Chuck Tomlin, CTM Founder and Inventor of the "Congruent Tennis Model" has studied and tested different methods of charting tennis performance. In the mid-late 2000s he developed the "Smart Targets" targeting system for tennis players which has gone in to become an integral component of the Congruent Tennis Model. He wrote this article in 2009, but the debate about the pros and cons of hitting deep as a principal goal in both training and competitive play continues today.
by Chuck Tomlin
Many teaching pros and announcers tend to always speak as though deeper is better, but is that really the case? The Congruent Tennis Model that deeper is not always better, and often much worse than hitting shorter. I think you can even make a good case that hitting deeper was part of Federer’s problem in 2008. So let’s take a look at some of the assumptions and definitions related to depth.
First let us define depth as it seems to be currently used. I have had three children who, across the span of over ten years, worked in drill groups with various teaching pros. This has ranged from the famous ones of south Florida and several in my local hotbed of instruction here in Atlanta. Pretty much universally the message has been to hit near the back three feet of the court. This message was and is conveyed thru targets placed on the courts, as well as drills designed to promote more depth. Granted, most of the drills tolerated any ball past the service line, but it was always clear that the service line was not even close to optimal. After searching thru five of my newer tennis books they all confirmed depth targets inside the last 3 feet. Also, we have all heard the famous announcers extol the virtues of every deep ball that seemed to draw an error, along with the very positive support of any clean winner that just clips a line. I’m hearing it every day during this 2009 US Open. I’ve also asked many club players about their definitions of depth with similar results.
With so much support from the masses supporting this deeper is better idea in tennis, what could make us think otherwise? Well, the first thing is that tennis is still primarily a game of controlling errors. Chart matches and you find pretty quick that more points are won by errors than clean winners at all levels. Sure, Pro matches are considered of great quality when the winners exceed the unforced errors, but this does not account for the large number of forced errors in a match. Many of these forced errors are due to trying to live up to the coach’s efforts to promote depth. Counting these errors in the total shows that far more points are lost to error, than to clean winners, even in the cleanest matches. If the game is won by making less errors, then it may be prudent to try hard to minimize the hazards, in terms of their priority. The first priority is to avoid the net, as it is the first barrier to your opponents court, and most coaches can agree on this. The second hazard or risk would be depth or hitting long, as hitting high and hard makes it easy to reach the baseline and beyond, especially if your instructor is pushing for exceptional depth. The third hazard would be missing wide. I want to show how hitting for depth increases your odds of making all three of these mistakes unnecessarily.
It’s probably clear how going for depth on shots can make you miss long, but how does it make you hit the net or wide? To start with, when you are an aggressive player, and your shots start to sail on you, hitting easy is not the first change you tend to consider. Sometimes this player will try to adjust for these misses by compensating, such as closing the face some. This compensation will often lead to netting some shots, and in many matches the player can end up going back and forth, making some errors in the net and some long. How frustrating; and many of us have been there! Also, when you train to hit for exceptional depth, and the chance to hit a nice angled return shows itself, you may not find it easy to adjust to this shorter court that the angle presents. This can lead to hitting wide (which is really a form of long in this case), netting shots, or just avoiding hitting these angles altogether, which severely limits your game plan. Some players who train hard to hit for depth find it a challenge to hit that dipping passing shot when the opponent comes to net as well. Their finely tuned swings are too well honed to travel more level thru that transition area.
The proponents of the superiority of depth would say to hit shorter would provide too much opportunity to attack your shots. While this is true to an extent, it is greatly mitigated by hitting aggressive topspin shots. Nadal and Federer are great examples of this fact. Both of these two routinely hit a great number of balls that land within a foot or so of the service line, and often clearly inside it! If you don’t believe it, chart a match or two for yourself or better yet, pay attention to the Shot Spot data next time they show where the groundstrokes are landing. They hit short regularly without the shots getting attacked, due to the excellent pace and spin of their shots. I’ve even noted that they tend to draw quite a few errors from opponents that attempt to attack their shorter shots, as long as they have good pace and spin. My thought is that the current ideas about depth come from decades of great champions playing with wood racket and gut strings. Few could produce the pace and spin we see today, which allows the ball to clear the net comfortably and still land pretty short. Slower short shots, with only average spin, not only got attacked, but drew net players in quickly, where they could ply their honed offensive skills to finish the points.
Since Nadal and Federer, along with a host of others, have proved it can be quite safe overall to hit shorter as long as the pace and spin are strong, what else can we notice about hitting shorter? For one, hitting a shorter ball to a wide open court is a very smart play! How many times have you seen a player work hard to build a point, get the court wide open, only to miss long or wide? This will not happen if the player is skilled at hitting shorter with pace and spin. These shorter, fast balls will still go for clean winners just like a deeper one will. In fact, the deeper one will stay in the air longer and provide more time for a speedster like Murray to run it down, 18′ behind the baseline.
Another advantage of hitting shorter is that when an angle is the best shot to hit, a player skilled at shorter, high spin and paced shots will find it very easy to execute. This can lead to forcing the opponent to have to account for much more court to cover. What about when returning serve or anytime someone tries to approach on you, but gets caught in transition? The player skilled at the shorter shot will find it quite easy to put it down on the feet of the oncoming player. Another advantage of this shorter shot is that it allows you to really unload on the strokes. Since the shots are designed to be well clear of the net, but dipping hard well before the baseline, you can hit as hard as you can execute this shot. If the ball gets away from you by only 3-5 feet, it will still be well within the confines of the court and actually have the bonus of being that deep ball that TV announcers like so much!
To tie this back into Federer’s mortal 2008 (if only we could all have a year like that), we can look at how not being in great shape due to mono, led to his depth control problems. My theory is that not having his legs under him as he was accustomed, he attempted to compensate by trying to end points quicker. Whether this was conscious or not, I can’t say, but it was clear to me he was in a hurry to pull the trigger in points. It was also pretty clear that he was using extreme depth to try and make these early strikes more effective. Most of his unusually high number of forehand unforced errors, were shots that landed just beyond that deep corner, and some were even where he caught the tape trying to keep the balls from going long on him. Now that he is back in shape, he has settled into hitting fewer of those extreme depth type balls and seems to be on quite a roll again.
So to recap, hitting shorter, as long as the pace and spin are high octane, is quite a safe and desirable way to go. It should lead to far fewer unforced errors while allowing for more aggressive rips at the ball. I would expect it to lead to more errors from your opponents as extra bonus, for a nice net gain in the error category. Working with students to push for greater depth on shots can be quite counter productive thru exposure to various forms of depth risks, along with possible inhibition of using full powered strokes. I think this is one more huge advantage of the Congruent Tennis System, in the way that it recognizes this subtle, but important element of the game.