Cross Court or Down the Line?

Playing either singles or doubles, you have a ball to hit from the baseline … should you hit cross court or go down the line?  A formula from your high school math class can help you figure it out.

Pythagoras and Steve Diamond Say …

According to teaching pro Steve Diamond, “Just remember your high school math using the Pythagorean Theorem of: A squared + B Squared = C squared.”

To start, the dimensions of the tennis court are:

  • Baseline 78′
  • Singles width 27′
  • Doubles width 36′

So, hitting down the line means not only hitting over the highest part of the net (3’6″) but hitting to the shortest court.

While hitting cross court means hitting over the center or lowest part of the net (3′) and the longest part of the court:

  • Down the line, baseline to baseline: 78′
  • Corner to corner in singles:  82.5′
  • Corner to corner playing doubles:  86′

So in this “game of inches,” going cross court gives you a lower net and eight feet more court to hit in to.  Do it and you will make Pythagoras smile.

Your thoughts?

Health Updates

Larry Turville has finished his chemo and is now through four of his seven weeks of radiation attacking his tongue and throat cancer.  He says he has some trouble eating; but is looking forward to the time he can get back on the tennis court.  Be well!!

Bob Dilworth had hip replacement surgery four weeks ago and was doing GREAT in his recovery process… walking, driving, etc.  But had his hip bone crack where they inserted the new part; so he had to go back in this past week for a “do-over,” where they wired the bone to help is heal.  He is now home and has to stay off the leg for a week.  (And i go in this Wednesday to have mine done!).

Know someone who should read this?  Send them a link and if you are not on my “new posting alert email list” and want to be (I promise, no other uses of your email address!), just drop me a note at GeorgeWachtel@gmail.com

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11 thoughts on “Cross Court or Down the Line?

  1. George, Player in my community had your procedure done this winter by your surgeon, surgery in the AM…..sitting on his lanai by 2 PM !

    Dave… WOW! i hope… george

  2. George, Best of luck with your surgery. I have already shared some of your thoughts with someone that will be having surgery in future. Hurry back to the court.
    Randy Beerman

    Randy, i will be working on rehab asap! thanks, george

  3. george. i can remember for years (before i started playing on clay starting in seniors) rarely hitting a crosscourt forehand. it was always up the line and come to the net. i slowly realized that hard court tennis was north and south and clay was more of an east west game.
    in my early clay court competitive matches, i would play for around 2 hours and a thought would come into my head ” i havent hit one crosscourt forehand today”. it was always neutralizing or up the line. amazing.
    good luck with the hip!

    Joe, the numbers don’t lie! Thanks. George

  4. George, I have been following your comments on hip replacement and replies with great interest. I have a left hip replacement scheduled for May 14 with Dr Waldrop with Hughston Clinic in Columbus, GA using anterior method. Hoping for good result and back on court in close to one month. Dr gave me his cell number with instruction to call him day before and remind him he has 83 yo tennis player from Macon, GA next morning. ALSO WISHING YOU BEST RESULT! (Enjoyed your book!)

    Floyd, you are just five days after me; so let’s compare notes on walker/cane/walking/hitting/playing. Ok? george

  5. Will be thinking of you on Wednesday I wish you all the best my friend

    B, thanks and i hope we are both healthy and hitting in July! george

  6. There is no disputing the mathematical certainty of the Pythagorean Theorem. But there is a critical issue affecting this analysis that also needs to be taken into account. That is, what is the average depth at which a player hits his or her groundstrokes, and how easily can a player change that depth when hitting to different locations on the court?

    Say for the sake of argument that the normal depth on a player’s groundstroke is in the 77 feet range, and is not typically longer or shorter. In that case, a player’s up the line shot would be generally landing only a foot or so from the baseline on most shots, because the baseline to baseline distance up the line is 78 feet. That is actually very deep, and is approaching the optimal “6 inches from the baseline” depth that my first tennis coach always used to drill into us should be our goal in baseline rallies in singles. That kind of depth makes an opponent stand several feet behind the baseline to return a ball, which tends to force errors or at least short shots, and it also opens up the court to bigger angles and more opportunities to hit winners on subsequent shots from the player hitting with such depth. In that situation, one has to wonder if a player is really better off hitting crosscourt at all.

    To illustrate: Take that same 77 feet average depth and hit it crosscourt, and the ball is now consistently landing approximately* 5.5 feet short of the baseline since the baseline to baseline distance at the intersection with the alleys is 82.5 feet. Although the ball certainly has angle, which is itself an issue for the opponent to handle, a player really is trading the offensive effects of that angle against the loss of depth in terms of how effective a crosscourt rally may be in drawing an opponent’s error in this situation. A player would have to hit in the range of 4.5 feet longer than 77 feet, or about 81.5 feet on average, when hitting crosscourt in order to approximate the same offensive effect of landing one foot from the baseline in a crosscourt rally as opposed to an up the line rally.

    * The number is approximate, because the fact that the player is now hitting at an angle and not perpendicular to the baseline means that the distance is not precise.

    However, in my experience, many players (myself included) often do not think in terms of having to add 4.5 more feet in depth (or so) on the ball when hitting crosscourt than they do when hitting up the line. Instead, many players just hit the same basic groundstroke that they would ordinarily hit up the line, or up the middle of the court, in a crosscourt situation. Therefore, much of the rationale and geometrical advantage for hitting crosscourt is probably wasted on such players, unless they also add depth to their crosscourt groundstrokes.

    But adding depth also means that the ball has to either be hit harder, or higher over the net, or both, and all of this adds more complexity and difficulty when hitting a crosscourt shot than would be the case for an up the line shot, notwithstanding the lower net in the crosscourt situation. And a certain percentage of players are probably not capable of changing the normal depth of their groundstrokes very easily if at all, meaning that they may be hitting crosscourt but they are consistently hitting short balls and thus giving unnecessary offensive shot opportunities to their opponents in so doing.

    Based on the above, while I think the reference to Pythagorus is a good general starting point, it seems a bit too simple as a basic strategy and there are circumstances where hitting up the line as opposed to crosscourt may be the better strategy after all.

    Marty, your analysis is based on the assumption that we only hit ONE depth of shot, which is strategically wrong. Think The Fed and his short, angled slice to bring a player in. In addition, i talked yesterday with a well known teaching pro who disagrees with the concept of wanting to hit “6 inches from the baseline” as being way too difficult for non pro players. As always, thanks for your thoughts. george.

  7. George,
    Marty’s comments made me very uncomfortable. I probably misunderstood them. Even playing pros don’t try to hit the ball 6 inches from the baseline. I think I would produce a legion of losers who try to hit the ball to that depth. Based on a plus-or-minus of 8 feet of depth control, a person trying to hit the ball to 6 inches from the baseline would be making errors on 40% of his shots.
    Another point, many players handle the ball landing near the baseline with relative ease, by simply moving in and taking the ball on the rise.
    The height of the net is almost irrelevant. The average baseline shot for even playing pros is at least 2 feet over the net. 0-6 inches in difference of net height is not a concern, while perhaps the shorter landing area for down-the-line is. (These concerns change if hitting against a volleyer.)
    In my opinion, the disadvantage of hitting down-the-line is less court to work with for consistency. Plus, the player has to effectively change the angle of the shot, which can be tricky.
    I love to hit down-the-line, but think of it as the riskier choice!
    Spike

    Spike, cross court it is! Thanks. George

  8. One of my biggest teaching pet peeves is when instructors put targets anywhere closer than 2 feet from the lines. Watch a professional match and see how many shots are actually within 2 feet of the lines from behind the baseline. A 6″ window is totally unrealistic for any players but especially so for a non top pro. All shots are adjusted for specific situations so adjusting for cross court or down the line shots is no different than adjusting to hitting the opening though the middle, down the line or cross court angle on passing shots. Another advantage to hitting cross court in singles in the ability to return to proper court position easier using the concept of bisecting the angle of the two best returns. Only beginners are taught to return “to the center mark” just so they don’t stand and watch their shots. Advance players know (or should) if you hit a wide shot, you move one step to the opposite side of center to bisect the added angle of the cross court return. Hitting down the line requires at least an extra two steps to get back into proper court position, so hitting cross court from the baseline requires less running in the long term. This concept also shows why you approach down the line in singles more often than cross court to cover more of the court since a down the line pass can travel 78′ while the cross court angle is much shorter. There are always extenuating circumstances like position of the opponent and which is their weaker side.

    Steve, more good stuff! thanks, george

  9. To clarify what I was trying to say…. I am not suggesting that a player might consciously try to hit the ball 6 inches or a foot from the baseline on every shot. I agree that is too big of a task for most players to attempt, at least on a consistent basis. (But see below.) I was merely using a groundstroke of about 77 feet in length as a hypothetical example of what some players may typically hit to illustrate the point that I was trying to make. I was not recommending that anyone might necessarily strive to hit that same depth on all or even any groundstrokes. (But see below.)

    However, whatever your normal trajectory and distance of shot on a groundstroke may be, you are going to be much closer to the baseline when hitting that same shot up the line than you would be hitting the same shot with the same trajectory and distance cross-court. In other words, relative to the baseline, and all other things being equal, the same groundstroke is going to land much closer to the baseline and be more offensive to the opposing player if it is played up the line than if the same shot with the same trajectory and distance is played cross-court. This is simple geometry. It is scientifically irrefutable, and it is not and should not be the least bit controversial.

    Nor does it matter if your normal groundstroke length is more like 70 feet than the 77 feet that I arbitrarily chose to use as my initial example. A 70 feet long groundstroke is going to bounce about 8 feet away from the baseline when hit up the line, but it is going to bounce several feet even closer to the net than that when the identical shot is hit cross-court. The only way to make the ball bounce deeper and as close to the baseline on a cross-court shot as it lands on an up the line shot is by adding more trajectory and/or power to the ball than one would use to hit the same ball up the line. Again, this is simple geometry and physics, and should not be controversial.

    So, it seems like this is an inherent disadvantage for the cross-court shot that we routinely fail to take into consideration or to point out when we counsel players to go for cross-court shots over up the line shots by noting that the cross-court shot is “safer” and there is more of a “margin of error” when hitting a cross-court shot than an up the line shot. Yes, I agree with all of the above. If you happen to hit a little too long with a cross-court shot there is a greater likelihood that the ball will still be good than would be the case if you hit the same shot up the line — especially if you try to make the ball bounce close to the baseline.

    But tennis is not solely about keeping the ball in play and avoiding errors. That is being strictly defensive and is, in effect, how pushers play the game (and often win). I am not putting down pushers, per se, but I am noting that most of us do not play, and do not like to play, that style of tennis. Instead, most of us like to add at least a little offense to our tennis games with the hope and expectation that it will draw errors from our opponents, and more than anything else set our opponents up with shots that are difficult for them to handle and that then provide us with opportunities to hit winners.

    However, to play with any degree of offensive mindedness, we need to be aware of the inherent differences between an up the line shot and a cross-court shot. Cross-court is, by virtue of the simple geometry of the court, somewhat more defensive in nature than up the line, which is inherently more offensive when the exact same shot is hit to both locations. If we want our cross-court shots to have a similar offensive “oomph,” we need to increase the trajectory and pace that we hit the ball cross-court to make the ball land deeper in the court on the opponent’s side. (I do acknowledge and agree with Steve Diamond’s point that another advantage to hitting cross-court over up the line is that it makes bisecting the angles of possible return simpler and requires less running to get the ball back than would be the case by hitting up the line, which gives the opponent a very large opening into which his next shot can be hit. But again, that is a defensive consideration and not really an offensive one.)

    Finally, I must take issue with the apparent suggestion that no player at our level should ever attempt to hit balls that land close to the baseline. I think this is rubbish. When I was taught to play many years ago, every coach that I ever had used to routinely get on my case if my ground strokes were landing even a few feet into “No Man’s Land.” Quite literally, it was beaten into my head that I should be always trying to hit my balls so they land anywhere between a foot and 6 inches from the baseline on most rally exchanges — if I wanted to win, that is.

    And the coaches that I have had did, in fact, hit the majority of their balls exactly in that location on the court. I have several times mentioned my first coach, Ed Torres, in this blog, but Big Ed used to have an uncanny knack for hitting almost all of his balls with so much depth that they nearly always landed around 6 to 9 inches from the baseline. It made it very hard to win even points from him, much less beat him. And much more recently, before he passed away, I used to regularly hit when I was in Florida with Roy Emerson’s son, Antony. Of course, Antony had been on the tour, won the NCAA’s, and was truly a top player, but the most amazing thing about his game is that he had the ability to land his ball even closer to the baseline than 6 inches about 90% of the time, even when I managed to get lucky and pull him out of position on one my shots. Now, I am not saying that any of my groundstrokes are anywhere near as good as what I have described, but it is certainly not a goal that I think amateur players should just give up on because it is hard to replicate. Yes, hitting that deep on a consistent basis is very difficult to do. But that is precisely why we should keep practicing it and trying to get more consistent at hitting with such depth. If we can do it consistently, hitting with depth wins many matches.

    Marty, as attributed first to Pascal, “If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter” 🙂 thanks, george

  10. I am a first-time poster to this forum, but I have enjoyed reading it (and George’s book) for quite awhile.

    Regarding your hip replacement, George, Congratulations! I had mine replaced in 2010 (right) and 2012 (left), at the ages of 53 and 56, both posterior approaches, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC. The anterior approach was still relatively new and needed some refinement. I recovered extremely well and still keep a copy of my x-ray in my tennis bag to prove to people I actually had them done. That’s how well I am still moving. Best wishes for a fast recovery. One piece of advice to you and anyone else having this procedure: get on the StairMaster as soon as you can. Focus on form (knees and toes aligned). It is the only exercise that will rebuild that muscle tissue and bring it back into balance with your other side.

    Regarding cross court v. down the line, do a Google search for “Wardlaw Directionals”. There you will find a video, featuring Naples’ own Joanne Russell, demonstrating a time-tested and proven method for determining when to hit these shots, developed by well-known coach Paul Wardlaw. Books also available.

    I have enjoyed reading your posts and getting the sense of community that you all have. I look forward to meeting you someday at a Super Senior tournament in Naples.

    Jim, thanks for the good words. Coincidentally, my PT lady just cleared me to use my recumbent exercise bike for much the same reason. look forward to seeing you on the Florida clay. george

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