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Baiting your opponent in singles

by Alan Cutler, USPTA, and Feisal Hassan, USPTA Master Professional

Students must be taught to create visual or mental situations to entice their opponents to go for more risky shots.
Students must be taught to create visual or mental situations to entice their opponents to go for more risky shots.

September 2006 -- As coaches, we know that there are risky shots and risky situations, but how do we teach our students to recognize them? Once this is understood by our students, it is then our job as coaches to show them how to create these risky shots and situations for their opponents. Baiting the opponent into taking these poor-percentage risks increases the chances for your student to win more matches. So how do we train our students to create these situations for their opponents? We do so by introducing the idea of baiting.

The idea of getting your opponent to take unnecessary risks by baiting them into situations is a simple one. Teaching your students basic baiting methods can help them reduce their opponents’ overall shot percentages. It is often the difference between winning and losing points, games, and even, sometimes, sets.

One major factor to keep in mind and remind students of is that individual players develop weapons that may be risky for the majority, but, because of their unique skills, may still be high percentage for them.

Students must be taught to create visual or mental situations to entice their opponents to go for more risky shots or shots that decrease the success of their opponents. By doing this, more easy points will be won by your students. These basic ideas are easy for most players to understand and execute with simple and direct instruction.

With all the changes in the game, the one thing in tennis that remains constant is the singles court dimensions. The singles court is 27 feet wide by 78 feet long (27 by 39 from net to baseline). The diagonal dimension measures 82.5 feet from the singles corner to the diagonal opposite corner. The net height is 36 inches in the middle going up to 42 inches at the net post or singles sticks. So the court is a basic rectangle.

Identify some basic risk factors
Changing the direction of rally (from crosscourt to down the line) – One of the biggest risk factors for recreational players is changing the direction of the rally. How many times have you seen a player change the direction of the rally and miss? Teach your students that unless the ball is hit short and there is adequate time to set up their shot, this is a major risk factor that should be avoided.

Hitting over the highest part of the net (parallel to the sidelines) – By hitting down the line, where the net is higher, you increase the risk of either clipping the net or hitting long to avoid it.

Hitting the shortest distance within the court (parallel to the sidelines) – This is where court geometry comes into play. You should teach students to hit the ball crosscourt for the maximum distance and, therefore, give themselves an additional 5.5 feet to use and a larger margin of error. Remember to also explain to them that crosscourt does not mean a sharp angle, which again cuts down the distance, but corner to corner for maximum distance. Hitting the ball down the line, or along the shortest possible distance, is a much riskier shot, especially when it is done in combination with changing the direction of the rally, and over the highest part of the net.

Depth of shot – When a ball is hit deep, teach students to hit for the maximum distance, which is typically crosscourt. Remember that everyone’s perception of what is a deep shot is different and will vary based on skill level.

Visual appearances – Simply moving a few feet in either direction (one or two steps) can make your opponent feel like one side is much more open than the other. This often leads to the opponent going for a riskier shot or hitting to your student’s strength.

Moving without the ball – Almost every sport has a provision for players moving as a diversionary tactic and trying to distract their opponents from what is important, which, in tennis, is hitting the ball. A great example of this is when you are standing on one half of the court and your opponent has committed to a shot direction. Move to the other half as he starts to swing. This has two effects: It encourages him to hit to the open court, and when you move, the target area appears smaller, making your opponent hit out wider and closer to the lines.

Environmental – Wind, sun, shadows, and many other environmental issues can create problems for the opponent and should not be overlooked, even though they typically are. If you know that the sun is in a bad position for your opponent and you lob or hit high, this can affect his ability to see the ball. In windy conditions, raising the flight of the ball can allow the wind to move it in an unexpected way and can exploit the opponent’s poor footwork.

Fatigue – Often when players are getting tired they will try to end the point quickly and take additional risks on shots, either in an attempt to conserve energy or due to poor shot selection.

Each individual risk factor may work in isolation, but by baiting the opponent into a combination of risk factors, his chances of being successful are reduced and often that is all it may take for your students to win a close match. Our students come to us for many reasons, but we have yet to find anyone who really enjoys losing. Our job as coaches is to help them become more successful, which often makes playing a lot more fun.

Once you have taught your students about these risk factors, it is now time to show them how to bait their opponents into taking high-risk shots. These are simple examples and can be expanded based on the level of the players.

When your opponent is serving
Create a visual appearance that you are covering one part of the service box less than the other. Simply moving 18 inches to 3 feet (one step) can change the visual appearance enough to cause errors.

  1. Moving slightly toward the wide serve creates the appearance of hitting up the middle, or the shortest distance.
  2. Moving slightly toward the center creates the appearance of hitting out wide, or over a higher part of the net.
  3. Moving forward makes most people get nervous and try to hit harder or do more than is necessary.
  4. Move toward your weaker side and get the person to hit to your stronger side.

When you are serving
Create a visual appearance that you are covering one part of the court less than the other. Bait your opponent into changing direction by hitting the return down the line off a wide serve. Create three combined risk factors of direction change, highest part of the net and shortest distance.

Serving up the middle makes the return down the line even tougher, and the court geometry is working against them.

On slice serves, most returners will make contact toward the top of the racquet, making it harder to hit up the line.

Move toward your weaker side in an effort to bait them into hitting to your strength.

Baseline to baseline
When in a point involving an extended crosscourt rally, you can bait your opponent to hit down the line by leaving the visual appearance that the down-the-line shot is open, often creating errors. This works better against players who hit flatter because their shots have less net clearance and are more dependent on hitting crosscourt for maximum distance (82.5 feet). By baiting them to hit down the line, it reduces the distance to 78 feet, or 4.5 feet less.

When hitting crosscourt you are over the lowest part of the net. By baiting the opponent to hit down the line you are forcing him to hit over the highest part of the net.

Hit deep, creating a defensive shot selection and then bait them into an offensive shot by getting them to hit into the open court.

Remember, many times when a player chooses to hit down the line all three risk factors (direction change, height of the net and distance) come into play. They may be inclined to do this on a slower, short ball, but, even then, this is risky.

When you are at net
Hit the volley down the middle, trying to bait your opponent to hit a sharp crosscourt angle, and use the court geometry against them. As they angle the ball, the line is straight, creating an even shorter distance for them to use.

Hit wide to force a defensive shot and cover the line, creating the appearance of the crosscourt being open and using court geometry against them (this should be done only with a volley that can be played offensively). Adding in a simple movement without the ball as the opponent starts their forward swing creates the visual appearance that the target is closing and puts them under more pressure.

Hit a low-bouncing ball, often a slice, to get them to hit up so you can hit down.

Hit deep to create a defensive situation and cheat toward the crosscourt angle, making them hit for the shortest distance and over the highest part of the net.

Opponent at the net
Hit low and crosscourt, trying to get them to change direction of the ball. This also forces most players to hit with the racquet, wrist and arm in a straight-line position, which is a weaker position to volley from rather than with the wrist cocked back.

Hit closer to their body in an attempt to catch them flat-footed and bait them to go for more.

Hit below the height of the net to force them to hit up or try even a riskier drop volley.

Move to a location on the court to make them hit the hardest shot possible (i.e. short angle, drop volley) over the highest part of the net.

Wind – Take the downside or against the wind if you feel you are in the mood to gamble. If you want to play conservative, take the upwind side or with the wind. Similar considerations can be applied if you want to bait the opponent to take more chances. Remember that it is riskier to lob and try passing shots with the wind.

Sun – Know where it is and how to use it. If your opponent cannot see, it makes it harder to hit the ball. If the sun is high in the sky, hit lobs. If it’s low on the horizon, make them run in the direction of the sun.

Shadows – Hitting into shadows or along them creates a difference in light, making it harder to see the ball. Most people find that this affects their depth perception. This is most effective early in the morning or late in the afternoon, but also can be in cloudy conditions.

Moving without the ball
You can often create a visual effect by moving without the ball. If you know that your opponent’s highest percentage shot is crosscourt, move in that direction just as he is hitting. This may pressure him into hitting closer to the lines and making additional errors. You may expel some extra effort, but in the long run you may be rewarded. After all, most other sports run plays where direction distractions are part of the play; you can also use this method.

By recognizing opportunities and baiting your opponent into taking risks, you can raise your percentage and cut his down. Simple ideas and strategy can easily create visual appearances that can get people to take unnecessary risks.

It is our job as coaches to teach our students to increase their shot and winning percentage by understanding these risk factors and effectively using them against their opponents.

By turning the game more physical, most players get tired and they become less precise in their directional control of the ball, which can increase many of the risk factors. By turning it into a more mental game, they are forced to focus and concentrate at a much higher level.

This is not going to work every time, but by increasing their opponents’ risks, players can increase their percentages enough to allow themselves to win even those close matches.

Alan Cutler, USPTA Pro 1, is a Specialist in Competitive Player Development and has completed levels I and II of the USTA sport science certification. He is the founder of and has more than 25 years of teaching experience.

Feisal Hassan, a USPTA Master Professional, is the director of tennis at the Regency Sport and Health Club in McLean, Va. He is the head tester for the USPTA Middle States Division and a USPTA Specialist in Competitive Player Development.
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