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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, tips or suggestions to nott@usc.edu (or friend us on Facebook).

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

TennisSlowMoGuy
Saturday
Oct152011

Slices

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. 

Saturday
Oct152011

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. 

 

Saturday
Oct152011

Play The Conditions

An often under appreciated factor in tennis matches is playing the conditions. Now, some of you have figured out that playing in the wind is somehow different than playing when it's still. On a windy day, the ball moves unexpectedly forcing you to have better footwork then on normal days. In addition, some of you have figured out that on windier days it's more difficult to pass and therefore are using such conditions in order to play a more aggressive game on that particular day. 


However, there are other conditions that you should be aware of. For example, how many of you have identified the "tilt" of the court? Each court is designed differently in order to allow for drainage. Some tilt North-to-South (i.e. end to end) - making it easier to hit serves into one side of the court while the ball might sail just long over the side - or East-to-West (i.e. side to side) - making it easier to hit slices, kick serves or heavy top-spins on one side of the other. It is important to identify the tilt of the court in order to determine how to use it to your advantage against your opponent's weakness. For example, if the court angles downhill towards the Ad-side of the court, it may be useful to throw in more kick-serves on that side in order to force the opponent to return high balls from "downhill". Switch sides, and the same tilt is now on the Deuce side of the court where you could use it to hit some nasty slice serves. Similarly, when the courts tittle N-to-S, the downhill slope may push some players to, inadvertently, play further back than normal. Use that factor to your advantage by pushing your opponent deep and the swinging them side to side (or making them run in with drop-shots). 

Other conditions to be aware of are: 1) distractions - is one side of the court closer to the tournament desk, road, etc? If so, maybe you can elect to serve, receive, side in such a manner that the opponent will have to serve from that side at the critical 3-3 game. 2) Does one side have better windscreens than another one making it easier to "pick up" the ball? Not every court is center court at Wimbledon. Some sides of the court don't have windscreens at all making it hard to see the ball. Public parks are often notorious for having poor windscreens. If you're the returner, you want to be in the best position to see the ball every time. Even though this is not possible on every game, maybe you should arrange your coin-toss selection in such a way that you're serving at 3-3 with no windscreen behind you (and the opponent is serving from where you can see the ball). 3) Are there cracks or dead spots in the court? Figure out where they are and aim for them. You never know when you get a lucky bounce in your favor? 4) Is it hot, humid, did the opponent have a long match prior to yours? Make a conscious effort to keep your opponent working hard for the first 3-4 games. Send a message that you're willing to stay out there as long as it takes. 5) Is it sunny, shady, slippery, altitude, uneven, etc? Is the net tight, loose, high or low? Are the fences closer to the court than normal? 

You must survey the court like a general surveys a battlefield before war. You do not want to have any surprises when you walk on the court. Make a conscious effort to understand the terrain and set some objectives for using it to your advantage. Remember that a BAD strategy is better than NO strategy at all. You can always change the BAD strategy but it's much harder to come up with one "on the fly".

Saturday
Oct152011

A-B-C Strategy

When playing a match, it is important to understand that things will not always go your way. As a matter of fact, it is your opponent's primary goal to try to throw you off your game. Therefore, prepare for the unexpected. The best players have figured out that a match is not a constant marathon. It contains peaks and valleys and it's important for the player to identify the particular situation at any given point in order to shift tactics accordingly. 

I refer to this concept as the A-B-C strategy. When things go your way - you're feeling well, seeing the ball well, moving well, hitting crisp shots, etc. - that's when you should press. This is your "A" game. When things are just slightly off - you're not playing poorly but maybe the first serve percentage isn't high enough, there could be a minor/temporary hitch in your stroke that you can't figure out, maybe you're not reacting to your opponent's spins and power all that well - you ratchet back your game a little bit. This is your "B" game. On the other hand, when things are simply not going your way at all - it seems like you're missing everything, you don't feel like you have a good feel for the shots, etc. - you fall back and try to find some consistency. This is where you try not to miss and, in turn, try not to beat yourself. I call this the "C" strategy.

Too often, juniors tend to step on the court and expect everything to GO THEIR WAY RIGHT AWAY. Then, when it doesn't work out, they throw their hands (sometimes literally, other times figuratively) up in the air because they have no fall-back position. Tennis is a fluid game and, as a player, I'm going to do everything possible to make sure that you get as few chances to unload on your weapons as possible and that you are going to hit shots from uncomfortable positions. I'm going to try to make it a very long day at the office. Don't give up! You must learn how to shift between points when things are going your way and the ones where they are not. Like a race car driver never starts his vehicle in 6th gear (or doesn't race in 1st gear), you too must learn to cycle among your gears. When you feel good; you press. When you don't feel like you're making the shots, you hold back a little bit, find some rhythm and then start pressing again. 

As you can better and better you will develop a better feel for when things are going your way and when things are not. Sometimes, you'll be able to shift between A-B-C DURING the point itself. That's when you know that you're getting close to mastering the game. 

 

Saturday
Oct152011

Be Unpredictably in Control

Next time you roll up to a standard private lesson and your coach feeds the obligatory 20 balls side to side, try a different approach to your warmup.  Try to be as random as you can be, as creative as you can be.  Vary the heights, spins, and depths.  Hit a gentle forehand dropshot DTL, soft rolling backhand looper DTL, CC forehand drive, slice backhand CC, slice forehand crosscourt, inside-out forehand angle, curving away from middle slice DTL...the possibilities are endless when you start to consider pace, height, and depth.  


The tennis computer in your brain will find this warmup very refreshing and fun.  Tennis should be fun!  Try to challenge yourself and see how many different shots you can add to your arsenal of weapons.  The more weapons you have, albeit they are not big bazookas and AK-47s, but more sly like a Gilette Razor or a wooden toothpick- the more options you will have to dissect your opponent.  The ability to think on the fly and create some fun opportunities for yourself takes diligent practice.  I promise you, some of the best tennis memories you will ever have will be specific points where you dropshot-lob someone and they are running 15 mph straight into the fence!  I promise you will find immense joy in their suffering and it will take everything you have to resist rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.   

Another way to work on shifting gears from shot to shot is to compete against weaker players.  Usually weaker players will be honored to hit with you and will always put forth their best effort.  See how many times you can purposely bring them with a short slice and then pass them softly with a lob.  See how many drop volleys you can hit from awkward spots around the net.  See how wide you can hit a slice serve to set up your open court volley (give them enough time to run it down so you can maybe lob volley them on the next ball).  Get familiar with awkward areas of the court and experiment.  While they are sweating and running for all your shots, you can comfortably work on your variety and creative decisions.  

The better you can manipulate your racquet in different ways, the better off you will be.  I can equate a player with a multitude of skills to someone like a Fat Tony in the Italian section of town.  Fat Tony owns a bunch of small business in NYC, doesn't drive a flashy car, has almost a million in cash in his account, never went to college, everyone laughs at his jokes, and he carries 50 extra pounds of weight.  Across the net from Fat Tony is someone who went UCLA, earned a Graduate Degree in Accounting, worked for one of the top accounting firms, dresses perfectly, nobody laughs at his jokes, drives a BMW, owns a house on the hills, no cash in his account, does Yoga every Tuesday, and shops at Whole Foods.  I will take Fat Tony everyday, he is practical, he is logical, he plays to win the game.  He will make you suffer, he will make you run, he will make Mr. Perfect sweat- all while he is only taking a few steps here and there to execute his shots.  Mr. Perfect will be cr
ashing into the net chasing down his dropshots, crisscrossing his feet while Fat Tony shifts gears from a junk ball to a drive, and Mr. Perfect will be wondering why his perfect country club strokes are of no use.  People gathering in the clubhouse will be cheering Fat Tony on, ready to buy him a beer when he gets off the court.  Even the ladies will love him.  Fat Tony will be using 3 different racquets with 3 different tensions, but he adjusts.  He is playing to win.  Mr. Perfect is befuddled about his aesthetically pleasing strokes, not that they aren't any good, but he never had a chance to set up to use them consistently.  So who would you rather be?  Fat Tony or Mr. Perfect