Bird's Tennis Tips: The Geometry of Tennis - Part 2

March 8, 2005


Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

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.

Baseline Play

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 as well.

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.

Net Play

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 position?

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

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 net.

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."

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