This is the first of five chapters where we will break down each of the same number of major strategies that exist in tennis.
One of the great things about playing a power game is that there is not a lot of thinking that goes into the execution of it. The power player has a few targets they hit, over and over again. While they don’t always hit the ball as hard as they can, each ball they do hit is struck well for pace. The idea is to force a lot of errors, and also gain the ocassional winner.
You will need a powerful first serve, and strong returns of serve to make this happen. The most effective power players start from the first shot. The tactics are pretty simple, hit the ball hard often, with just enough topspin to keep it in the court. Use the full length of the court cross court while rallying, then attack down the line.
You need a powerful first serve, so that you can get some some weak returns, un-returnable serves and a few aces, in that order of priority. Wishing for your serve not to be returned, does not set you up mentally to be ready to attack the next ball. Always prepare for your shot to come back. When you think of your strong serve as a set up for the next offensive shot, then you are more ready to take advantage, but if you are hoping to end the point with the serve, and you become desparate to try to win the point with the next shot, you can become error prone.
The best approach mentally seems to be one of ‘controlled aggression’, because you always want to be ready to make the next shot to stay on offense. In order to keep your first serve percentage up, you are not going to attempt your fastest serves at all times, slower serves have a larger window of acceptance into the court, so you can make a much higher percentage when you go for 80-90% of full speed, then save a little more as a surprise at a big moment. Adding a bit of intentional spin can really help you keep your percentage up without losing too much speed. Again, there will be those rare days when you can go all out, and the balls are all going in, and it will be tempting to think that it will happen often. Sometimes, your 80-90% speed will not have the effect on your opponent that you wish, so you will first try ramping that up to a higher speed, before deciding if you will need to play a different strategy. This works well until you find that you can’t overpower your opponent, then you will need one of the other four strategies to win.
Mixing It Up
Serve to different places on the court. I have had a few funny matches in my life, where I was playing a guy who had a big enough serve to give me major problems, because return of serve was not often the strongest part of my game, if only they moved their serves around a bit and were a little unpredictable. Instead, they too often served to the same place, with the same speed and spin. I was able to be very defensive on those, and returned more than they expected, because I knew what was coming.
Now turn that around, the value to you is that moving the ball around, adding a little spin, and changing the speeds a bit can keep the opponent off balance, even when you are playing a power game. On the other hand, don’t over think it, you can hit two or three serves the same exact way if the opponent is not hitting strong returns. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut, and broken clocks are right twice a day, so if the opponent makes one or two solid returns, don’t overreact to that. As you go up the levels, it’s more difficult to create a huge advantage over other players, and it’s easy to try to overplay your shots. Once you see at least a third strong return, then you probably want to eliminate that particular serve from your menu. A corner serve that didn’t quite get to the corner, or a body serve that wasn’t quite hit hard enough can put a ball right into the opponent’s forehand wheelhouse.
The Safest Power Serve
Hitting the corner serve allows you to have the furthest distance, the widest angle of acceptance into the service box, so you can hit harder serves there, and you also get your opponent to move over some on the return, so that you have an open court for the next ball. Once you have opened the court, then you follow up with the next shot deep to that side, there is a great chance you can force an error, or occasionally get a winner. Control, Hurt, Finish that I first heard from Nick Bolletieri as a mantra, but you want to be on the ready for whatever comes your way. If that happens to be a very weak reply, you want to be ready to finish the point.
Serve As Set Up Shot
When you shift your mindset and performance to using your serve to create an opening, instead of relying on it for cheap and fast points, you might have a bit fewer one shot rallies, but you might find you are having a higher first serve percentage, and getting more weak returns. If you are going for too much on your first serve and not anywhere close to 60% of first serves in the court, then you will have many more second serve points to defend. There is a trade off in how aggressively you serve. Keep in mind, most things are subtracted from 100%. If you are only getting 40% of your first serves in play, then 60% of your points you will be defending second serves, and winning less than 45% of those points.
Minimize Non-Power Tactics
If you are trying to play a power game, but you are using heavy spin on most of your serves in, then that tactic doesn’t line up with your strategy. To balance this out, a few kick or slice serves sprinkled into a serve game, can make your flat serve look even faster.
The same is true of slice shots or drop shots in a match, too many are not a great idea, but then if a few of them force the other player to come forward a little bit, then they have to respect that and then that helps your power. Djokovic did this against Nadal at the 2021 French Open, sprinkling in 20 drop shots to Nadal’s backhand to keep him honest and not able to back way up as he generally likes to do. This helped Djokovic to be affective in his baseline hugging strategy. Consider that just enough salt or other spices in your food can complement the flavors, but too much can ruin the meal. That is a good analogy to using too many minor strategies to support your major objectives.
Imposing Your Game On The Match
If you find yourself running around the court a lot, more than you want to, then it seems your ‘power game’ is not making a big enough of an impression on your opponent, and they are able to impose their running game on you. If this is true, then you might not be the power player that you think you are, either that or you are playing someone who is a higher level player. As you go up the levels, the standards for what constitutes a power game changes, because better players have better shot tolerance. We will do a deeper dive into shot tolerance in a later chapter for the 201 Course.
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