Great tennis players, like great basketball point guards or great quarterbacks in football, are astute field generals who see things differently than average competitors. They are more kinesthetically and tactically aware athletes who recognize the subtly, complexity and nuances of their sport. They visualize the play as it unfolds and have a knack for being in the just right place at the right time, or in finding that perfect spot to place the ball. While some tennis players have a greater innate capacity for displaying these skills, a conceptual recognition and utilization of the court is an ability that can be learned and developed.
The nexus of great tennis court tactics starts with first understanding and then utilizing a three-dimensional conceptual court to attack and defend. Remember, the physical dimensions of the singles tennis court are 27 x 78 or 2,106-square feet, but if the court is viewed as being three dimensional with 25 feet of added height, then it's functional volume expends tremendously to 52,650 cubic feet. The court is a huge area to defend when height is added and the player who uses the full three-dimensional court to maneuver and attack is going to have an edge.
The game of cat and mouse
The interaction between players at the highest level is tactically interactive, involving action and reaction. While offensive play is proactive, defensive play is generally reactive and is characterized by both efficient and effective time management.
Offensive shot making at the highest levels displays contrasting shot depths. If you push an opponent back, the court is elongated, as well as effectively widened because cross-court shots pull players wider when defended from deeper in the court. Defensive play, in contrast, is most often exemplified by vertical plane shot-making, rather than horizontal plane-attacking strikes. The priority is to keep the ball low while hitting a volley on a net attack. This tactic effectively takes away time with less risk than a high pace, sharp angle or extreme deep shot. Defensively, the response to your net attack might be to hit hard at the body to stand you up, or to try to win the race down the line with pace.
Most often, however, the first choice to defend is to hit low to force the net player to close closer, or hit a lob to move the net rusher back and to do so with disguise at significant times, to stay one strategic step ahead.
Ultimately, the goal is to be the last player to commit to a shot, or a position to defend a shot, in order to gain a strategic edge.
When John Isner bombs a 140 mile per hour serve to the "tee," it's obviously an offensive shot. Roger Federer's deft drop shot is in sharp contrast to Isner's power, yet it is equally as effective an attack. These two very different shots are actually similar in concept, because all offensive play has the defining characteristic of reducing and limiting an opponent’s usable time.
A lack of ball pace reduces time much the same way as abundant speed limits time. The grass courts of Wimbledon, for example, are fast because the courts are so soft that the ball barely bounces. In recent years, the courts have hardened and the ball bounces higher which raises the bounces to slow the court to play like clay.
Forward court position reduces time because the ball gets to the net player and is returned, having traveled less distance. Heavy topspin and a sharp slice reduce functional time since the ball travels a shorter path in the usable hitting zone of most players.
Shot disguise and variety promotes uncertainty, which causes opponents to react slower since they now need more cues to interpret and react to shots. A common question is how much variety do you display? I suggest that you need to incorporate just enough variety to instill a sense of uncertainty in your opponent so that they compromise their position and hesitate in their anticipation since the threshold for creating uncertainty will be different for every player.
Depth limits time because the ball has not slowed down from the friction of court contact. Since down the line shots travel a shorter distance than cross-court shots, they arrive sooner. Fine and precise shot placement—especially those shots contrasted in combination and played to the open court—create time stress because you cannot be in two places at once.
Defensive play can be defined as the selection of shots and positions that maximize steadiness and efficient court coverage.
Shots hit cross-court are higher percentage shots than shots hit down the line because the court is longer. Those who refer to the lower center net as a factor in this goal should have paid closer attention to the concept of a "hypotenuse" in high school geometry class. While the net is lower in the center, it is also further away, therefore, it is erroneous to believe that it impacts shot percentage because the acceptance angle, or minimum angle that the ball must be launched upward to clear the net, is nearly identical on cross-court and down the line shots.
The likelihood of a ball clearing the net increases as it is struck further away from the net because it has a longer distance to travel and requires a less steep ball incline launch.
High contact point is critical to a high percentage shot-making because the ball does not need to be hit upward as steeply to clear the net and still successfully travel down into the court on the other side. If a player tells me that they don't feel comfortable with high contact, I respond that they better "get comfortable if they wish to progress."
The argument that, since heavy topspin pulls the ball down rapidly, the greater the topspin imparted, the higher you can aim and still be successful is flawed. It may be true in theory but it is potentially harmful in practice because heavy topspin will create racket head torque or twisting which is difficult to manage. I suggest that players impart as much topspin as they can comfortably handle without negatively distorting the integrity of their stroke.
As the racket moves faster, it develops greater gyroscopic stability. It is helpful to think of a bicycle which wobbles at low speeds, but tracks truer at higher speeds, to understand this concept. An accelerating racket head strikes with greater force (F = M x A) and will be more resistant to unintentional twisting upon contact with the ball which is a frequent source of missed shots. Shots hit with greater margins of horizontal and vertical clearance are safer.
I like to divide the service box into three distinct aiming areas: Wide, the middle and the tee. Serves may also concurrently emphasize three striking attributes: Direction or accuracy, spin, and speed. Usually, a focus on one attribute is at the slight compromise of one or both of the others, so that it's difficult, for example, to focus on maximum accuracy and concurrently display maximum pace.
When serving wide, accuracy is paramount. The ball travels up to half-a-foot wide for each foot of movement back when served to a wide part of the box. A serve hit wider by one foot can pull the returner eight to 10 feet off the court because of the acuteness of the angle that the ball travels. Serve the ball wide with maximum pace and you will likely need the full box length which will reduce the angle. Since serves to the tee occur at an obtuse angle, extra accuracy will not matter as in a wide serve. The tee is the shortest distance to the server, so that here, pace will be the most adventurous. Serves which emphasize spin are most useful when hit into an opponent’s body, therefore, heavy spin to the middle of the box is a great first serve choice, and the highest percentage second serve choice. It is most valuable to start a match with heavy spin to the middle on first serves for two reasons. First, it is a high risk/reward shot which is particularly important early in a match when both players are nervously ramping up their play. Next, it allows for a seamless transition to an interchangeable, and thus dependable, second serve.
This combination of very accurate wide serves, and very fast tee serves creates a positioning dilemma for the returner. Wide-angled serves necessitate that returner stand wider and closer to net to reduce the amount of distance off the court that the serve travels. High-paced serves to the tee may require the returner to position further away from the net and closer to the center. By favoring one side, the returner compromises their ability to manage the other side. Moreover, if the returner assumes a central position to try to handle both serves, then they are most vulnerable to a heavy-spun, middle-of-the-box serve. If the server is adept at serving wide, as well as to the tee, it is better to error on the side of standing a bit extra wide to manage the angled serve and force the server to hit to the middle. By doing so, the returner will be in a central court position after being stressed by the server.
The best players start each match by striking the ball aggressively, but aiming their shots safely. Aggressive striking promotes high percentage hitting, as well as confidence. Safe aim follows the logic of pursuing as little risk as is needed in order to succeed. If safe aim works, then why be unsafe? If conservative aim is not sufficient to win, then a high margin of error start is a perfect ramp up to taking on riskier and more impact full play. Good players strike the ball well, but to progress from good to great, players need to learn to most effectively attack and defend the three-dimensional court, and to practice these very specific skills with clear focus and purposeful intent.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.