Good Thinking Tops Great Strokes
By Greg Moran
Posted December 20, 2018

Many players (and teaching pros) make the mistake of thinking that the secret to winning more matches lies in hitting better shots. They feel that if they can learn to hit harder, with more spin, sharper angels or closer to the line that that they’ll reach that elusive next level.

Certainly, you should continue to work on your technique, however tennis matches aren’t won by the players with the nicest looking strokes but rather those who don’t beat themselves, understand the percentages, analyze their opponent’s strategies and come up with a game plan for victory.

Perhaps the best example of this was the 1975 Wimbledon final where Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors in what is considered one of the greatest upsets in tennis history. When the two walked onto the court, Connors was the undisputed king of tennis. Twenty-two years old, he was the defending Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion and hadn’t lost a set in the tournament.

Ashe was 31years-old, his career was on the decline and London bookmakers had made him a 5-1 underdog. Many insiders felt he would do well to win a set. Connors won the first game of the match. Ashe won 12 of the next 13 and a short while later became the first black man to win Wimbledon.

The night before the final, Ashe and a few of his friends got together over dinner and came up with a game plan to defeat Connors. They made a list of 5 or 6 things for Arthur to focus on during the match. Ashe took this list to the court, referred to it during changeovers and took out the “unbeatable” Connors in four sets.

Whether your strategy is to simply keep the ball in play while waiting for an error or something more complex, learning to analyze your competition and putting together a game-plan are vital ingredients of winning tennis.

It begins with the warm-up

Beginning with the warm up, and continuing throughout the match, you should be gathering information on your opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Feed a ball right at his body and see which stroke he chooses to hit. This might tell you whether he prefers his forehand or backhand—an important piece of information.

As you’re hitting back and forth, take note of things such as:

Is he right or left-handed? Believe it or not, many players don’t notice this until they’re told after the match. What kind of forehand grip does he use? Every grip in the game has its advantages and disadvantage. For example, if he uses a semi-western or western grip on his forehand, he’ll have a tough time with low balls. If he uses a Continental, high bouncing balls will give him fits.

Does he hit a one or two-handed backhand? If he’s using a two-hander, he may be able to generate more pace and topspin but wide balls will give him trouble as will low shots and balls above his head. If he has a one handed backhand, he may have trouble generating topspin and will also struggle with balls hit shoulder height or above.

Give him a variety of shots: high, low, soft, hard and see how he reacts. Does he hustle after the ball or does he let it bounce twice. How well does he bend for low balls? How about moving back for an overhead? Does he seem relaxed or uptight? Does he get angry at himself over missed shots? Pay attention to all of these and begin to get a feel for both his game and temperament.

If you’re playing doubles, take note of these same things with each player on the opposing team but also try to see which member of the team appears to be the leader. The leader is often the stronger player and knowing that right off the bat will give your team a big advantage. When you spin the racket, see which member of the team calls “up or down” and makes the decision whether to serve or receive. That player may very well be the leader.

Finally, don’t be too concerned if, during the warm-up, it seems as if you’re on the court with Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams. Many players, in an attempt to get the upper hand, will start hitting big shots right off the bat. They hope that by “winning the warm-up” they’ll intimidate you when the “real” match begins.

Don’t panic. You’re not playing Rafa or Serena and I can assure you that these “win the warm-up” players won’t be quite as smooth and loose once the score is being kept.

Start the match like a backboard and play the percentages

During the first few games, keep the ball in play and focus on playing classic “percentage” tennis. During this time, you can continue to check out your opponent as well as settle into a comfortable rhythm. As the match progresses, and you learn more and more about your opponent’s skills, both technically and strategically, you can begin to make them work for you.

If your opponent has a Western grip forehand,
You can break him down by Using slice, hit him lots of low shots.

If your opponent has a two-handed backhand,
You can break him down by Jamming him with balls into his body and making him stretch for shots out wide.

If your opponent Loses patience after three shots,
You can break him down by Keeping the ball in play. Hitting medium paced, high balls down the center of the court, waiting for him to miss.

If your opponent Can rally from the baseline all day long,
You can break him down by Taking him out of his comfort zone by hitting short shots and forcing him to the net.

If your opponent Returns balls above his chest with a lob,
You can break him down by Rolling a high groundstroke to the backhand corner and then moving towards the net.

If your opponent Has a weak second serve,
You can break him down by Returning the serve down the line and attacking the net.

If your opponent Moves up and back poorly,
You can break him down by Drawing him in with a short ball or drop shot and then pushing him back with a lob.

If your opponent Hits all passing shots cross-court,
You can break him down by Taking take two steps forward, quickly moving to cover the crosscourt pass and then volleying to the open court.

If your opponent Is a big hitter,
You can break him down by Making him generate his own pace by hitting him deep, high, soft shots ter

If your opponent Is a much stronger player,
You can break him down by Making him prove that he’s better. Don’t panic and start going for shots you don’t own. Put lots of balls back in play, come to the net and make him beat you.

When playing doubles, look for the opposing team’s strengths, weaknesses and strategies and figure out how to use them to your team’s advantage.

If your opponents Are strong serve and volley players,
Your team should Lob over the server’s partner and come to the net.

If your opponents Play from the one up, one back formation,
Your team should Take control of the net by both you and your partner coming to the net and, when the time is right, end the point by hitting between the two players or at the opposing net player’s feet.

If your opponents Have one team member is decidedly weaker than the other,
Your team should Play two against one. You and your partner hit virtually every shot towards the weaker player.

If your opponents Always lob,
Your team should Attack the net but stop at the service line so you can handle their lobs with overheads.

If your opponents Never, ever lob,
Your team should Both you and your partner position yourselves three feet away from the net and enjoy putting away volleys.

These are just a few examples of things to look for when you analyze your opponent’s games. Become an aware player and pay attention to everything. The more information you can gather, the better you’ll be able to put together your game plan.

When facing players at the 3.5 level and below, you’ll frequently find that all you need to do is hit a few balls back in the court and wait for your opponents to beat themselves. However, as your game improves, and you’re playing at the 4.0 level and above, tennis becomes much more of a strategic battle where the thinking player (or team) will almost always come out on top.