Most tennis fans have probably thought at one time or another, “The pros make it look easy.” Truthfully, they do make the game look easy. Of course, that's an optical illusion: Professional players work tremendously hard so that they can play the sport in a way that looks effortless. And one reason the pros are able to do that is that they have simplified the game, both technically and tactically. Improving your tennis game is certainly not always easy, but it is simple.
Granted, tennis can be complex and overwhelming. Tennis is not only a physically demanding sport, requiring high doses of hand-eye coordination, balance, agility and footwork, it is also a mentally taxing sport like chess and other games that require specific patterns of thought, preparation, and reaction to a constantly changing environment.
But with all due respect to the sport that has consumed the last 23 years of my life, tennis is a relatively simple game. You have to hit a ball over a net and inside the lines more times than your opponent does. As you improve, you develop a general approach to the game. You can play from the baseline, you can serve and volley, or you can work towards an all-court game. And you add other concepts as you go. You can adopt a Toni Nadal mentality of hitting the ball wherever your opponent isn’t. Or, you can adopt Andre Agassi's mentality to be the last man standing in the boxing ring. You can use Paul Wardlaw's directional theories to determine when to hit cross-court or down the line. Tactically and technically, there are simple ways to get better.
Tactically, we can quantify the game in five dimensions: Consistency, Direction, Depth, Spin, and Power, in that order. A top performer can construct a point using these dimensions in this order. For example, take the serve plus one (or, to use a boxing metaphor, the one-two punch)—serving out wide and directing the first ball, preferably as a forehand, to the open court to force your opponent into immediate defense. Or, think of the way players aim down the center of the court on service returns, as a way to neutralize the point. Or even consider three-ball groundstroke sequences—a deep cross-court shot to push your opponent back, then a severe angle cross-court to push your opponent off the court, followed by a down-the-line shot to the open court, challenging your opponent to move backwards and across the court. Successfully hitting deep allows you to hunt for short balls, creating more opportunity for angles that open up the court and give you bigger targets.
Technically, we can build the game on footwork, use of the opposite hand, balance, contact, and timing. The goal is finding efficiencies. As a general rule, stroke adjustments at any age should be based on creating efficiencies. Developing a consistent two-handed backhand, for example, can be as simple as mimicking Novak Djokovic’s straightened dominant arm as he takes the racket back. To create a stronger forehand, you might just need to keep the non-dominant hand on the throat of the racket, almost until the ball bounces, to nurture shoulder turn and stability. A more reliable serve should focus on a natural throwing motion, with the palm facing down. To get the most technical improvement in any of your strokes, break the stroke down and work towards simplifying it—always with an eye on proper footwork, use of the opposite hand, balance, contact and timing.
While improvement takes time and practice, and may not always be easy, it certainly should be simple. Focus on technical and tactical efficiencies, and remember … simple, not easy.