Why Sprint to Net?

Sprinting to net changes the geometry of the court, in a way that allows you to be aggressive without increasing your miss rate.

There are certain shots your opponent can hit that will force you to stay in neutral if you’re at the baseline, but will allow you to play offense if you’re at net.

Most of these shots are quite easy to execute. If you can’t play effectively at the net, your opponents will select these low degree of difficulty, high percentage shots over, and over, and over again, and you’ll find it very difficult to make progress in the rally.

You’ll pound and pound with your groundstrokes, but despite your best efforts, you’ll always find yourself making an error before they do. The way to fix this issue is not to “stop making errors,” as so many frustrated pusher victims seem to think it is. Rather, the solution is to fundamentally change the nature of the game.

Here are the four most common shots that sprinting to net will beat:

  • A deep slice
  • A short slice
  • A deep block
  • A moonball

In all four of these cases, the shot is very difficult to attack from the baseline, but easy to attack at net. Let’s go through them one-by-one and discuss.

The Deep Slice

When your opponent slices the ball deep, it’ll typically stay below your knees after it bounces. This makes the ball very difficult to attack. Your best option when your opponent gets their slice deep is to simply play the ball back deep yourself, and wait for a shorter reply to attack.

Rafael Nadal attacks with an aggressive inside-out forehand. His opponent is defending from well behind the baseline, so the shot isn’t going to be an outright winner. What’s the best way to win this point?

But what about if you’re at net?

Now, what was a very difficult knee height shot becomes a chest height volley you can block away for a winner, or, if not an outright winner, at least an aggressive ball that’ll set up a winner in the future.

It’s not trivial to volley a ball with backspin, but it’s worth the effort to learn how to do it, because volleying your opponent’s slices will allow you to attack them in a high percentage way that is geometrically impossible to do from the baseline.

The Short Slice

A short slice that floats is pretty easy to attack from the baseline, but here we’re talking about a short, low slice. This ball, like the deep slice, won’t bounce up above your knees, and as such it’ll be tough to hit hard. Since you’re forced to strike this ball from well inside the baseline, it’ll be even more difficult than on the deep slice to get the ball up and back down into your opponent’s court, without accidentally sailing the ball out instead.

Nadal sprints forward as his opponent plays a defensive shot from well behind the baseline.

At net, of course, it’s a different story. These volleys can still be tough, because you’ll sometimes have to contact them below the height of the net, but they’re far more attackable than if you were at the baseline.

Further, if you see your opponent about to respond with a slice, sometimes they will, either intentionally or unintentionally, respond with a drop shot – a really short slice.

If you’re at the baseline, you might not even get to the ball, whereas if you’re already sprinting to net, the fact that the ball is so short won’t be an issue.

The Deep Block

One of the easiest ways to defend against pace is to stand 5-10 feet behind the baseline and block back every ball deep. This strategy works so well it’s almost a cheat code. Your opponent has to do everything right – relax, move well, track the ball, set up properly, explode, swing – in order to execute their heavy, fast groundstrokes, and all you need to do is move to the ball and catch it in front of you, and you get to keep the point neutral.

Unless… your opponent is willing to sprint to net.

Now, all of the sudden, these block shots which used to keep the point neutral have turned into trivial shoulder height volleys, and unlike the slices we discussed earlier, blocks are not difficult to volley at all.

Since Nadal elected to sprint to net, he gets to play the ball as an easy volley while his opponent is still recovering, with two easy angles for winners. Had he stayed back, he’d be playing the ball from deep in his backhand corner.

The Moonball

The bane of every recreational player’s existence, the pusher, is easily defeated once you have the right toolkit at net.

Like the last three shots we talked about, the moonball is very difficult to attack from the baseline. Unless you’ve developed an extremely fault tolerant forehand, and have mastered both effortless and effortful power, your best option against a moonball is to roll the ball deep with topspin, and live to fight another shot.

Sprinting to the net fixes this. If you do, what was a moonball that was bouncing up above your shoulders, which you’re forced to hit while your opponent has already recovered, is now either a swinging volley or an overhead, which you hit while your opponent is still out of position.

Hold on – I have to execute a swinging volley or overhead while sprinting in? That sounds hard.

It is. Of the four kinds of shots we’ve talked about, the moonball is certainty the hardest to defeat, because to do so requires shots of the highest degree of difficulty.

Learn the Swinging Volley

You must, must, must learn how to hit a swinging volley if you want to maximize your potential on the court. If you don’t, you’re giving your opponent very easy, low degree of difficulty, defensive shots that allow them to stay neutral.

High deep block shots and moonballs will always beat you. You’ll hit great groundstroke after great groundstroke, but it won’t matter, because your opponent will stand 10 feet behind the baseline and continue rolling the ball back to you deep until you miss.

The swinging volley is a difficult shot. It requires great visual tracking, proper set up, and a very fault tolerant stroke, but it’s worth it to master, because it solves this problem.

Leylah Fernandez hits an unbelievable inside-out swinging volley to win the point against Elina Svnitolina, en route to her quarterfinal win at the 2021 US Open. Without the swinging volley, this point stays neutral.

The counter to the deep, floating defensive shot is to sprint in, and then while the ball floats over to you, keep sprinting in. Get as far in as you can, and then use your fault tolerant forehand to take the ball out of the air and win the point.

This is what Leylah does, this is what Emma does, and this is what you need to learn to do.

Learn the Overhead

On the tour, everyone has a good overhead, so lobs aren’t super common. At the recreational level, and even the higher 4.5-5.0 club level, this is far from the case, first, because lobs are easy to hit, and second, because so many players have bad overheads.

If you can’t hit an overhead, your opponent will quickly figure it out, and going to net will be all but pointless. Again, like the swinging volley, the overhead is an extremely high degree of difficulty shot, but mastering it is worth it, because it beats all of your opponent’s easy defensive options.

The overhead is the same basic stroke as the serve – a throwing motion that takes place with your racket in your hand, instead of a ball. Once you can internalize how to throw your racket to create the overhead stroke, you’ll have a versatile overhead that won’t break down under pressure, and, again, you’ll change the geometry of the court in a way that wins points.

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