“No one can know or play too many strokes, provided that person knows how each shot is made and when to use it.”
— Bill Tilden, the sport’s seminal analyst, in the March 15, 1919, American Lawn Tennis.
“It’s an art form to know where to hit the ball, but it’s even better if you have the know-how to execute it well.”
— John Fitzgerald, Australian Davis Cup player and captain, during his TV commentary at the 2023 Australian Open.
Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about technique and tactics since tennis was invented in 1874, but have you ever read any that analysed the connections between technique and tactics? As a long-time coach, tennis researcher, tournament player, and tennis writer, let me assure you, I haven’t.
Let’s start with the definitions of these two cornerstones of teaching and playing a complex sport.
Technique is comprised of three elements: grips, footwork, and strokes.
Grips come first in this triad because correct ones are the sine qua non of playing high-level tennis. They’re the first thing taught with each stroke because competent coaches and teaching pros know that you can’t hit a good forehand with a continental grip, and you can’t hit a good serve with a forehand grip of any kind.
Footwork encompasses balance, speed, flexibility, jumping, sliding, timing, spacing, acceleration, deceleration, and agility. Perhaps because footwork is less glamorous than strokes, it has traditionally been discussed, analysed, and taught with less expertise, enthusiasm, and frequency.
However, the efficient and ballet-like movement of Roger Federer brought more attention to footwork and its great importance. “My game is a lot about footwork,” Federer said. “If I move well, I play well.”
Strokes are what most fascinate players in debates but also most confound them in practice. There is little, if any, disagreement about how to hit volleys and overheads. For serves, the most spirited debate centres on the merits of the pinpoint stance versus the platform stance or a hybrid version of them.
The greatest variability in instructional methodology involves the teaching of groundstrokes, especially forehands — which are classified as Eastern, Semi-Western, and Western.
After all, the greatest men’s forehands of this century — executed by Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Fernando Gonzalez, Andre Agassi, and Carlos Alcaraz — differ either a little or a lot in terms of strokes, grips, and footwork. The strokes of these exemplars also vary in terms of their path, length, contact point, speed, and rhythm.
The key point here is that forehands have, by far, the greatest range of correctness of any stroke. That variability, we’ll discuss, in due course.
Tactics are defined as specific plans and ways to apply and execute an overall strategy. Tennis is blessed with intriguingly different playing styles that keep TV analysts busy offering their insights about the best general strategy to devise and the cleverest tactics to deploy.
If all this is getting to sound a bit complicated, rest assured, it’s what makes tennis so appealing to 100 million players and a billion fans around the world.
As Sarah Palfrey — a shrewd strategist who won 18 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles from 1930 to 1945 — wrote, “In no other sport are the strategic possibilities so numerous, the ways to outwit your opponent so rich and varied within the accepted sportsmanlike bounds.”
The playing styles of elite players go a long way to explain winning tactics. In the 20th century that now seems so long ago, four styles predominated: serve and volleyers, such as Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Pancho Gonzalez, and Margaret Court; hard-hitting baseliners, such as Maureen Connolly, Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles, and Andre Agassi; light-hitting but strategic pushers or retrievers like Bryan “Bitsy” Grant, Andrea Jaeger, Harold Solomon, and Francoise Durr; and all-court players, typically super athletes, such as Bjorn Borg, Evonne Goolagong, Fred Perry, and Suzanne Lenglen.
This diversity of playing styles shrunk this century with the near extinction of full-time serve-volleyers (except for Maxime Cressy) and pusher-retrievers. Baseline sluggers predominate on both the ATP and WTA Tours, though drop shots have made a surprising comeback to provide much-needed variety.
Federer took the sport to a new and wildly entertaining level with breathtaking shot-making and athleticism enhanced by creative tactics — such as the innovative SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger).
The freakishly dynamic and versatile Alcaraz plays like a turbo-charged Federer. Not only does he have every shot in the book and then some, but his tactical acumen for 19 — or any age! — is off the charts.
We can’t play like Roger and Carlos, but we can learn from them and other champions like Djokovic, Nadal, Serena Williams, and current women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek.
Here are the important axioms to keep in mind about the critical connections between technique and tactics.
The better your technique, the greater number of and more advanced tactics you can use. For example, if you aspire to become a serve-and-forehand attacker like Nadal, Swiatek, or Matteo Berrettini, you need a strong first serve, and preferably, also an accurate, high-bouncing kick second serve.
Then you determine the most effective tactics, such as targeting your opponent’s weaker groundstroke, exploiting his serve return position, or capitalising on your best serve and best serving side (deuce or ad court). You also need an aggressive forehand, which entails four attributes — power, placement, depth, and hitting the ball on the rise.
At his intimidating best, Nadal maximises this one-two punch on service games by hitting forehands for his first shot after serving at least 80% of the time.
If you relish wrong-footing baseliners when you’re at net, your volley must be consistently solid and penetrating. Then determine whether this works best when you volley down the line or crosscourt, when you should use your forehand or backhand volley, and which opponents are most vulnerable, such as those who over-anticipate or are super-fast.
In order to bedevil opponents with drop shots, you must possess not only the technique but also a soft touch. If you have these special skills, then determine when drop shots can win points outright, or at least elicit a weak return.
For example, this tactic works best when you’re positioned inside the baseline and your opponent is behind the baseline or outside the sideline.
Former world No. 4 Gene Mayer, now a leading coach, pointed out the primary connection between technique and tactics. “You can’t think tactically about where you’re going to hit the ball until you can automatically reproduce your strokes and placement.
As you add power and spin, with great repetition, you’ll master the strokes, ideally by age 10 or 11. Then you can cultivate tactics. I actually enjoyed learning tactics even more than learning strokes.”
Flawed technique can lead to confusion and poor tactics. A case in point is Berrettini’s erratic two-handed backhand and, except on grass, his weak one-handed backhand. The best players exploit both by out-steadying his two-hander and overpowering his one-hander.
The 2021 Wimbledon final highlighted how much mediocre technique can sabotage a player. When Djokovic’s serve and groundstrokes broke down Berrettini’s backhand, the befuddled Italian had no answer. He either over-hit backhands and erred, or he under-hit them and was quickly put on the defensive.
Federer’s low break-point conversion percentage hurt him throughout his extraordinary career and partly accounted for his losing a record 22 matches after having one or more match points.
Most break points are played in the ad court, and booming first serves and wickedly kicking second serves put Fed into a quandary. Should he conservatively slice backhands for greater consistency and then rely on his athleticism to recover if his returns are weak? Or should he go for bigger but lower-percentage shots with flat or topspin backhands?
In Fed’s case, the problem was not that his one-handed backhand technique was flawed, but rather that nearly all one-handed backhands aren’t as effective as two-handed backhands, particularly for serve returns and passing shots.
Although Roger once confided he wished he had a two-handed backhand, the resourceful Swiss eventually switched from a tiny 90-square-inch racquet head to a 97-square-inch head. The change provided a larger sweet spot to better handle arch-rival Nadal’s swerving wide lefty serves and vicious topspin forehands, most notably in the 2017 Australian Open final.
A flawed volley is Daniil Medvedev’s bete noire. A standout gamer and avid chess player, Medvedev has drawn praise for his tactics with Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone even asserting the Russian is “a strategical genius.” Far from it, because in 2022 opponents increasingly exploited Daniil’s poor positioning — from three to 10 feet behind the baseline — and he lost his last eight matches against top-10 foes.
That defensive position not only takes the sting out of his groundstrokes, but the greater distance also makes approaching net more difficult. The fact is, Daniil isn’t particularly eager to go to net in the first place because he lacks confidence in his volley.
Federer, a perfectionist, once said he’s always looking for new ways to win points. Medvedev should look for this basic way — putting volleys away and forcing passing shot errors — to win points. Improving his volley technique should rank as his highest immediate priority.
Over-compensating for flawed technique can prove disastrous. Andy Roddick, like several other leading American men this century, suffered from defective backhand technique. When he could run around it to hit his much-superior forehand, he often did. But occasionally Andy took that positional tactic to a counter-productive extreme.
His inside-in, down-the-line forehand approach shot — executed along his backhand sideline — was easily thwarted because he was so far out of position that opponents routinely stroked crosscourt passing shots into the open court.
Even the savvy Federer committed this tactical gaffe on occasion. At the 2015 Australian Open, he was losing to Andreas Seppi, whom he had defeated in their 10 previous matches.
Finding himself close to the backhand singles sideline, he opted to approach net behind an inside-in forehand, rather than a high-percentage backhand slice. Way out of position, Federer then had to dart laterally towards the middle of the court. When Seppi belted a forehand passing shot down the line, Fed couldn’t even change directions to run for it. Worst of all, his tactical blunder came on match point!
Alexander Zverev, a 6’6” German who won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, boasts a booming first serve, usually in the 125-135 mph range. His second serve, however, lacks racquet head speed, and typically averages in the 80s.
Sascha faces a tactical dilemma. If he hits a relatively slow, weak second serve, his opponents can whack returns that produce winners or force him to err. But when he gambles with a huge second serve, he tends to pile up double faults. Similarly, Andy Murray’s serving motion is technically correct, but he fails to generate much topspin or power.
Zverev and Murray could remedy the problem by tossing the ball six inches to a foot behind its current contact point and swinging as fast as possible. Then they’d come closer to realising their second serve’s tactical potential.
Paradoxically, terrific technique can result in a lack of tactics. That seems strange because it contradicts the first axiom. Even more strange is that Djokovic is sometimes guilty of this sin of omission.
Why does Djokovic seem to play aimlessly from the baseline at times and use fewer tactics than Nadal, Federer, and Alcaraz? It could be he confidently believes his superior strokes will sooner or later wear out or out-rally his opponent.
It could be he thinks rushing the net is risky, despite the fact that he almost always wins 60 to 75% of the net points. Or it could be he’s never been a particularly tactical player, and no coach has insisted that he become one.
In fairness, Djokovic, after losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to Medvedev in the 2021 U.S. Open final and dropping the opening set, 6-4, to the Russian in their next meeting in the Paris Masters final, smartly changed tactics.
He rushed net much more often, and his deft volleys produced enough winners and passing shot errors to turn the tide for an impressive 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory. For the entire match, Djokovic won a superb 76% (25 of 33) of the net points, the vast majority coming in the last two sets.
Of course, everyone needs tactics, even a superstar like Djokovic. One could say that in close or losing matches, especially a superstar like Djokovic with near-perfect technique.
Superstars have bad days, just like the rest of us. And the second half of Bill Tilden’s aphorism — “Never change a winning game. Always change a losing game” — applies to everyone.
One of the most disappointing losses in Djokovic’s illustrious career came against red-hot Kei Nishikori in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals. The No. 1-ranked Djokovic also had momentum, having just won Wimbledon. Djokovic and Nishikori possessed quite similar playing styles, the major difference being Djokovic’s more powerful serve and usually more penetrating groundstrokes.
After the 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 loss, Djokovic graciously acknowledged his opponent was more solid and consistent than he was. Actually, Djokovic won 51% of the total points, but, tellingly, Nishikori converted 71% (5 of 7) of his break points, compared to only 31% (4 of 13) for Djokovic.
What if the sometimes-metronomic Serb had changed pace or hit balls out of the 5’10” Japanese’s strike zone, especially high-bouncing balls, or rushed net more? Djokovic should have abided by the timeless Tilden aphorism.
All the more reason for prohibiting coaching during tournament matches!
Forehand technique can influence, or even dictate, tactics and counter-tactics. Super-duper forehands weren’t invented in the 21st century. A hundred years ago, “Little Bill” Johnston, a mere 5’8-1/2” and 130 pounds, pounded his Western forehand with such ferocious power and topspin that he won two singles and five doubles Grand Slam titles.
“Big Bill” Tilden, his contemporary and the greatest tennis player from 1900 to 1950, dominated the 1920s with his potent serve and Eastern forehand.
In future decades, Bjorn Borg (Western), Ivan Lendl (Semi-Western), Steffi Graf (Eastern), Federer (Eastern to Semi-Western), Nadal (Western), and Swiatek (Semi-Western) capitalised on their devastating forehands.
Although Tilden was a master tactician who wrote the timeless classic, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, in 1925, his own tactics were somewhat limited by his Eastern forehand because of its level trajectory and medium-high bounce. (It’s fair to note that Tilden’s classic Eastern game was well-suited for the fast grass courts, on which three of the four majors were then contested, and all-time great Don Budge even changed his Western forehand to an Eastern before he captured the first Grand Slam in 1938.)
Tilden’s flat forehand and backhand made it much harder for him to conjure clever angles like Alcaraz or Federer and high-bouncing groundstrokes like Borg and Nadal. Although Tilden’s tactics weren’t considered limited in his era, they would be in today’s more versatile game.
While a Semi-Western or Western forehand offers a golden opportunity for a player to be creative, by no means does it ensure a player will be.
Aside from his excellent forehand topspin lob, Lendl played mostly straightforward, predictable power tennis with his great Semi-Western forehand.
Similarly, former world No. 2 Michael Chang, whose ingenious, underhand trick serve bamboozled Lendl in the 17-year-old American’s shocking 1989 French Open upset, seldom capitalised on his Semi-Western forehand’s considerable tactical potential.
As effective as Semi-Western and Western forehands are, they have one liability — dealing with low balls.
To their credit, 21st century players are tactically exploiting this vulnerability more than their predecessors. Two-handed backhand players — which constitute 91% of the men and 99% of the women in the top 100, as of December 26, 2022 — have mastered one-handed slice backhands that not only bounce, even skid, very low but are made nastier with sidespin.
And some players like Nick Kyrgios even mix in the occasional underspin-sidespin forehand to further confound Semi-Western and Western opponents.
Terrific technique can also result in too many tactics. Early in his career, Roger Federer was rightly criticised for having so many shots in his repertoire that he occasionally chose a low-percentage hotshot, rather than a reliable, basic shot. The extremely talented but unstable and far less successful Kyrgios is plagued by the same shot selection problem, even at 27. Ah, irrationally exuberant artists with a racquet just want to have fun — no matter the cost.
The inimitable baseball star Yogi Berra once quipped, “How can you think and hit at the same time?” His salient point was that hitting a 95-mph pitch is so difficult in the first place that overthinking, even thinking, is counter-productive. Pro-tennis today, especially in the men’s game, is much the same with most first serves fired in the 115-to-135 mph range and many groundstrokes in the 75-90 mph range.
“Tactics? People talk about tactics. But, a lot of the time, at this level it just comes down to instinct. It happens so fast that you have to hit the shot almost without thinking,” Federer said in the engrossing 2021 biography, The Master. So true!
Playing U.S. Open champion Alcaraz must seem like being trapped in the eye of a tornado. You can’t escape his vast array of rocket artillery — accelerated by his mercurial running speed and endless high energy, both enhanced by his unpredictable shot selection, particularly his touch shots and angles.
The Alcaraz arsenal has already changed the men’s game.
If his opponents appear overwhelmed and befuddled at times, the other side of this New Age coin is that all these enticing, crowd-pleasing options can also confuse the 19-year-old Alcaraz. The pace of the points he plays is so fast that he occasionally drop shots at the wrong times or blasts groundstrokes from untenable positions.
No doubt, Alcaraz will figure out tactically how best to maximise his superb technique and wondrous athleticism.
One can imagine how fascinated and delighted Palfrey and Tilden would be to see how beautifully tennis has evolved.