Tennis Singles Strategy
When you walk onto the match court, practice time is over.
You can’t make last-minute adjustments to your technique to improve your chances of winning.
Your forehand is your forehand, your serve is your serve and your backhand is your backhand - you’ve just got to hope that you execute them well.
What you do have complete power over though is your mentality and your tennis singles strategy.
These are two areas where you can immediately make a difference in any game, no matter how dire the situation might look!
We all know that mentality and strategy are two things we control in a sport where there’s not that much you can control, and yet, we get so bogged down in how we’re hitting the ball.
Sometimes, though, you’re just going to have bad days, and you’re not going to hit the ball as cleanly as you would like, and equally, there are going to be days where you’re opponent makes your life extremely difficult.
You can’t change this!
But, you can change things by taking control of the things that are within your power, and one of your most potent weapons is your strategy.
We’ve worked together with our super coach, Dave Ireland to bring you our in-depth singles tactics, but for those of you without time to flick through a 20,000-word book, here are some of the most important points.
There are Three Ways to Win a Point
At it’s most simple, tennis boils down to one simple fact: if you put one more ball in the court than your opponent than you’re going to win the point.
There are three ways you can do this:
- Hitting a winner
- Forcing an error from your opponent
- Your opponent hits an unforced error
We tend to be very focused on winners and unforced errors – you’ll always see these stats talked about during pro games, but in reality, there are a lot of points that end because you’ve forced your opponent into an error.
Instead of thinking about winners, or just hanging in there and hoping your opponent misses, focus more of your attention on how you can force your opponent into missing.
Some options include:
- Moving them side to side
- Taking time away from them through your positioning
- Varying your pace
- Using spin to make them play uncomfortable shots
- Pushing them deep behind the baseline
Every opponent is different, so you’re going to employ different tactics to make them miss.
This is where it really helps to be paying attention to your opponent, rather than obsessing on your game and how you’re hitting the ball.
Your Forehand is Your Best Shot – Get it in the Game
I can hear people saying “but my backhand is my best shot” from through the computer screen now.
The thing is, it’s very rare that someone has a better backhand than they do forehand.
The way the shots work, it’s extremely difficult to have a better backhand than forehand. Many people think they have a better backhand, but in reality, it doesn’t have the same capabilities as their forehand.
Take Djokovic – unbelievable backhand, but if you look at the stats, they just don’t stack up against his forehand.
For virtually every player, it’s going to be a huge advantage to get their forehand involved as an attacking weapon.
The extra spin and power potential give you the ability to take over the point and ramp up the pressure on your opponent.
This is something we see so often from every pro, but especially Nadal.
He’s absolutely desperate to get the ball on his forehand side because he knows that greatly increases his chance of winning the point.
If your forehand is your best attacking weapon, which is going to be the case for most people, then you need to be just as eager to get play on this side as Nadal.
Look for opportunities to run around your backhand, and plan your patterns of play to get the ball on your forehand side.
Your Opponent’s Backhand is Their Weakness – Get it in the Game
If we turn the strategy of getting play on your forehand around and focus it on the opponent, then it makes sense that we’re going to target their backhand.
One of the best match-ups you can possibly have in singles is when your forehand is matched up against your opponents backhand.
This is one of the reasons lefties have so much success, they’re used to isolating their opponent’s backhand with their cross-court forehand.
This shouldn’t be limited to lefties though and you can easily employ this tactic without taking any big risks – you’ve got to move your feet though.
You see Federer doing this a lot by moving around his backhand so he can open up the inside out forehand.
When he does this, he opens up so much angle and makes it a low risk shot to hit his forehand into a right hander’s backhand.
He still maintains the option to hit down the line without taking too much risk, which means his opponent can’t cheat and cover one side over the other.
In this video we see Federer using the inside out forehand to hit winners, but more often than not he uses it to take control of the point by pinning his opponent on his backhand side, and you can easily do the same if you show the desire to get around the ball.
Sometimes you’re going to come across players with a really strong backhand and you’ve got to be alert to this, but for the majority of players, it pays to pin them in on the backhand side because they simply can’t get out.
If Things Aren’t Going Well Then Change Them
If you’re using a certain tactic and it’s getting you nowhere, then it’s time to try something different.
You might be doing what you’re comfortable doing and hoping that you’ll start playing a little better, but if it’s playing into your opponent’s strengths then it’s time to try something different.
Singles is a long game with lots of ups and downs, and you can make the most of this, but you’ve got to make a change to capitalize on it.
Sometimes that change is going to be very small, such as mixing in more slices to put your opponent off their rhythm, but sometimes it’s going to take something completely different.
If you’re going to lose doing what you’re comfortable doing, then you might as well give something you’re not as comfortable doing a try.
It doesn’t have to be for the whole match, but it just needs to put your opponent off their stride and change the momentum of the match.
That strategy might be serve volleying to give your opponent a completely different look, but whatever it is, it’s important that you try the options you have available to you.
There’s no point hoping that you start playing 10% better, you’ve got to find ways to change the balance of the match.
Recognize the Importance of the Serve
The serve plays an oversized roll in tennis for three key reasons:
- You’re in complete control of the shot
- You get two shots at it
- It sets the precedent for the rest of the point
This is a huge advantage, but you’ve got to capitalize on it. Just walking up to the baseline and going through the motions and hitting the serve without thinking about it isn’t a strategy for winning.
Instead, you want to have a clear plan for every serve you hit.
Make sure you’re aiming for a target (remember, the backhand is often the best shot to target), and have an idea for what you want to do with the next shot after the serve.
The serve and the next shot after it, known as the serve plus one is a great opportunity to set yourself up with an attacking forehand that can really put you in charge of the point.
You have the ability to make these plans because you’re in complete control at this point.
Your opponent has no say over how you hit your serve, so make the most of the opportunity and make it work for you.
Remember that there’s a huge difference between your first serve and your second serve, which means your first serve percentage is vitally important.
It’s nice to hit powerful first serves and pick up free points, but when you’re getting a high percentage of first serves in, you start with the odds in your favor, so don’t be afraid to dial down the power and focus on making lots of first serves.
Don’t Be Afraid to Lose the Point
This one isn’t strictly strategy, but we find it makes a huge difference to how you employ your tennis tactics.
You can’t be afraid to lose a point because the reality is you’re going to lose lots of them no matter what you do.
Even in a 6-2 6-2 win, you lose plenty of points, so there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
This means that you shouldn’t be afraid to be ambitious with your strategies, and play the kind of shots that are going you the best chance of winning the point.
The great thing about tennis is that until you lose the very last point, there’s always a route back into the match, so put the scoring system out of your mind, and play the strategies that are going to give you the best chance of winning the match.
When you’re out on the court on your own, there are few better ways of changing the momentum and course of a match than through your singles strategy.
Many of the pros are amazingly good at strategizing, and you’ll often hear them talk about tactical tweaks they made that helped them overcome their opponents.
However, away from the pro game, tennis players have a habit of just going out and hitting the ball without thinking about it.
In reality, your strategy is one of the few aspects of tennis where you have complete control over exactly what happens, so you should be maximizing how you use it.
We’ve put together some of the key strategies we use out on the court, but there’s a lot more to learn!
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