Seize the Moment

How to recognize and take advantage of opportunities to dictate play, establish momentum and control the tempo and flow of a match.

  1. A good starting point is to identify weaknesses in your opponent’s game. Look for opportunities to expose these weaknesses. Create situations requiring your opponent to have to hit off his/her weak side under pressure, such as a passing shot or a return of serve at game point. Hit to the strength of your opponent to open the court. Then hit with redirection to the weak side of your opponent. If your opponent has a low shot tolerance, work to get one more ball back in play. If your opponent is hesitant or ineffective at the net or in approaching the net, draw him/her into the net (on your terms) with drop shots and short angles. Raise the trajectory of your shots if your opponent has difficulty handling higher bouncing balls hit high or above his/her strike zone. Mix up pace and spin if your opponent has difficulty responding to variety. The objective is to make your opponent(s) uncomfortable and unsure of what to expect. The strategy is to provide your opponent with no rhythm and no balls in the strike zone. To the extent your intent can be disguised, all the better. With all tactics designed to disrupt and expose weaknesses, it is important to capitalize (and seize the moment) when you do elicit a weak reply. Attack anything siting up and left short in the middle of the court.
  2. Some of the best opportunities to dictate play are with first strike serving patterns. Success is generally predicated on your ability to hit one of three service targets and then your ability to recognize and hit to one of four targets for your subsequent groundstrokes and/or volleys. The patterns start with a purpose and a plan formulated prior to hitting the serve. An example is a serve hit out wide followed by a groundstroke hit to the opposite side of the court (either deep or angled) depending on the return. The idea is to map out two or three shots starting with the serve to a specific target prior to each service point. Your plan could entail serving and staying back as the earlier example, closing into the net immediately following the serve (serve and volley) or serving followed by a delayed response into the net. It could include hitting to the open court or hitting behind the receiver, hitting down-the-line (with redirection) or crosscourt (with angles or depth). The plan could purposely look to finish the point with an inside-in or inside-out patterned groundstroke. The objective is to take command by aggressively seizing control of the point with the serve (and your first one or two shots following the serve).
  3. The serve return provides opportunities as well not just to neutralize the point but to gain a distinct advantage over your opponent. Vary your positioning to return serve. Play further back and look to take a full swing with the return. Play closer in to take time away from your opponent. Move in with the serve (or even move back with the serve) to give your opponent different looks. Move with the serve to favor your forehand (or backhand). Stand noticeably over to one side to favor your forehand (or backhand) prior to the serve being hit to force the server to try to hit a narrow target or go out wide to your strength. If the server cannot hit (or consistently hit) the wide serve, continue to press your advantage by continuing to drift over in favor of your strength. Close in after the serve return (serve return and volley) or stay back after hitting the return. Attack short serves to apply more pressure on the server. Similar to the serve, have a plan to start each serve return point.
  4. Looking at opportunities from a doubles perspective, you can seize momentum and exert tremendous influence on the outcome of a doubles match when positioned at the net when your partner is serving and receiving. Look to be aggressive. Drift to the middle of the court when your partner hits an effective serve down the T and move to cut off (poach) the serve return with a punishing volley. Hit your volley down the middle or directly at the feet of the opponent who is closest to the net (and has the least amount of time to respond). Poach off the serve return whenever the receiver is jammed, stretched, or hitting from a compromised position. Similarly, cross and attack when your partner hits an effective serve return. Look for predictable patterns, “tells” and weaknesses (such as a tendency to float backhand returns) to better anticipate opportunities to move and poach. Poaching is not a delicate art particularly when spontaneous and not preplanned in communication with your partner (which is an option). The objective is to be aggressive and decisive which can lead to mistakes. The objective is also to disguise your intention by not jumping too early but there will be times when you will get burned by a down-the-line return. It often comes down to a numbers game in determining effectiveness in a risk-reward calculation. The expectation is not necessarily to win the point every time you move and poach but to win the point most of the time.
  5. Seize momentum by winning the battle over court position. Push your opponent back by hitting with depth. Play tight to the baseline. Quickly recover to the baseline after being pushed back. Take balls on the rise to better maintain your court position. Close in with the serve to hit your serve returns. Pounce on short balls. The objectives through aggressive baseline positioning are to take time away from your opponent, reduce your angles of coverage while at the same time maximizing the court and angles your opponent must cover and pressure your opponent into making mistakes (trying to do much from an unfavorable court position).
  6. Seize momentum through consistency and high percentage shot patterns. It is a long-battle approach in which dividends are not always recognized immediately. The objective is to extend the rally and wear your opponent down physically and mentally. It begins with sound stroke mechanics and an ability to repeat basic stroke patterns and shot combinations. It demands discipline, a high shot tolerance and a singular focus. To be successful, it necessitates hitting within high margins (high net clearance, hitting over the middle of the net, maintaining shot direction, and hitting to the middle two-thirds of the court) and minimizing your unforced errors (no mistakes in the net or out wide). Consistency as a strategy requires a philosophy of one more shot in play (or making your opponent hit more shot).
  7. You can gain advantage through your conditioning. When your opponent is fatigued, press your advantage (and seize the moment) by controlling the tempo of the match. Play up-tempo pace of play when serving (careful not to rush your serve or service ritual). Without abandoning what earned your advantage, look to extend the point (lengthen the rally). Work your opponent with up and back (short and deep) and cross court angle patterns. Stress the mobility and footwork agility of your opponent. Hit behind your opponent to force your opponent to make quick changes of direction. Maintain a confident and resolute demeanor. Fake it if you are also beginning to struggle with fatigue. Give your opponent no indication of your vulnerability. Most importantly, focus on the things you can control and do not dwell on the condition of your opponent.
  8. It is very often your follow-up after hitting an effective shot that ensures the successful conclusion of a point. Look to cover all contingencies should your opponent get the ball back in play. A relentless commitment to retain your advantage after hitting an effective shot providing your opponent no outlet to escape is what is necessary to establish control and momentum. The point is never over until it is over and your quest to stay disciplined and focused to the end of each point is what defines you as a player. For example, after hitting a lob over the reach of your opponent(s), take these steps to seize the moment and assure a successful conclusion of the point. For singles, close into the net to about the service line. This puts you in a position to respond to just about any reply with a volley or overhead. Get too close to the net and you become vulnerable to a reply lob. Hang back at the baseline and you risk having to restart the point on more neutral terms if your opponent if able to successfully run down your lob and hit a lob back to your backcourt. For doubles, both you and your partner should close to about the service line. If you are at the net and your partner hangs back, move to a more center position on or just inside the service line. Your goal then is to jump on any return shot within your reach with a volley or overhead. Your role is to be the aggressor and finisher of the point. Similarly, after hitting a drop shot move into the net to a position just on or inside the service line to pick off the next shot with a volley or overhead and to ensure you are not caught flatfooted at the baseline should your opponent respond with another drop shot (his/her best option should you stay back). The trick in both these two examples is what you do after hitting an effective shot to take advantage of your opportunity to successfully complete a pattern and conclude the point.
  9. Just as it is your recognition of what to do after hitting an effective shot that effectuates a positive outcome, it is also your recognition of how to attack in response to different shots hit by your opponent that will allow you to seize momentum and exert pressure on your opponent. Every shot hit by your opponent requires a response from you. Your response can be defensive or offensive. The trick is to know how and when to be defensive and how and when to be offensive. For every shot you receive from your opponent, there are different options for you to reply in response ranging from high margin/less risk to low margin/high risk. For example, if your opponent has just hit a relatively weak, moderately deep shot to your backhand, you could attack with your backhand either with a cross court angle or a down-the-line redirection or you could respond more conservatively with a rally ball, crosscourt backhand hit with higher net clearance and depth. A still more aggressive option would be to run around your backhand to hit an inside out angled forehand or if confident of your ability to hit through the court an inside in forehand drive. Your ability and confidence to execute this more aggressive pattern in competition is acquired by practice and repetition (particularly in this case to master the complex footwork, spacing and loading/unloading requirements). For another case example, what is the best response when confronted with an opponent who is hitting high and deep (moonball depth and height)? To counter, you can fall back and attempt to take the ball in your strike zone. Likewise, you can adjust your point of contact and take the ball higher on the bounce. In both these options the result is usually defensive. To change the tempo of the rally and take a more aggressive stance with the intent of seizing control of the point, you can hold or close your position and take the ball on the rise or you can move in to take the ball out of the air with a swinging volley. Both these options require precise timing, soft hands and a fluid, quick stroke pattern. For a third option, you can close and take the ball out of the air (before the bounce) with an approach volley. Your choice of shots requires a risk/reward calculation. Do I simply defend, or do I seize the moment to respond with a more aggressive shot option?
  10. Every situation presents opportunities for success. It is important first to have situational critical awareness, a recognition of what is happening point to point and game to game over the course of the match. Why am I winning points? Why am I losing points? What is working and what is not working? What are the tendencies and patterns of my opponent? It is important next through this critical awareness to analyze how to take advantage of the situation, how best to transition from a neutral or defensive position to an offensive position, how to dictate play from the start with the serve and return of serve, etc. Success and is also predicated on your attention to detail, discipline, and work ethic in practice (before and after match play). Use your practice time to rehearse and hone your ability to successfully execute these transitional and offensive patterns and point situations.

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