At the club or high school level, most players can get more aggressive, or more consistent, but not both. This is often because players at this level tend to confuse being more “aggressive” with hitting “harder,” which to them usually means muscling the ball instead of swinging faster and looser. In my lessons, I teach the following simple tactics that help our JV and Varsity players get more aggressive and more consistent at the same time, without them trying to hit “harder.” These tactics can work for most of your intermediate to advanced players too. #1 Aim for big, safe targets. Don’t go for lines, Go for “lanes.”
I like what Jeff Salzenstein of TennisEvolution.com recommends: Train your players by using lanes as targets, not cones or pyramids of balls. Lanes are like runways at the airport. They’re big, wide, long targets, not pinpoint precision ones. Cones are ok as targets for variety, and add fun by giving players extra points if they knock one down during a drill game. But they are too small a target on a regular basis for all but the most advanced players.
Instead, use flat court markers or arrange cones to create lanes or big boxes that are several feet wide and long where you want them to aim. For groundstroke targets, set up a lane or a box from a few feet behind the service line to a few feet from the baseline, and a few feet inside the sideline. When they miss those targets, the ball will still have a good chance of landing in and it will look like they’ve aimed for the line! So tell your players to go for the lanes and not the lines! #2 Use your go-to shot as often as you can.
I like to ask players, what is the baseline shot you’d do for a million dollars? One ball. One chance at a million dollars. What shot are you going to rely on? Most players will say, my forehand. So guess what? Part of being more aggressive but with consistency is using your best shot, your go-to shot, more. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are great examples of doing this. Their backhands are world-class excellent, but they are still trying to hit as many forehands as they can. Club and high school level players don’t usually do this as systematically, but they can learn to. This means—for most of us, whose forehands are better than our backhands—run around the BH to hit forehands, often inside out ones (I/O). The most important aspect of using this tactic is to help players recognize when to run around the BH and when not to.
Use a flat court marker to divide the ad side of the baseline into halves, and have the player ONLY hit an I/O FH on the 1/2 closest to the center hash mark, so they don’t leave so much court wide open to their opponent. Feed them a variety of balls so they have to decide quickly: Is it a definite FH, definite BH, or in the zone where I have a choice, where I can do an I/O? Then play points with them where you’re doing
the same thing, giving them a variety of balls right in that grey area, the zone of choice. Their job is to develop the mindset that 3/4 of the baseline is their FH territory, and the muscle memory through many repetitions to make the I/O move an instinctive habit. This can work in the ad court for doubles too (or the deuce for lefties); where, if the ball is coming slow enough and their footwork is fast enough, they can train themselves to use their FHs everywhere up to the doubles alley. The key is, in singles, if the ball goes to the far left 1/2 of the ad baseline, you hit your BH. Period. Always. No thinking about it. The key is training their minds and muscles to divide the baseline into 3/4 FH and 1/4 BH. #3 Use pre-set plays like Serve +1 and Return +1 to gain control within the 1st 4 shots.
ATP and WTA stats guru Craig O’Shannessy’s detailed analysis shows that at the pro level, at least 70 percent of singles points end in an average of four strokes—a serve, a return, and one more from each player. Not much different in doubles. Most club and high school players have far less consistency, so their points can be even shorter, on average. So getting your players really clear about what to hit after their serve or return is crucial.
For singles, I have them make the +1 (the next shot after the serve or the return) deep and down the middle. In practice, we hit that no matter what has happened with the serve or return. Then we play out the point. (In doubles, we practice the +1 being cross-court mostly, but also throw in lob over the net person and drive at the net person’s inside hip.)
For most players, that +1 should be a FH if they can. Now they’re using their weapon, hitting over the lowest part of the net into the very middle of the court. It forces the opponent to pick a side to hit on (FH or BH), and making decisions of any kind like that will slow them down. With the pre-set +1, your player isn’t making a choice now, but their opponent is. Even a fraction of a second lost to thinking can make a big difference in their balance and point of contact, which raises the odds of them making an error. And it takes away their own angles to play, making it more likely that they’ll hit at best a neutral rally ball back to your player. On average, that should set your player up for an easier next shot. In the apt phrase from EssentialTennis.com’s Ian Westermann, it’s a way of “creating chaos.” My goal is to help players create chaos without them being chaotic!
Have your players serve or return, and then after they execute the Serve or Return + 1 shot, you play out the point, with them always looking to hit that FH (see step #2 above), but abiding by the inside out FH rules and aiming for big, safe targets (step #1). Then talk with them about their tactics, shot selection, positioning, etc. Having the +1 play focus will sharpen their awareness of how to construct points.
So, to help your players be more aggressive AND be more consistent at the same time, train them to: aim for big targets, hit their go-to shot more often, and use the pre-set Serve and Return + 1 plays, especially going down the middle of the court. Then watch their confidence and point construction take off!*About Dr. Peter C. Scales
Dr. Peter C. Scales, known as Coach Pete to his players, is a developmental psychologist and USPTA Professional who is the JV boys and girls tennis coach at Parkway South High in Manchester, Missouri. He led the 2017 and 2018 boys’ JV teams to back-to-back undefeated seasons, a feat never accomplished by any tennis team in the school’s 42-year history. A previous contributor to ADDvantage, Coach Pete’s book, Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor, will be published by Coaches Choice.