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Tennis Strategy #43 Pressure Time And Space Overviews 2/5

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

Another aggressive way to win a tennis match for someone who might not have the pure power potential to be a power player is to pressure the opponent’s time and space. This player might be fast enough on court to attack with their feet, but not so fast that they should play a movement game. They might have enough power for force errors, but they also want to come to the net to force the issue in the point, finishing up front.

Being Realistic

If I were to say that I want to pressure my opponent’s time and space, but all I do is stand 5 feet behind the baseline hitting high loopy shots, then I’m not really achieving the objective. I would essentially by lying to myself about my strategy, because my actions are telling a different story than my stated intention. Yes, sometimes you can give your opponent more time and space than they want, the effective use of this strategy is found in taking away their time and space. Once you have that opponent well trained to understand that they don’t have much time, then you can periodically give them much more than they want. This will also have the effect of making them feel more pressure when you take the time and space away again. Your kick serves by themselves might not take away time, but by virtue of bouncing higher, it can take the opponent out of their comfort zone for their preferred contact point. So even though the kick travels slower than a flat serve, it can pressure space, and when followed up with a serve and volley, or an approach shot, it functions as the set up shot in the combination. The slower moving kick serve allows the server more time to get into the net, taking away time and space from the returner. You want to hit some flat serves to take time away, but your main objective is not to hit aces, instead target more shots at the opponent’s body, to force them to get out of the way of my shot.

Net Play Is Fundamental To Time And Space Game

As you might have guessed, the number one most effective tactic for taking away time and space is coming to the net. There are many different ways to approach, some of which can be quite sneaky and unexpected. Consider that the court is 78’ long, so if both players are at the baseline, there is an average amount of time the ball takes to pass back and forth. Part of what intimidates people from approaching the net is that they already feel enough pressure at the baseline, but coming closer to the net seems like it will pressure them. While it’s true that you will be taking some time away from yourself, the fact that you are coming in will first have an impact on your opponent. When you are near the ideal volleying position which is about 9 feet from the net, the ball only travels approximately 61.5% of that distance, but because the ball did not slow down as much in the air, and so much more after a bounce, the actual time taken away is closer to 50%. Since you know what you are going to do before you do it, you have the element of surprise on your side, and the opponent will have to react to you.

The Prioritized Ways To The Net

Serve and Volley

Believe it or not, serve and volley yields the best win percentage in tennis, after simply making your first serve. of any play outside of pure first serve results. A well developed game with this tactic can win you 67% of the points, or more than two thirds. My friend Styrling Strother tells me that 30% of the time when someone serves and volleys, the opponent misses the return, and this after digging into over 40,000 data points. You can tell yourself every time it happens, “I didn’t even have to volley to win the point”. The returner may feel tremendous pressure to thread the needle on the return, but only when you come to net. They don’t have a safe shot up the middle, because you took that away from them, so they have less space into which they can hit their shot.

They Miss And Miss

Missed returns account for about half the points you will win with serve and volley! Another big chunk of points you will win will come from successfully volleying the first ball, then the opponent will often miss the next passing shot. This is where the mental emotional aspect of aggressive play enters the equation. Consider that if you hit a winning volley, that is a great feeling, but it won’t happen often. Also, getting passed cleanly without touching the ball will also feel bad, as will when you barely get your racquet on the ball and miss, but that is the thing that statistically happens the least. When the opponent barely misses a passing shot by one inch wide, or at the tape of the net, it’s more likely it will feel like an escape from danger than a victory, except that you won the point. Some coming to the net does not often end with a feeling with elation, unless you can reframe your thinking and see every miss by your opponent for what it is, a point for you, and not for them. Also, you want to focus more on making strong, safe volleys rather than explosive winning ones, because most of the offense comes simply from being closer to the net. I would rather use a drop volley, then a hard hit cross court winner, although those can be nice.

Ugly Points Galore

It’s really not that sexy, but when you start to account for how many forced errors you commit and how many unforced errors they make combined, then you will also start to see that the risks are far greater to your opponent when you pressure time and space. If, however you get hung up on the volleys you miss, or the times you get passed cleanly, then you will not realize the advantage gained. I can relate to that stinging feeling inside when I see a passing shot sail by with no chance for me to get it. When you make a winning volley, that is the most satisfying play, but it’s not really the bread and butter of winning serve and volley points. Placing too much importance on hitting immediate winners, that can be a problem as well, because you will increase the amount of errors you make by being overly aggressive. “I made you miss” is a nice mantra!

Inside Out Approach

The second best tactic for coming to the net is to take a ball in the middle of the court with your forehand as an approach to your opponent’s backhand. Your inside out forehand to the other player’s backhand has been shown to be the #1 most effective approach method, yielding the best winning percentage. When I first heard that I balked, because conventional wisdom has held that down the line approaches are best, but it didn’t take me long change my mind. The downside is that there is a little bit of space left down the line for the passing shot, but the opponent will have to change the direction of the shot, and hit the ball to your forehand volley to make that shot. Forehands travel faster than backhands for most people. So attacking in that direction starts you with an advantage simply in better speeds. The number one thing you should prepare for is that two handed backhands may be better good at directing and disguising the shot. You will need to practice your ability to read and react, specifically on that side. Even so, the speed of shot advantage should be on your side with some notable exceptions. Some players have dramatically better backhands than their forehand.

Forehand Down the Line To Backhand

What was once considered the best way to approach the net is actually the third place option, but still can be quite effective. When you consider that some people believe that coming on on Serve and Volley is NOT the best way. Coming to the net on a down the line approach shot from your forehand to the other player’s backhand is still effective, but it allows the opponent to hit the ball back down the line with minimal direction change, so the old time maxim, “Guard the line first” is still in play for this style of approach. John McEnroe gave credit to Arthur Ashe for coaching him to be ready for the down the line passing shot first, then moving over if it happened to be crosscourt. The fact that the opponent will have to change the direction of the ball to make a cross court passing shot means they will have more errors, lose some ball speed, make the ball travel a further path to pass you, and all of these things are to your advantage, as the challenge of timing the ball is greater for them.

Start Immediately

If you really want to pressure time and space and do it more often, the best way to do that is on second serve return in the deuce court. Recently my friend and NCAA and Hall of Fame coach, Dave Borelli, who won 7 national championships, made a post about how this is one of his favorite plays to teach his teams and these days it is vastly under utilized. Using it on second serve return also places the server under immediate pressure of recovering from their serve, regaining their balance, then suddenly needing to make a passing shot. I’m guessing if they had a choice, they would rather hit almost any other shot after serving second serve than a passing shot. It’s a great way to introduce much more pressure to their service game. At first you will have the element of surprise, and if you do it well, you will have the element of dread on your side.

Mixing It Up A Little

I don’t recommend that you often approach down the line from your backhand side, down the line to the forehand, but it can be a nice surprise move. In the age of poly string, the ability of good players to get good topspin on their forehand and resist an attack from a not so powerful shot can put you at risk. If you came to the net to the forehand no more than 5 times in a match, it can work to keep the opponent off balance enough to make your other approaches more effective. You will be much more effective with this play if you can hit a very good slice approach shot that skids low, and better yet if it has some sidespin to move away from the opponent.


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