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Coaching Tips - Singles Tactics

Play the percentage game!

What is meant by playing the percentages in singles?

There are many aspects to this, but here we go:

1. Go for high net clearance (preferably with some topspin). This should ensure good depth, keeping your opponent back.

2. Go crosscourt most of the time (hit down the line to attack). This should ensure crossing the net at its lowest point and less chance of over-hitting. It also makes it difficult for your opponent to angle a ball away from you. Avoid changing the direction of the ball when it is hit with pace or directed towards your weaker wing or if the ball is low.

3. Aim straight ahead with approach shots. This should ensure your opponent has minimal opportunities to use angles on the pass.

4. Expect to hit at least two volleys to win a point (one to set up, one to put away). This should ensure a better court position to finish the point.

5. Get the first serve in, aiming for placement rather than power. This should ensure you save energy (the cost of executing 2 serves per point adds up!). It should also avoid the threat of your opponent moving in on second serves.

6. When in trouble - lob! This should ensure you buy time to recover a reasonable court position and you frustrate your opponent by neutralising his or her attack.

Playing the percentages also involves taking into account your strengths and weaknesses, your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, the court surface and the playing conditions (e.g. the weather).

You should stay with a winning strategy and change a losing one!

Exploit your opponent's weaknesses judiciously (if you overdo it, he or she will improve or find a way around it!) and try to play shots that will entice your opponent to hit to your strengths.

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Step up and take control!

How can I dominate a groundstroke rally without making errors?

One of the biggest problems may be hitting too hard. Hitting hard means your shot cannot clear the net by much in order to stay in the court. Unless you harness the pace with a suitable amount of topspin, the risk factor is so great that you're going to make more errors than hit winners.

Rather than hit harder, try taking the ball earlier by playing inside the baseline whenever you can.

Making your opponents move and play shots off-balance is the objective and it's achieved by denying them time. The most effective way to deny your opponent time is to step inside the baseline and take the ball early.

You may find you need to reduce your backswing slightly to do this!

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Don't let appearances deceive you!

How can I find a player's weaknesses quickly?

Weaknesses fall into three categories: technical, physical and mental. As the standard of tennis you play improves, you find that technical and physical weaknesses become gradually less significant than mental ones.

If you don't get a chance to watch a player before you play, it can sometimes take several games before you get a feel for what they do well and what they don't do well.

Mental weaknesses are not easy to identify early in a match, but take note of what your opponent does on the first few pressure points.

Technical and physical deficiencies can be exposed fairly early on, even during the knock-up. So use the knock-up to do a quick evaluation of your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. Vary the speed and spin of your shots slightly. Watch for reluctance to hit backhands. Does your opponent ask for a few overheads? If not, make a mental note to send up a lob as soon as the opportunity arises!

There are some deficiencies which you can expect (but be prepared to revise your expectations!). For example, players who use an extreme western forehand grip often have suspect forehand volleys. Similarly, players with two-handed backhands often struggle with their backhand volleys. Tall players often hate digging out low balls and fail to cope with balls directed straight at them.

Some players have shots which appear to be strengths because they hit them with considerable spin or power or both, but don't be deceived by appearances! The hardest shots in the world are a weakness if they don't land in the court!

If your opponent repeatedly hurts you with a shot or combination of shots, upset the repetition! If a particular shot of your own (or a combination of shots) gets results, do it again!

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Surprise! Surprise!

How do you wrong foot your opponent?

The idea is to make your opponent think you're going to hit the ball to a particular side of his court and then when he's moving there, you play it back to the side of the court he just left! The element of surprise is crucial, so don't overdo it!

Ironically, it's a move that's often more successful against fast players than slow ones. A fast-moving, fast-thinking player who is looking to anticipate your next shot is actually quite vulnerable to this tactic.

Against a slower player, it's usually better to hit into the open spaces.

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Be aggressive when returning second serves!

How can I break serve against a strong server?

Don't go for too much on the first-serve return. Your first objective should be to make your opponent play another shot. Shorten your backswing and direct the ball back along the line of the serve.

You've got to view your opponent's second serves as big opportunities. Consider going down the line. Consider generating more pace. Consider a chip-and-charge combination.

Being aggressive on the second serve return may make your opponent go for more pace or depth, risking more errors. It may also force your opponent to play safer with the first serve!

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Pay respect (but not too much!)

How do you beat a "pusher"?

"How can I lose to this guy? He hasn't really got any shots!". That's what you're thinking, huh? Well, let's get one thing straight to start with - the patient baseliner definitely demands respect. But not too much respect! Avoid feeling that there's nothing you can do against this type of player.

Conversely, it's no use feeling superior because you hit the ball harder and take more chances. Don't sneer! He's beaten you, right? He plays within the rules and makes you dance to his tune and you can't handle it. Agreed? Good! Now we can move on and address the problem!

Many people prefer playing hard-hitters. After all, you can redirect their power without having to generate any of your own. When you come up against someone who does not hit with pace, uncharacteristic errors can result from loss of patience. You start hitting the ball harder and harder and closer to the lines than normal. Errors can also result from you taking it too easy. You don't need to rush to the ball and you get lackadaisical with your footwork.

So, those are the problems. What can we do about them?

You don't want to soften up your own shots so much that you end up trapped into playing your opponent's game. There are two things you need to focus on. One is controlling your impatience and the other is to work your feet.

Resolve to play your game and your style without over-hitting or becoming too aggressive. And then, work those feet! Avoid just waiting for the ball. You'll end up becoming uncoordinated and making faster swings to compensate for poor positioning.

Stay focused, work your feet and play your own game (but play it patiently!). And remember that his tactic is legitimate and often successful. But remember also that it's probably the only one he's got!

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Tonight we have bread and water followed by champagne and caviar!

What can I do to avoid people exploiting my weak backhand?

If you've got a weak backhand, give yourself a different set of expectations. You're not going to rip it like your forehand, so don't try! Work on making it reliable and consistent, a shot that will keep you in the point rather than win it. Make it your bread-and-water shot!

If you've got bread-and-water for a backhand, something else will need to be your champagne-and-caviar. So develop your forehand into a weapon. Or you could develop your net game and win your points that way.

If you keep your shots deep during a rally, you can avoid playing a lot of backhands. That's because you have more time to prepare for your own shots and, if you can improve your anticipation skills as well, you should be able to run around and hit some forehands when the ball arrives in the backhand side of your court.

Avoid going for too much of an angle crosscourt when you play your backhands. An angle invites an angle in return, and you'll find it harder to avoid backhands if you get into that sort of rally.

Don't worry about the limitations of your backhand. A judicious mix of bread-and-water and champagne-and-caviar will serve you quite adequately while you hire the services of a chef, sorry, coach and work at improving the menu.

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Sailing to victory!

Why is my game successful against some players and not others?

Well, that's the fascination of the sport isn't it? In the same way as a sailing boat needs the wind to make progress, so you need opponents. Different winds and different opponents provide different challenges, but they offer you a route to your destination. Without them, you go nowhere and achieve nothing. If you trim your sails correctly, you can go where you want and as far as you want. Get it wrong and you can go round in circles (or backwards).

The phrasing of your question contains a suggestion that your game is somehow immutable and fixed, something that happens to work against some players and not others. If that's the case, my advice to you is to become a bit more "savvy" and adapt your skills to the challenges posed by each different opponent.

If your usual style is to rush the net, beware of the opponent who likes a target - you could capsize! If your usual style is to hit big groundstrokes, beware of the opponent who enjoys the pace and patiently lures you towards the rocks! In short, your strengths can become weaknesses if you fail to take your opponent into account.

You don't need to change your technique, but you do need to develop a repertoire of tactics. Plan A will sometimes work, but different opponents are like different winds. You can't change the direction or the strength of the wind, but you can trim your sails accordingly and reach your destination!

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Trap the snake!

How do you play a topspin slugger?

If you find you're being pushed back out of court by a topspin slugger, it's like you're being kept at bay by a deadly snake. You've got two choices. One option is to surprise him by stepping in and seizing him by the throat, i.e. take the ball early (on the rise). This might be a good tactic for a fairly advanced player.

The second option is a possibility for most of us and it involves using a bit of cunning! Set a trap consisting of soft slices and chips and dinks. This will prevent your opponent getting the racket under the ball to produce topspin. You can render him even more harmless by taking the pace off - most aggressive baseliners thrive on pace!

Often in tennis, it's not just a question of coming up with the correct antidote - see if you can avoid the poison in the first place!

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Is that gun loaded?

Why do I always have trouble against net-rushers?

There's always an element of bluff when players come rushing in to the net all the time. You don't have to fall for it. Only the very best volleyers cope well when you make them play a shot at the net. And they can only cope well behind serves and approach shots that do some damage.

The tactic works for them if you panic. It also works for them if you try to hit perfect clean passing shots all the time. You just ain't gonna do it! Actually, you don't need to do it. So don't give the point away trying to be spectacular.

Call your opponent's bluff and make him work for the point! If he wants to come steaming in to the net, test him! Let's see if that gun's loaded! You can make it difficult for him by dipping the ball below net height. He might fluff the volley or pop the ball up short for you to move in and pass him on the next shot. Work out if he has a weaker side and don't forget to mix in a few lobs as well, just to keep him guessing!

If you succeed in discouraging a net-rusher, you often find that all their ammunition miraculously disappears!

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Puppet on a string?

Should I try a different string tension to play a big-hitter?

Players often ask me if they should use a racket strung with a different tension when they play big-hitters.

In general terms, lower tensions create more of a pocket on impact and the consequent "trampoline effect" throws energy into the ball, producing a more powerful stroke. Higher tensions enable greater "brushing effect" when you apply spin to the ball - so topspin players get more control.

But you have to be careful, because changing string tension can affect your serve. It all seems a bit drastic to me. Can you be sure the pros will outweigh the cons? Better to leave your racket alone and take a bit of time to get accustomed to the pace by doing the following:

  i. adjust your court position (stand further back) for a while to get a longer look at the ball, but start moving in again as soon as you're comfortable
  ii. reduce your backswing (maybe just a shoulder/hip turn) and be prepared to block a few balls back while you get the feel of the weight of the ball on the racket, then start leaning in on the shots more

Once you're accustomed to the pace, choose a counter-strategy, e.g.:

  i. play high-percentage defence to frustrate your opponent into making errors
  ii. stop your opponent getting into a rhythm by mixing up the pace, mixing up the spin, mixing in a few drop shots
  iii. float some slow balls back (big-hitters often hate this!)

You don't have to be purely reactive when you play a big-hitter. Don't be a puppet! Cut the strings (not literally!) and make your opponent dance to your tune.

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The Long, the Short and the Fool

When is the right time to try a drop shot?

If you use it sparingly, the drop shot can be a completely devastating weapon. Cast your mind back to 1989. It's Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario playing Raffaella Reggi on Centre Court at Wimbledon and she's match point down. Suddenly, completely out of the blue, she disarms her opponent with an outrageous drop shot struck from well behind the baseline. It's an outright winner and it stuns Reggi so much that she never recovers her momentum and loses the match. An unforgettable moment.

Some shots are just so satisfying to execute and the drop shot is one of them. Unfortunately, it can become addictive. Drop-shot-itis is a very unfortunate condition. Avoid it by reminding yourself that if you fail to surprise your opponent, you'll probably lose the point. You're either a hero or a fool when you opt for the drop shot.

The opportunity arises when you're inside your baseline and your opponent is well behind his baseline. Sanchez-Vicario was lucky - a drop shot played from behind the baseline usually has too far to travel, allowing your opponent too much time to reach it.

Be aware of your opponent's position as well as your own. If the shot is going to be effective, you must be short in the court and your opponent must be long. If you can sense an element of surprise, all the better. Remember to narrow the angles by following it in to the net.

I guess that's the long and the short of it.

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You are feeling sleepy!

It doesn't work when I change my game to play a moonballer. What do I do?

Players sometimes get in such a stew when they're confronted with a defensive moonballer. I hear this type of opponent described in the most derogatory terms. According to most of the victims I meet, the moonballer should not have won, doesn't play "proper tennis" and won't get anywhere in the game.

Well, tell that to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario - amongst others!

The problem arises because dogged persistence is a relatively uncommon trait. You kind of get used to opponents who oblige you with a liberal helping of unforced errors when you offer them the opportunities. It can be very baffling to encounter a player who is resolutely intent on doing nothing more than get the ball back without making a mistake.

Let's face it, though, this opponent has no weapons and is relying on you inflicting wounds on yourself. The danger lies in your own reaction to the problem. If you become a headless chicken and select shots you never practise, adopt tactics you never rehearse and allow yourself to be totally manipulated by a situation that really isn't all that threatening, then you will find yourself in deep water and no mistake.

So, DON'T PANIC! You don't have to suddenly conjure up drive volleys in the mid-court - especially if you can only just cope with the orthodox variety. There's no point rushing the net at every opportunity - especially if lunging and jumping are anathema to you. Risking a strategy of drop shots and lobs may prove disastrous - especially if your touch is suspect. In short, if the relevant weapons are not in your arsenal, then all the conventional wisdom about playing moonballers can be discounted.

Changing tactics is only an option if you can execute the required shots with competence and confidence. And if it's not an option, tackle the problem from a psychological perspective as opposed to a tactical one.

In this case, focus on the strong points of your own game - your most reliable shots (or sequences of shots). Accept you're going to have to be a whole lot more patient than usual and accept it will take longer to construct your openings. But keep believing in your own weapons!

Keep believing even when your best shots keep coming back. Keep believing even when they appear to have no visible effect on your opponent whatsoever. After all, this type of player loves having to react and loves having to defend. Your task is to keep a positive mindset! Your weapons will gradually have an effect, albeit a drip drip effect. Persist! Eventually, you'll get a shorter ball. Eventually, you'll create space on the court for a really incisive blow.

Play according to the score. When you're 40-0 or 40-15 up, for example, you can probably afford to risk a little more. Working your feet is important too. Just because you don't need to move fast, you can get lulled into sloppy shot preparation. So keep your feet busy!

Playing a moonballer can become hypnotic. Be a bad hypnotic subject by resisting the suggestion that you should get frustrated. The ability to resist depends on belief and expectations. Make sure you're equipped with both.

Back to the questions

Who's driving?

Is it best to attack or play safe?

As a coach, I often get the opportunity to speak to players when they've finished a match and I often ask them about their strategy. I do get some baffled looks, especially from juniors! Sometimes they admit they went on to court without any kind of plan whatsoever, even when the opponent was well known to them and even when an opponent's weaknesses were obvious! They failed to react to what went on during the match and just relied on their strokes to see them through. If they refer to the opponent at all, a few might assert that they "went after his/her backhand", but usually it's nothing more than a derogatory observation like "he's just a pusher and I can't play pushers!" or an exasperated acknowledgement of the defeat like "she was just too good!". If matches were journeys, these players were effectively nothing more than passengers.

Other players make confident assertions like "I just played my own game" or "I decided to go for it" or "I set out to play really consistent". They may have chosen their mode of transport, but these players are just passengers too.

Many players express strategy in very black and white terms. They either "go for it" and attempt to hit winners all the time or they just go out and play safe. The stats presented to viewers of televised matches reinforce this over-simplification by emphasising the number of winners and the number of unforced errors. That implies that all the top pros adopt a policy of all-out attack, whereby they either hit their targets or they miss them. That's seldom the case. The most significant factor - the number of forced errors - is usually omitted from the stats altogether!

It's seldom appropriate to attempt to hit a winner with every shot and it's seldom appropriate to do nothing except play safe. Far better to strive to play forcing tennis, using your strengths to expose an opponent's weaknesses. Far better to deploy the right tactics to force your opponent into error or create opportunities for you to hit a winning shot.

So how can a steady player who has no weapons play forcing tennis? By varying your shots and moving your opponent around the court to elicit a mistake. By maintaining good depth to frustrate an opponent who might be tempted to take an inappropriate risk. Now, you might say that's the same as just playing safe, but it's not! The mindset is different. You're using tactics to exploit a perceived weakness.

Most players can and should use a variety of strategies and tactics, based on their own style of play, based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent and based on the state of the match.

At every changeover in a match, you should ask yourself two simple questions: "what's hurting me?" and "what's hurting my opponent?". If necessary, you should then adjust your tactics to avoid your own pain and increase your opponent's. That's how you play forcing tennis. That's how you get out of the back seat and take the wheel for yourself during a match. That's how you can get on the road to success!

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Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

I can't decide what type of player I should be. Can you help?

Do you remember the fortune-telling rhymes you used as a child while you counted the cherry or prune stones on the side of your plate? What shall I be - tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, etc? Well you wouldn't want to make a random choice of playing style any more than you would commit to an occupation indicated by your prune stones. The style of play you use should be determined by your balance of strengths.

So you need to do a little bit of self-evaluation. What aspects of your game work well at the moment? What do you hurt your opponents with? What would your opponents say your strengths were if they were scouting you?

If you're comfortable at the baseline and you win your points by persisting away patiently and tenaciously with good footwork and consistent groundstrokes, you're going to be best suited to a counterpuncher (or defensive baseliner) style of play.

If you get most of your success forcing errors and short balls out of your opponents with your big groundstrokes, you're best suited to being an aggressive baseliner.

If your instincts carry you into the net where you're successful finishing points off early with volleys and overheads, you should obviously develop the serve-and-volley/chip-and-charge style of play.

If, however, your strengths are well spread and you're equally successful hitting groundstrokes from the baseline AND volleying at the net after certain serves/returns/short balls, you should continue to develop into an all-court player.

Work out what you already do well and develop those strengths into a style of play (but bear in mind that different surfaces favour different styles of play and don't neglect the other areas of your game).

    Tinker, tailor, counterpuncher, grinder,
    Big-hitter, net man, all-courter, cheat.

I don't like prunes anyway.

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The Web Trap

I don't have any weapons, but I'm steady and accurate. What tactics best suit my game?

That sounds like an oxymoron to me! Accuracy enables you to exploit the geometry of the court and is definitely a weapon in this context. It allows you to create what I call the Web Trap!

In each rally, your objective should be to open up the court for an opportunity to put the ball away or force an error. It's a question of manoeuvering your opponent into a position where he's vulnerable to attack. You will need to get familiar with combinations of shots like these:

  i. Hit a short angled shot, preferably with slice to keep the ball low, followed by a deep shot to the other side. You often don't need to go too wide with the second shot, but you do need to ensure it's deep enough to make your opponent move backwards as well as sideways. You can also use this tactic with a wide slice serve as the opening gambit. By the way, slice is particularly useful against players with western grips or two-handed backhands.
  ii. Hit a high, deep moonball to your opponent's backhand followed by a sneaky move into the court for a volley. If you load up the moonball with topspin to get the ball up to at least shoulder height, your opponent will probably not notice your advance to the net.
  iii. Hit a drop-shot followed by a pass or lob. This is a fairly low percentage option, because drop-shots and lobs require good touch and feel, but if you're feeling confident and your opponent is out of position behind the baseline, it's a combination that can be devastatingly successful!
  iv. Hit corner to corner, controlling the rally from the middle of the court. If, at any time, your opponent fails to recover to a good position, drive into the space. Watch out for a sign that your opponent has anticipated your next shot too early - if you spot this, hit back behind him.

Fabrice Santoro In military terms, your accuracy should allow you to control the engagement by luring the enemy into vulnerable positions. No one enjoys being run ragged. Watch how Fabrice Santoro does this to his opponents. Known as "The Magician", the Frenchman lures his opponents into a spider-like web of court angles. Hence the Web Trap!

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David and Goliath

How do you play a consistent power player?

According to biblical records, the young Hebrew David slew the giant Philistine Goliath by means of cunning, planning and skill. Rejecting Israelite King Saul's offer of armour and a sword, young David equipped himself with nothing but a sling and five smooth stones he had taken from a nearby stream. Goliath mocked and cursed the young Hebrew who calmly placed a stone in his sling and toppled the giant with his first shot.

If you find yourself in a seemingly ill-matched contest against a player who threatens to overpower you, you must emulate David and show comparable bravery and enterprise. Select the following five "stones":

  1 Pragmatism Do not try to trade blows - you won't win a slugfest. Be realistic and deploy alternative weaponry!
  2 Patience Take your time and adjust to your opponent's pace. Settle for blocking shots back during the early exchanges. Get the feel of the weight of the shots on your strings.
  3 Courage Watching your opponent wind up for a big shot can be mesmerising and intimidating, but it's just a ball - concentrate on watching it right off the racket. Hold your ground and don't get forced too far back behind your baseline.
  4 Variation Power players usually like rallies with a steady rhythm that allow them to set up in plenty of time for their next big shot. Deny them time and deny them rhythm. Mix up the pace and vary your spins. Throw in plenty of junk shots - angled dinks, soft slices, chips and chops. Try a few drop shots once you've got your eye in.
  5 Faith Believe in your plan and your ability to execute it. Take your sling, er, racket, and stand up to adversity with the knowledge that all the physical presence Goliath could muster was no match for David's guile.

Unlike David, you won't topple your opponent with your first junk shot, so be persistent. And comfort yourself with the following thought. There are David and Goliath analogies in the world of pro tennis - mighty Marat Safin hates playing the cunning Frenchman Fabrice Santoro!

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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