What did you do when…?

maria sWe sometimes lose points because we make a bad shot or our opponents make a real good one. But all too frequently, we lose points because we are in the wrong court position.

While watching the clay court tournament final from Rome, I noticed that when Maria Sharapova hit a (rare) drop shot, she rushed to the net behind her ball. That got me thinking …

What do you do when…

You hit a drop shot? Too many times, too many of us just stand and watch it. But if we do as Maria did and charge the net, we not only put much more pressure on the opponent who gets to the ball; but gives us a much better chance of cutting off his down the line or cross court reply.

Your doubles partner is taken off the court on a serve or angled groundstroke? We have to recognize that a) he is in a weak/defensive position and b) the next shot will probably ours to try to get. So the answer is to IMMEDIATELY go to the middle of the court (as if there is a rope attached to your partner and he is dragging you to the middle as he goes wide).

You hit a good lob over your opponent and they turn to run back and take it on the bounce? The two wrong answers, according to the Legends at Newk’s camp are: stay on the baseline and rush tight to the net. They advise that your opponent is most likely going to throw a lob back up to you; so you (and your doubles partner) should have come in, but just inside the service line.

What other good court position scenarios have you faced?

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4 thoughts on “What did you do when…?

  1. I think that: In a baseline rally, consisting of deep shots down and near either sideline,, one should try to regain the center after hitting a shot. Too often, in an extended rally, a player who notices that you have drifted to right or left of center, in order to compensate perhaps, will suddenly hit a crisp shot near the sideline for a winner – especially if you are seen to be leaning the wrong way. And, for seniors, the center means, center and inside the baseline – to cover the short or drop shot.

    Nick – excellent example! thanks. george

  2. I was taught the vector approach for where to stand in singles. Basically, you look at your opponent’s location and draw an imaginary upside down “V” from that point onto the court toward your side. You should GENERALLY position yourself so you are standing roughly equidistant from the edges of the inverted “V,” to the right and left, into which your opponent is likely to hit his next shot, but this also depends on the skill level of your opponent and whether he can hit certain shots that other players may not have in their arsenal (more on this below). I have heard other persons (Marty Devlin, for example) refer to this same positioning strategy as a “Fan” approach instead of an inverted “V.” I believe it to be the same thing.

    So, if your opponent is standing right in the middle of the court at the opposing baseline, the right and left vectors for his next shot will be the two “T’s” where the baseline and alley converge on your side of the court. Therefore, you would generally want to stand just about in the middle on your own side of the court because, regardless of whether his next shot is a forehand or a backhand, the angles into which he could hit the next ball are just about the same to your right or your left. By standing in the middle of the inverted “V,” you maximize your chances of reaching the next ball because you are not out of position no matter which way your opponent hits his next shot.

    To use another example, say you have moved your opponent deep into his left corner. Now, regardless of whether he attempts to hit a backhand or a forehand as his next shot, you would not want to continue to stand in the middle of your own court, at the baseline, to return his next shot. This is because the right and left vectors of the inverted “V” are now pointing more toward your own left. Instead, you would move a bit to your left to position yourself about equidistant to the right and left angles that form the edges of the “fan” or inverted “V” into which your opponent can comfortably hit his next ball.

    Using the example in the previous paragraph, from your opponent’s perspective, if he tries to hit the next ball close to the limit of his right vector (i.e., to your left), he has to either add a lot of topspin or take a lot of pace off the ball because he has the double problem of hitting more in the direction of the sideline than the baseline, which is a shorter distance for the ball to travel, and also having a higher net clearance that he has to make in that direction. Unless he is a topspin genius, the chances are strong that he is either going to hit the net, hit it wide into the alley, or take so much pace off the ball that he gives you a sitter that you can take advantage of for your next shot. (Or he may attempt a drop shot, but the vector approach means that you will be anticipating that so, hopefully, this will allow you a faster head start to try to reach such a shot.) On the other hand, if he tries to hit the ball close to the edge of his left vector, he can certainly hit it deeper and he would be hitting over the lower part of the net so he has less net clearance to worry about, but it would still be a very difficult shot for him to hit the ball up the line to your extreme right and completely out of your reach so the chances are high that his shot aimed at his left vector is going to be more to the middle of the court, or maybe only a few feet to your right of the middle. It is probably not going to paint the alley line to your right. This means that you do not need to scramble back to the exact center line to try to cover the next shot, but you can stay within the boundaries of the vector and keep a bit to the left of the center line to be comfortable that you can get to his next shot without having to run your tail off.

    Another advantage of the vector approach is that, the closer you get to the net, the less distance you need to cover to your right and left to be in the range of being able to get to your opponent’s next shot. This is because the two vectors are closer to the point of convergence the closer you get to their origin — i.e., where your opponent is standing. So, this approach kind of encourages you to always be trying to move forward, instead of camping on the baseline trading rally balls. The closer that you can stand to the net, even if it is only a few inches in “no man’s land” from the baseline, the greater your chances of being able to intercept your opponent’s ball, whether it comes to your right or your left, than if you stand deep behind the baseline.

    The above being said, there are other variables that have to be taken into account to use this approach, and standing in the middle of the inverted “V” on every point is not a guarantee that you will get to every one of your opponent’s shots.

    For example, say your opponent has a good drop shot and you are on the baseline. You might be standing in the correct position vis-à-vis the right and left angles to cover your opponent’s ground stroke to your right or your left, but his drop shot adds a third direction that you also need to cover – short – for which the vector approach does not provide a lot of advanced warning that your opponent might attempt such a shot. And the converse would be true if you were using the vector approach to govern where you stand at the net to volley. Yes this approach allows you to cheat a bit and cover passing shot attempts to your right or left a bit better than just standing on the center line, but you still remain susceptible to the lob. So, the vector approach is not a panacea.

    Also, every now and then you come up against an opponent who has some kind of spectacular shot that reduces the effectiveness of this strategy. In effect, the better the player who is your opponent, the wider the inverted “V” has to be that you imaginarily draw in your mind. This does not mean that your court positioning should be any different—you would still endeavor to be positioned right about at the middle of the inverted “V” – but it does mean that you may have to move more to your right or left to get to such an opponent’s shot due to his superior strokes.

    So, using the example that I mentioned above where you hit a ball that forces your opponent to move to his left along the baseline, you would still try to move to the center of the inverted “V” by staying more to the left of the center line than right in the middle of the court. But you would have to expect that the right and left angles into which your opponent could hit would stretch you wider than with a lesser opponent. For example, if you were playing a guy like Nadal, with his unbelievable lefty topspin forehand, he probably could hit the ball with enough acute angle, pace and net clearance that it could land wide to your left (or to his right) in an area that the vector approach would not predict very many players could hit into. Or conversely, take the same situation and you are playing against a guy like Djokovic, with his fantastic righty two handed backhand up the line. He could probably hit that shot well to your right (or his left) past the point that you would predict an ordinary player would be able to hit a ball to his left vector.

    Therefore, the vector approach is not a panacea for all that may ail a given player’s game and it will not necessarily allow a lesser player to win against a better player. But it is an approach that minimizes the amount of unnecessary right to left movement that you do on the court because you are not always returning to the exact center of the court. Instead, you are cheating a bit by favoring one side or another depending on the right and left angles of your opponent’s inverted “V.” Over the course of a match, this means that you should get to more balls and expend less energy in doing so.

    Marty – Now, that is the “thorough” Marty Judge we all know and love. I may be one of the few to wade all the way thru, but i do agree very much with your philosophy. thanks, george

  3. Here are my pet positioning peeves in doubles, in no particular order:

    1. Partner stays back/ makes no effort to approach net when he is serving. This exposes too much of the court to the receiver, who can exploit the angles by returning wide and away from the serving team’s net man, and the receiving team can also take over the net instead of the serving team if partner’s serve is weak or if partner hits a short rally ball. In the worst case scenario, the server who refuses to approach the net winds up hitting a pop up in the direction of the opposing net man on one of his rally balls after putting the serve in play, who then pokes a volley for a winner into the open court behind the serving team’s net man. Thus, the serving team loses much of its natural advantage to hold serve when the server stays back all the time on his serve in doubles. The result is a server who does not come to the net that often in doubles usually has a higher likelihood of being broken. And, in doubles, being broken only once each set means a high likelihood that the team whose serve has been broken will lose the set.

    2. Partner does not know how to chip and charge or take the ball on the rise and move forward to get to net when receiving. Consequently, unless partner hits an outright winner on his return, which is rare, opposing team has a huge advantage on their own serves and they rarely get broken. Coupled with the opposing team breaking your team even only once each set (for the reasons noted in item #1 above), this is a virtual guarantee that your team is going to lose the match.

    3. Partner, who does not like being at net, repeatedly gets in long cross court rallies with opposing player who also prefers to play the baseline, instead of partner trying to attack any short balls and move into net as soon as he has a chance. Inevitably, partner will himself hit a short ball or will hit a ball that is not angled sufficiently away from the reach of the opposing net man. Opposing net man then poaches, and usually hits it right at the feet or into the body of the partner’s net man. Bonus peeve points when the partner whose refusal to come to the net and thus is responsible for the bad result says something snarky to his partner at net, who just got pounded through no fault of his own, like: “You should have expected that and stayed a bit back from the net,” or “I thought you said you had a good volley. Why didn’t you get that back? It was hit right at you.”

    4. During a doubles exchange, partner just stands in one spot and does not move to the right or left or forward or back as his partner is moved about the court – i.e., partner does not understand the concept of the imaginary rope that is supposed to tether him to his partner. Inevitably, the player getting moved around will wind up hitting a short ball or a pop up and the opposing team capitalizes by hitting into the open court for a winner that should not have been an open court at all had the player who just stood there moved in concert with his partner. Extra bonus pet peeve points when the partner who just stood there gives you a look of disgust, as if your short ball or pop up was the real cause for the loss of point.

    5. Non serving partner insists on standing too close to the net and/or does not move to or does not know how to move backward to cover a lob over his head that is hit as the opposing team’s return of serve. This inevitably requires the server, who is playing serve and volley and is headed into the net when the lob is flying over the net man’s head, to abruptly change direction, run diagonally behind the net man, and try to cover the lob that the net man should have covered himself. Server’s options are limited and are not from a position of strength – either hit a lob back, which exposes his team to being beaten outright by a good overhead from the receiving team, or try to hit a hard groundstroke drive back up the line, which usually either finds the net or allows the net man to move over for an easy poach winner. Extra bonus peeve points when the net man, whose bad positioning is responsible for the whole thing, makes some snarky comment to the server along the lines of “Maybe you should [serve the ball harder] [try a kicker to his backhand] [hit the serve up the middle more] [hit the serve wide more] [hit the serve at the receiver’s body more] [try to get the first serve in more] [etc.],” as if some fundamental defect with the serve was the real reason for the loss of point.

    6. Same scenario as #5, except that the net man does not even move to the opposite side (i.e., “switch”) when the receiver’s lob goes over his head and the server has to change direction to cover a lob that was the net man’s responsibility. The inevitable effect is either the server’s attempted drive return clocks the net man in the back of the head or the server realizes that the drive option has been eliminated because the net man is standing in the way. So the only option left for the server is to hit a high defensive lob and start to pray.

    7. Non serving net man stands either in the alley or too close to the alley when his partner is serving. This allows the receiver a wider angle of space into which to hit the return, thereby pulling the server (who is coming into the net) wide or up the middle on the receiver’s return – in either case, greatly improving the odds that the server will miss his volley, hit a bad volley or a pop up right at the opposing net man, or will not be able to reach the return to hit a volley at all. Had the net man stood in a proper position relative to the alley (generally, more or less in the middle of his service box), he would have at least prevented the receiver’s up the middle shot by his very presence and he might even have been able to hit a volley off the return, thereby enabling the server to cover a more reasonable space.

    8. Non serving net man stands too close to the middle when his partner is serving. This gives a decent receiver an opportunity to hit a return up the line for a return winner into the alley. Extra bonus peeve points when the net man, whose bad positioning is responsible for the whole thing, makes some snarky comment to the server along the lines of “Maybe you should [serve the ball harder] [try a kicker to his backhand] [hit the serve up the middle more] [hit the serve wide more] [hit the serve at the receiver’s body more] [try to get the first serve in more] [etc.],” as if some fundamental defect with the serve was the real reason for the returner’s up the line shot.

    9. Non serving net man does not move in the box to follow the ball based on where the serve lands and, if the receiver gets it back, where the return of serve lands. Nor does he move in the box to follow the direction of subsequent hits exchanged between the server and the receiving team. (According to the Bryan brothers — and they should know — generally, if your partner’s ball lands deep and to the left, the net man should also move closer to the net and to his left. Likewise, if your partner’s ball lands deep and to the right. Conversely, if the receiver’s return pushes back into your court, the net man will want to back away from the net a bit.) As a result, the net man misses out on many opportunities to poach or otherwise get into the point with his volleys, thereby relying too heavily on his partner to win the point and not functioning as a team.

    Marty, Wow! I think YOU should have written the book on tennis! The only one I disagree with is 5 …. I have come to believe that the server’s net man should be aggressive and leave the lob over his head to the server. Thanks. George

  4. I am not a natural net player, my ground stroke is more reliable than my volley…. I found playing two-back formation help my anticipation – move in either with my own or my partner’s approach shot. It works wonder when I play with a weaker partner too, because I could keep my partner in front and cover whatever shot he/she not able to. Sometimes I wonder if two-back is better starting position then 1 up 1 back….

    Janet, I frequently use the both back start vs strong servers, which Roy Emerson encourages us to do. So you are in good company! George

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