Training Singles Tactics

Louis Cayer Canadian Olympic & Head National Coach

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to make coaches aware of the core principles and key components of tactical training. The material presented below has direct application to working with players between the 2.5 (advanced beginner) and 7.0 (touring professional) skill level. The main topics covered are:

  • Tactics before technique
  • Diversification before specialisation
  • Training patterns of play
  • Training decision-making
  • Being aware of links

Tactics before technique

Traditionally, technique has been viewed as the main priority in tennis training, with the playing of points or games coming second. In actual fact, technique should be introduced as a means to an end, and that end is to succeed tactically.

Coaches should design their annual training plans around the tactical competencies they would like their players to acquire by the end of the year -- around the game situations and the patterns of play they would like players to master.

Example: Groundstrokes. Over the year, a coach may want athletes to develop the tactical ability to move an opponent around. This may require training the following patterns and their corresponding technical shots:

  1. Taking control of a point from the middle of the court
  2. Grooving a crosscourt exchange
  3. Breaking a crosscourt exchange by hitting down-the-line
  4. Opening up the court with an angled shot
  5. Hitting a drop-shot followed by a lob or passing shot
  6. The x-pattern (a two-shot combination - hitting the first shot at a short angle, and the second shot deep to the other side)

In order to train these patterns, shotmaking technique will need to be introduced. However, the technique must be seen as a tool to execute the tactic more effectively. The tactical objective should be chosen first.

Once the tactical objective has been chosen, the technical work can begin. In technical training, the coach should move progressively from closed to open (that is, from a controlled situation to the wide open environment of game play). In general, the following progression works well:

  • Basket feeding
  • Cooperative drilling
  • Controlled playing situation
  • Live playing situation

For players who already have the necessary technical skills, the coach can omit the first two steps, and move directly to the controlled and live playing situations.

The above progression ensures that players can actually use a newly-acquired skill in a game play situation. This is in contrast to most "traditional" training in which coaches often don't get past the second (or even the first) of the four stages.

For example, consider the first tactical pattern listed earlier: taking control of a point from the middle of the court (by moving the opponent from side to side). To develop this pattern, an important technique will be the use of a well-disguised, inside-out forehand, allowing the player to hit effectively to either side of the court. At the beginning, it is acceptable for the coach to groove the forehand technique with some basket feeding, but players should move on to cooperative drills amongst themselves as soon as possible. The live feeding that occurs in a cooperative drill is superior to basket feeding because it adds a degree of realism. For example, we could initiate live feeding by doing 2-on-1 drills where the 2 players hit to the middle and the solo player hits to the corners. Various types of drills are possible, but at the end of the technical acquisition the coach should move on to controlled, and then live, playing situations that incorporate the serve and return. For example:

  • controlled playing situation: On the deuce side, Player A serves wide and Player B returns serve to the middle of the court. Player A then hits an inside-out forehand into the open court. Many variations of this scenario are possible as long as Player B returns serve to the middle of the court to set up the tactic (taking control from the middle).
  • live playing situation: Next, the coach must ensure that the skills learned are implemented when players are in a real game situation. That is, the coach should have the players play games, and watch to ensure that the server is looking to control the point by hitting an attacking shot whenever the receiver returns the ball to the middle of the court.

Diversification before specialisation

There are times when a coach can help a player specialise in a specific gamestyle, thereby narrowing the number of tactical options and patterns of play that will be the focus of future training. However, it's important not to do this too early in a player's development. If we prematurely train one set of options without exploring the others, we may force the player into a gamestyle that doesn't fit his/her mental and physical profile.

Thus, in working with a group of developing players, the coach may gear a year-long program to exploring the patterns of play associated with diverse gamestyles. For example, the patterns explored could be based around the three major ways of putting pressure on the opponent:

  1. Moving the opponent around (Associated gamestyle: Baseliner - placement specialist)
  2. Using the big forehand (Associated gamestyle: Baseliner - power specialist)
  3. Coming to the net (Associated gamestyle: Net rusher)

As players experiment tactically and technically with these options, they may decide they prefer some over others, and thereby gravitate naturally towards the associated gamestyle.

The table below lists patterns for each of the above themes. We should remember that patterns can be developed for each of the 5 basic singles game situations, (serving, returning, both players back, approaching/at the net, and hitting a passing shot/lob). Each of these 5 basic situations should be trained in order to prepare the player tactically, and to address the different strokes associated with each situation.

Gamestyle Baseliner:
placement specialist
Baseliner:
power specialist
Net rusher
Theme Moving the opponent around Using the big forehand Coming to the net
1 Serve wide When serving, modify the setup & recovery positions (Note B1) Serve & volley
2 Return serve away from the middle Return-of-serve: run around backhand Serve and look to come in
3 Take control from the middle by hitting corner to corner When returning serve, modify the setup & recovery positions (Note B2) Return-of-serve: chip & charge
4 Groove the "diagonals" (Note A1) Impose forehand tempo (Note B3) Return-of-serve: drive & charge
5 Change direction Run around the backhand Approach shot
6 x-pattern (Note A2) Moonball - drive (Note B4) Baseline drive followed to the net (Note C1)
7 Drop-shot followed by lob Initiate the forehand "diagonal" (Note B5) after hitting a drop-shot or angle
8 Open court volley Modify the recovery position in a baseline exchange (Note B6) Intercept moonball (Note C2)
9 Wrong-footing shot Open up the court with an inside-out forehand (Note B7) Fake to come in

Note A1: Maintain a more aggressive (rather than a neutral) crosscourt exchange, by hitting well-angled balls deep and to the sidelines. This well-angled, "diagonal" shot repeatedly forces the opponent to run wide, hit from the alley, and then struggle with a longer recovery to get in position for the next ball. This can both tire the opponent and open up the court for a possible winner.

Note A2: The x-pattern is a two-shot combination in which the player hits a short angle to the sidelines, and the then follows up with a deep ball to the other side of the court. The x-pattern is often used against opponents who play deep behind the baseline. It draws them out of their "comfort zone".

Note B1: Baseliners with a big forehand can increase their chances of being able to use it by positioning themselves more to their backhand side whenever possible. Thus, when setting up to hit a serve, a right-handed player can set up a little more to the left, and once the serve has been hit, can move even further to the left to await the return.

Note B2: See Note B1. Modifying the initial setup and recovery positions to increase one's chance of being able to hit a forehand, can also be done when receiving serve.

Note B3: Begin hitting with a faster forehand pace that the opponent cannot easily maintain, eventually eliciting a shorter or slower ball that can be easily attacked.

Note B4: Hit a high-bouncing moonball (preferably with topspin) deep to the opponent's backhand. This typically results in a slower, high-bouncing return that can be readily attacked with a forehand drive.

Note B5: During a crosscourt exchange, after several balls, hit a well-angled forehand ("diagonal") that pulls the opponent wide to the alley. Watch for a weaker return up the middle that can be attacked.

Note B6: In a baseline exchange, recover more to the backhand side, thus increasing the possibility of being able to hit the forehand on the next ball.

Note B7: Use the inside-out forehand to open up the court for a possible winner. (Steffi Graff was a master at this.)

Note C1: Capitalize on opportunities to hit a solid drive from the baseline, and follow it into the net.

Note C2: Move in to volley an approaching moonball, rather than moving back to play defensively.

Once you know your options, you can decide the order in which you'd like to train them. For example, you could begin by training all the options associated with a specific gamestyle, or you could begin by mixing options from different gamestyles. For example, from 3/4 court (just ahead of the baseline) you could make the player either place the ball, drive the ball, or come to the net.

Training patterns of play

There are many elements which require attention in tactical training. They include: anticipation, decision-making, gamestyle development, playing percentage tennis, dealing with different surfaces / environments / scores / type of opponent ... and so on. Working with patterns of play is an excellent and practical way to address these many elements in an on-court training session. So what is a pattern of play?

A pattern of play is a common sequence of shots hit by the player and the opponent. Training a pattern is more than simply presenting players with a single shot to execute. Players must come to understand point construction. The shot to be trained, and the shots made by the player before and after that shot, are all part of point construction. All must be considered by the coach in order to know where to work both tactically and technically.

Remember that tennis is an open-skill sport. Thus, in every tennis point we see the cyclical repetition of the open-skill process:

Perception => Decision-making => Execution => Feedback

It is very important to train patterns of play in order to automate the decision-making & execution components of this cycle. This training will help the player to read a situation and execute the appropriate shot quickly. As the speed of an exchange increases, automated patterns of response become increasingly important. This is why the development of a specific gamestyle with its corresponding patterns of play is so important -- it narrows the number of tactical possibilities.

The types of patterns that can be trained include the following:

  • Single shot selection: e.g., always return a wide serve crosscourt.
  • Two-shot combination (setting up the shot being trained): e.g., hit a moonball to the opponent's backhand to coax a short/high return that can be attacked with a big forehand (the shot being trained)
  • Two-shot combination (following up the shot being trained): e.g., after hitting a big forehand (the shot being trained), come in to volley the next ball
  • Three-shot combination: Combine the shot being trained with both the preceding shot (the shot that sets it up) and the follow-up shot.

When planning the patterns of play you're going to train, use the following guidelines:

  • Try to devise patterns for all 5 Game Situations: For example, if you want to train players to hit a big forehand, think about how that shot can be used effectively in each of the 5 game situations (serving, returning, rallying from the baseline, approaching/at the net, hitting a passing shot/lob). Obviously, some shots won't be relevant to all game situations.
  • Include patterns common to all gamestyles: There are common shot combinations that should be trained irrespective of a player's gamestyle: x-pattern; dropshot/ lob, etc.

Training decision-making

Tennis requires a lot of decision-making. Some decisions can be made prior to play. Others have to be made as the play is unfolding.

  1. Decisions made before the tournament, before the match or before the point. Considerations include: the environment, the player's gamestyle, the opponent's gamestyle, and the score.

  2. Decisions made during the point. Decision-making training equips players to respond quickly and effectively to appropriate cues. For example, a coach might direct a player to "look to come in more", or to "use the forehand more". But what cues tell a player they can come in, use their forehand, etc.? What should they be looking for? Has their training prepared them to recognise the cues and to act on them? Or are they left to figure this out on their own?

There are a number of elements to consider when training decision-making during a point:

  • nature of ball received: e.g., How you play a backhand approach shot may be determined by the type of ball you receive. If you are hitting the ball from a position close to the sideline, you may choose to go down-the-line but if you are hitting the ball from the middle of the court, you may choose to go crosscourt. (See ball characteristics
  • nature of ball to be sent: e.g., If you feel your drop shot was great, you might try to sneak ahead of the baseline into 3/4 court, but if you misplayed the drop shot, you might retreat a bit more behind the baseline.
  • the opponent's movement or court position: When the opponent is stretching to make a shot, you may decide to sneak in.
  • your movement or court position: When you create good forward momentum on the 2nd serve return, you may decide to follow it into the net.

Remember that training patterns of play facilitates good decision-making. If patterns are trained to be automatic, players can better make decisions under pressure. Training patterns accelerates learning and helps a player to avoid decision-making errors (i.e., indecision, late decision, wrong decision, no decision).

Being aware of links

Even when working on other aspects of a player's development, you can establish a link with tactics.

  • Technical: When teaching a new stroke, introduce tactics at the very beginning by showing what happens before, during and after the stroke in a game situation. This will ensure that the player quickly understands why the stroke is needed, and when it's actually used in play. For example, when teaching a one-handed slice backhand, you might start having the player hit a self-dropped ball at mid-court, but as soon as the student gets the feel of the shot, you should move on quickly and set up a game situation to illustrate that playing a slice approach can set up a weak return, making it easier to volley or smash the following shot.
  • Physical: A player's physical condition is an important factor in determining the outcome of a match. The physical state of both the player and the opponent (e.g., in top shape, tired, injured ...) should be considered, and can sometimes dictate a player's tactical gameplan. For example, if an opponent is known to be less fit or is tiring, the player may try to engage them in longer rallies, or make them run more. Similarly, a player who is tired or injured may try to finish points early.
  • Mental training: The mental attitudes needed for top play are the same ones required to perform tactics effectively. For example: dominate; take control; apply pressure; be courageous ...
  • Anticipation: Tactics and anticipation go hand in hand. Good anticipation is necessary for advanced tennis. Tactical thinking leads players to anticipation and vice versa. It also leads a player to develop the sense of disguise and variation when playing.

In Conclusion

Tactics lie at the very heart of the game of tennis. For this reason, they should be front and centre in the training of players at all skill levels.

Tactics can be linked to virtually every other component of the game, be it technical, mental or physical in nature. Technique in particular, should rarely (if ever) be taught independently of tactical purpose. Tactics must always drive technique, and a player's technique must always be adapted to meet the tactical objective.

For players on a professional track, a solid tactical base is absolutely essential for success. For recreational players, an understanding of the spectrum of tactical possibilities available at their level of play, coupled with success in using them, will at minimum increase their interest and enjoyment of the game.

As coaches we need to remember that, ultimately, tennis is about having fun playing points. When players learn to think tactically, that fun increases many fold.