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The 4 Styles Of Tennis Play And Key Strategies To Beat Them

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Strategy & Tactics

The 4 Styles Of Tennis Play And Key Strategies To Beat Them

Are you the kind of player that likes to rush the net every chance you get? Would you rather stay near the baseline and carefully construct your points? Or are you more confident in your ability go for every ball and simply outlast your opponent? All of these approaches are aspects of what can be defined as your playing style, and if there’s one thing that can hinder your development as a tennis player, it would be neglecting to clearly identify your playing style early on. So let’s find out: what’s your tennis playing style?

Since everyone is different, the type of tennis playing style that naturally appeals to you will be different as well. The particular style that you use will depend upon several factors including your skills, perception of risk, personality and even the type of court surface upon which you normally play.

As a general rule in tennis, most playing styles loosely fall into the following four categories: aggressive baseliner, serve-and-volleyer, counterpuncher, and all court player. Knowing the preferred style of play of your opponents is key to determining the right strategy and tactics to use against them. In this Hub, I describe the four styles of play, describe the key strategies that you can utilize to beat them.

The Aggressive Baseliner

The aggressive baseliner likes to be in control and dictate play. They rely on the strength of their groundstrokes to move opponents around the court and will aggressively go for winners from the back of the court. These players typically have a weapon in their forehand and, often times, their backhand. At more advanced levels of play (4.0+ NTRP rating), they use the geometry of the court to hit angled shots that open the court for winners. Because these players like to be aggressive, they will attack short balls in the court, and they will take the chance at making a few unforced errors in order to hit winners.

These players typically do not like to come to the net, and often their volley is a weakness (at least, compared to their groundstrokes).

Key Strategies to Beat The Aggressive Baseliner

  • Hit deep into the court. You need to hit your shots deep into the back third or quarter of the court. If you give these players balls anywhere near the service line, they will hit winners almost every time.
  • Vary the height and spin of your balls. Every aggressive baseliner has a “wheelhouse” (a height of ball bounce that is their power zone.) You need to vary the height at which they receive your balls–mix in high bouncing shots with low, slicing shots. Also varying the spin: topspin, flat, and slice. Aggressive baseliners rely on getting a rhythm and introducing variety to your shots prevents them from getting their rhythm.
  • Bring them to the Net. Force them to come up to the net and beat you with their volleys by mixing in drop shots. Make sure you have a good drop, though. They will punish you for a high sitter or a drop shot that lands too close to the service line.
  • Be careful when you approach the net. Aggressive baseliners usually have fantastic passing shots and they love a target. Although it’s great to mix in coming to the net as part of your strategy to disrupt their rhythm, do make sure you are coming to the net when you have them on defense.

The Serve-and-Volleyer

The serve and volley player likes to intimidate by following their serve in and attack the net. They come to the net after most first serves, and sometimes after a second serve (if it’s a good one.) And sometimes they’ll come in aggressively on a deep or out wide return of serve. On the times they don’t come to the net right away, you can bet they’re looking to pounce on the first opportunity to do so, usually within the first few balls in a rally. Their typical point construction is to serve, hit a well-placed first volley that opens the court, and hit a finishing volley to end the point. That’s it. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am…point after point after point.

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So how do you take down this aggressive, intimidating player?

Key Strategies to beat the serve-and-volleyer in singles and doubles

  • Focus on your return of serve. Yes, their serve is a weapon, so that means you need to be proactive with where you try to return it. You need to change your return location and use down the line returns (in singles) and lobs (in doubles) more often than you would against other playing styles. Both of those shots keep that player back and take away their opportunity to come in to the net for a first volley. Also mix in short, heavy topspin returns (dippers) at their feet so they’ll be forced to hit a slower, higher return (be sure and follow those in for your own volley opportunities,) and slower-paced returns to force them to generate their own power from the first volley and possibly force an error.
  • Use sharply angled, topspin shots. Both as a return of serve and as a rally ball, using a lot of heavy topspin will give you the margin of error to hit angled, cross court shots. It’s also effective at making balls drop quickly at their feet forcing them to hit up on the ball. This gives you a chance to get offensive and have an easier volley for yourself to hit.
  • Take their time away by hitting your return on the rise. If you return their serve by getting the ball on the rise, you take precious time away from them. This means they can’t get as close to the net as they would like for their first volley.
  • Keep them pinned to the baseline. Serve and volley players do not want to stay back and rally from the baseline. They often do not have consistent enough groundstrokes to sustain long rallies or be aggressive from the baseline. If they do not follow their second serve or return of serve to the net, keep your shots deep in order to keep them at the baseline and rally. Be consistent, and you can win the point from their lack of consistency from the baseline. Another way to pin them to the baseline is to lob any time they start coming in. Make sure your lobs are deep or they could end up hammering you with an overhead.

The Counterpuncher

The Counterpuncher, also known as the Pusher, is all about consistent defense. This type of player knows the percentage shots and always hit them. They know that 2/3 of points won in tennis are from errors, so they will never make one. They will never go for too much on this shot, they almost never hit winners and will win most of their points because you will eventually make the error. To top it off, they are usually fast and have good court coverage. They wear opponents down forcing you to go for too much and to make the mistake. The best counterpunchers keep their shots deep, have good lobs, and place balls effectively.

The counter-puncher is a particularly difficult style of play to beat at beginner and intermediate levels of play (NTRP ratings 3.5 and below) as these levels don’t usually have a reliable weapon with which they can consistently hit winners or force errors.

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Key strategies to Beat the Counterpuncher

  • Attack the net. Counterpunchers do not like to be rushed, and they do not wish to be pressured into trying for too much. Be aggressive at coming in to the net to finish off points.
  • Be patient. You are going to have points where you will need to hit more balls than you want. You must patiently construct points to get your opening to the net. Impatience is how the counterpunch will ultimately beat you. However, don’t stay in long protracted rallies for too long. Otherwise, you are playing right into their hands.
  • Hit behind them. A lot of counterpunchers cover the court well by running to the open court. Hitting balls behind them can effectively wrong foot them and either draw a ball that you can attack and come into the net behind or if you’re really lucky, an error.
  • Getting lobbed to death? Embrace your overhead. The lob is a high percentage shot–especially for the Counterpuncher. Do not get into a long lob-counter lob fest with them. Hit an overhead, drive the lob, or better yet, hit an overhead from the baseline off of those deep lobs.
  • Move them forward and backward. Counterpunchers are excellent movers from side to side, but often times they are not good movers from forward to back. Hit drop shots and short cross-court angles to move them forward then follow it up with a deep lob or deep, penetrating groundstroke to move them back again. It’s effective at drawing short balls for you to attack or even errors.

The All-Court Player

The All-Court Player, as the name implies, is the player that is comfortable using a lot of different shots. The All-Courter adapts and uses shots that are best matched to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. Against the counterpuncher, they are aggressive attackers of the net. Against the serve and volleyer, they are consistent baseliners. This player uses incredible variety in a very offensive way. As such, they are often a jack-of-all-trades that can hit every shot in the book–consistent groundies, sound volleys, beautiful drop-shots, and dependable lobs. However, because they have learned to hit such a wide array of shots, they often times do not have a huge weapon in one of them…and if they do, it is usually the first shot that can break down under pressure.

Key Strategies to Beat the All-Court Player

  • Stick to your weapon. Know what your weapon is (forehand? consistency?) and focus on using it as much as possible. An all-courter will likely have a difficult time breaking down your much better weapon. This is why Nadal plays his forehand weapon against Federer’s slice backhand.
  • Hit high looping topspin balls deep into the court. Keeping high topspin balls deep will keep the all court player pinned deep behind the baseline. It’s very difficult to hit variety from 3+ feet behind the baseline–e.g. drop shots are impossible to hit while moving backward this far from the net.
  • Be aggressive and dictate the points. You are going to have to take control of the points as much as possible and dictate play. All-courters are very aggressive players–even when they employ a counterpunch strategy it is because that’s what opponents don’t like and they are controlling this rhythm. To stay ahead, you are going to have to be the aggressor and dictate the points that you want to play.

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4.5 USTA rated/open champion level tennis player, vegan, fitness freak, animal lover, and smart ass who firmly believes that champagne is anathema for all ills. Right now I'm either up to my eyeballs in paint swatches and fabric samples, or kicking some butt on a tennis court (hopefully the latter).

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