As everybody knows, tennis is a game of errors. Deciphering the actual cause of the error is the initial step in error reduction. A study that I conducted with nationally ranked juniors in Southern California found that in match play, there are four main causes of errors:
- Poor shot selection (46 percent)
- Below-par movement and spacing (32 percent)
- Inadequate emotional control or rituals (12 percent)
- Inferior stroke mechanics (10 percent)
What do most intermediate players focus on? You’ve got it: strokes! Up to the elite levels of the game, retrievers tend to have all the trophies, and it’s not because of their elegant strokes. They win by developing their shot selection skills. Following are some practical tips for improving shot selection:
- Position inside the court to reduce the opponent’s recovery time.
- Apply proper movement and spacing to contact the ball at the desired waist-level strike zone.
- Change the angle of the ball or attack the opponent’s weakness relentlessly.
- Simply match the ball speed.
- Apply secondary “building” shots to compromise the opponent’s position.
- Use proper heights above the net to maintain proper depth.
- Position farther back behind the baseline.
- Elevate shots with heavy topspin to buy recovery time.
- Simply get the point back to neutral instead of going for an offensive shot.
How do players determine whether their next shot should be offensive, neutral, or defensive? One way is to make the decision based on their position on the court, or zonal tennis. As a general rule, the farther inside the baseline a player can play the ball, the more offensive options become available to him. Obviously, if a player is scrambling up to the service line to retrieve a tough drop shot, the return becomes more defensive. So in addition to positioning, a player’s balance, the ball height, and preparation time will all affect the type of shot that can be produced.
Zonal tennis has been applied successfully for decades. In the 1970s, zones were described as defensive, neutral, and offensive. In the 1980s, the popular terms were defend, attack, and kill. Recent catch phrases include “control, hurt, and finish.” In the spirit of evolution, let’s coin our own descriptions: the grind, torment, and obliterate zones. But before getting into the dynamics of these court zones, let’s first cover air zones.
Air zones refer to the height at which the ball travels above the net. A player’s court position dictates the height that the shot should travel above the net. Unforced errors and short balls multiply dramatically when players choose to ignore the laws of the air zones.
The rules are simple. When inside the court, a player should aim 2 to 3 feet (61 to 91 cm) above the net. On the baseline, a player should aim 3 to 5 feet (91 to 152 cm) above the net; and when 10 feet behind the baseline, the player should aim 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3.0 m) above the net (figure 9.3).
The higher a player hits the ball over the net, the deeper it will generally go into the opponent’s court. The farther back a player is, the higher he needs to hit the ball to achieve the depth required to keep the opponent pinned to the baseline. Therefore, as the player moves up, less net clearance is needed.
Now that we have discussed air zones, let’s move on to court zones. To determine the court zones, divide both halves of the court (39 feet [11.9 m] each) into three even zones (figure 9.4). The zone (location) in which the ball lands dictates the highest-percentage options for shot selection. Smart tacticians simply match their intentions with the landing zones.
Zone 1, or the grind zone, is located from the baseline inward about 13 feet (3.9 m). When a ball is about to land in the grind zone, the high-percentage shot would be a safe, deep return. Mature players avoid the temptation of going for an offensive shot from this zone.
Zone 2, or the torment zone, is the middle zone. It is located approximately 13 feet inside the court to approximately 13 feet from the net. When a ball lands inside this center zone, a player should apply building shots as well as attacking shots.
Zone 3 is the obliterate zone; it includes the 13 feet closest to the net. Groundstroke kills, approach-volley patterns, and deadly droppers should be applied in this zone. Finishing the point with an offensive play is the correct tactical move here.
Advanced players are keenly aware that the same zonal warfare applies on both sides. In other words, the location where a shot lands on the opponent’s side dictates his options for a high-percentage shot. If a player dumps a short ball in the opponent’s obliterate zone, it’s time to defend. Playing zonal tennis greatly increases a player’s anticipatory speed, court coverage, and shot variations. By shifting the focus to this mental strategy, players can dramatically improve their win–loss record.
Be aware that the zones are still “gray” areas depending on the incoming ball’s spin, speed, and trajectory. Exceptions shadow every rule, so players must use their court sense and abilities in match play.