I remember hearing from a friend of mine who read an interesting comment from Andy Murray. While Andy's passion for boxing is noted in some of his interviews, the comment I wanted to focus on relates well to tennis. He mentions that for entertainment value, he would rather see the lower level fights in boxing rather than the watching the best fighters. At first, this doesn't sound right. Who would want to choose watching mediocre fighters over the best in the world? Andy added to this by explaining that fighters in the lower tiers have little defensive skills, which keeps them from getting to the top. With little defense, there is a lot of entertainment to watch as a lot of punches connect. Similar to the Rocky movies of the past, boxers that lack the defensive skills get hit a lot more than those who are the best in the world.
This can be similar to what we see in tennis. Everyone loves to hit the winners that draw the applause of the viewers (and yourself most likely) but few take pleasure in the art of retrieving those tough shots to make their opponent hit yet another one. This pride in defense is more often seen as you go up in level. Players learn very quickly that the ability to play good defense is just as important as playing offense. The next time you watch your favorite tennis player, notice how many times he or she plays defense. You will be surprised that any professional player plays a significant time trying to neutralize the rally that has favored their opponent.
How To Practice Defense
It is easier to get a feel for defense when you isolate it in practices instead of figuring it out during matches. There are a number of ways of implementing this type of practice. Here are a few drills to try:
Feed the ball short to your opponent and they come in on the short ball as an approach shot. Make it easier for you by having your opponent hit the ball down the line on the approach shot. To challenge yourself, allow them to hit anywhere. This will allow you to start watching their body language that might give away where they are hitting the approach shot. Many of the pros who are great on defense can anticipate well where their opponent will be hitting.
Do the same type of drill as mentioned above but your opponent cannot come in right away. They have to hit the short ball and try to keep you on the defense from the baseline. The opponent can come in after they hit two shots if they want. In other words, they have to earn the short ball instead of just getting one to come to the net on.
Play baseline points where you can't win a point on a winner, only your opponent can. This will get you to start hitting the ball with more margin and trying to press your opponent into hitting high risk shots. You will also get a feel for the movement and mentality needed to be a great defender.
Try only slicing your shots as this will not allow you to penetrate the court and make it easier for your opponent to dictate the point. This can help you become a better mover but also know how to use slice effectively in your matches.
What To Do In Matches
Once you start understanding defensive playing, try to incorporate it in your matches. The key is to be proactive in your approach to being defensive. This means that you should be anticipating when your opponent is on the offensive. When you notice this, back up and get wider. If you can, try to take a split step that is bigger than usual so you can react to the ball quickly. Once you start anticipating, then it will be all about shot selection. You will have to learn that hitting balls with high margin (cross court, looping, sometimes lobbing) is the best way to stay in the point. Trying to hit your way out of the defensive position is a recipe for disaster!
With great defense comes great movement. There will be an upcoming blog that talks about the fitness aspects of tennis to get you in great shape to be a better mover on the court. Be on the lookout!
Here is part II of the serving videos I've made...enjoy!