Saturday, September 11, 2010

The 90% Zone

Unforced errors are arguably your worst enemy when trying to play winning tennis. Putting the ball in the net doesn't even give the other guy a chance to make his own mistake. Making an error saps your confidence and removes pressure from your opponent. Why give him a mental advantage? Imagine if you made no errors, and your opponent had to hit a winner for each point he won. That would be impressive even if you lost. Well, it's within your control if you understand what you can and can't do consistently and have the discipline to make the right shot selections.

Nobody's perfect, and trying to make absolutely no errors might lead too far down the path of timidity. So, what if you targetted being 90% error free. We'll call that being in "The 90% Zone." That means for every ten shots you try, only one is not in play (in the net, long, wide, etc.) Arthur Ashe used to say that you should expect to hit at least six balls to win the point. So, what happens if two players are in the 90% zone. If neither hits a winner, that means that after one shot there is a 90% chance the ball will be in play, after two shots 81%, after three 73%, four 66%, five 59%, six 53%, seven 48%, etc. This shows that Ashe's rule of thumb is generally in line with the 90% zone. In fact, if one player expects to hit six shots, then that would mean a 12 shot rally which only has a likliehood of 28%. So, it's arguable that at the professional level, the percentage should be even higher - like maybe 95%. But, let's start with a reasonable goal at 90%. After all, wouldn't we feel like we're playing good tennis if half of our points lasted at least seven shots.

Achieving 90% Zen

So, how do we achieve the 90% zone? The first step is to expect it. You should be disappointed when you miss a shot and thinking about why you missed it. For every missed shot, you should review your footwork and your stroke. You should also consider the type of ball your opponent gave you; For example if you tried to rip a backhand passing shot cross court off of a deep approach shot and missed horribly, that should tell you to try a different shot next time. Deep approach shots put you on the defensive and you should be thinking lob. On the other hand, maybe your opponent gave you a sitter in the middle of the court, and you went for a winner but put it in the net. Commonly, this is caused by not moving your feet enough to get in the right position. So, concentrate on getting to the right spot AND give yourself more margin next time.

It's also important to know what shots you can make 90% of the time. You should know this going into your match and adjust based on how you are playing during the match. A lot will depend on the type of ball your opponent is giving you, so you have to be tracking how well each of your shots is working that day and make adjustments. For instance, if you know you are about 30% on down-the-line, flat backhands, you shouldn't even try it in the match - not even once. If you want to try to hit that in a match, spend some time during practice learning to hit it. Otherwise, use another option like a slice backhand down the line.

Here's Bollettieri's Thoughts on Knowing Your Game:
Becoming Aware of Yourself

Making Adjustments

Here's a table of adjustments to make to your shot selections based upon a typical 4.0 to 4.5 player.

 Shot 1st change 2nd change 3rd change 4th change
forehandmore topspinmore arcmore marginmore relaxed
backhandslicelobmore marginmore relaxed
approachslicedown the linemore marginmore relaxed
volleyslet ball come to racquetsmall tapangle off high balls
overheadsstay aggressive with power and placementuse straight arm if stretched or moving forward

more topspin: hit the ball with more topspin
more arc: aim for a higher spot over the net (e.g. 3 feet)
more margin: aim for a spot further inside the lines
more relaxed: take some pace off by relaxing your entire stroke
slice: hit a slice shot instead of coming over it
lob: hit a lob that is either very high or will land deep
small tap: just barely tap the volley, using placement instead of power

You should make adjustments quickly. So, for instance, if you miss a shot badly the first time, immediately make the first change. If you miss a shot twice in a row, definitely make the first change. Stick with your adjustments until you've hit nine in a row successfully. Then consider whether you want to change back. For instance, if you have switched to your slice backhand, and you're having success, stick with it. However, if you're opponent is teeing off on the nine shots you've hit, you need to change it up in some way such as: switching back to a topspin backhand, going for more depth, switching to a lob, aiming for a different target, etc. But don't panic; if you're putting 90% of your shots in play, congratulations - you're playing real tennis!

Going For More

Once you've established consistent play in your match, there may be times when you want to go the other direction and see if you can get a rythym for your more aggressive shots. The key is to look for strategic opportunities. One of the best times to play a more aggressive point is when you are down 0-40. If you are down 0-40, you've really got nothing to lose. If you're serving, go for a big serve (maybe an ace). If you're returning, take a good cut at the ball with the aim of putting your opponent off balance. The key is to practice hitting the shot in the match. You may find that those shots go in. That doesn't mean that you should try for that much every time, but now you know whether you should try those shots on a big point like say 30-30 or break point. Another good time is when you are up 40-0, but be careful that you don't play a loose point - play aggressive and focus on taking the point from your opponent.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Magic Number

Often times, as a competitive tennis player, you'll ask yourself, "How much time should I be practicing and playing to put me at the top of my game and to improve?" The obvious answer "As much as you can without injuring yourself." For example, in Brad Gilbert's book "Winning Ugly", he explains that when he was a kid, he figured out that he should play 40 matches before a tournament. If you generously figure 30 days between tournaments, that's over 1 match per day. And that doesn't count his practice time. That's a lot of tennis, but Brad was driven to win - obsessed with tennis and its competition. In another example, Blake Strode - a pro Futures player from St. Louis - explained that he spends about 4 hours per day on the court practicing and then more time off the court on his strength and conditioning. Blake has qualified for the U.S. Open qualifying tournament this year, played for the University of Arkansas, and has been accepted to Harvard Law School. Blake is obviously also a very disciplined and driven individual. When asked what motivates him to practice so hard, Blake explained that he just loves tennis and being out on the court.

As I said before, playing and practicing as much as is physically possible is an obvious answer. But look at the payoff. You get to do something you love and you can get much of your college education paid for. And, if you are especially committed and talented, your tennis skills may allow you to play on the pro tour and see the world. But, I will reiterate, as a young player, if you really commit to tennis, regardless of your athletic ability, at a minimum you will be able to play tennis on scholarship at some college or university.

But what about for older players who want to be competitive in league or ladder play? There is a magic number that was told to me my old mixed doubles team captain Jeff Bohm - one of the smartest people and tennis players I've met. It's 2.5. Jeff explained to me that to be competitive in our league, I needed to play a match 2 to 3 times per week. So, to be clear that's playing a full match where both you and your opponent(s) care about the outcome two to three times per week. And, the more at stake in the match the better. For instance a "fun" match between you and a buddy is good competition; you can increase the value by upping the stakes and putting a coke on the line. Ladder, league, and tournament matches all provide added pressure and give you even more experience to draw upon later. The more pressure involved in a match, the more valuable it will be to you as a competitive player.

Let's not get away from the magic number, though - 2.5. If you want to make sure that your game is at a reasonable level, that you can hit your first serve hard, that you can rely on your second serve, that you can execute touch shots and lobs, that you can hit consistent returns, that you can hit overheads and volleys consistently, etc., average 2.5 full matches per week. Over time I have found it to be very true for myself and for players that I've observed. 2.5 may not seem like a lot, but if a match and it's preparation (driving time etc.) is 3 hours, that's 7.5 hours per week which can be a lot for someone with a job, family, etc. So, you have to make time for it and plan accordingly. Also, it takes time finding good opponents and scheduling them. 2.5 matches a week is a good commitment.

Now, as to the magic. As I mentioned before, I have a lot of empirical evidence that tells me that 2.5 gets your game to a consistent level. I believe it works because it doesn't allow for your brain and your muscles to forget how to hit shots. Playing that often means you won't go more than 3 days in between matches. This allows you to remember how to hit your shots without having to overthink it. Does this mean you shouldn't be thinking during your matches? Of course not! You should think about whether you want to hit a hard pass or a lob, but when you go to hit either, the shot should be there if you're adhering to the magic number. If the shot is not there, then you don't have that shot and shouldn't be trying to use it.

I have also found that my game will improve playing 2.5 times per week. I will get better and better. A shot that I couldn't rely on 3 weeks ago, might become something that I can add to my arsenal. But, an even faster way to add and shots and improve footwork is to drill. The magic number relies on match experience to get you practice, but that can be random. For instance, you may play a guy that never makes you hit a passing shot or a backhand return. If you play opponents like that for an entire week, now you're going to forget how to hit those shots. Or you may find that certain players have just enough pace on their serve that you can't attack it and you just can't seem to get ahead of the ball. Drilling specific shots and footwork scenarios helps you supplement your match play to make sure you don't forget how to hit shots and learn how to hit new ones.

So, to summarize, the minimum commitment to be a good competitive player at your level is:

  • Play an average of 2.5 matches per week.

  • Play a variety of players in these matches.

  • Make the matches as competitive (pressure packed) as possible.

  • Add drilling to take your game even further.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Drills I Like

(in work)

Run Around Forehand Drill (Nick Bollettieri)
forehand drill (
This teaches a player to move his feet to hit a forehand.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Technique For Hitting Backhand Slice

As discussed in another post, the slice or "scapel" or "chisel" shot is important to have your arsenal for many reasons. First, it is more accurate. Second, it extends your reach when pulled wide. Third, it naturally brings up lower balls much more safely than topspin shots. These physical differences allow you to use it effectively for returning big serves, hitting approach shots, hitting running shots, handling low shots, and as a dependable rally shot that you can use to control points.

This article is devoted to the technique of hitting the slice backhand.

(in work)...

4 min video on how to hit slice backhand - Mario Llano - ("safe" motion)

3 min video on how to hit slice backhand -

Penetrating Slice Backhand

Nice slow mo of slice backhand

Difference between Federer Slice and "He's Safe" Slice

High Backhand Scapel - Federer

Stretch Backhand Scapel - Federer

Backhand Slice Pass - Federer

9 minute analysis of Federer, Haas, Youzny slice backhand
1. Starting position (racquet behind head, 90 degree bend in arm)
2. Contact point with ball closer to body than for topspin shot

Slow mo of Roddick slice backhand

Using slice to control the point

Slow mo of Henin's slice backhand

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Scalpel and the Club

Have you ever noticed that really good players (5.0+) always have a forehand and backhand slice that they can use for returns, approaches, and touch shots? Sometimes it will even be confusing. You'll be watching an awesome player pound the ball around the court with powerful, heavy topspin shots and then all of a sudden, even though they've got plenty of time to load up and hit a big topspin forehand, they'll switch to an Eastern grip (like a volley) on their forehand and float a ball deep down the line. Why would they do that!

The answer: Control. Think of your topspin forehand (or backhand) as a club and your slice forehand as a scalpel. You beat your opponent up and knock him off balance with the club, but when you go in for the kill you use the scalpel. Control is sacrificed when you hit your topspin forehand because 1) you are swinging hard to generate pace and spin and 2) your swing is a lot longer and more complicated. To the contrary, your slice shot allows a lot of control because 1) there is a short backswing and you can push your shot toward the target and 2) you don't have to swing nearly as hard to get the same depth of shot.

So, when you are in need of accuracy, switch to your scalpel. Think about all of the times you've been in position to put the point away because your opponent was off the court, and all you had to do was put the ball onto the other side of the court. Because it was such a wide-open shot you took some pace off of your forehand topspin shot and missed!!! Maybe it went in the net, or didn't have enough angle, but you missed the opportunity to put away the point. And it was because your topspin club shot was not designed to be slowed down and used to pin-point placement. A better option would have been to hit your topspin shot with the same pace and margin of error as usual, but an even better option would have been to switch to your scalpel and win the point with precision.

You may worry about losing pace and argue, "If I slice a shot to put away a groundstroke rally, I may be giving my opponent enough time to catch it." A lack of pace does help your opponent in general, but the slice on the ball keeps it from bouncing high which gives your opponent less time to catch the ball. Furthermore, with improved accuracy you can go for an even more extreme angle. Of course, no one expects to put away a point from the baseline with a slice shot, and that is not what is being asserted here. But for shots inside the court where your opponent is way wide, the slice shot groundstroke is the right answer because of its ability to find angles safely.

A lack of pace is actually a virtue of the slice groundstroke when used to approach the net because it gives you more time to get to the right position. If you approach the net with your club (topspin shot) several bad things happen 1) the ball bounces higher giving your opponent more time and ability to hit an aggressive passing shot 2) the ball gets there quickly meaning you may not be covering the easy passing angle and 3) you have a higher chance of missing the shot completely (in the net or long) or positioning it poorly enough to give your opponent a chance to hit an easy pass. Use your scalpel on approaches. Be deliberate and guide the ball down the line and deep. Because you are taking your time and using your slice shot, you can aim for a precise location safely.

Another reason to use your slice groundstroke when approaching the net is that often the ball is low to the ground when you hit it. You have to hit a low ball to approach often because your opponent's shot is so short and weak that by the time you get to it, it's nearly on the ground. A topspin shot is difficult to hit off a low ball; it's just not suited for that because there is no clearance to brush from low to high up the back of the ball. It's so low percentage that you shouldn't ever try to hit it when you're close to the net (unless in a desperate spot). Whenever you have to hit a short, low ball, you should always be thinking scalpel.

"But, I'm not accurate with my scalpel," you may cry. You might understand the logic of why the slice groundstroke is the best shot to hit in many situations, but when you try to hit it, you miss, especially on your forehand side. But, that's because, like any other shot you have to PRACTICE hitting it. Think about how much time you spend during practice clubbing the ball around. Practice using your scalpel when the ball is low, when you are stretched wide, when you are approaching the net, and when you have an easy put away shot. Those are situations in a match when you should be using it anyway. Then throw in some repetitions using your slice from the baseline and for returns of serve. If you can practice using the scalpel half as much as you practice using the club, you'll find that you can pull it out of your bag of tools when you need it.