Unintended Consequences

Sometimes the best plans and intentions can lead to adverse results and unintended consequences. Here are five (not 10) examples (to keep this article to one page) of how things can sometimes not turn out as planned.

  1. Hitting for rhythm. Making an effort to maintain rhythm and a manageable pace during rallies can definitely help your consistency and ability to stay in the point but it also can feed the confidence of your opponent and enhance his/her ability to keep the ball in play. While it’s important to establish your own rhythm, it’s also important to look for ways to disrupt the rhythm of your opponent. This can be accomplished (still with high margin) by changing pace, spin, trajectory, depth, direction and your court position at the point of contact.
  2. Attacking a weakness. Relentlessly attacking a weakness (such as a weak backhand) can breakdown your opponent but it can also backfire (particularly if not judicious in application). Similar to the above example, hitting exclusively to one side can serve to hone your opponent’s game and “shore up” his/her weakness (making it more reliable as the match progresses). Hitting exclusively to one side can also allow your opponent to overcompensate in positioning narrowing your target (leading to potential forced mistakes) and reducing the amount of court your opponent needs to cover. It’s generally a better practice to be more selective in making your opponent hit his/her weakest shot. Look to open up the court by first hitting to the off (or stronger) side to expose your opponent’s weakness for your next shot (redirection). Attack the weak side of your opponent during pivotal points or critical stages of the match. Don’t just attack with pace. Mix up the type of ball your opponent has to respond to on his/her weak side.
  3. Serving with a high percentage of first serves. Unless you’re having a phenomenal day, hitting with a percentage of 80% or more first serves in play may mean you’re not taking enough chances, being too conservative and providing too many opportunities for your opponent to get into the point (and neutralize your serving advantage). An alternative approach is to periodically go for more on your first serve (particularly if you have good serving rhythm) and incorporate a controlled degree of wildness and unpredictability to your serve (similar to an effective pitcher in baseball) to keep your opponent off stride and guessing.
  4. Hitting with consistency. Keeping the ball in play with high margin will win a lot of matches but all matches. Similar in theme to numbers 1 and 3 above, there are situations which require more risk and variety. There are two situations and opponents where hitting with consistency may lead to unintended adverse consequences. One is that your opponent has a better shot tolerance and can stay in the point longer and with better results. Two is that your opponent is opportunistic as well as patient with the ability to attack and finish the point. In either case, staying the course with the attempt to outlast your opponent may not work. The alternative approach is to take more risks by pulling the trigger before your opponent (understanding you will undoubtedly make more mistakes). The goal is to be calculated and play within your abilities and an acceptable risk/reward ratio.
  5. Making your opponent move and hit balls on the run. Under almost every circumstance making your opponent move is a good thing but there are situations and match-ups where a different, non-traditional strategy may be required. Understanding that “angles beget angles” and playing against an opponent who is fast, a shot maker and particularly skillful at opening up the court (and making you run), the alternative approach is to be more patient, hit to the middle third of the court and high over the net with depth (to buy time) and close into the net behind shots hit deep and down-the-middle (or down-the-line).
  6. Attacking the net in doubles. Closing whenever possible behind the serve, serve return, short balls, etc. may be advantageous strategically in most situations but aggressively attacking the net can also expose weaknesses in technique and footwork leading to forced errors, rushed shots and a disruption to rhythm. It’s important to play within abilities and to recognize alternative strategic options. In many cases, it is more advantageous to play a more patient, opportunistic style of play.
  7. Electing to serve first to start a match. Electing to serve first to start a match is very often the default choice to winning the toss. Serving (and holding serve) first by rotation places pressure on your opponent (opponents) particularly in later stages of the set. Breaking your opponent’s serve (assuming you consolidate by holding your serve following the break) opens up a three game gap (which can be demoralizing to your opponent/opponents). Of course, the downside (and the unintended consequence) of electing to serve first is that your opponent (by choosing side) may place you immediately at a disadvantage by having you serve into the sun or against a strong wind. It’s also often difficult to establish rhythm, timing and confidence with the serve to start a match leading to an early break and immediately negating the advantage of serving first.
  8. Returning serve from the same side of the court with your regular doubles partner. The common wisdom is to establish and then maintain a set side of the court to return serves with your regular partner. The decision to maintain set sides of the court generally works to your mutual advantage and provides you both with a better opportunity to not only get the serve back in play but also to attack off the serve. Sometimes however, maintaining established sides of the court for the return of serve can work to your disadvantage. A difficult match-up or a string of poor results are two reasons to make a change. It’s important to maintain some degree of flexibility and periodically return from different sides to give you both the confidence to make a change as necessary either prior to the start of play or after the first and/or second set.
  9. Hitting or directing your shots to the identified weakest player in doubles. A strategy in doubles to identify and then isolate and attack the weakest player almost always is a smart and effective decision in doubles. But, there can be unintended consequences to make things go wrong (particularly when not judicious and selective in shot direction and patterns become predictable). The besieged player may become more attentive and emboldened and as a result, become a much more difficult adversary. The opposing team may adjust positioning to narrow opportunities and windows to target the weakest player (leading to forced errors). And, the strongest player may actually have more success in poaching knowing balls will less likely be redirected to his/her side of the court.
  10. Communicating with your partner. Maintaining an active dialogue with your partner to offer encouragement, communicate tactics, etc. is a “good thing” and is supported by results. But, just like every other example above, there can be unintended and adverse consequences. Communication can slow down the pace and tempo of play (in situations where just the opposite is required).  Communication in some cases can lead to confusion with too much analysis or can be detrimental to the psyche of a sensitive partner who may not be as receptive to a constructive interchange.

Steve Gallagher

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