June 26, 2017
So I was recently hitting with a local college coach and after our practice, I asked him what his best weapon was against me. What he said next was not expected. In fact, he used the same tactics against me as he he does with his college players to help them become more successful in their matches. Before going into this, we need to dive into a question to ask. What is the average amount of shots that a professional men's or women's match will have in a rally? Meaning, including the serve, how many hits do the pros hit back and forth in a singles match? When I ask this to people, most guess on a low end of 5 or 6 to a high end of 15. The answer is hard to find but the coach told me a bit over 3 for the men's and 4 for the women's matches. I dug a little deeper and found this article that not only gives an average for men's to be 4.64 shots and women's to be 4.85 shots, it also ties into my past article to why Federer won the 2017 Australian Open. So back to the point, which is if pros are hitting 4 to 5 shots per point, why do we practice hitting 20 balls in a row? This definitely can help with working on technique, shot tolerance, depth, footwork, etc but I have found that this type of practice has been detrimental to players' performance on the tennis court. If you struggle with winning matches, keep reading.
We Ignore the Patterns
I've seen so many matches where players will fixate on one specific point to give reason for how the entire match is progressing. A rally of 10 balls turns into a match of attrition when that was the only time the rally lasted that long. Many tennis players focus on the outliers of a match and make that the pattern to fixate on to help their strategy. Instead of thinking about the last shot of rallies, which vary every point, it would be more wise to focus on the first shot you hit in a match, which is predictably the same every time. You are either hitting a serve or a return. I'm sure by now you think that what I'm going to say is to work on your serve and return but there's a better way.
How to Practice For Your Matches
Regardless of doubles or singles, you should be practicing the most important shots in a match, which are the first two hits. As the coach I hit with explained, after that "figure it out." I like to think of it as "enjoy the rally!" It doesn't happen as many times as you think. In fact, the coach has had his players chart matches and see how many times the teammate hits the first two shots in compared to their opponent. About 95% of the time, the player who does this the most wins. That's a pretty strong correlation! So when you are doing this drill, remember to stop the point after 4 hits. If you continue the rally after that, you are taking away the time to focus on hitting more of the important first two balls. If you want to step this drill up for more specific instructions to enhance this drill, keep reading.
More Specific Instructions
For doubles, the first serve should most likely go down the "T" to keep angles away from your opponent on the return. The next shot should be a cross court shot (hopefully a volley) unless it's a weak reply where you go down the line. The returning side will want to hit low cross court returns and focus on hitting the second ball cross court as well unless it's a weak reply in which going down the line may prove effective.
For singles, the best return is in the middle and deep. Because you will most likely be on the defensive on the next shot, hitting the ball cross court will be a goal for you. The serve wants to be aggressive so after the serve they want to hit their best side (forehand or backhand) to the player's weaker side. See diagram below.
How to Track This Type of Practice
With this mindset of being aggressive while serving and defensive while returning, do this drill and stop the point after 4 shots (2 each) are hit. After this has happened 5 times, switch roles of the serve and returner. Remember, this is not a "low speed" drill. As a serve, you need to be playing points to not allow this type of rally to happen. This drill should take awhile if you are hitting hard and aggressively! Keep this up and watch how automated your matches feel the next time you play. Your confidence to win matches will increase substantially!