There is one tactical aspect that is really interesting when we compare pro and recreational level of tennis. ATP Tour pros, even though they all have magnificent tennis technique, seem to be playing a much safer game in terms of risks they take, in comparison to club gurus and recreational players.
First of all, there is a big difference in terms of the ultimate goal pros and recreational players have when playing tennis. Pros need to win tournaments, they need to win each and every match they possibly can and the stakes are high. On the other hand, recreational tennis players of course like to win matches too, but they play for enjoyment and the thrill of the game itself and for majority of players out there, the final match outcome and score is not as important as how much they enjoyed the particular game, or how many thrilling points were played in the match. This is why pros like to play a safe game while recreational players tend to take more risk on the court.
To improve your success on the court and win more points, you need to face the fact that you might be playing too risky, and that it’s time to pull back. When we manage to hit the lines and blast amazing winners, the feeling of adrenaline rush and accomplishment can be wonderful. Then again, when we miss those shots, the disappointment is strong and we often say: “oh, how close that was!”. There is a simple way to fix this: aim your shots in such a way that you have safe margins. Do not aim for the corners or lines, rather well inside the court. If we aim for a small target on the court with safe margins around it, then even if we miss it, the shot will land inside the court and still be a good one. To practice this, try placing a number of cones or tennis ball cans on the court to mark a specific target area on the court. Have your sparing partner feed balls and try to hit the target. The next step is to do the same thing during a match, only difference this time is that you’ll need to make “mental targets”. Stay away from the lines, leave enough space for errors. Pro tennis match TV broadcasts often display shots placement statistics for the players, and the shots they take are well inside the court. Of course, from time to time they also hit close shots, but the vast majority of all their rally shots are well inside the safe court margins.
They say “aim small, miss small”. The same rules we talked about previously, also apply to the serve. The most common serving strategy is hitting a risky first serve, trying to go for the ace and if it’s a miss, then going for the safe second serve to start the point. The problems recreational players have is that they don’t choose a specific target when serving. Instead, they choose the general target area which, in case of serving, is hitting the service box. This is not good enough and it will make your serve less reliable. Another mistake we can make is to go for two risky first serves, which often ends up in double faults. Hitting an ace is great, but can you hit more aces than double faults in a course of match? The primary objective when serving a second serve should be to start the point. Pros have great serving technique, yet they always go for the safe second serve. They often choose the kick serve that has a lot of spin and lands well inside the service box. Surely they could have just tried hitting two consecutive first serves, but they didn’t. Adding spin to the serve will help you get the ball inside the service box.
In order to play safe tennis and win more matches, we need to choose safe tactics. This means that if, for example, we are on defensive in a point, we should remain patient until we get a good chance for attack. It’s so much better to go for a safe, defensive shot in those situations when the opponent is putting pressure on us, than to try counter-attacking balls that are already difficult enough to play. Try to keep the ball in play as an imperative, and recognize short, weak returns as a chance to take offensive and end the point. Play smart and build points from grounds up, waiting for your chance to go on the offensive.
In the end, there are three ways we can miss our shots on the court and things we can do to prevent that from happening:
Hit into the net
To avoid your balls hitting the net, aim higher. Adding more spin to your shots will help you with this, as not only your shots will go higher over the net, but the ball will also dive back down due to spin, thus making sure the shots land inside the court.
To avoid missing wide, aim away from the sidelines. You don’t need to hit a shot that is close to the sideline in order to win the point. If you pick the right target that leaves enough room for error, than you’ll considerably reduce your unforced errors that come from missing wide.
Missing long is probably the least common type of miss. Probably because the court is much longer than it is wide. When placing your shots, don’t aim for the baseline, rather an area well in front of it. Any ball that lands this deep will bring trouble to the opponent, we really don’t need to overdo it.
Be smart with your shots target choice and you’ll surely take your game to the next level. Make it hard for your opponents and don’t be the one that gives away “free points”. Tennis is a game in which consistency and patience always wins. Play safe and you’ll surely win more matches, and as your technique, skills and confidence develops you’ll be able to hit smaller and smaller targets, making the game so much fun along the way.