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Tennis Strategy #26 Meet The Disruptors

If you have seen the American hospital drama HOUSE, about the crazy doctor by the same name, you might have seen there was a pattern to the show. Someone brings him a patient with a mysterious illness that no one else can seen to diagnose and treat. He has his team of doctors and they all put their heads together, then House, comes in and orders that they place the patient on 12 different medicines. His staff says, “…but that's gonna kill him.” House says, “yes, of course”, and they proceed. They figure out which medicines are killing the patient the fastest, and they take them off quickly, until they are left with the treatments that are not contributing to the demise. Of course, for the drama of the show, the person getting treatment has to have some close brushes with death, before they whole thing gets resolved. This is analogous to how the disruptive player plays, except that they figuratively want to kill the opponent. So they look for the shots that bring about the quickest frustration, then ruin of their opponent.

A Wide Skill Set Required

The disruptive player will have many skills, spins, and a wide range of ways to strike and send the ball for different effects to the other side of the court. In playing this strategy, a player needs to select that tactics and strokes that are having an effect, and let go of those that are not having an effect on the match in a positive way. So, everything that is not killing the patient will be removed from the treatment, unless it serves a specific purpose.

Recent and Not So Recent Examples

The first disruptive players who come to mind are Rafa Nadal, Michael Chang, Peng Shuai, and Nick Kyrgios, and they all do their thing very uniquely. The tricky part is that these kinds of players are not always embraced by the tennis world, and can be seen as second class citizens with the obvious exception of Rafa Nadal, because people who are not observing the game closely enough miss out on the quality that is really his number one trait and strength.

What people miss about Rafa and the way he often plays, is the wide variety of spins he employs. Yes is slices the ball, and he employs side spin sometimes, but even his topspin shots are produced on a wide scale from drives, to extreme high arcing looped shots which bounce high to the backhand. His opponents find it very difficult to get on balance to hit a strong shot. Interestingly enough, he has had his struggles against players who are also disruptive, or are tall and strong on the left side, so that the highest bouncing balls do not affect them the same way as most opponents.

The Magician

Fabrice Santoro was a player whose very idiosyncratic way of playing was shunned by the French Tennis Federation, so he had to pursue his own training without the same support as other French players received who had more conventional ways of playing the sport. Santoro seemed to really enjoy regularly showing up to win a round or two in a Grand Slam, and sometimes would make the fourth round, and at his height quarterfinals. He also holds the record for most wins against top 10 opponents for someone ranked outside the top 40 in his 20 year career with 70 Grand Slam Appearances. This player had a very nice lifestyle for a player that played with two hands on both sides, and hit a lot of strange slice shots. Players like this can face ridicule and people like to make up nicknames for this style of play, I like to call them the vege-matic, because they play like a food processor, or I might say that he used Ginsu Knives, because they dice, they slice…

My B Game As A Gateway

In fact, this is my favorite B game to play, because as I have mentioned before, if my all out net attack is not working, might pull back and not come in as much, but if I am simply not affective at pressuring my opponent’s time and space, then the next thing I want to do is wreck their timing, because I may then be able to go back to my A game, playing it more effectively.

More Detail On Rafa

Surprising to most people, the greatest example of disruptive play is Rafael Nadal, who for the majority of his career has played that strategy, although as he has aged he has moved more to a pressure movement, and pressure time and space styles. Let’s dig a little deeper on how he keeps people out of the zone. Notice how much he varies his spins, which is much easier to see when you are observing him live in person, but a bit harder to detect in the 2D of the television screen. It struck me pretty hard the first time I saw him play in person, that he uses dramatically different amounts of topspin, heights and speeds of shot to keep the other player off balance. In press conferences he will say “I hit a lot of topspin to the backhand, pretty simple, no?” Which is really a very sarcastic way of exposing the relative lack of sophistication of the press to evaluate his game. There is a lot more going on then what he is saying.

Compelling Match Ups Created

As his career progressed, he began to flatten out more shots to be more effective on hard courts and grass, and he also improved his slicing game, but even more dramatically, he became one of the best doubles players in the world with amazing volley technique, and became much better at closing out points on a singles court at the net. But his bread and butter has been keeping the other player off balance, not able to perfectly time their shot, and/or in less than an ideal position to counter attack his ball. Part of what has made his rivalries with Federer and Djokovic so compelling is that both are such great movers who can arrive in exactly the right spot (Federer), or can contort themselves like a plastic man to play maximum defense (Djokovic).


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