I have many players who come to me from New York and around the country who have been taught to attack the net relentlessly, but often without much forethought or caution. They may not make good decisions about when to attack the net, and they often harbor misconceptions about the smartest strategies to move forward. To approach the net with abandon without understanding the dynamics of geometry and strategy is a fool’s errand indeed. In this article, I will explore some of the tactics and postulates that I discuss with my players on the court to help them make smarter decisions when moving forward.
Making a smart decision
“Smart” to me means that the player makes a determination about the relative merits of moving forward, quickly calculating the odds of success. In this way, the player will gain a greater benefit when moving forward in terms of a higher rate of success.
Smart does not mean taking every short ball and going in. For example, I often ask players after a net approach, “Why did you go to the net?” They commonly answer, “Well, it was a short ball.” Short balls aren’t the only factor when deciding to move forward. Players need to understand the other factors that are important:
1. Did they attack the opponent’s weaker passing side?
Oftentimes, the attacker doesn’t think about which side of the opponent is weaker.
2. Was the approach strong and effective? Was the opponent hurt?
I frequently see players moving to the net after hitting a poor attack shot that is weak or in the middle of the opponent’s court. Players need to discern whether they have hit a strong or weak approach shot and use that as a decision-maker about whether to move forward or move back and wait for a better opportunity.
3. Did they make the opponent take more steps to the ball than the steps required to make it into good position for net coverage?
In other words, did the passing shot player have to cover a longer distance to the ball than the attacker’s distance to the net. I call this “step differential” and the principle was first conveyed to me by the legendary Spanish coach William Pato Alvarez. If the passing shot player has a short distance to the ball and the attacker has a longer distance to optimum net position, it’s a negative step differential and the player should stay back and wait for a better opportunity.
The key is to be selective and judgmental when approaching, not foolishly consistent in one’s movement towards the net.
Smart attacking also means understanding that the net can be a dangerous place where many points can be lost quickly. I meet too many players who are under the assumption that being at the net means they have the advantage in the point. In fact, there are many good counterpunching players who like it when their opponent comes to net. They like a target and are very dangerous with their passing shots. Players need to understand that against a good counterpuncher or defender, coming to net can be risky. If you come to net against someone like Rafa, it better be behind something really good—a very tough shot—and even then he could still come up with the goods on the pass.
My point is that the net cuts both ways: It can be an advantage, but can also be a disadvantage and a danger. In my experience, many players (and coaches) don’t see the net that way. They assume they are in control if they are up there—and that is not always the case. I teach my students that they need to identify when they have a clear advantage—and then move forward behind a strong forcing shot to the opponent’s weakness. I teach them that if they go to net indiscriminately and without good judgment they are placing themselves at high risk of losing the point.
Oftentimes, a quick statistical check will reveal how smart the decision making is: What is the percentage of points won to overall net approaches? I like to see a percentage of 70 or more rather than the typical recommendation of 50 or so. When a player is winning seven or eight out of 10 approach points in a match, I know they are being selective and smart.
When the net winning percentage is low, the coach and player will frequently say that they need to work more on the volley—that the volley is not good enough. This may well be the case. However, many players are simply making poor decisions about attacking and that is making them worse than they really are at net. Good decisions to move forward make every player better at net. A decent volleyer can look like a genius up there—time and time again—if he comes in behind a strong, big shot that hurt his opponent, at the right time in the point.
Smart attacking also means using the right type of approach shot to disrupt the opponent’s pass. For example, some players don’t like low balls and a slice approach may be effective. Some players may not like high balls and a high bouncing topspin shot could be the best approaching style. Some players have trouble with pace and a fast approach speed can work well. Some players don’t move well and an angled approach could be better than a deep one. Players have to think strategically about their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and attack not only at the appropriate moment in the rally, but also with the most effective choice of approach shot.
1. The myth of approaching down the line only
I hear this myth a lot—“Never Approach Crosscourt.” The logic is that, geometrically, the crosscourt approach opens up too much space for the down the line passing shot. There is more court for the net player to cover. While this is true, you can’t go in to battle and only attack the net one way. It’s important to keep the passer guessing and to mix up the style and direction of the approach. I tell my players that they can’t approach every time to the same place—it’s too predictable. In addition, if the opponent’s weaker side is cross court, I would rather approach there than down the line to the strength.
One of the most famous Spanish players, Emilio Sanchez (now a legendary coach), used to approach very successfully crosscourt, but he knew to anticipate and cover the down the line pass and the lob.
2. The myth of approaching with slice
As mentioned previously, the slice can be useful to attack a player who doesn’t like low balls, but it should not be used as the primary approach to the net, the way it used to be in the classic grass court game. On grass, it’s a great play, but on other surfaces that are more common nowadays, power attacks are the primary method of moving forward. Passing shot players have become more adept at returning slice approaches over the past decades. Slice approaching is just not as effective as it used to be.
3. The myth of “applying pressure”
This is a very common myth. Players go to the net with a low percentage of success, but justify the strategy because they are applying pressure and they assume the opponent will eventually breakdown.
This is another strategy from the past classic game that just does not hold up in today’s modern game. If a player is coming in frequently and losing, that indicates to me that they are doing something wrong tactically, either with the decision to attack or with the volley itself. Players shouldn’t justify losing lots of points at the net by thinking they are doing a good job applying pressure that will eventually break their opponent down.
These are the three guidelines I teach all my players:
1. Approach using the primary weapon: This is usually the forehand, but can sometimes be the backhand.
2. Approach to the weaker passing shot: Find your opponent’s weaker side and primarily attack there, but always mix it up and surprise them by attacking to the strength.
3. Approach selectively not habitually or constantly: Approach when there is a clear tactical advantage based on the SMART advice above. Don’t approach just because the ball is short or out of habit. It’s better to approach from time to time rather than constantly. This keeps the opponent out of rhythm and will lead to a higher percentage success at net.
Getting in shape
How does being in better physical condition relate to the soundness of net approaches? In my experience, many players approach the net because they know either consciously or subconsciously that they do not have enough gas in the tank to rally longer until they get a better ball to attack. Therefore, being in better physical condition is an important factor in the smart decision making process about going to net. Players need endurance or they will inevitably make premature, poor net approach decisions when their heart rate becomes too elevated during backcourt rallies.
The net results
To get an edge when moving in, consider the principles above and teach yourself or your players to approach selectively and thoughtfully. With these considerations, you will see a higher percentage of points won when moving forward and build more overall confidence at the net.
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.