Updated: Nov 14, 2020
Addressing myths of the short ball
After reading what I could find on the subject, I traveled the country to famous training centers such as Hilton Head, Evert and Bollettieri with a specific interest in attacking short balls. After match charting made it clear to me that attacking the short ball is the most important stat, I asked questions about it to most of the most famous coaches like Macci, along with others who were not as famous, but ran successful programs. A few years later I was introduced to John Carpenter by one of these world famous coaches, who explained John was the most knowledgeable source on published US tennis instruction. In this piece I’ll endeavor to share what I learned over many years of study and testing ideas about both the rally shot and the short ball.
Can you always attack the short ball? The real answer is sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. First we need to clarify what constitutes a “short ball”, and that is where the challenges start on this journey. Coach Carpenter agrees there is no clearly defined depth that coaches agree is a short ball. There are many who say anything bouncing closer than 3, 4 or 5 feet from the baseline is good, while most seem to say anything less than the service line is short. There are others who suggest that halfway between the service line and the baseline is the best marker for short ball recognition. Also, most of the instruction group every mid-court attack in with approach shots. As you can see, there is way too much conflicting instruction to be useful for our Congruent Tennis Model training and there is little guidance covering the exceptions where these “short balls'' are acceptable or even desirable.
While it may seem logical to look at the bounce for guidance on recognizing a short ball, with more study you can see how the bounce point ends up being a very poor standard. There are simply far too many exceptions that you must account for as a player. This is partly why so many Jr players struggle with this portion of their training as well as why so few programs adequately train this aspect of a player’s game. Drills are devised where the result forces players to attack balls they have no business attacking and crush their confidence in the process. This begins a cycle of failure leading to a hesitance to act, then blaming the student/player for their inaction in this facet of the game. There has to be a better standard for knowing when to Attack….
While I’m extremely open to suggestions and new ideas that I’d love to feature on this site from our members, what I found to be exceptionally effective and easy to teach is to base things on the ‘reception area’ achieved. If you think about it, really the overriding and true determining factor is your position on the court for reception of the incoming shot. It doesn’t matter how short or weak the incoming ball is if we can’t get there in time to attack. This goes double for incoming shots with lots of pace to one side after you have been pulled wide to the other side. The bounce point in these situations just isn’t the key factor. Of course we should always strive to recover to a position that maximizes our ability to receive shots optimally, but in the end the thing that matters most is where we receive the shot. If you or a player you coach isn’t getting to balls in good shape, then by all means you should work on that issue, but don’t compound that problem by encouraging an attack when they have not achieved the position to pull it off regularly.
So what is the best guideline to determine whether to hit an Aggressive Rally baseline shot or a Forcing Attack shot? Maybe you noticed the not so subtle clue where I called it an Aggressive Rally “baseline” shot? Right on the court, hidden in plain sight is the near perfect guide for understanding your position. The baseline is an excellent reference to use for understanding your attacking capabilities. It is the nexus point for 3 critical factors in determining Rally vs Attack status. The main 3 factors are Distance, Time and Angle Options.
#1 is Distance- the more inside the baseline you receive the ball means you get to advance forward (the easiest direction to move quickly), leaving your opponent less time to recover, as well as your attack will also have a shorter distance to get past your opponent. The negative to be aware of is that you now have a shorter court to work with, but the upside is you need less power with this shorter court and have more options being closer to the net. You should have less risk of hitting the net when closer to it as well.
#2 is Time- in this situation, time is mostly a result of the effects of distance as you can put your shot thru the court quicker while your opponent has far less time to reach it than when you hit from behind the baseline.
#3 is Angles & Options- yes, the court got shorter as you moved inside the baseline, but the upside is the available hitting lanes became much wider. As your angles opened wider, the target options grew to such an extent that there is just no way for your opponent to cover many of them. They are forced to guess and pick an area, or to stand their ground and dare you to execute your shot well.
After exploring the huge upsides of moving up inside the baseline, we now turn to the flipside of being behind the baseline where we now have NONE of these 3 big advantage factors above. Sure you can occasionally wrong foot an opponent or catch them lazy on recovery, but without Distance, Time and Angles working for you, the challenge is too big. Their mistakes are sort of random and nothing you can count on unless you are just far superior to your opponent. In Congruent Tennis we strive to develop the best of habits and those that will serve us well against our most worthy opponents. We seek to avoid developing the lazy habits that weak opponents can encourage. We strive to play in the Advanced Tennis Foundation mode (ATF) at all times. This ATF concept leads us to understand that while the Forcing Attacks are key to use when stepping inside the baseline, it is just as important to understand our role when in an Aggressive Rally where both our feet are positioned behind that important baseline reference!
If stepping inside the baseline to execute Forcing Attacks shots is the key to “taking” points, then playing consistent high percentage tennis from behind the baseline is the key to not “giving away” free points. Congruent Tennis encourages you to be as aggressive as you can in the Rally from behind the baseline, but you really need to avoid being overly aggressive there and giving up too many free points in this poor area to “end points” is a very low percentage play. Let the court position you have earned at contact govern your decision to Attack. Don't let your opponent's weakness suck you into poor habits that will haunt you in the next round of the tournament. Use those weaker opponents to practice quality decisions and make them habitual!
new articles coming soon on:
The types of Forcing Attacks Shots
The most Important Stat for Winning Tennis