by Mike Swanberg
Attacking From the Baseline
The first thing we need to discuss is how to recognize an offensive position from a defensive one. As a general rule, when you are on the baseline, any time your opponent's shot lands inside your service boxes, you are about to go on the offensive. As well, there is a possibility that you may feel that you are on the offensive if you simply were able to set up early on a ball. But invariably, you need to be moving forward into your shot with a high degree of comfort and confidence to be truly on the offensive.
Most players from an intermediate level on up to the pros will take this opportunity to try and force the point to a conclusion. Your offensive shot is an attempt to do one of three things: win the point outright (a winner), force your opponent to make an error (called a forced error), or failing the first two to get your opponent to hit an even weaker shot so that you can hit an even more aggressive shot. Furthermore, the intermediate to pro level players will generally take this offensive situation and use it to transition to the net, where points are frequently decided within two shots.
Okay, so we know we are on the offense because our opponent hit a short ball. We also know that we are trying to end the point in our favor on this or the next shot. Where do we hit?
Well, the answer is a big fat "it depends." And the reason for this is that there are a lot of factors that can dictate what you believe to be the most effective. Your opponent may have a glaringly weak backhand. Or he may be far out of position. Or he may be running full speed one way and you want to hit behind him (ths is called "wrong-footing" your opponent). These are all extremely valid points to consider.
However, in the absence of any of these glaring opportunities, the good ol' fallback tactic of using the court's geometry is always there. And the basic thing to do here is to hit down-the-line. As we discussed last month, when you are transitioning to the net (which you very likely might be doing here), you want to hit straight ahead to cut down your opponent's angles against you and also to make your ideal ready position be the closest to where you are now. This is still sound reasoning in this situation.
As well, while you are hitting agressively, your shot will make it to its destination more quickly than a crosscourt shot simply because the distance is shorter. This gives your opponent less time to get to the ball, set up, and make the shot. Note that if you are a more advanced player and can hit winners without being well inside the court, hitting down-the-line is your best bet simply for this reason: your opponent will have less time to set up.
Is The Bird saying that you should always hit these shots down-the-line? Actually, no. You may survey the situation and decide that you can hit an outright winner by going for a sharp crosscourt angle. But in this case, you'd better make sure it's a winner because you will be out of position. If your opponent is quick or can read your shot early enough, he or she may cut off your angle and have an open court to hit into. So, make your decision wisely. If you have any doubt, about your ability to hit a winner or force an error or about how likely your opponent is to get to it, you are best off going down-the-line.
Realize, of course, that the more confident you feel that your shot will be a winner, the less important it is to consider where your ideal ready position is. Obviously, if the ball ain't coming back, it doesn't matter where you stand.
Being Offensive at Net
Last month we discussed the idea that when you are at net, you are defensive when you make contact with the ball below the level of the net. So, it stands to reason -- or maybe it doesn't, so I'll lay it out there anyway -- that you are on the offensive when you're point of contact is above net level. Additionally, the higher the point of contact, the more offensive you are (to a point. At a certain altitude you cease to be volleying and are suddenly being lobbed).
So, where is the best place to hit the next shot? Well, as with the baseline offensive ideal, it depends. The same factors apply: is your opponent out of position? Do they have a specific weakness? Can you employ additional power/spin/angle in the particular situation?
But as above, you still have a fall-back idea. In the absence of any obvious avenues to victory, you can always lean on the geometry of tennis.
For this situation, you need to look to hitting crosscourt. But you also want to make the angle sharp enough to increase the likelihood that the ball will not come back. For instance, say for the sake of argument that you are hitting a high (right-handed) forehand volley. If you simply hit toward your opponent's (right-handed) forehand corner, he will have a much better chance to get to the ball than if you hit more toward the intersection of his service line and side line on his forehand side. Basically, the rule of thumb here is that you have the opportunity to make things really difficult on your opponent so you want to go for it.
Of course, right after that shot, immediately move laterally to the other side of your center service line so that you are in the best position to make the next shot should your opponent get to the ball (or, in many of our cases, in the likely event that the "winner" we were going for was far from the great shot we had hoped for).
Now, I must mention, there is a big caveat here. You really have to watch for the lob. This is not the case so much when you are first hitting aggressively and coming toward the net. Most players do not feel so threatened by their opponents approaching the net, even aggressively. But once you are at the net and have hit a volley, a great many players will go to the lob. Of course, as a smart player, you will want to take note of your opponent's habits. A lot of players, particularly at the lower levels, will panic whenever their opponents get close to the net and will throw up the lob immediately.
Tying It All Together
Okay, I know this has been a lot for you all to absorb these past few months. We've covered a number of reasonably advanced ideas related to tennis. There was even some math, which I've noticed makes most people simply pass out. But smart players will take this stuff to heart, learn it, and use it to their advantage. Most tennis matches are played against opponents of similar skill level. This means that the slightest advantage can turn defeat into victory.
Many of the more advanced players will no doubt already know this stuff, although they may not have truly understood the reasons behind all of it. Phrases like "when at net, cover the down-the-line" are drummed into a lot of players' heads, and they comply, without fully knowing why. Well, this is why, people.
For those of you who are less-advanced players, you most likely have never been exposed to these ideals. For you, I can foresee your regular partners walking off the court shaking their heads wondering how you were suddenly able to get to more balls and he or she was suddenly able to get to fewer. For these players, I caution you about sharing this information. Let them wonder for a while while you beat them ten times in a row. Then, if you're feeling particularly generous, clue them in. They will thank you and then you can go back to being friends.
Beginner levels and beginning-intermediates will probably not derive much benefit from this month's lesson. But they can certainly benefit from the previous two months' discussions. Hey, you may not be able to fully control your own shots yet, but you can certainly react to them and stand in the best place to be able to get to your opponent's next shot. And even more so than advanced players, you need to get into this. Advanced players can go to the next level, reading their opponent's shots and even baiting them into doing their bidding. But beginners don't have the control yet, so their shots are far more random. I recall having difficulty against an inexperienced player not too long ago simply because I couldn't predict where he would hit the ball. It is an odd feeling having that sort of frustration after more than 30 years of on-court experience. To be sure, the end result did not change much, but it is a very real factor to contend with.