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Is Deeper Always Better?

Recently I had the opportunity to witness some high level junior tennis played in my area. There really is no better way to come up with great writing topics than by witnessing junior tennis at its best (or not its best). So, with this in mind, I headed out to watch one of my friends play his first match. Before making it to the back row of the main site, I passed by a parent/coach giving his student (PLAYER X) some last minute advice before stepping on the court. This is what I overheard: "no matter what you do, HIT-THE-BALL-DEEP. If you want to win [argh!!!], you must hit the ball deep." I knew the name of the player (and coach/parent) because I had watched the player play against one of my students. I continued on my way and made a mental note to look at the result of that particular match for amusement purposes only. On the way back from my friend's match I stopped by and watched a couple of points - nay, make it a couple of games - of PLAYER X's match.  Here's what was going on: PLAYER X was hitting the ball deep alright (3 ft from the baseline) but the score was lopsided - not in PLAYER X's favor. Later on, I learned that PLAYER X had indeed lost the match (not close). 

So I thought to myself regarding the coach's advice to PLAYER X: is hitting the ball deep always the best strategy? I seem to hear it all the time (maybe it's something that gets passed around from player to coach, from coach to parent, from paren to player and so on - like seasonal flu) and I've been known to give this advice myself (with a twist). With respect to hitting the ball deep, here are the benefits: hitting the ball deep is, usually, a good initial strategy because it pins the opponent deep (forcing him/her to hit shots from further back) and tends to elicit more mistakes from the other side. In addition, a ball that spends more time in the air gives the "striker" more time to recover and get in position for her next shot (since shots slow down and tend to be hit back relatively quickly after the bounce). However, unless you're playing a very limited player, hitting the ball deep - by itself - is only a rudimentary tactic.

Often times, the opponent will back up 10-12-15ft and continue sending the balls back in your direction. If you don't do anything else at this point, you're nothing more than a general who orders an artillery attack (oh brother! here come the war references again) but doesn't send the ground-troops in order to envelop the opposing army. You keep battering the opposition with every missile under the sun but it has shifted its defense backwards. So the initial shock and damage is ameliorated by your opponent;s adjustment in a defensive posture. Furthermore, there's a chance that you will, at some point, "run out of cannonballs" - that is, get tired (since you are generating all the pace and the opponent is only adding a little bit of hers/his to yours). At crunch time, your opponent may have just enough gas in her tank to cruise to a victory. You'll be left wondering "what happened?!" 

In addition, there are some players who, rather than backing up, will "hug the baseline" their entire match. If you hit the ball deep to them, they move in position quickly (take 3-4 steps to the left or 3-4 steps to the right), get in balance and take your shot on the rise (i.e., "off the ping-pong table") - again using most of your energy and little of theirs. Again, more deep shots will probably not have an effect on this type of opponent since they are not forced out of their comfort zone and not forced to generate their own pace (to hit the ball and recover to the middle).

As a result, it is important that you develop some dimensions in order to understand HOW to use a deep ball when playing against a player who either (a) backs up and absorbs your pace; or (b) steps in and uses your pace. If you find yourself playing against a player who backs up, figure out the point in the rally when the player has in fact gone as far back as you can push him (10-12ft) with your normal strokes. At that point (i.e., once her shirt is green from the windscreen rubbing up against her back), you've done your job with respect to the initial prong of the attack. Start yanking the player side to side with angles and make her cover as much ground as possible. In the first diagram above, a player will run more if you hit shorter angles (red lines) than if you continue to aim for the deep corners (blue lines). Again, it helps a great deal to develop this dimension of your game. To summarize: push back; yank side-to-side. 

If, on the other hand, you find yourself playing against a player who holds his ground (i.e., stays on top of the baseline), it is important to have developed a good, heavy, high topspin that lands a couple of feet past the service line (diagram two; blue line). This ball will explode upwards forcing the player to move either (i) to the side and in (diagonally forward) or (ii) to the side and back (diagonally backwards). In other words, in order to take the ball "on the rise" (as is this opponent's gamestyle) he will really have to move (not just take one or two steps to the side). Initially, he might be able to manage it a few times. Eventually, however, he will run out of gas himself (and, perhaps, so will you). If you manage to tire your opponent, he will either step back (waiting for the ball to come to him) - diagram 1 - or he will change his game (be it going for winners, pushing or coming to the net). Either way, you will have a much better chance to win against a tired opponent who has been taken out of his comfort zone. To summarize: move your opponent diagonally (with high, heavy topspin). 

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