7 Defensive Strategies in Tennis: Play Smarter, Not Harder

In tennis, every shot matters. Defending against your opponent's strengths is huge. Stop their powerful serves, relentless volleys, and accurate shots. By devising strategies to counter their strengths, you'll raise your game. You'll also give yourself the psychological edge that sets winners apart. 

This guide will equip you with the tactical know-how to neutralize your opponent's strengths. Let's turn their power into your advantage.

The Power of Defensive Play: Neutralizing Your Opponent’s Strengths

In tennis, the ability to counteract an opponent’s strengths is a hallmark of strategic brilliance. If you watch pro tennis, look at someone like Novak Djokovic.

It’s incredible how many times he’s able to take his opponent’s weapon out of the game, and even exploit it.

While focusing solely on attacking may seem enticing, it’s often the defensive player who ultimately holds the key to victory. To gain control of the match, understand your opponent’s game.

Use effective defensive tactics to minimize their offensive opportunities. Exploit their weaknesses to regain control.

Trust me. At every single level of the game – defensive strategies are going to help you beat players you might not even consider yourself capable of beating.

Here’s why:

1. It Disrupts Your Opponents Rhythm

Opponents rely on their strengths to dictate the pace of the game. You can disrupt their rhythm by countering their power, accuracy, or aggression. This will force them to adjust their game plan. This momentary confusion can give you the opening to seize the initiative and impose your own style of play.

2. Allows you to Convert Defense into Offense

Defending well doesn’t mean simply waiting for an opportunity to strike back. Instead, it’s about using your defensive skills to set up your offensive opportunities. To succeed, position yourself wisely and anticipate your opponent’s shots. Hit deep and accurate returns to force discomfort.

3. Unleashes the Psychological Advantage

When you neutralize an opponent’s strengths, you disrupt their game. Additionally, you shake their confidence. This psychological edge can be decisive in turning the match in your favor. You can demoralize your opponent by demonstrating adaptability and tactical prowess. This will increase your chances of victory.

Pro Tip: It all starts with identifying your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses – which isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Here’s how you can do it.

7 Universal Defensive Strategies You Can Use to Turn the Momentum

We know what it’s like to be on the back foot in a tennis match, and if you’re not used to it, it can be an uncomfortable experience. Defensive tactics can lead to many wins in tennis matches. It is important to understand when and how to use them.

1. Force Your Opponent to Their Weaker Side

Forcing your opponent to their weaker side is a highly effective defensive strategy. It may seem obvious, but it works. You can put them on the defensive by targeting their backhand or forehand. This will make them more likely to make mistakes. If your opponent has a big strength difference, it matters.

To force your opponent to their weaker side, be aware of their tendencies and patterns of play. Observe which side they favor when hitting groundstrokes and volleys. Are they more comfortable hitting crosscourt or down the line? Do they tend to approach the net more on one side than the other?

Once you understand what they like, exploit their vulnerabilities effectively. Hit to their backhand if they are more comfortable with their forehand, and vice versa. This will force them to use their weaker shot, making it more difficult for them to control the point.

2. Keep Changing Up the Pace of Your Shots

To disrupt your opponent’s rhythm, vary the pace of your shots. This makes it difficult for them to hit clean shots. This means hitting some fast, flat shots, some slower, sliced shots, and some drop shots. Mixing up the pace confuses opponents and prevents anticipation. It makes your moves unpredictable.

This is especially important when you’re playing against a player who is trying to dictate the pace of the point. If they’re used to hitting big, flat shots, then a sudden change of pace can throw them off their game.

Personal Experience:

I once played against a player who relished hitting the ball as hard as he possibly could. His powerful strokes were impressive, but I realized that I was playing right into his hands by hitting the same pace over and over. I was enjoying the back-and-forth power, but it was clear that he was gaining momentum with each passing rally.

I decided to change my strategy and start mixing up the pace of my shots. I introduced some slower, sliced balls, which forced him to adjust his footwork and make it more difficult to hit clean shots. I also used drop shots and short balls to disrupt his rhythm and put pressure on his backhand.

To my surprise, the big shots he was hitting started to misfire, and I was able to pick up easy points. I realized that by varying the pace of my shots, I had taken away his biggest weapon – the rhythm of his powerful strokes.

This experience taught me that keeping the pace of your shots unpredictable is a powerful tool. It neutralizes your opponent’s strengths and turns the momentum of the match in your favor. It’s often counterintuitive, as it feels like you’re giving up control. But by forcing your opponent to adjust their game, you can create opportunities to exploit their weaknesses and take control of the point.

Remember, the key is to mix up the pace, not to only hit slow, boring balls. Keep hitting some deep, consistent shots, but also mix in some unpredictable elements to keep your opponent guessing. By doing so, you can disrupt their rhythm, make it difficult for them to hit clean shots, and open up opportunities to win points.

3. Mix Up Your Spins

Varying the pace of your shots keeps your opponent guessing. Mixing up the spin of your shots disrupts their rhythm, making it difficult for them to hit clean shots.

This is especially true for players who are not accustomed to dealing with a variety of spins.

Here are some specific tips for mixing up your spins:

  • Don’t just hit flat shots all the time. Mix in some slice and topspin to keep your opponent guessing.

  • Use slice to slow down the ball, keep it low,  and make it more difficult for your opponent to control.

  • Use topspin to lift the ball over your opponent’s shoulder where it’s harder to create power (especially on the backhand side).

If you find that your opponent is weak against a particular spin, then keep throwing it in there. For example, if they struggle with slice, then keep slicing the ball to their weaker side.

Notes from the pro game:

You often see this if a good all-round player is playing against a tall server volleyer type. Admittedly, you see this less frequently in the modern game, but think back to someone like Ivo Karlovic who just wanted to hit a huge serve and get to the net.

Players would try and keep him pinned down to the back of the court and keep the ball low with slice. He then had to bend down and couldn’t unleash his powerful strokes.

4. Seize the Initiative with Second Serve Returns

An opponent’s second serve presents a golden opportunity to seize control of the point and dictate the flow of the game. Second serves are weaker, slower, and less precise than first serves. This vulnerability makes them susceptible to attack. By capitalizing on this weakness, you can turn the tables on your opponent and put them on the defensive.

Here’s how to turn your opponent’s second serve into your offensive weapon:

Aggressive Returns: Don’t passively accept a slower ball. Strike your return with purpose, aiming for depth and power. This forces your opponent to scramble and scramble, disrupting their rhythm and making it difficult for them to set up their next shot.

Identify your opponent’s weaker side, such as their backhand or forehand. Aim your return to that side. This puts them under pressure to hit a shot they’re less comfortable with, increasing the chance of errors.

Mix Up Your Returns: Don’t become predictable with your returns. Alternate between crosscourt and down-the-line shots. Occasionally, add a drop shot or a short ball. This strategy keeps your opponent off balance and prevents anticipation.

When your opponent has a strong forehand, avoid targeting their weakness. Instead, drive the ball crosscourt or down the line. Your opponent won’t be expecting this, so they’ll naturally be covering further to the backhand side. This forces them to stretch and reach, potentially leading to mishits or out-of-court shots.

Take advantage of their inconsistency.

Second serves are not as reliable. Stay prepared to take advantage of any unpredictable shots. If your opponent hits a short or weak second serve, pounce on it and move in for a volley or a powerful groundstroke.

By attacking your opponent’s second serve effectively, you gain the initiative in the point. This allows you to control the rally’s direction. It makes your opponent react to your shots, instead of leading.

Remember, a well-executed return on the second serve can be the catalyst for breaking your opponent’s serve and gaining a crucial advantage in the match. Don’t underestimate this golden opportunity to take control of the game and dictate the pace of play.

5. Exploit Physical and Mental Limitations

While focusing on your opponent’s technical skills is crucial, don’t underestimate the importance of understanding their physical and mental limitations. Often, players build their strengths around masking their weaknesses.

By observing and exploiting these limitations, you can gain a significant psychological and strategic advantage.

Physical Limitations:

  • Stamina: Some players excel at quick rallies and decisive points but may lack the endurance for longer matches. Monitor their energy levels and exploit any signs of fatigue by forcing extended rallies and testing their stamina.

  • Movement: Observe your opponent’s movement patterns. Do they struggle with lateral movement or quick changes in direction? Target areas that require them to stretch or move awkwardly, disrupting their rhythm and creating openings for you to attack.

  • Recovery: Pay attention to how quickly your opponent recovers after shots. If they appear slow to react or struggle to regain their position, capitalize on these moments by quickly transitioning to offense and hitting aggressive shots.

Mental Limitations:

  • Confidence: Some players thrive on confidence and crumble under pressure. Observe their body language and reactions during the match. If they seem frustrated or doubtful, capitalize on these moments by playing aggressive and dominant tennis.

  • Mental Toughness: Some players may crack under adversity or when forced to play outside their comfort zone. Challenge their mental fortitude by varying your tactics and introducing unexpected elements into the match.

  • Frustration Tolerance: Certain players lose their focus or composure when facing consistent pressure or challenging situations. Test their frustration tolerance by hitting shots to their weaker side, forcing them to use their less comfortable techniques, and playing an overall disruptive game.

Remember, it’s easy to focus solely on what’s happening on your side of the court.

But a lot of the important information you need to look out for is coming from the other side of the net!

Notes from the pro game:

Even at the pro level where we’re talking about unbelievable players, you’ll see this happen.

For instance, when a top player is losing against someone a little erratic like Nick Kygrios, they know that they’ve just got to hang in there.

There’s a good chance he will get frustrated with something and lose concentration – giving them a tiny window of opportunity they need.

If this happens with the best of the best – then it’s definitely happening in your matches!

6. Embrace the Role of the Defender (If that’s what’s needed to win)

While the allure of dominance and aggressive play can be strong in tennis, it’s important to embrace the role of the defender.

By focusing on:

  • Consistent returns

  • Effective footwork

  • Strategic positioning

you can neutralize your opponent’s attacks and turn their offensive efforts into counterpunching opportunities. Playing a more controlled and defensive game allows you to:

  • Conserve energy

  • Disrupt your opponent’s rhythm

  • Lull them into unforced errors

By playing to your strengths, whether naturally aggressive or defensive, you’ll feel more confident and more comfortable on the court, ultimately leading to better performance.

Remember, defense isn’t about being passive; it’s about being:

  • Strategic

  • Patient

  • Opportunistic

Mastering your defensive skills can make you a resilient and adaptable player, capable of defeating even the most aggressive opponents.

7. Stay Mentally Tough

The mental battle is just as crucial as the physical battle in tennis. Staying mentally tough in the face of adversity is essential for defensive success. Here’s how you can maintain your mental focus and fortitude on the court:

Accept that Point Losses are Inevitable: Every player, regardless of skill level, will lose points. Don’t dwell on every mistake or missed shot. Instead, accept them as part of the game and refocus your energy on the next point.

Embrace Pressure as an Opportunity: Pressure situations can be daunting, but they also present opportunities for growth and self-discovery. View pressure as a chance to rise to the occasion and showcase your mental strength.

Focus on the Process, not the Outcome: Don’t get fixated on winning or losing. Instead, focus on the process of playing your best tennis. Concentrate on executing your technique, making smart decisions, and staying present in the moment.

Be Willing to Experiment and Adapt: No two opponents are the same. Be prepared to adjust your tactics and experiment with different strategies throughout the match. Don’t be afraid to try new things to find the approach that works best against your opponent.

Maintain a Positive Attitude: A positive attitude goes a long way in bolstering your mental strength. Believe in yourself, your skills, and your ability to overcome challenges. Positive self-talk and visualization can significantly impact your performance.

Learn from Every Point: Every point, whether won or lost, offers valuable learning opportunities. Analyze your mistakes, identify areas for improvement, and apply those lessons to your future play.

Keep in mind: Mental toughness is a skill you can build. Practice and effort can shape it. Add mental exercises to your routine and focus on getting stronger mentally.

These strategies help build a tough mindset. They’ll help you tackle defensive challenges and win despite tough situations.

Defensive Tennis: How to Turn Defense into Offense

Mastering the art of defense in tennis is key to winning. Use these strategies to become a tough opponent. Turn aggressive attacks into chances for you.

Defense isn’t just about returning shots. It’s about strategy, patience, seizing opportunities, and mental strength. Embrace defense to level up your game and succeed on the court.

To help you win more matches, we’ve put together a suite of online courses.

These cover the most important elements of the game: serve & return, groundstrokes, volleys, and tactics.

Often, coaches focus so much time trying to achieve polished-looking strokes, they neglect the tactical side of the game.

Learn how tactics play such a huge part in winning at tennis. Master the art of combination shots, develop sharper awareness, and look forward to winning more matches.

It’s easy online, so go ahead, take a look and improve your tennis.

Stop Giving Up Easy Points & Outsmart Your Opponents More Often
Check Out Singles Tactics!

Explore more