck and your opponent and the state of the court and everything else. If it's a strong wind, it's going to be a big factor and if you treat it as a problem, sure enough it'll be one! Treat it as an opportunity to outwit your opponent.

If it's a crosscourt wind, hit down the line on the side of the court closest to the wind. The ball will then curve into the court. Avoid the line on the other side because the wind will blow it out.

In general, using shorter, relatively flat strokes is less likely to produce errors when you play in windy conditions. However, using spins gives you the opportunity of making life even more difficult for your opponent. Using short slices and drop shots when the wind is in your face will be particularly effective if your opponent is slow moving forwards. Similarly, your slice serve will swerve even more than usual. When you're playing with the wind behind you, the main problem is hitting long. The solution is to use topspin to make your shots drop into the court earlier.

I know it sounds trite, but remind yourself that it's not a problem - it's an opportunity! If you use it better than your opponent, you can actually turn it to your advantage. Get the wind on your side!

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Call for the Spin Doctor!

How can I make my steady baseline game less predictable?

Hello. You're through to the Spin Doctor. How can I help you?

Well, Doc, I play a very steady game from the back of the court but my opponents find it easy to read. They know what's coming and attack me all the time.

So you find it difficult to upset your opponent's rhythm. Any other symptoms?

Yes, Doc. I suppose I shouldn't complain really. I mean, I don't make very many mistakes. It's just that when they attack the net, I can never seem to give them a difficult ball to volley. And when I decide to go on the attack myself, they pass me easily.

Okay. Sounds like you're suffering from a chronic form of variation deficiency. I'm going to prescribe some spins. I want you to use them once or twice a rally, but never during meals. This bottle contains Topspin which makes the ball bounce higher and apparently pick up speed after it bounces. Use it to vary the height and length of your drives, so that you upset your opponent's rhythm. Exaggerate it to produce moonballs - particularly useful when you need time to recover your position on the court. As Topspin causes the ball to dip, use it against the net player to force him to play uncomfortable low volleys. You'll find you can also use it to produce short widely-angled shots.

What's in the other bottle, Doc?

Ah yes, that's Backspin. You'll find Backspin makes the ball travel slower through the air and it bounces lower. It's useful for approaching the net, because your opponent is forced to dig up a low ball that should be easy for you to volley. It can also get you out of trouble, like when you're slightly off-balance or too close to the ball or too far away from it.

What will happen if I mix them up, Doc?

That won't matter. In fact it's probably a good idea. Oh, and we must do something about your tension.

Do I seem tense to you?

No, not you. It's your racket. You'll need to have it strung a bit tighter if you want to spin the ball more reliably. Leave it with my receptionist. Good day to you.

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Follow the Red Brick Road!

How can I prepare for playing on clay?

When you play outdoor clay-court tennis, one of the underrated factors is unpredictability. Clay courts are moody beasts. When it's warm and dry, you can be versatile in your choice of tactics, but if the weather changes and the court gets wet and the balls get heavy, it's as if someone has flicked the slow-motion switch and you've just got to grind the points out. Even on a dry day, it can be very disconcerting when a swirling wind gets up and blows the clay into your face. The most effective clay-court players are those who are mentally tough and ready to adapt promptly and positively to all the different challenges that get thrown at them.

But, in general terms, what can you expect?

You can expect the ball to bounce higher than on other surfaces. To take advantage of this, many clay-court specialists use relatively "closed" grips (e.g. semi-western or western forehand) and an open-stance base, allowing them to whip up through the hitting zone to produce high-rolling topspin drives. A kicking second serve is another very useful asset.

You can expect the points to last longer than on other surfaces. That doesn't mean aggressive players need not apply! Modern rackets have made aggressive tennis more productive, even on clay. But you need to build up your physical and mental stamina. Even if you attack the net in an attempt to shorten the points, you should be ready to play two or three volleys in a row, which is very demanding on your knees and thigh muscles.

You can expect movement to be difficult. As clay is not so firm underfoot as other courts, twisting and turning can present real problems. Make this work to your advantage by wrong-footing your opponent (i.e. playing the ball back behind him) and make judicious use of the drop-shot. Try to master the art of sliding into your shots.

Obviously, you need to invest a lot of practice time to hone these technical skills and build up your stamina. But extra patience, extra tactical awareness (and extra socks!) will help you plenty as you follow the Red Brick Road.

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Make a fist of it!

How do you come up with a good match strategy?

That's some question. I've come across a surprisingly large number of players - even some really good ones - who don't even think about it! They just step onto court and hit their shots and if they hit better than their opponents, they win. If they don't, they lose. Most of us can't afford to hire Brad Gilbert to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent before we play a match. Many of us can't afford a coach at all.

If you fall into that category, you've got to learn to analyse your opponents by yourself. You can do it by reviewing your previous encounters (if you've had any), by watching their matches and by talking to other players. Make notes about their preferred patterns of play. Make notes about the shots and shot combinations that are effective against them (and the shots and shot combinations that are not). Try and identify what breaks down under pressure. With experience, you'll get better and better at reading what your opponents are all about. Just be aware that everyone you play has got some shortcomings. Just be sure you find out what they are.

Once you're equipped with a straightforward assessment of an opponent's patterns, strengths and weaknesses, you're ready to devise your strategy. Here are a few examples of some strategies you might apply:

identified weakness: impatience
strategy: Be sure to profit from unforced errors. Stay back and keep the ball in play with good depth until your opponent succumbs to temptation and risks a low-percentage winner.

identified weakness: one-speed
strategy: Occasional slow-balling will upset players who are only comfortable with a fast-paced game.

identified pattern: runs around to hit forehands
strategy: This could be a player who has a weak backhand, but it could also be a player who has a particularly big forehand and likes to use it at every opportunity. Either way, he is going to be taking risks with his court position. Catching him off-balance by hitting wide to his forehand may well pay better dividends than relentlessly trying to force a backhand out of him. At the very least, forcing him wide on his stronger side should actually help you get at his backhand with your follow-up shot.

Once you've identified something that hurts your opponent, go to the well as often as you like, especially on big points. But if your strategy is simply not working, be prepared to refine it or even change it completely. After all, if someone doesn't answer the phone, it's no good dialling louder!

Your groundstrokes, your serve, your volleys, your footwork - they're like fingers. You can do limited things with them, but a strategy curls them together into a single unit - a fist. Now you have a weapon!

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Work with the turf!

What do you have to do to be successful on grass?

Three of the four majors were played on grass until the early 1970's. There's now only one survivor - Wimbledon. But it's the biggest prize in tennis and if players want to win it, they have to work with the turf, because it's staying!

Playing on grass demands that you come up with effective solutions to the following challenges:

1. the ball bounces relatively low and often skids
2. the court is often slippery
3. you often get bad bounces.

These factors make it desirable that you finish the points quickly and allow the ball to bounce as little as possible on your side of the net, i.e. by moving in and volleying. The serve and the return are much more important than on other surfaces, so be sure to practise these thoroughly prior to competing in a grass-court tournament. The slipperiness demands that you use a lot of tiny, low steps as you move around the court. Use a slightly deeper knee bend than normal to keep your centre of gravity low.

If you're used to generating topspin with a closed-face grip and you're understandably reluctant to modify this for grass, that's fine. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't make sense to completely change your normal game. If you're comfortable with more open-face grips (e.g. continental), that'll certainly come in very handy, but the best policy is not to reinvent your game, but to adapt it.

Serve-volley and chip-charge tactics usually pay dividends. In tennis, you should always take advantage of what the surface will do for you. On grass, this means exploiting the tendency for the ball to keep low - by using slice. This will produce an even lower bounce for your opponent to contend with. If you've got a good slice serve and a good slice backhand in your repertoire, now's the time to dust them off and tune them up. Make the ball surf the turf!

Finally, if you're going to play a lot on grass, you should seriously consider investing in a pair of specialised tennis shoes (the ones with tiny pimples underneath).

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How to change the flavour of a lob!

How can I avoid being lobbed when I go in to the net?

I hate to answer a question with a question, but why would you want to go in to the net if you're not going to be happy to see your opponent send up a nice high ball for you to smash away? It's just what you want, isn't it? Sweetie time.

Okay, that's a bit simplistic. Lobs come in different flavours. The one most of us enjoy is the flat or sliced defensive variety, especially if it's not too high and not too deep. The one that leaves more of a bad taste in the mouth is the offensive, counter-attacking topspin lob, especially when you can't reach it and it catapults away from you after it bounces.

If you can't cope with the former variety, you've simply got to spend some time improving your overheads. Even when you've gained more confidence in your ability to put the ball away, avoid closing in too tight on the net - halfway between the net and the service line is plenty near enough, otherwise a lob will be your opponent's obvious course of action and he's more likely to clear your racket.

Generally speaking, your opponent will cause more damage with the lob if he has a good opportunity to execute it well. The quality of your approach shot (or serve) could deny him that opportunity. Put one or more of the following ingredients into your approach shots (or serves):

1. hit deep
2. get your opponent off-balance, make him run
3. serve at the body to 'jam' your opponent
4. use slice to keep the ball low
5. approach down the line or aim to your opponent's weaker wing

Dealing with lobs will soon start to taste sweet if you put in some of these ingredients!

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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