Ten Drills to Improve Your Ability to “Play Solid and Steady Tennis”

Here are ten practice drills and exercises to improve your ability to “play solid and steady tennis”.

  1. Maintain cross-court rallies for depth (deep to deep) and consistency.  Repetition is the key.  As an alternative, maintain a cross-court rally with angles (angle to angle)
  2. Maintain a two-bounce rally with each player taking the ball on the second (not first) bounce.
  3. Box off a hitting target within several feet from the baseline.  Maintain a live-ball rally until each player in turn hits x number of balls into the established hitting target.
  4. Require a specific exchange of x number of shots to start each point.  Play cross-court, down-the-line and/or full-court points (with serves or drop-hit feeds).
  5. Require a specific exchange of x number of shots hit in succession past the service line or into a specific target area to start each point.  Play cross-court, down-the-line and/or full-court points (with serves or drop-hit feeds).
  6. Play cross-court, half-court points with serves.  The half-court requirement extends the rally and makes points beneficial for both singles and doubles.
  7. Play cross-court, down-the-line (redirection) rallies and/or points.  Designate one player to hit cross-court and the other to hit down-the-line.  As an option, require one player to hit cross-court only and the other player to hit wherever (cross-court or down-the-line).
  8. Maintain a two-ball rally.  Each player puts a ball in play at the same time.
  9. Maintain rallies or play points where one player is only allowed to hit to one half of the court and the other player is allowed to hit to the full court.
  10. Play offense/defense points (or rallies) with one player looking to prolong the point (or rally) and the other player looking to shorten the point (or rally).  As a variation, have the offensive player hit to a more narrowly defined target area with the goal to see how long the offensive player can sustain pressure with each exchange (versus how long it takes for the offensive player to put the ball away).

How to Play Solid and Steady Tennis

  1. Manage the pace.  Play within yourself and your limits of control.  Take pace off the ball when feeling pressure by the pace of the rally.  Pick up the pace by taking the ball earlier and on the rise when the tempo is too slow.
  2. Hit for depth.  Hit high over the net with good clearance and aim to get the ball consistently past the service line (preferably within several feet of the baseline).
  3. Match direction and trajectory.  It’s much easier to stay in the rally by maintaining the direction of an oncoming shot (versus redirecting the shot at a different angle).  Likewise, it’s a smart play for consistency to maintain the same trajectory and flight path of an oncoming shot (versus changing the trajectory and flight path).
  4. Hit over the middle of the net.  Aiming over the middle of the net (over the center strap and the lowest height of the net) guarantees a high percentage response and sets up appropriate cross-court angles.
  5. Use spin.  Spin is the best way to keep the ball in play.  Topspin in particular allows for higher net clearance (and a higher margin for error) and allows you to hit through the ball with more pace without the risk of the ball sailing long.
  6. Get your first serve in.  Look to maintain at least a 70% first serve to apply pressure on your opponent(s) and to maintain your tempo and rhythm.
  7. Get the return back in play.  Getting the ball back in play with the intent of neutralizing the server is the best high percentage response to starting a point.  It’s important for rhythm, tempo and consistency and makes your opponent hit more balls.
  8. Maintain active feet and get into the set position as earlier as possible (ready, set, and hit).  Fine-tune your position to the ball with a number adjustment steps each and every shot.
  9. Hit crosscourt and set up points with cross-court patterns.
  10. Play the margins.  The basic goal for hitting with a high margin for error is to not make any mistakes in the net or out wide.

How to Play Big and Bold Tennis

  1. Crowd the baseline.  Take balls on the rise and the short hop to give your opponent less time to respond, shorten his/her court perspective and to place yourself in a position to jump on anything hit short or hit defensively.
  2. Look to end the point in three or fewer shots.
  3. Establish patterns, adjust your court positioning and maneuver your feet to hit most balls off your strongest side.  Use redirection to encourage players to hit to your strength.  Step around your backhand to hit your forehand (assuming your forehand is your strongest shot).
  4. Take chances and go for more on your first serve.
  5. Take chances and go for more on your serve return.
  6. Approach and close the net in response to any ball hit short.
  7. Be extremely active and command the net in doubles.  Gamble and cross whenever you can.  Close in tighter and sooner than your opponents on every volley exchange.
  8. Project a bold, confident persona.  Walk the walk.
  9. Seize the opportunity when hitting from a favorable court position.  Give yourself the green light and attack when hitting from inside the baseline.
  10. Don’t dwell on lost points.  The goal with an attacking, aggressive game plan is not to win every point just most the points.

Art of Doubles – “Teamwork”

Here are 10 ways to be more successful with your partner as a team.

  1. Establish a plan with your partner. Establish a plan with contingency options with your partner. Maintain the game plan specifically as it relates to your role (i.e. serve and volley on your first serve, lob at least one return per game, etc.).
  2. Talk to your partner. Take time to communicate with your partner (particularly during the changeovers). Discuss strategy and tactics, what’s working, what’s not working, where to hit to serve or return, etc. Provide verbal cues to your partner during point play (up, back, mine, yours, short, bounce, etc.).
  3. Support your partner. Support your partner emotionally and psychologically. Be supportive and encouraging with your partner. Help lift the spirits of your partner. Don’t wince, drop your shoulders or roll your eyes if your partner makes a mistake or error. Support your partner by being aggressive at the net (particularly when your partner is struggling), finishing the point when you are in command and in a position to finish the point, extending the point by getting one more ball back in play when in a position of defense, etc.
  4. Work together in position with your partner. Look to work up and back with your partner. Shift with your partner as he/she is drawn left or right (as if you are connected by an invisible rope). Drop back when your partner is pressed too close against the net. Switch positions when your partner covers a ball in front or behind you.
  5. Hit your service targets. Hit the targets as signaled by your partner or as established in prior consultation with your partner. Your partner is in a better position to respond to the return if he or she knows in advance where you are planning to hit the serve (out wide, at the body or down the middle).
  6. Hit your return targets (as established in advance with your partner) for a positive start to each point.
  7. Get your first serve in play. Provide a better opportunity to engage your partner and apply pressure on your opponents by getting your first serve in play.
  8. Protect (and take command of) the middle of the court. Let nothing get by you down the middle of the court. Crowd the center and make your opponents beat you out wide with lower percentage shots. Drift towards the middle of the court to cut off the next shot when your partner hits a strong serve, hits a serve down the middle or hits a low, difficult-to-return chip or drive.
  9. Impose your will and presence as a team by initiating crossing and closing patterns (particularly when positioned at the net). You want to be dynamic in your positioning, constantly adjusting, refining and maneuvering your positions on the court to maximize court coverage and ultimately to get in a position to finish the point together at the net.
  10. Have fun and do your part to make things fun for your partner.

Art of Doubles – “Opportunistic Play”

Here are ten ways to take advantage of situations and patterns to close out (or stay in) a point or match.

  1. Recognize and take advantage of return tendencies and patterns of your opponents. As an example, drift to the middle and crowd the center of the court if your opponents rarely if ever hit the return down the line.
  2. Recognize and take advantage of serving tendencies and patterns. For example, you can cheat to the middle of the court to favor your forehand (or backhand) if your opponents show a reluctance or inability to hit the serve out wide.
  3. Close and crowd the center of the court anytime you can get the ball down at the feet of your opponents. Jump and attack anything hit up by your opponents (which is likely when your opponents have to dig out low balls).
  4. Close (to about the service line) and crowd the center of the court whenever you can get a lob over the extended reach of your opponents. Look to finish the point with the next shot with a decisive volley or overhead.
  5. Play the score. Be more aggressive and apply pressure when up in a game by either two or three points or up by one or more breaks of serve. Bear down and get more balls in play when down by more than one point in a game or down by a break of serve.
  6. Look to close from the baseline and attack the net in response to anything hit short. Apply pressure on your opponents by pouncing on short balls.
  7. Recognize the comparative strengths and weaknesses of your two opponents. Sometimes it is as simple as hitting the ball to the weakest player and/or avoiding hitting balls to the strongest player.
  8. Create opportunities and gaps in coverage by isolating one player at the baseline (with his or her partner at the net). The best opportunity or positional advantage in doubles is to be up at the net with your partner while your opponents are split in coverage (one up and one back).
  9. Play to your strengths. Put yourself and your partner in a position to be successful. If for example your strength is the forehand groundstroke, create situations where to you get to hit more balls off your forehand side. This can be accomplished by non-traditional starting positions such as an Australian shift when serving from the ad side (for a right-handed player).
  10. Protect your weaknesses. If your game is not suited to extended rallies, look to shorten the point by taking balls on the rise, taking more balls out of the air with volleys, attacking with your strike (serve or return), etc. Conversely, if your game is built on consistency and endurance, look to extend the rally with lobs, baseline exchanges, etc.

Art of Doubles – “Offensive Play”

Here are ten offensive tactics and strategies to dictate play/take control of the match.

  1. Be mentally resolute in your game plan. Be relentless in your attack and willingness to get to the net.
  2. Play the percentages. With a strategy that looks to close and attack the net with every opportunity, the goal is not to win all the points just most of the points. Don’t be dissuaded from your plan of attack if passed at the net or hurt with a successful lob.
  3. Attack the net with a serve and volley. Choices are to serve and come in all the time (first and second serves), most of the time (first serves and less frequently following second serves) and more selectively off both the first and second serves. In all cases, the goals are to take time away from your opponents, take control of the net and disrupt the rhythm of your opponents.
  4. Attack the net with the return of serve. Choices are to return and come in all the time (in response to first and second serves), most of the time (in response to second serves and less frequently in response to first serves) and more selectively in response to first and second serves. As with the serve, the goals are to take time away from your opponents, take control of the net and disrupt the rhythm of your opponents.
  5. Attack the net player with the return. There are several target options with the return of serve. Choices include hitting cross court for depth, hitting cross court at an angle and lobbing over the net player. A fourth choice is going right at the net player with pace. If not overused, it can be very effective at disabling the net player (by getting the net player to play further back from the net, making the net player jittery and reluctant to move, etc.).
  6. Lob and close the net with the return. Most players see the lob as a defensive response to stay in the point but the lob can also be used as a weapon. To effectively attack with the lob, hit the lob with a lower trajectory and then close into the net with your partner to finish the point with a volley or overhead.
  7. Crowd the center of the court. Establish a goal with your partner of never getting passed down the middle of the court. Make your opponents beat you by trying to hit to the outside of the court.
  8. Look to cross and poach whenever possible following the serve, particularly following serves hit down the middle or following any serve that jams or stretches your opponents. For better results, use signals to let your partner know whether you are going or staying or to direct your partner where to hit the serve.
  9. Play tight to the baseline (when hitting from the backcourt). Take balls on the rise as necessary to maintain a strong court position and to give your opponents less time to respond. Playing tight to the baseline also shrinks the court from your opponent’s perspective. The natural tendency is to hit with less depth (giving you a better ball to attack).
  10. Have fun. It’s fun to be unfettered to take more chances and to be less exact and precise with your shots (as is often necessary with a more consistent, defensive style of play).

Art of Doubles – “Defensive Play”

Here are ten defensive tactics and strategies to get back into a match, reverse a losing score and offset an aggressive, offensive team.

  1. Keep the ball in play. The cornerstone of any defensive strategy is to keep the ball in play. Make your opponent hit one more shot. No mistakes are good but particularly try to avoid mistakes in the net and out wide of the doubles sidelines.
  2. Vary your starting position when receiving. Stay back with your partner at the baseline to start each return point (particularly if you are struggling to get into the point with the return) for the first serve (and second serve as necessary). Defend from the baseline and look to move in together with your partner if given the opportunity.  Have your partner crowd the middle of the court in a more aggressive position. Move inside the baseline to return serve. Move further back to return serve. Move left or right with the serve to favor your forehand or backhand. Give the serving teams different looks to take them out of rhythm. Do whatever you can (within the rules) to disrupt the server and serving team.
  3. Vary your starting position when serving. There are several options. Position your partner tight into the net or back off the net (more towards the service line). Serve from more of a singles starting position and have your partner straddle the center service line or stand on your side of the court (“Australian shift”). Have your partner fall back with you to the baseline or stand behind you in an “I formation”. In all cases, it’s important to quickly move and adjust from your starting positions (usually by signal or prior communication) to ensure full coverage of the court. The intent with any variation in positioning is to disrupt the receiving team and get them out of their comfort zone.
  4. Look to do different things with the serve. Vary your serve location (down the middle, at the body, angled out wide). Vary the pace and spin of your serve. Vary your movement pattern after putting the serve in play. Stay back, come in immediately with the serve or come in on a delayed response. The objective is to disrupt the return and not give the serve returner a set target.
  5. Look to do different things with the return. Do not be predictable. Return the ball cross court deep or angled. Return the ball down-the-line either with a drive or lob. Stay back after hitting the return or close into the net either immediately following the return or in a delayed response.
  6. Use the lob to get back into the point, slow things down, regain a more advantageous court position and get your opponents off the net.
  7. Sometimes the best defense is a good offence. Charge forward and beat your opponents to the net if your opponents are successfully attacking the net. Take chances and aggressively poach and use crossing patterns if your opponents are beating you with their return game.
  8. When losing or when momentum is adversely shifting, look to slow down the flow and tempo of the match by being more deliberate with your partner communications and pre-serve rituals and in retrieving the balls on your side of the court. Slow things down by taking more time to put your serve in play. Likewise, if slow play and tempo are hurting your play, look to speed up play by using signals and more direct and prompt communications with your partner and by taking less time to put your serve in play.
  9. Take advantage of the unique tennis scoring system. The nature of scoring in tennis facilitates comebacks and swings in momentum. Place scoreboard pressure on your opponents by continuing to hold serve even when down by one or more breaks of serve. Focus on winning the first two points of each game to apply pressure and make things uncomfortable and unsettling for your opponents. If things are going poorly, change serve rotations and/or return positions at the start of a new set. After losing a set, look to reverse or regain or momentum with an early break of serve at the start of the next set. Things can change quickly in tennis. Fortunately, no one can ride out the clock in tennis so keep doing whatever you can to change a losing score.
  10. In conclusion and as an important reminder, never give up. Stay in the match mentally and always give 100% even when things look bleak.

Old-School Tactics

Here are 10 “tried-and –true”, “old-school” tactics guaranteed to produce results.

Gallagher - Wood

  1. No pace. Take pace off the ball with backspin to disrupt rhythm and timing.  This is particularly effective against a player who hits hard and flat.
  2. Chip and charge. Chip (or slice) the approach and then close to finish the point with a volley or overhead.
  3. Serve and volley. Serve and close the net to finish the point at the net.  Commit to come in regardless of how well your serve is hit and/or if you hit or miss your service target.
  4. High ball and close. Hit the ball high above your opponent’s strike zone.  Sneak into the net (with a delayed close) as your opponent is looking up to hit the ball.
  5. Rush and crush. This is all encompassing and takes little imagination.  Come in on everything (returns, serves, groundstrokes, etc.) and make your opponent beat you with passing shots and lobs.  Remember, it’s a numbers game.  You don’t have to perfect or win every point just the last point of each game.
  6. Drop shot and lob. Draw your opponent back and up with lobs and drop shots.  Look to close the net whenever your opponent is struggling to reach your shot to finish the point with a volley.
  7. Play close to the baseline. Take balls early and on the rise with an abbreviated backswing (as necessary) to take time away from your opponent.
  8. Fan the court. Takes balls hit to the middle third of the court and use a backspin/sidespin stroke pattern to angle balls out wide to each corner of the court.  Aim for the service line for the best results and angles.
  9. Moon balls. Hit the ball high and deep preferably with heavy topspin to pin your opponent back behind the baseline.
  10. Mix it up. Work the point with variety, disguise and multiple spins.  Hit from different court positions, mix pace and basically do everything possible to win the point.

How to Play on Clay – Doubles

  1. Test the footing of your opponents on clay. Assess their ability to slide and change directions on clay by hitting angles, lobs, etc.  If you expose or identify a weakness, use short/deep, angle and lob patterns to force your opponents to move and run down shots.
  2. Soft angle and drop volleys are particularly effective on clay even versus opponents with sure clay-court footing. Soft angle and drop volleys, if hit correctly get absorbed by the clay surface.  The shot is best set up by isolating one or both of your opponents back behind the baseline.
  3. Be patient and recognize (with the slower bounce) that it may take longer to construct and finish a point. Very often it’s your ability to get one extra shot back in play that defines your success on clay composition courts.
  4. Never give up on a shot. The slower and higher bounce on clay makes it easier to track and run down a shot.
  5. Don’t feel pressured to serve and volley (or return and volley) to start each point. Serving and staying back is a viable option on clay particularly if you have confidence in your groundstrokes.  Similarly, delaying your approach to the net on serve return points tends to be more effective on clay.  The important thing is to vary your decision to close or not close following the first shot and to not fall into a familiar and predictable pattern.
  6. Crossing and switching patterns are just as effective on clay as on hard-based surfaces and should be a mainstay of all doubles play on clay. Training should focus on the first step to the ball which is more difficult to execute efficiently on clay.  Recovery footwork after the shot is another important focus for effective clay-court movement.
  7. Spin can be more effective on clay. It’s easier to get the ball up high above your opponent’s strike zone with topspin and then close and/or drift to the middle to finish the point with a volley or overhead.  A hard slice is particularly effective as an approach on clay composition courts.
  8. Focus on getting the first serve in play with a 75% pace serve. On clay, it’s more difficult to win the point outright with the first serve and easier for the opposing team to attack the second serve so the high percentage play is to take pace off the first serve to get it in (and not start the point at a disadvantage). Hit the first serve with more topspin to clear the net with a higher margin and to kick the ball up above the strike zone of your opponent.
  9. As for specific patterns, I like to close behind sidespin chip shots angled short of the service line. Since there is less risk of getting hurt with a short ball, short and deep patterns (drawing your opponents in and then pushing them back) are good options on clay.  Depending on the inclination and strength of my partner, I like to stay back with my partner when returning serve and either defend with lobs and off pace shots or rip groundstrokes with pace and/or heavy spin.
  10. Be creative (and have fun). The extended nature of points on clay creates more shot making opportunities and creative options.  Clay rewards teams with multi-dimensional, all-around skills.

How to Play on Clay – Singles

  1. Use the surface to slide into the shot when pressured in moving left, right, up and back.
  2. Maintain active feet (with a number of adjustment steps) to cover potentially difficult bounces (inherent in clay court play).
  3. Be patient and recognize that it takes longer to construct a point. Be prepared to “grind” and hit that one extra shot to extend the rally and win the point.
  4. Get your first serve in play. It’s difficult to attack with the serve (force a return error).  Use the serve to get into the point and pin your opponent back behind the baseline.
  5. Hit with heavier topspin (particularly on your rally ball) to take advantage of the higher bounce on clay.
  6. Never quit on a shot. The slower and higher bounce on clay composition courts leads to a better ability to run and track down the ball.
  7. Maintain a higher than average net clearance with your groundstrokes. It’s difficult on a clay composition court to hit through the court with groundstrokes (particularly when hitting from a deeper court position).  It’s better to hit higher over the net (with a high margin of error) and wait for the opportunity to attack off a short ball.
  8. As part of an overall strategy of high percentage play (which is necessary on clay), hit cross court and for depth to set up the point.
  9. Continuing on the strategic front, use guile rather than brawn as the mainstay of your game plan. Work the point with cross-court/down-the-line (redirection), short and deep angle, high/low, varying spin and varying pace patterns of play.  Aggressive “go for the early first strike” and “rush and crush” tactics don’t work for most players and for most situations on clay.
  10. On the psychological front, adopt a resilient and tough on-court personality and presence. Clay court tennis requires perseverance, fortitude and tenaciousness.