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Players typically specialize or naturally play in a certain way, based on what they can do best. Based on their style, players generally fit into one of three types: baseliners, volleyers and all-court players. Many players have attributes of all three categories but may focus on one style based on the surface or their opponent. A baseliner plays from the back of the tennis court, around the baseline, preferring to trade groundstrokes rather than to come up to the net (except in certain situations). A volleyer tries to approach the net and hit volleys, putting pressure on the opponent. All-court players fall somewhere in between.
A player's weaknesses may also determine strategy. For example, most players have a stronger forehand, therefore they will favor the forehand even to the point of "running around" a backhand to hit a forehand.
Offensive or aggressive baseliner
An offensive baseliner typically plays near the baseline and tries to dictate points with powerful and varied groundstrokes, and often using fast penetrating balls that the opponent cannot reach or return effectively (winners). At high levels of play, being an offensive baseliner requires consistently hitting deep shots, which land several feet back from the service line. The offensive baseliner may not try to win the point outright with one shot, but instead may hit the ball from side to side until he spots an opening. Offensive baseliners normally have at least one great groundstroke, forehand or backhand. The best offensive baseliners have a powerful and effective serve to go with a great groundstrokes. Usually offensive baseliners (as well as defensive players) have the ability to anticipate the next shot very well and also their opponents' styles and tendencies.
An effective offensive baseliner can overpower many opponents. However, when going for winners, he can also produce many errors since he has to repeatedly and correctly execute some difficult strokes, such as down-the-line winners landing near the corner. Fatigue, loss of focus, mis-hitting the ball, and hesitating are some reasons for errors. Two great old-time players, R. Norris Williams and Ellsworth Vines, were famous for being unbeatable when their strokes were "on". However, they played with such little margin for error in making their strokes that when they were making more mistakes they could be beaten by other players. Another advantage of this strategy is that the player can weaken his opponent's confidence by successfully landing difficult shots which in turn may increase his own confidence.
Hard courts are generally considered to be the best surface for an offensive baseliner who often hit higher risk shots. However, offensive baseliners can often excel on both grass and clay courts as well. On grass, they can execute their "winners" and the fast, low bounce makes it harder for opponents to retrieve; whereas on clay courts, some offensive baseliners might like the slow and high bounce because it gives them a longer time to change their grip and foot-positions in order to set up for an offensive shot or winner. Offensive baseliners with height especially have an advantage on clay courts because the high bounces land in their hitting zones, allowing them to strike the ball cleanly and more powerfully. One great example for this is Maria Sharapova, who is 6'2", and the high bounce of the ball really helps her produce winners and force errors from her opponents. She had the hardest hit backhand at the 2013 French Open from the women's side, when she punished a first serve from Jelena Jankovic, producing a backhand return winner.
Rafael Nadal is accomplished at an Offensive Baseline playstyle, using a variety of high-spin shots and powerful flat strokes to dominate play, most notably on clay, which he is known to be very good at (though he usually prefers to play a defensive baseline style). Novak Djokovic, though known to be an all-rounder, is also a notable Aggressive Baseliner, with his powerful and precise backhand which is widely regarded as the best backhand of any active player.
A defensive baseliner, or counter-puncher or retriever, tries to return every ball and relies on the opponent making mistakes. He/she has consistent shots, makes few errors of his own while making it difficult for opponents to hit winners. The game of the defensive counter-puncher has more to do with physical endurance and determination to retrieve balls as well as mental determination to keep from getting bored or trying for too much. They tend to make relatively few errors because they don't attempt the complicated and ambitious shots of the aggressive baseliner, but the effective counterpuncher must be able to periodically execute an aggressive shot. Speed and agility are key for the counterpuncher, as well as a willingness to patiently chase down every ball to frustrate opponents. Returning every aggressive shot that the opponent provides is often the cause of further errors due to the effort required in trying increasingly harder and better shots. However, it is noted that for some faster players, including Gaël Monfils and Andy Murray, standing too deep behind the court can hinder their attacking abilities.
At lower levels, the defensive counter-puncher often frustrates their opponent so much that they may try to change their style of play due to ineffective baseline results. At higher levels, the all-court player or aggressive baseliner is usually able to execute winners with higher velocity and better placement, taking the counterpuncher out of the point as early as possible.
Counter-punchers often excel on slow courts, such as clay. The court gives them extra time to chase down shots and it is harder for opponents to create winners. Counter-punchers are often particularly strong players at low-level play, where opponents cannot make winners with regularity.
A serve and volleyer has a great net game, is quick around the net, and has fine touch for volleys. Serve and volleyers come up to the net at every opportunity when serving. They are almost always attackers and can hit many winners with varieties of volleys and drop volleys. When not serving, they often employ the "chip-and-charge", chipping back the serve without attempting to hit a winner and rushing the net. The serve-and-volleyers' strategy is to put pressure on the opponent to try to hit difficult passing shots. This strategy is extremely effective against pushers.
Serve-and-volleyers benefit from playing on fast courts, such as grass or fast concrete. The quick bounce and faster pace of play give them an advantage because opponents have less time to set up for a passing shot. However, the number of serve-and-volley players is decreasing in today's professional tennis, because this strategy requires more experience to master and defeat other playing styles (as well as changes in racquet technology that have improved players' passing shots). In addition to this, there has been a trend toward the slowing down of tennis surfaces over the past few years. The serve-and-volley technique works better on faster surfaces because the volleyer is able to put more balls away without the baseliner being able to chase them down. Although serve and volleyers may be a dying breed, there are still some great players who employ this tactic. The Frenchman Michaël Llodra has been considered by many to be the best pure serve and volleyer of today's game.
Bill Tilden, the dominant player of the 1920s, preferred to play from the back of the court, and liked nothing better than to face an opponent who rushed the net — one way or another Tilden would find a way to hit the ball past him. In his book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, Tilden propounds the theory that by definition a great baseline player will always beat a great serve-and-volleyer. Some of the best matches of all time have pitted great baseliners such as Björn Borg, Mats Wilander or Andre Agassi against great serve-and-volleyers such as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg or Pete Sampras.
Some players, such as Tommy Haas, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick will only employ this strategy on grass courts or as a surprise tactic on any surface. Roger Federer uses this commonly against Rafael Nadal, to break up long rallies and physically taxing games.
All-court players have aspects of every tennis style, whether that be offensive baseliner, defensive counter-puncher or serve-and-volleyer. All-court players use the best bits from each style and mix it together to create a truly formidable tennis style to play against. In game situations, they have the ability to select an action usually executed by one tennis style. They usually have an attacking game, mixing some groundstrokes and volleys to keep the opponent guessing. Most all-court players won't rush the net immediately after a serve like a typical serve and volley player would. However, their game often revolves around "constructing" a point to where they will be able to approach the net and put away an easy volley or pulling their opponent into the net and hitting a passing shot.
They are very versatile; when an all-court player's baseline game is not working, he/she may switch to a net game, and vice versa. All-court players have the ability to adjust to different opponents that play different styles easier than pure baseliners or serve and volleyers. All-court players typically have the speed, determination and fitness of a defensive counter-puncher, the confidence, skill and flair of offensive baseliners and have the touch, the agility around the net and tactical thinking of the serve-and-volleyer.
However, just because the all-court player has a combination of skills used by all tennis styles does not necessarily mean that they could beat an offensive baseliner or a defensive counter-puncher or even a serve-and-volleyer. It just means it would be more difficult to read the game of an all-court player.
Holding serve is crucial in tennis. To hold serve, serves must be accurately placed, and a high priority should be placed on first serve percentage. The first ball after the serve is also key. Players should serve in order to get a weak reply and keep the opponent on the defense with that first shot. For example, following a wide serve, it is ideal to hit the opponent's reply to the open court.
Though strategy is important in singles, it is even more important in doubles. The additional width of the alleys on the doubles court has a great effect on the angles possible in doubles play. Consequently, doubles is known as a game of angles.
There are three basic doubles strategies:
- both-up strategy (also called "two-up" strategy)
- up-and-back strategy (also called "one-up/one-back" or "I" strategy)
- both-back strategy (also called "two-back" strategy)
The ideal is both-up strategy, often called "Attacking Doubles" because the net is the "high ground", and both-up strategy puts both players close to it, in a position to score because of their excellent vantage points and angles. A team in the both-up formation, however, is vulnerable to a good lob from either opponent at any time. So, to be successful with Attacking Doubles, they must have effective serves and penetrating volleys to prevent good lobs and good overhead shots to kill poor ones.
Teams that play attacking doubles try to get into the both-up formation on every point. When serving, their server follows most first serves to the net and some second serves. So, attacking doubles is also called serve-and-volley doubles. When receiving, their receiver follows most second-service returns to the net.
At the touring professional level, attacking doubles is the strategy of choice.
At lower levels of the game, not all players have penetrating volleys and strong overhead shots. So, many use up-and-back strategy. The weakness in this formation is the large angular gap it creates between partners, a gap that an opposing net player can easily hit a clean winner through.
Nonetheless, up-and-back strategy is versatile, with both offense and defense in it. In fact, since the server must begin each point at the baseline and the receiver must be far enough back to return the serve, virtually every point in doubles begins with both teams in this formation.
Teams without net games strong enough to play Attacking Doubles can play both-up when they have their opponents on the defensive. So, they patiently play up-and-back for a chance to hit a forcing shot and bring their baseliner to the net.
Australian Doubles and the I-Formation are variations of up-and-back strategy. In Australian doubles, the server's partner at net lines up on the same side of the court, fronting the opposing net player, who serves as a poaching block and blind. The receiver then must return serve down the line and is liable to have that return poached. In the I-Formation, the server's net partner lines up in the center, between the server and receiver so he or she can poach in either direction. Both Australian Doubles and the I-Formation are poaching formations that can also be used to start the point for serve-and-volley doubles.
Both-back strategy is strictly defensive. It is normally seen only when the opposing team is both-up or when the returner is passing the net player on the return. This might be a good tactic when the opponent has a serve with a lot of pressure and an aggressive player at the net. From here the defenders can return the most forcing shots till they get a chance to hit a good lob or an offensive shot. If their opponents at net become impatient and try to angle the ball away when a baseliner can reach it, the defender can turn the tables and score outright. However this strategy leaves the volley court open to drop shots from the opposition.
- Newberry, Piers (7 June 2009). "Federer the greatest ever - Lloyd". BBC Sport. Retrieved 3 June 2011.
- Sampras, Pete (5 July 2009). "Sport Roger Federer 'Roger Federer is the greatest' says Pete Sampras after record broken". Sport Roger Federer 'Roger Federer is the greatest' says Pete Sampras after record broken (London: Guardian UK). Retrieved 3 June 2011.
- Barnes, Simon (8 June 2009). "Roger Federer, greatest of all time, ensures statistics back up unrivalled artistry". Roger Federer, greatest of all time, ensures statistics back up unrivalled artistry (London: The Times). Retrieved 3 June 2011.
- "Is Roger Federer the greatest?". BBC Sport. 5 July 2009. Retrieved 3 June 2011.
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