If you can keep the ball heavy, deep, and, most importantly in the court, for more shots in a row than your opponent can, you’re almost always going to win. Occasionally, one player can be such a great tactician that they’ll beat a superior ball-striker, but that’s rare.
Most of the time, offensive tennis and tactics exist in the context of attacking your opponent’s imprecise ball strikes: my opponent has dropped a ball short, now how do I maximize my win-rate?
If you’re annoyed that your opponent isn’t dropping many balls short, though, you might be tempted to change it up – to frequently change the direction of the ball, or to aim closer to the lines, but doing so will increase your miss rate, offsetting much, and likely all, of the potential benefit.
So what’s the solution then? It’s actually pretty simple. Just wait longer for the opportunity.
One of the most valuable skills a tennis player can cultivate is patience.
Winning With Geometry
How much more margin for error do you have when hitting cross-court, than when hitting down-the-line? One foot? Two feet? One meter?
The answer may surprise you: 4.5 feet (1.5 meters). It’s like you have an entire extra doubles alley to miss into when hitting cross-court.
Not only that, the net is a full 6 inches (15 cm) lower in the center than it is at the edges.
Due to these geometrical differences, you can miss-execute your shot by more without missing when aiming cross-court. You can miss an extra 6 inches low without hitting into the net, and you can miss an extra 4.5 feet long, without missing out.
One of the favorite drills of Paul Annacone, a drill he used frequently with Roger Federer, is a cross-court feeding drill where the coach feeds the player a variety of semi-difficult balls into the forehand corner. None of the balls are easily attackable. The goal is to hit them all into the deep, cross-court corner on the other side.
And when I say “them all,” I mean them all.
The higher your percentage on this shot, the better you’re going to be. The idea of this practice is to form a habit of aiming to the correct target, and aiming sufficiently high over the net, such that you practically never miss. The drill trains hundreds and hundreds of repetitions of:
- Split step
- Move to the ball
- Strike it
Without repetitions, the above process can’t be executed successfully enough for singles tennis. It’s just too complex. A rally tolerance drill is to give the player sufficient practice driving the ball cross-court again, and again, and again, so that, in a match, they’re confident in their ability to do so.
Without this confidence, it’s common for a player to frequently bail out of a rally with a low-percentage shot. They’ll do something like hit down-the-line, even though their opponent isn’t out of position. By doing so, this player increases their own miss-rate, but doesn’t get any benefit from it.
It’s easy for a coach to say, “Hey, don’t do that,” but what really helps is building the habit of not doing that.
Rally tolerance practice teaches a player that they are capable of being patient, so that, once they get into the match, they’re willing to play neutral tennis and wait for a real opportunity.
NCAA women’s tennis coach Paul Wardlaw coined a system, known as the “wardlaw directionals,” for playing high percentage tennis from the baseline.
The idea of the system is to help players build the habit of selecting the highest percentage shot in every situation.
The Wardlaw system is built on two main ideas:
1. “Outside” vs “Inside” Shots
An outside shot is a shot that crosses the player’s body as they receive it. Typically, ground-strokes are outside shots. When two players are rallying forehand-to-forehand, for example, each of those forehands is an outside shot – as the ball comes in, it crosses the player’s body, and then they hit it.
An inside shot, on the other hand, is a shot which does not cross the player’s body. You’re actually probably familiar with the most common inside shot already – the inside-out forehand. On the inside-out forehand, the ball does not cross the player’s body, hence why it’s considered an inside shot.
2. Change of Direction
The second core idea of the Wardlaw system is whether or not a player changes the direction of the ball as they strike it. It is easier to execute a shot without changing the ball’s direction.
The most common tennis shots do not change the ball’s direction. Let’s use again the example of the forehand-to-forehand rally. The direction of the ball is not changing as the players hit: one player hits the ball cross-court, and the other player returns it back cross-court.
Change of direction shots are very common on short balls, however. Often, a player will attack a weak cross-court shot by changing the ball’s direction and hitting it up-the-line.
So what’s the system?
On outside shots, don’t change direction, and on inside shots, do change direction.
In general, the Wardlaw system believes more in biomechanically sourced fault tolerance than geometrically sourced fault tolerance.
When accelerating through a topspin groundstroke, a player naturally rotates their hips and chest, making the across-the-body shot the lower degree of difficulty shot. On outside shots, we get all three benefits:
- We can hit across our body.
- We hit into the longest part of the court, over the lowest part of the net.
- We don’t have to change the ball’s direction.
On inside shots, on the other hand, we prioritize the biomechanical ease over the other benefits, and elect to hit across our body even though it requires changing the ball’s direction. Geometrically, though, we typically don’t have to sacrifice much to do this: we’re typically standing close to the center of the court, meaning we can change direction while still going over the lowest part of the net, and we’ll have roughly equal space to hit into no matter which corner we aim at.
Cross-Court is King
The cross-court shot is the lynch pin of baseline tennis. It is geometrically king because the court is longer, and the net is lower, and is biomechanically king because the hips and chest naturally want to turn towards it as a player swings.
Whatever baseline strategy you decide to implement, whether a Wardlaw strategy or not, the heavy, deep, cross-court shot should be at the foundation of that strategy, because it leverages both geometric and biomechanical advantage.
Players who practice how to execute deep, cross-court shots at an extremely high clip, and then cultivate the willingness to do so, over, and over, and over again, win more matches than those who don’t. Rally tolerance creates your offensive opportunities.
When you watch tennis, it isn’t always obvious how patient the best offensive players, like Roger Federer, are being. Tactics, drop shots, net play, offense – all of it is very sexy and very enticing, but without patience it doesn’t work. Roger Federer isn’t Roger Federer because he attacks every ball, rather, Roger is the best in the world at recognizing an offensive opportunity when one is provided to him, and when one isn’t, he hits cross-court like everyone else.