Bring em’ In

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.

23 Comments

  • Chavdar Draganinski

    Reply Reply July 22, 2011

    Hi Jim,

    This is exactly what I wrote to you to ask about earlier today, haven’t read this article.

    So, the low, skidding, under-spinning ball might be the winner. Agreed.

    But how on earth you counter attack such a ball – with the same medicine?

    Thank you!

    Best,

    Chavdar

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply July 22, 2011

      Chavdar – if the ball comes in skidding you must play with some defense, either using more spin or less pace. But equally if they can make 8 low skidders to you, the counter is to create 12 low skidders on other points to them
      Jim

  • DAVID.BAKER

    Reply Reply June 15, 2011

    WHY ARE SO MANEY COACHES ONE DIMENSIONAL.LETS HAVE TENNIS PLAYERS NOT CLONES

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply June 15, 2011

      David – not sure of an answer, but somehow it gives the contrarians an advantage – McEnroe, Santoro and Dolgopolov
      Jim

  • Sid Kurkure

    Reply Reply June 3, 2011

    Some guys can really put away a two-handed approach shot. Example Agassi.
    Though I have to admit, a really short ball on clay will force somebody to make a huge slide and probably force an error.
    Scenario 4: 1990 US Open Championship Point: Agassi kicks a first serve out wide to the backhand. Sampras puts up a short backhand. Agassi messes up an inside-out down the line forehand and Sampras is the youngest man to win the US Open.

  • Tom

    Reply Reply December 17, 2010

    Another great post. I played the game in high school and college over thirty years ago. When my boys wanted to learn the game five years ago, I started playing again. I thought I had made a mistake teaching them my style of game, but my youngest has all the big-hitting strokes of his peers along with the original backhand slice across court and up the line that I tried to teach him. He’s deadly against many of the big hitters in his matches. Although my income does not allow a lot of tournament time, he still wrecks havoc on the seedings when he gets the chance to play, and it’s mainly because he can pull out the slices (on both sides) and draw the big hitters in to the net or into poor shot decisions. He and I will be reading this article together soon.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply December 18, 2010

      Tom – thanks for the note, would enjoy watching this – have you ever filmed and uploaded to Youtube – even privately – and does he use this to chip and charge?
      best
      Jim

      • Tom

        Reply Reply December 18, 2010

        He’s still prone to hitting a hard shot on approach (his two-handed backhand is superb), but he’s beginning to see the value in the slice. He actually loves his forehand slice and whips a biting inside-out with sidespin too–off a short middle-of-the court shot from his opponents. It takes them way off the court and leaves him in position for a putaway volley. That’s something I don’t see anyone else doing. I don’t even know if it’s recommended. He uses a semi western grip, and holds the two hander in a way that benefits easy movement to the one handed slice. We just taught him both ways to hit it from the beginning. He even hits a great one-handed topspin when just hitting around. I’ve never videoed him at all. Looks like I should buy a cam corder and start doing that, huh? Thanks for all the input.

      • Tom

        Reply Reply December 18, 2010

        I should also say that, in addition to hitting with me for four years, he had excellent foundation instilled from a coach who lived about 60 miles away. The coach taught him a lot of modern-game strokes with emphasis on grip choice(s) that would allow him to make use of other shots in an all court game. I hear that it’s the coaching style of the near future, and I feel like he’s awfully lucky to have had that input during his foundational years.

  • Zed

    Reply Reply November 30, 2010

    Great article Jim. I play a left handed player who has a short low skidding backhand slice. It drives me nuts! How do you counter it?

  • Ron Sorvino

    Reply Reply November 24, 2010

    Roddick is a great player who can’t put away the big matches. With his serve why hasn’t Stefanki or others instilled in him a serve and volley option?

    • Jim

      Reply Reply November 24, 2010

      Ron – I am not sure, Larry has been upbeat and circumspect in his interviews on the subject – at this point I am not sure if it is the sender(s) or the receiver (Andy)
      I do wish he would clean up much of his game and take his spot at the top of the heap
      best
      Jim

  • Peter Dollinger

    Reply Reply November 24, 2010

    Great article. I liked the examples you used.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply November 24, 2010

      Peter – thanks, and let me continue tinkering with your under spin backhand
      best
      Jim

  • aF.

    Reply Reply November 23, 2010

    It is a very effective tactic, however, it almost certainly backfires if it floats. One way I find works almost every time is to give it a as much side spin as you can coupled with your underspin. Not only it keeps the ball from floating, it also complicates even more the return. Nadal does it all the time.

  • Tom Avery

    Reply Reply November 23, 2010

    Totally agree with the above comment. Many players today can go side to side from the baseline all day. Give them a short low skidding slice and it’s something they feel very uncomfortable with. The key is you have to execute because when you hit the slice, if it floats, your opponent has an easy time going on the offense. Thanks, I look forward to more ideas like this.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply November 23, 2010

      Tom – thanks for the note, I am working on something that highlights how to keep this ball short and low
      best
      Jim

      • Kevin Bryant

        Reply Reply November 23, 2010

        It will be interesting to see if what you’re working on incorporates any of the type of knowledge that is available via experimentation with Tennis Warehouse’s Talk Tennis’s “Tennis University”, especially “Shotmaker” at http://twu.tennis-warehouse.com/cgi-bin/trajectory_maker.cgi Experimenting with the inputs for face angle, swing path, and racket head speed have allowed me to learn to do some very interesting things with underspin. . .

        • Jim

          Reply Reply November 23, 2010

          Kevin – yes sidespin adds another dimension to this shot
          Keep it low and win the dough (as some have said)
          best
          Jim

          • Jim

            November 23, 2010

            Kevin – thanks for the lead, I will check out the University – we have been working on a similar topic
            best
            Jim

    • Jim

      Reply Reply November 30, 2010

      Tom – thanks for the note, lets keep in touch, if you are ever in the Bay Area it would be fun to compare notes
      Jim

  • Jerome Inen

    Reply Reply November 23, 2010

    Good post. The same applies for high bouncers through the middle, followed by a topspin shot sideways to the servicebox or a little beyond.

    I have not played girls that were on the WTA tour, but I have played a lot of women who were much higher in their rating. I still could easily beat them because they could hit a ton from the backcourt – but moving forward and sideways, no way.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply November 30, 2010

      Jerome thanks for the note – and yes players who patrol the baseline are often uncomfortable out of their “zone”
      Jim

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