It seems that since the dawn of tennis, there has been a debate about where players should position themselves on the court and the type of style to adopt. Should players rush the net or grind from the baseline? Should they hug the baseline to be aggressive or hang back to improve their defense? Should they attack or defend? These are the questions that continue to be hotly contested today among coaches and players.
If you look at two of the legendary players in the game like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, you can see that both styles of play and court position are effective and can be successful at the highest levels of the game. Rafa plays a typical classic Spanish style with a tendency to hang back from the baseline deep in the court, defending and grinding many balls, while winning many points without moving forward to the net frequently. Roger plays much closer to the baseline and attacks the net aggressively and consistently to win points.
This dichotomy in style and court position can be found at all levels of the game, from the pros to juniors, to amateurs at the club.
In my system of training, I believe the physical, technical and psychological traits of a player will dictate where and how he or she tends to play. I believe in giving my students a broad range of skills so that they can be successful deep in the court grinding or taking the ball early just off the baseline. For example, if I have a student who is very aggressive mentally and likes to attack, has excellent reflexes and hand-eye coordination, a long wingspan, and relatively compact swings, that player would be a good candidate to play near the baseline with a strategy of moving forward to net. If I have a student with boundless stamina, larger looping swing shapes, good but not great reflexes and instincts at the net, and a conservative mentality, that player might be a good candidate to play farther from the baseline by grinding out points without prioritizing forward movement to the net and attacking play.
My concern is that most coaches have a favorite player and style and then they use that player to rationalize how ALL of their students should play. For example, many coaches praise Federer and instruct all their students to attack the ball on-the-rise the way Roger does. Or vice-versa, some coaches are Rafa fans and teach the Rafa game style. It’s important to be player-centered and teach the style and court position that fits the student’s psychology, physical gifts and technical skills—not to force every player into one glorified model of play!
It’s concerning to me that I work with countless students who tell me that at other clubs they are instructed to ALWAYS move forward and take short balls to the net. Is this good advice generally? Sure, it’s pretty good advice. However, many kids may be better off bringing their opponents to net with an off-speed short slice or dropshot, especially if their passing shots are better than their volleys. This is a blasphemous idea in New York and American tennis coaching circles. According to most coaches, every short ball should be attacked by going to the net. It’s like a law written in stone … case closed. Did those coaches ever think that a well-placed drop shot—drawing the opponent forward—can be a better mode of attack for some players than approaching the net themselves? It’s sacrilege to suggest this!
I like the philosophy that the coaches espouse in Spain … go forward to improve your court position when you can—but don’t force it—and understand that sometimes it’s better to bring your opponent to net than for you to go there. Move forward with caution and make sure the percentages are in your favor before attacking. Construct the point well before attacking. Remember that you will sometimes need to rally many balls and even defend before you can go on the attack. As the legendary Spanish coach Jose Higueras likes to say, “Tennis is a game of give and take. Sometimes you must give ground, and sometimes you may take ground.”
In New York, the United States, and other fast-court dominated countries, the emphasis is primarily on taking—taking ground. To give ground is framed as a sin—it’s weak. If a young player growing up in America doesn’t want to take risks, have great stamina, or patiently grinds from the back of the court, he or she will be mocked as a “pusher” by other kids and heavily criticized by most American coaches for “not being aggressive” enough. In Spain, by contrast, this type of player would be allowed to thrive and play his or her preferred style, and this player would not be made to feel shame for wanting to grind from deep behind the baseline. In Spain, this player would be encouraged to develop some attacking skills, but would not be forced into playing a style that went against her or her talents and personality.
When working with my students, I always try to remember the sage advice of Jose Higueras: “Tennis is a game of give and take.” With my young students, I train them to be comfortable both giving ground (defensive play) and taking ground (offensive play), and holding ground (counterpunching). I don’t always know what style they will gravitate to when they are older, so I want to build a player who is comfortable moving 360 degrees in all areas of the court. Then, as the player gets older and matures, they will naturally gravitate towards playing closer to the baseline and looking to get to net, or the opposite, and I can effectively guide them this way. Both outcomes are okay! Every player is different, and all players should not be forced into one primary playing style or one type of court position “because it’s better,” according to the coach’s esteemed opinion.
It’s a shame when I meet young players who have spent their whole junior career taking the ball early right on top of the baseline. They don’t have a clue how to defend or retreat. They only know attacking skills and footwork. It’s an equal shame when I encounter players who hang way back in the court and have never learned how to take the ball on the rise. They don’t really know how to attack and take time away.
All players should know these fundamental skills; they should be complete in their ability to cover all areas of the court in 360 degrees. And, they should be allowed to gravitate towards one primarily style and court position depending on their personal characteristics.
Coaches have a responsibility to develop a complete movement package and skills in all court positions when their players are young. Trust me—Rafa knows how to hug the baseline and take the ball early. Roger knows how to hang back and grind. They have complete mastery of all areas of the court, but they choose a primary style and court position that suits them best. That should be explained to kids who don’t really know any better when they watch these guys on TV.
So perhaps there is an answer to the age old debate: Teach competency in all court positions and complete skills when players are young—then get out of the way as they mature! Develop players with complete attacking and defending skills and guide them with an open mind to find the right court position/game style.
This is a better and healthier way to build champion players.
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.