Tactical Priorities for High School Tennis Players
Each time a tennis player, at any level, hits a ball, he or she has five goals, in order of priority:
#1 Get the ball in
#2 Control the direction (left and right)
#3 Control the depth (deep and short)
#4 Control spins
#5 Control the speed
Let’s examine each, so we can understand exactly what they mean to your players…
#1 Get the Ball in
This may sound obvious, but the key to remember here is that positioning is critical to any shot, and if a player is so focused on an open area of the court for a putaway (direction), or is keyed up about powering an approach shot deep to the corner (speed, depth and direction), they may focus on the mechanics necessary to achieve these before they have optimal positioning.
Make sure your players understand the importance of good footwork and positioning on any type of shot as THE key component to its success. At the recreational level of play, most mistakes are the results of poor positioning, rather than bad mechanics.
#2 Control the Direction (left and right)
It doesn’t matter if you hit the ball hard, if you hit it right to your opponent and to her forehand. In fact, most players prefer not to have to generate their own power.
If your players wish to advance, their second-most important skill will be the ability to direct the ball left and right. This will allow them to take advantage of opponents’ weak backhands, poor lateral movement on wide forehands, etc.
This will also allow them to move players around the court in order to use two or three shots to get an opponent out of position and open up the court for a winner. Most winners at equal levels of play are hit to the open court — not directly at someone.
#3 Control the Depth (deep and short)
If your players are able to keep the ball in play and move opponents left and right, they can now begin using short and deep balls to force errors, produce weak and short returns, and to create open courts.
Making an opponent take two or three steps laterally (wide) and one or two into the court (forward) to hit a forehand gives your player an opportunity to hit the next ball deep and crosscourt to the opponent’s backhand. The opponent must now move backward, running five or six steps in the opposite direction to hit their backhand.
Any time you can make your opponent hit a backhand while running backwards, you can expect a weak response.
If the opponent does not make an outright error, he or she will probably hit a short ball, which your player can now hit short and crosscourt to the open court they have created.
As you can see, none of this was accomplished with power — the point was created using the first three skills we’ve discussed.
In fact, at the high school level, if your player can keep the ball in play while controlling depth and direction, he will probably be able to win most of his matches even if he doesn’t have much topspin, a good slice or overwhelming power.
Of course, spins and speed are extremely important as players move into highly competitive levels of play, but they are only useful to player who have mastered the first three skills. A topspin forehand that goes long, or a 120 mph serve that goes into the bottom of the net is no good.
#4 Control Spins
In order to hit to certain areas of the court, your player will need to be able to slice or spin the ball, depending on where they are in the court. A crosscourt winner, hit to the opposite service line from inside your baseline, will probably be more effective with topspin.
A deep, down-the-line approach shot which bounces low forces a baseline player to hit up, limiting their chance for a pass. This type of approach shot requires slice.
Steffi Graf set up her famous forehand putaways using a sliced, crosscourt backhand deep into to the ad court of her opponents. This forced opponents to hit the ball up, and gave Graf time to run around her backhand and hit a killer, inside-out forehand to the vacated, deuce court. Graf did not simply stand at the baseline and mindlessly blow winners by opponents. It doesn’t happen, even at the pro level.
When players approach the net, you should not attempt to pass them on the first ball (see Passing Shot Drill, March ’00 High School Tennis Coach). A short, crosscourt ball which forces the net player to hit up and pulls them off court, sets up the passing shot. This shot requires slice.
Finally, the harder you hit a tennis ball with topspin, the more likely it will go in, based on the laws of physics.
Slicing and kicking serves are also more difficult to return. A slice can be served into an opponent’s body or can give a left-handed server a huge advantage against a right-handed player in the ad court by forcing the righty to hit a backhand while stretching extremely wide. Reverse this for righties serving against lefties.
#5 Control the Speed
Of course, a ball traveling 100 miles an hour will be more difficult to run down than a ball traveling 60 miles per hour. However, a 100 mph ball is useless if it doesn’t stay in the court. It’s also not as effective if hits right to an opponent.
Players must also be able to vary their speeds in order to take advantage of angles, hit drop shots, make delicate lob volleys and hit other specialty shots. Hitting the ball at only one speed gives your opponents an opportunity to adjust.
Finally, power without topspin decreases a player’s chance for maximum success.
Bottom line? Speed is only valuable if you can keep the ball in play and hit it where you want.
Review these five priorities with your players until they understand the importance of going straight for power.
They will be more likely to buy into what you are trying to sell them if you immediately discuss the basic strategies and tactics which win matches, and showing the elements critical to the success of each (they’ll see that direction and depth are much more important than power).