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Tennis Strategy #29 Spin, Speed and Clean Hitting - The Trade Off

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Keep in mind that whichever way you are spinning the ball, air pressure builds up on that side, slowing the ball down because of increased friction at contact, and greater resistance against molecules through air pressure. There are fun videos you can find on YouTube where players tried to play with balls that had no fuzz on them. It was quite difficult to play because the ball was too fast. It’s important to practice with newer tennis balls that have not lost their fuzz, because they will travel more true to speed. Worn balls will give you a false sense being able to achieve higher ball speeds. It’s that felt knapping that creates the need to find the optimal amount of spin. You want enough to gain accuracy of shot, while not losing much speed.

Refer to Tennis Strategy 101 for a primer on spins if you are confused, as I don’t want to repeat all that information in this book targeted at advancing players.

The Continuum of Offense Defense

In general, the more you spin the ball, the less purely offensive your shot is, and the more offensive the shot in isolation, the less spin is has. However, we don’t play shots in complete isolation. Playing two different spins to to different locations can be extremely offensive. The more similar your spins, and regular your placements, the less offensive your play. The less spin, the more likely you will have cleaner contact. The more spin you apply, the slower the ball goes, and the more likely you are to mishit the shot. So excessive spin comes with a cost of more errors, just as hitting with almost no spin does. Unfortunately, some players have a mentality that if some spin is good, then more spin is better.

The most defensive way to spin is in a midrange of spin, and the most risky way to hit is with the maximum amount of spin. John Yandell a number years ago discovered that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were averaging approximately 1,700 - 1,800 RPMs of spin on their shots, while Sergi Bruguera, a clay court specialist was averaging over 3,000 RPMs. Slower, grittier surfaces seem to be better for heavier topspin, and smoother surfaces better for a moderate amount of spin, just enough to keep it in the court.

Spin Equals Accuracy, But At A Price

The most offensive way to hit is to go for a flatter ball, although approximately only 1 in 10,000 shots come out of the string bed with nearly zero spin, enough for the ball to ‘knuckle’ through the air, like a baseball Knuckle Ball which gives a musket pellet tip of flight rather than a rifle bullet one. The mistake people make here is a deep fascination with more spin, choosing their frame, string set up and stroking for the maximum amount of spin, when it’s really not the most efficient way of going about winning a match for most people not named Rafael Nadal. I guess what you have to ask yourself is “Do I have the 20” biceps that can drive this ball?”. Part of what will guide your decision making in how to play is your physique, because bigger stronger people who are very well trained can play that way very well. But if you are 5’4 and #125, then you might not want to play a heavy grinding style, because you don’t have the weight behind your shots.

The Continuum of Risk/Reward

Hitting the ball hard all the time with just enough spin probably gives the best amount of reward, but also a fairly high level of risk. Take some time to play around with how much spin you need to keep the ball in the court, while maintaining your advantage. As a counter point, to keep this discussion balanced, consider that massive amounts of spin slow the ball down enough to create a few show stopping highlight drop shots and extremely well angled shots, the overall effect is that slower ball speeds and shorter shots tend create more errors for you, or set your opponent up to attack your shots easily.

I went through a frustrating couple of months in my tennis when I started to spin my slice serve a bit too much, and seemed to miss many of them one foot wide. When I removed a little spin in favor of making the ball in, and allowing my opponent to make a few more shots, instead of trying to embarrass them with a ball out of their reach, my slice became effective again.

To be clear, I am not saying that you should never use heavy spin, in fact you should, instead understand the potential risks if you do it too often.

Understanding The Thresholds Of Spin That Create Special Effects

When you learn to vary your topspin to make the ball dip down, roll forward, mitigate friction, bounce high, make angles, and clear an opponent at the net, then you have a full complement of skills. Read that again. It’s an important list of effects.

When your slice can float all the way to the baseline and bounce almost straight up, drive deep and almost back up, and with heavy spin slide and stay very low court like a stone skipping on a still lake, bounce backward on a drop shot and land on the baseline with a defensive lob, make a volleyer drop the shot in the net, then you also have the full skill set of slices.

It’s an advanced skill that is well worth learning and practicing with a great coach, as it’s not every tennis coach that can teach a great knifing slice that penetrates the court, as an offensive shot. Some of you have read Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert, but maybe have never seen him play. One of the most important characteristics of his game after having a strong first serve and a very good running forehand, was his propensity to make strong players crazy with his very wide variety of slices on the backhand side. Many gifted offensive players at the top of the game struggled to time their big forehands against Gilbert’s variety.

Tennis strategy 301 will cover a different range of advice for the player who is playing 4.5 and above, because the guidelines change as you go up to higher levels, because the ability of your opponent’s changes as you do that.


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