As a New York City tennis player, you probably never get as much court time as you would like to prepare for your league or tournament matches. When you lose a match, especially a close one, you just know that you could have prepared and played better. Sound familiar? We have all been there and our typical consolation is that we need more practice. What if I told you that you can, and will win more matches with less effort? Sound crazy? In this article, I will discuss five simple and proven tactics that you can use to win more matches by, quite literally, doing less. They have done wonders for my students, and can do the same for you.
1. Don't try to serve so hard!
Too many players try to blast the first serve really hard only to miss it into the net or deep. Take some pace off the ball to increase your first serve percentage. At first, this may seem counterintuitive, but think about it … you know how you are always more confident when returning your opponents second serve as opposed to their first serve? The same is true for your opponent. By trying not to blast the ball and by reducing the speed of your first serve by 10 percent, you can significantly increase the percentage of your first serves going in. This will put more pressure on your opponent not only to return your first serves, but also to serve better during his or her own service game. Additional pressure will lead your opponents to make errors they would not have otherwise made … it's a win-win situation.
2. Block back the return of serve
You may know many players who take a big swing at the return of serve, really trying to punish the ball. More often than not, that "big" return is missed, and all of that effort is wasted. What was the point? To hit a winner or to set up a winner? That is not the purpose of the return. Your goal with the return of serve should first be to start the point. Before you do anything fancy with the ball, you must first get it in the court, and taking a big swing on the return frequently defeats that purpose. A barely-blocked shot that goes in is 100 times more effective than the Goliath-type forehand you "almost" made. Resolve today to reduce your backswing on the return of serve, and simply put the ball back deep. Start by blocking or chipping every ball back deep, and gripping your racket slightly higher than usual will help.
You will notice that two things happen immediately as you block more serves back. Your opponent, especially a good server, will get frustrated at the high number of his serves that are coming back. He will either try to serve harder, causing them to make more errors, or serve softer, allowing you to attack. Blocking returns will reduce the number of unforced errors you make, build confidence in your return, and help you handle even the toughest serves.
3. Get on the baseline
Every tennis player is sometimes guilty of backing up on a relatively easy high spin ball, to hit the ball as it drops instead of stepping into the court and taking the ball on the rise. If this happens to you only once in a while, great. However, if you regularly find yourself backing up or playing far behind the baseline, you might have the case of “The Silent Killer,” whereby you hand over the match to your opponent without realizing it. Playing far behind the baseline, or worse, backing up as you hit the ball, is typically counterproductive to your goal of winning points, and the overall match.
Think about it … to win points, your options typically are to:
►Draw an error from your opponent by making them run more; or
►Draw an error by breaking the opponent's rhythm (reducing the time your opponent has to prepare and hit the ball).
These objectives are achieved by stepping into the ball and maintaining the control of the baseline. Stepping into the court increases the angles available to move your opponent, and forces the ball to come back to your opponent noticeably faster, thus breaking their rhythm. It also gets your body moving forward, making contact with the ball 10 percent to 15 percent further in front than you would hit otherwise, and inadvertently, lengthen your follow-through after contact—all factors (without getting into details of stroke production) which significantly increase your control and consistency, among other benefits. It's a win any way when you step into the court.
4. “Catch the ball” at the net
Most players today avoid coming to the net. On the professional level, speed, power, athleticism and overall skill has risen the bar so much that the average tennis match has distinctly fewer opportunities to effectively get to the net than one had playing on tour in the 1990s. Junior and club players, however, avoid the net for other reasons—they are either playing too far back behind the baseline to capitalize on presented opportunities (see point three above) or feel uncomfortable at the net because they miss volleys more often than they can put those volleys away.So, the question is, how can you easily make those volleys go in once you are at the net? You miss the volleys that you do because you take too big of a swing. Here too, you don't need to try so hard. Volleys, more than any other shot, are played with your feet. To eliminate that backswing, extend your hitting arm forward as if you are trying to catch the ball in front of you and step in simultaneously. So long as you are holding a racket with a continental grip, you are “catching” the ball at full arm's-length in front of you, and maintain a 90 degree angle between your arm and your racket, the volleys you previously missed will now be going in.
When you commit to coming up to the net on at least one out of every five points you play, you will notice that half the time, you don't have to do much more than just stand at the net in order to win the point. Either you will hit a winner during your approach, your opponent will make an error from the pressure of you being at the net, or they will pop-up a relatively easy shot for you to put away. It is quite rare, until advanced levels of play, that a player can hit a clean passing shot under pressure and on the run—so force them to attempt such passing shots more often; come to the net on all short balls, and "catch" your match.
5. When in doubt, hit cross-court
Winning your matches has far less to do with the quality of your technique, let alone with your equipment, than you may be willing to believe. Yes, it helps to have good technique to execute your strategy effectively, and yes, at a national/international level, you cannot get very far without clean strokes. But the match is never won because the player has prettier strokes. It’s won by the player who hits one more ball over the net than their opponent. In a nutshell, the match goes to the player who hits a higher probability of shots (probability of success = the ball goes into the court). In other words, the match is always won by the player who makes fewer errors. The highest probability shot in tennis is cross-court, because it is hit with the natural rotation of the body, over the lowest part of the net, into the greatest hitting area of the tennis court. Therefore, the player who hits more cross-courts typically wins the match. So when you're on the run, hit cross-court. When pressured, hit cross-court. When in doubt … hit cross-court! You will be amazed at how many matches you can win by hitting cross-court shots.
Now, as you incorporate these tips into your match play, do not confuse them with defensive plan, and for maximum effectiveness, make sure to incorporate them into a comprehensive match strategy … happy winning!