Two cardinal rules of the game – keep the ball in play, and always be ready for the opponent’s reply. This really is not an oversimplification. Points are decided more often from errors than winners (unless you are one of Nike’s marquee men’s players) and observance of these two rules really does clean up one’s game. But perhaps there is a third rule which might be stated as – “whenever possible exploit the opponent’s weakness(es)”
As our game evolves into massive backcourt forehand topspin, the approach and volley game has become woefully under developed. Two summers’ ago, one of our staff pro’s warmed up a Top 10 woman at the Stanford WTA tournament. He reported that she was deadly from the backcourt, but extremely uncomfortable when she moved forward to handle low skidding balls. And on that score I noticed that in many instances those same women practiced on the baseline for an entire workout, even letting short balls bounce twice in order to continue to groove their topspin baseline located groundies.
So the following three incidents (hopefully more than just a coincidence) highlight a pattern of play that you can use. It will take time and practice to master but I guarantee this works.
ATP tournament, semifinals, Roddick serving at match point down in the second set, and Federer to this point totally having his way with poor Andy. Second serve to the backhand, brief rally, Fed undercuts his backhand short and low and slightly cross court, Andy reluctantly moves forward, over hits a forehand approach which denies him good volleying position, and Fed passes him with the simplest forehand crosscourt. Roddick didn’t want to come forward, nor does he truly volley with what might be considered McEnroe like confidence, he made no movement to the passing shot – and the match was over in an instant.
2010 Wimbledon finals, championship point – Nadal plays the ball short and low with an under spin backhand, Berdych a big hitting baseliner with some fluency at the net (but truly not much) comes forward with a two handed crosscourt topspin approach (oddly hit to Rafa’s forehand???), and Nadal counters easily with an untouched forehand crosscourt pass. Berdych doesn’t even move to cover the ball.
2008 US Open finals, championship point – Djokovic serves out wide to Federer’s backhand, Roger slices the ball short and crosscourt with a low skidding bounce – Djokovic moves forward runs around the ball and barely controls a forehand winner. Point saved. Fed wins the deuce point and Djok faces a second championship point, Fed repeats the identical play, this time Djok hesitates, doesn’t run around the ball, now faced with a decision to either play a two handed topspin approach or a one handed backhand (and these are terrible choices for a backcourt player) he elects a delicate cross backhand drop shot, and fails miserably – he simply did not have that shot – and again the match was over in an instant
In each and every case, playing the ball short and low with under spin caused the opponent to move into unfamiliar territory. Key word “caused.’
To put this into your game you will need two specific skills. First and foremost you must use an under spin backhand that bounces short and skids low. Not a pop up, not a floater, but something that barely clears the net and stays low after the bounce. Whenever possible play this shot crosscourt to invite the opponent to move forward on their two handed backhand side (might be why Fed and Sampras and Edberg and Cash …. all hit the one handed backhand??). Sometimes this shot won’t work. Sometimes the opponent will play a neat and effective approach if not a winner. But more often than not the opponent will move forward with reluctance, and now your second skill comes to bear. This concerns your facility to calmly select the best options to counter your opponent when they arrive at the net. Lob, pass to the open court, and or make them volley. Your choice depends on their positioning and more.
I will develop this theme in much more depth within the December ETI Network issue. Stay tuned.
In the meantime be sure to leave a comment and let me know how you play this short game.