THE GEOMETRY OF TENNIS - Part 2
Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston
University and each month he will give us a new tennis
Last month, as you may recall, we began discussing
the geometry of tennis. By the laws of this land, it
is necessary for me to administer a...
POP QUIZ: What is the center of the court?
If you answered the T, give yourself an
A. Otherwise, you need to go back and read
last month's tip.
Okay, if we're ready to proceed, we can move on to...
Geometrical Defensive Tennis
The first thing I need to point out here is that nearly
every shot in tennis is defensive. I do not necessarily
mean that you have been pulled wide or way out of position
or wrong-footed. I also don't mean that your opponent
has hit a very aggressive shot. In this case, it simply
means that you are not in an aggressive position yourself.
Most points in tennis are two players trading shots,
looking for their opportunities. Good players will begin
to create opportunities, but even the top pros will
make sure to play it somewhat safe. Basically, most
of your shots won't be attempts at winners. Those shots
happen generally once a point, at most. Always remember,
the vast majority of points are lost, not won.
Okay, so where is The Bird going with this? As usual,
no one knows... just come along for the ride.
Some More Geometry
Last time we talked about the idea that, in a baseline-to-baseline
exchange, when your opponent is hitting a (right-handed)
forehand that your proper positioning is to stand slightly
to your forehand side of the center mark. This bisects
the angle of your opponent's possible shots and gives
you the best chance of getting to his next shot.
But let's turn things around. Now you are the one hitting
the shot. Where do you hit it? Do you go down the line?
Crosscourt? Drop shot? Well, to be sure, this article
isn't even going to begin to get in to all the possible
tactics that you can employ. Obviously, if you know
your opponent and his or her weaknesses, you may wish
to exploit those. But most competitive matches any one
of us will play will frequently be against someone we've
never looked across the net at before. There will be
a period of at least several games where we will be
figuring our opponent out. And even after such time
as we have learned what makes them tick, we will still
want to lean on the tactics discussed herein.
So, let's get back to the situation. You are hitting
a forehand. You are considering where to place this
shot and you don't yet have a good idea of what alternative
tactics to employ. Where do you hit?
First, let's get a good working definition of being
on the defense. As mentioned, you are on the defense
pretty much all of the time. The only time you are not
on defense is when you are on offense, which is easier
to define. If you are hitting an aggressive shot that
is designed to force your opponent into an error, or
perhaps win the point outright, then you are on offense.
Generally, this happens when your opponent's shot is
shallow (inside the service boxes) and you are able
to move forward into your own shot.
So, it stands to reason that what remains defines your
defensive position. Basically, if your opponent hits
a shot that doesn't allow you to get aggressive, then
you are on defense. If your opponent's ball is behind
the service line or has a wide angle forcing you to
move laterally, then you are on the defense. As well,
any shot that you have to take four or more steps to
get to is most definitely defensive.
"So, were do we hit, Bird?" Well, the net
is lower at the center. The height of the net is three
feet at the center and increases as it moves away from
the center to a height of three-feet-six-inches at the
net posts (or singles sticks, if you have them). This
means that if you hit over the center of the net, you
have an extra six inches to play with. Try not to giggle
at that last sentence.
So then it stands to reason that you should hit crosscourt,
if the net has anything to say about it. But what about
the other parts of the court? They have things to say
Well, as we discussed last time, the singles court
is 27' wide by 78' long. From your forehand corner to
your opponent's forehand corner is 82.54'. That's an
additional 4'6" than if you hit toward your opponent's
backhand corner. Diagnosis: hit crosscourt.
Okay, one more tidbit to consider. If you are pulled
really wide on this forehand, say out into your doubles
alley or beyond, and if you hit down-the-line, the ball
will spend a good portion of its flight traveling over
"out" territory. However, if you hit crosscourt,
then the ball immediately comes back into "in"
territory for its entire path.
Do you see where this is leading? In most tennis matches,
it is the person who makes the least mistakes that ends
up winning. So, we want to minimize our mistakes and
play it safe for most shots. We want to build in a margin
for error, because none of us is perfect. So, one error
you could make is to hit too low, but the net is six
inches lower at the middle. You could hit too high,
but the sky has no limit. You could hit too far, but
you have an extra four feet and more if you hit crosscourt.
You could hit too short but if you're going crosscourt
the ball is still in play.
Now, let's bring in last month's ideas. If you hit
down-the-line, you have to recover to the far side of
your center mark to get into position for the next shot.
But if you go crosscourt, you only have to get to the
near side of the center mark. It's a lot closer. Less
running. And I think this is a huge point to consider.
The less you are caught out of position, the better
off you are.
So, I think it is becoming readily obvious that the
normal shot in a baseline-to-baseline exchange is to
go crosscourt. Watch the pros. Very many points are
just like this. They go crosscourt back and forth, back
and forth, until one player or the other sees a good
reason or opportunity to do otherwise.
Alright, now we need to talk about how the geometry
of tennis figures in when we're at the net. When one
player reaches the net, the vast majority of points
are over within two shots. And nine times out of ten
it is the netman who dictates the outcome of the point;
he or she either hits a winner or makes a mistake.
Being at the net can be very unsettling to a lot of
players, particularly at the lower experience levels.
The distance between you and your opponent has been
halved so you have half the time to prepare to return
the ball. As well, since the point is being forced into
a rapid conclusion, both players will get anxious and
attempt more aggressive shots. But it is the craftier
player that usually wins the day.
In keeping with the established pattern, let's define
what situations are defensive for the netman.
In general, any shot where the netman makes contact
with the ball below the level of the net is considered
defensive. Typically, this situation occurs either when
the netman is a bit out of position, or his opponent
has attempted a passing shot.
When faced with this situation, there are many factors
to consider. As with baseline play, we want to consider
the net, the court, and your position. But the results
may surprise you.
Let's go back to our somewhat familiar example situation
and modify it for you being at the net. Your opponent
is on the baseline hitting a forehand from close to
his forehand corner of the court. You are at the net.
Since the ball is on the side of your (right-handed)
backhand from the center line of the court, you are
slightly to the left of the center line. Remember, you,
the ball, and your 'T' must make a straight line for
you to be in position. That holds true whether you are
on the baseline or at net. Your opponent is well-schooled
and knows that his best shot at passing you is most
likely down the line, so he hits there. And he also
hit a good shot because by the time the ball gets to
you, it has dropped below net level. You are now hitting
a defensive volley on your backhand side.
The net is still lower at the middle, but due to your
angle, it would be tough to hit over that part of it.
There would be a good chance of the ball going at such
a severe angle that it would be difficult to keep it
in the court. Additionally, I think it can be readily
understood that changing the direction of the ball so
dramatically from your opponent's original intent is
a feat best left to the highly advanced players. We
are not top pros, but we do recognize that we are defensive
and want to minimize our likelihood for errors. So,
the conclusion is that the relative height of the net
doesn't really factor in. The truth of the matter is,
wherever you are hitting the ball, be it close to the
center of the net or out toward the netposts, your opponent
had to deal with the net being just that high. To put
it another way, your opponent had to clear the net,
so the ball probably isn't that far below the level
of the net. If he hit crosscourt, he had to clear a
three-foot high obstacle. If he can make that ball dip
six inches below that point by the time it gets to you,
then you are volleying at a height of two-and-a-half
feet. But if he hits over a point on the net that is,
say, three-feet-five-inches high (out toward the net
posts), then that same six-inch drop past the net has
you volleying the ball at two-feet-eleven-inches off
the ground. But who cares? Either way, it's six inches
below net level. So why should you care whether you
hit over the center of the net or not?
Okay, that discussion got out of hand quickly. The
moral is that the height of the net should not be a
factor in where you decide to hit your defensive volley.
Now, let's look at the court. Certainly, it is easy
to see that you have a greater distance to aim for if
you volley crosscourt instead of down the line. Plus,
in our example, your opponent is standing down the line
from you, so he would have to run further to get to
a volley that you hit crosscourt.
Before we explore that more, we need to also establish
your desired position. Remember that your proper place
on the court to bisect your opponent's shots is a few
feet to the same side of the center as the ball. From
that we can see that volleying crosscourt puts you about
four to six feet farther away from where you want to
be than if you volleyed down the line.
Okay, so we have ourselves a bit of a dilemma. Do we
make our opponent run and thus make ourselves have to
run too? Or do we hit back to where our opponent is
to shorten the distance we have to move to get into
Well, I won't keep you in suspense. I'll give you the
answer: down the line. Yes, you could make your opponent
run more and you will have more room to hit into if
you volley crosscourt, but the principle to remember
here is that you are defensive. Volleying crosscourt
puts a somewhat large change on the angle of the ball.
It is much easier to volley a ball straight back the
way it came. As well, being defensive, you want to minimize
the distance you have to travel to get back into position.
Here are a few more things to consider in this situation.
You are volleying upward. Since the ball is below the
net level, you must hit upward. Additionally, whereas
volleying down the line gives you less space to hit
into, it also takes less time for the ball to get back
to your opponent, reducing the time he has to get ready
to hit it. The reduced distance in a down-the-line volley
means it is easier to volley the ball back deep into
your opponent's court, making it harder for him to move
forward into the ball. To get the ball deep when volleying
crosscourt, you must loft the ball more, causing it
to float, giving your opponent a few extra microseconds
to get into position.
All in all, if you are John McEnroe or Stefan Edberg,
by all means, hit that low volley crosscourt, because
you can make a great shot out of it and make your opponent
wear the treads off their shoes down getting to it.
But, statistically speaking, a very low percentage of
us are Mac or Edberg, so we have to take a more human
approach to volleying.
When defensive, volley down the line.
Transition shots are, essentially, approach shots.
These are the shots you hit when your opponent has hit
a short ball and you are using the opportunity to go
to the net. Net rushers look for this opportunity and
good net rushers try to create it.
But the question is where do we hit this shot? And
even more importantly, doesn't this belong in next month's
meanderings about offensive tennis geometry?
To put it bluntly, the answers are "straight ahead"
and "no, because of the first answer."
See, the thing is, with approach shots, you are on
the move and your direction of travel is netward. So,
the biggest difficulty is getting to where you want
to be. If you are approaching on your forehand side,
approach to your opponent's backhand (down the line).
If you are approaching on your backhand side, again,
go down the line. Finally, if you are approaching up
the middle, hit your shot up the middle. This will put
your ideal position closest to where you are hitting
the ball and also closer along your path of travel.
Trying to hit an approach shot crosscourt means you
have to change the direction you are running to get
into position, and you also have to run farther.
Alright, let's tie this all up into a neat little package.
Obviously, these are not hard and fast rules for success
in tennis. There are many many factors that can go into
defeating your opponent, including, but not limited
to, psychology, weaknesses of your opponent and yourself,
strengths of your opponent and yourself, weather, wind,
court surface, and biorhythms. This is just the geometrical
way of looking at tennis.
So, here is the meat of it, when defensive hit: crosscourt
if you are at the baseline, down the line if you are
at net, and straight ahead if you are approaching the
Be sure to tune in next month when we will be examining
the differences in this philosophy when you are on the
offensive. Like Patton said, "Grab them by the
nose and kick them in the butt."
Send your tennis questions and comments to Mike
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