There are different ways of introducing new players to the basics of tennis strategies. I like the initial approach to strategy through “offense/defense” concept. Even beginners can easily picture one player hitting “big shot” away from the other player, who is chasing the ball just to put the racquet on it. We see a lot of great examples of this watching tennis matches on TV. At the same time is it always so? Haven’t we seen the rallies of multiple shots exchanges? Don’t we love those points ourselves, as players, when we can string a few or many shots back and forth in a row? Isn’t the length of the rally speaks for the higher level of play? And, of course, how about “keeping the ball in play” cliche or fundamental concept depending on how you look at it?
So I ask the students about team sports, such as football, soccer, hockey and basketball: “In sports like basketball or football what determines which team plays offense and which team plays defense most of the time?” The answer usually comes pretty quick: “Ball possession”. In tennis there is no ball possession, though. Therefore, there is the second question: “What most of the time determines which player plays offense and which player plays defense in tennis?” And that question usually helps to initiate players to, at least, start thinking in that direction. Very few times I have heard the answer that I like the most: “The ball itself and specifically the way it comes to the player”. This answer is not quite complete, but I like to start from here, because it keeps it somewhat simple, yet very conceptual and fundamental.
As we progress strategically, and shortly so, I always reveal the existence and benefits of offensive and defensive positions in tennis, since they have a lot to do with attacking and defending. The comfort of setting up for a particular shot has a lot to do with offensive or defensive choice, as well.
But let’s get back to the way the ball lands in the court. I am a big fan of “deep-short ball” concept. And even though different coaches use different approaches, I find it very “visual”. How often players of the earlier mentioned team sports score from their own zone? It happens rarely and in very special occasions when risk is necessary. Most of the time teams try to score from closer to the goal positions. In basketball it means scoring from under the hoop or just few steps away from it, even 3-pointers are shot from roughly 23′ distance. In football it means scoring from the red zone. In soccer it means scoring from within penalty area in front of the goal or from not too far from it.
In tennis offensive point scoring works the same way: it is much easier to score offensively from the positions that are closer to the target. It is the easiest the to hit winners volleying from the net. Next comfortable scoring zone would be “midcourt”, you can hit ground stroke winners from there with minimal risk. Just like 3 pointers in basketball or 20-30 yards field goals in football. Depending on skill level scoring/hitting winners can be done from anywhere on the court, the risk progressively increases the further back you try to do it from. I find it pretty self explanatory.
Based on this “vision” the deeper the ball comes to you, the more defensive situation you are in. Of course, just like in any other sports where scoring is possible from anywhere (even goalies score in soccer and in hockey), in tennis we see players hit winners from anywhere. At the introductory level, players hit unintentional winners all the time, too. Conceptually though, we need to have something simple and reliable. I think this can be a good start for learning strategy: “Defend, when the ball comes deep and attack, when the ball comes short”.
One more reason to start and keep using depth strategically are the tennis court dimensions. It is actually 78’ long, and only 27’ wide for singles, which is almost 3:1 ratio. Earlier I have already mentioned that I see tennis as a game of chasing balls and returning them back with purpose. The word chasing speaks for itself, the word purpose means knowing your offense and defense. Let’s look at where to direct the ball when playing offense and defense.