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CAtennis is a passionate discussion for serious tennis players, parents and coaches looking for something different. No talk about technique, no talk about useless theory, no gimmicks; just practical advice from first-hand experience on how to improve your tennis. Kick back, drink the content, bounce ideas, and pitch articles (or friend us on Facebook).

Unless otherwise noted, all articles are authored by the founders of CAtennis.  Enjoy!


No Battle Is The Same As The Previous One

In the history of military warfare, hundreds (if not thousands) of battles have been lost by superior armies that have failed to adapt their strategy to the new battle. In other words, they have continued to fight the "last war" where the enemy has learned from its losses, adapted to the conditions, adopted new tactics, practiced those new tactics and implemented the same in the next battle. 

As player, it is important to never ever "rest on your laurels". You must always seek to improve and develop new weapons and new tactics because you can bet your bottom dollar that the opponent is doing exactly the same thing after hit initial defeats. When coaches tell you that you must learn from your losses, the misconception is that you must learn ONLY from your losses. This is not the case; you must learn from your wins as well. Always figure out what worked for (along with what didn't) and determine ways for the opponent to breach your defenses (or break down your weapons) so that you can anticipate the attack during the next battle. For example, if you beat your opponent with a great inside-out forehand (I use this example a lot since it seems to be the meat-and-potatoes play for most players), make sure that you also practice hitting against a slice or heavy/hard down-the-line backhand from the opponent. Also, make sure that you are comfortable coming in or hitting passing shots off your backhand since the opponent may practice a new "play" between tournaments and seek to use it against you. 

Too often, players develop the mentality that because you've beaten an opponent in the past you will do so again in the future. WRONG! Every match, like every battle, is different. Not only will your opponent play differently but, often, the conditions will be completely different as well. Where you may have beaten him on a slow court, now you have to face him on a fast court. It may have been hot before - favoring a bigger hitter - but now it's colder (or windy) - making it difficult to generate pace. A soldier who takes the battle for granted and who is not ready for the element of surprise is a dead soldier. Although the stakes are dramatically lower when it comes to sports, the same principle applies. Expect the unexpected and you will find yourself victorious over and over again. 

Defeating Energy Sappers

There is one time of player who is very difficult to defeat and this player is known as the "energy sapper". In earlier stages of your development, the player can take the form of your classic moonballer. Later on, the player's shots will have developed and he may actually hit the ball with a decent amount of pace. However, this player thrives on utilizing the pace of your shots and redirecting the shots into a position where you will have to move and be off-balance. 

In my opinion, a classic example of an energy sapper is Andy Murray. Sure, he can certainly crank his serve and groundies but what he's really good at is redirecting the ball in such a way that it causes confusion in the opponent's game. Often times, the opponent just feels (certainly by looking at him - we don't actually know what he feels) that he has to either go for more than he's used to or utilize an untested strategy. You can spot the energy sappers a mile away because (1) they are good - often times, they beat players who are far superior to them on paper (i.e., measure the strokes pound-for-pound); (2) they are fast - these players have figured out that the most effective way to play is to be fast enough to get to every ball and take it "on the rise" (or around the strike zone); and (3) the pace of their shots increases with the pace of the opponent's shots - when the opponent crushes the ball, so does the energy sapper; when the opponent pushes, so does this player. It's not that these players can't generate their own pace; it's just that they simply prefer utilizing yours. 

The key to beating the energy sapper - and he will be a difficult foe to overcome - is to mix things up and force him to come up with pace from various positions around the court. Simply blasting the ball in the middle of the court will not cause problems for this player since his set-up is quick and and he can utilize the pace to throw you off-balance. That's exactly this player's bread and butter play. In order to hurt an energy sapper you must learn to combine high, heavy top-spins (which force the player to, initially move in to take the ball on the rise, but as the match progresses - and energy levels decrease - to move backwards), with short angle slices (i.e. just enough to force the player to move in, but not so short that it opens up an approach shot), followed by blasting a shot into the middle of the court. For the most part, I would suggest never hitting the same ball twice (particularly in the same spot); force the opponent to make as many adjustments as possible throughout the point/game/set/match and, if you're successful in pushing him to the point of exhaustion, to approach and make him pass you (in other words, make him generate his own pace).

Often times, players play against these energy sappers in a way that is completely wrong. They blast the ball and if that doesn't pay immediate dividends they blast it even harder. If you bang your head against a brick wall, the only dent that will appear will be in your head. Pretty soon, you will be exhausted and entirely at your opponent's mercy. What you need to do is identify the energy sapper from the beginning and then make a conscious effort to pack your lunch and be on the court for as long as it takes to get the job done. Also, stay focused from start to finish. Energy sappers are notorious for stealing victory from the jaws of defeat. Don't relax until you've turned in the score. You know when you're starting to get under this player's skin because the payer will start to force her own shots (things that she's not accustomed to doing) - thereby making more errors and giving you more openings for pressing the gas pedal ever so slightly. 

Hitting To Your Opponent's Strengths

It is a misconception that the player should only hit to the opponent's weakness. First of all, most good players make a conscious effort to improve their weakness from match-to-match. Therefore, you may find yourself 2-3 games in a hole before you figure out that the weakness is really not that weak. Second, if the player cannot improve the weakness, he will do a heck of a job masking it. Take for example the standard player who has a better forehand than backhand. Often times, you will watch two juniors engage in the battle of the "inside-outs" - each trying to get to the opponent's backhand. It seems that, a lot of the time, the thought to hit to the opponent's actual forehand side never enters the mind. Under these circumstances, the player who manages to squeeze the ball inside the sideline without missing usually wins. 

I don't condone playing to the opponent's strength exclusively - although Jim Courier preferred to pound away at the opponent's strength in order to show that he was the Alpha Male - but it's important to know how to do this in order to change things up and actually expose the opponent's weakness in the process. For example, just because the opponent has a killer inside out forehand, how good is this shot from the Deuce side of the court? Test her. See how well she handles the high balls, short, low slices, or hard shots. The beauty is that you don't have to take too many chances on these shots. Often times, she will simply move to the forehand and send the ball right back towards your backhand. Of course, now you have the angle on her and can start yanking her around the court. 

The key to this strategy is to develop shots that are difficult for the opponent to handle. You have to master the slice (in order to keep the ball low), you have to master the heavy top-spin (in order to keep the ball high), and you have to master the drive (in order to give the opponent less time to react). Your primary motivation is to make the opponent hit his strength but ON YOUR TERMS. In doing this, you will expose certain patterns or biases by your opponent. For example, if you slice down the line with the backhand, 90% of the time, the opponent will flip a cross-court forehand (because pounding the down the line will be difficult). However, you already anticipating this shot and are able to cut off the angle and drive the ball down-the-line to the opponent's backhand. In effect, you're learning to play "one shot ahead". 

To summarize, don't be afraid to pick on the opponent's strength as long as (a) you're doing it in a manner in which she cannot hurt you, and (b) you have a game plan for what you want to do with the next shot. 


For some reason, American coaches tend to de-emphasize the slice (and also, it's cousin, the chip). Perhaps, it's because these are not seen as forceful shots and we tend to view ourselves as an aggressive nation - always taking the game to the opponent. Maybe it's because so many of our players utilize a two-handed backhand. Nevertheless, slices are one of the most effective weapons (uhmmm.... Federer???) that a player can hope to master but the player will be successful only through lots of practice as the preparation, grip, stroke, footwork, balance, finish, etc. is quite different than on a topspin. The player should learn not only when and how to hit a slice but also when the slice is inappropriate. 

For example, a properly executed slice tends to skid and stay low. This will force the opponent to bend under the ball and strike it in a completely different manner than a topspin. Whereas the ball rotates "top-wise" into the string bed, the slice actually rotates (or seems to rotate) backwards in the same direction as the "brush" of the string bed. The two forces combined often result in the ball going into the net. In addition, slices are great for taking time away from the opponent (since they tend to clear the net by only a few inches) or, if struck in a certain way, provide you with more time to recover. Furthermore, a knifing cross-court backhand is great to combine with a heavy, exploding cross-court forehand in order to yank the opponent around the court. On many occasions, the rotation of the ball can also cause the opponent to either miss a volley or pop up the ball. It's not always a bad idea to slice to a net-rusher. 

The key element to the slice is to have a strong forearm. The slice (chip or even the volley) is not a "swinging" shot; it's a "leaning" shot in that the player leans (with the shoulder in front) against the opponent's ball for purposes of utilizing the opponent's pace. To execute a proper slice, try to finish with the racket towards the intended target in a crisp manner. The best way to practice this shot is, unfortunately, against the backboard. I say "unfortunately" because not many players make the effort to utilize this awesome training tool. Hitting hundreds of slices against the backboard will develop strength (in forearm), feel and control. Furthermore, you will notice that the slice is more effective on lower shots (below the waist) as opposed to high balls (over the shoulder). As a rule of thumb, unless I'm trying to purposefully alternate the spin, I will try to slice almost exclusively against low balls. Balls around the waist should, generally, be belted. Also, high balls are difficult to control with a slice (or chip) because the face of the racket is open to the sky which risks sending the ball long. Again, these are shots that should be top-spinned more often than sliced. However, with practice, you will develop deadly accuracy with the slice enabling you to open up the court for the rest of your weapons. 


Once you master the slice, try having some fun with it by combining it (if the play calls for it) with a heavy, short-angle cross-court forehand. Maybe slice down the line to your opponent's forehand/strength in order to open up the weakness. If you get good enough, the slice may actually get to curve outwards (i.e. away from the middle); take an aggressive step inside the baseline and pound the next stroke into the open court. 


Pattern Spotting

Humans are predictable creatures. In order to make sense of the world, we tend to compartimentalize thoughts and concepts for easy recall. As a matter of fact, tennis practices are often designed to make it easy for the student to understand the stroke and call upon it during the match. Unfortunately, what we do to improve a certain part of the game - for example, ground-strokes - is often detrimental to another part of the game - tactics. 

Take, for example, your basic side-to-side drill. Players practice this for hours in the hopes that it is the answer to all their problems. Similarly, coaches like to repeat the same drill because (a) the player is sweating (so the parents are happy that the money is not going to waste), (b) it's always easy to point to a component that the player can improve upon (e.g. footwork, balance, preparation, etc.), and (c) a fair number of points are won and lost based on the player's side-to-side movement. Nevertheless, if the player gets stuck in a certain routine (i.e., hitting and recovering to the other side), she will become susceptible to wrong-foot shots by the opponent. Furthermore, someone who constantly moves side-to-side parallel to the baseline is going to have trouble moving either diagonally, up-and-back or away for the ball. Therefore, it's important for a player to spot the opponent's patterns and adjust her game accordingly. Ultimately, most opponent prefer to go on autopilot; it's when they're forced to think and adjust that they have troubles. As a result, your job as a player is to read your opponent's likes and dislikes and beat him to the punch by making small adjustments in your strategy.

Take another example of a player who loves the inside-out forehand. The player can crush that forehand with his eyes closed. Guess what?! Hitting more shots towards his backhand is not going to throw him off-balance since that's how the player practices. In addition, squeezing shots closer and closer to the sideline is going to result in either more errors for you or a better angle from which the opponent can pounce. Now, throw a slice backhand down the line into the mix and you force the opponent to move in a completely new direction for the ball. Instead of pounding the forehand, now he has to move to the ball and get under it. The best he can hope for is a solid shot; not an outright winner (note, exceptions do happen). However, moving him off-center exposes his backhand (the stroke that he's been trying to protect) which may lead to more errors by the opponent in your favor. 

Another example is an aggressive player who loves to either serve and volley or come in of blazing groundstrokes. Great! Besides the obvious (hitting away from the opponent or dipping the ball when he comes in), how else would you play someone like that? Again, this type of player perceives certain "triggers" that tell her when an opportune time to approach arises (e.g., you're too far from the ball, she's hit a good serve, you're too far back, etc.). A strategy that may work against a player such as this would be to either "take the net away from her" (i.e. come in before she does) or actually seek to bring the player in but on your own terms. With respect to the first strategy, you just have to take it upon yourself to be the first player to the net - now the opponent becomes the person having to pass (and because she is not as comfortable at the baseline, she will have more trouble passing you than you will have playing at the net). Similarly, instead of waiting for the opponent to set up his favorite shot and come in, see if you can actually force him to come in off a less-than-optimal shot. Federal is great at hitting skidding, short court shots that force his opponents to come in (rather than hitting and retreating). Because Federer's shot stays so low, the opponent cannot actually hit a decent shot and is forced to approach with a shot that's not very aggressive. Again, Roger is successful in bringing the players in on his own terms and then either passing them or forcing them to hit an awkward volley. 

So, the lesson is simple: figure out your opponent's favorite patterns and then play in such a way that they never manage to hit such pattern. Force them to play a pattern that YOU favor.