Reasons to use side spin in tennis

We take a look at the many ways side spin can improve a player’s attack and defence.

Bill Tilden explains his timeless maxim — “Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes” — in terms of spin, in 'Match Play and the Spin of the Ball,' written in 1924.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Match Play and the Spin of the Ball was written in 1924 by Bill Tilden, a tennis genius as a theoretician and a player. Nearly 100 years later, this seminal and classic work remains perhaps the only tennis instruction book with “spin” in its title.

With Eastern and Continental styles predominant in the 1920s, the overwhelming majority of players hit flat ground strokes with little or no spin. But the sagacious Tilden knew better. He explained his timeless maxim — “Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes” — in terms of spin.

Tilden writes: “The whole object of putting twist, spin, cut, curve or whatever terms you prefer to describe your control of your stroke, on the ball is to force your opponent into error.” A power player himself with complementary finesse shots, he understood that the first advantage of spin was that it helped players control their power. The second advantage was to fool and disrupt opponents. Hence, Tilden recommends: “Never make any stroke without imparting a conscious, deliberate and intentional spin to the ball.”

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Starting in the late 1960s, racquets evolved from tiny-headed, heavy wood frames to much larger, lighter graphite models enhanced by space-age materials such as titanium and boron that produced far more power. The introduction of polyester strings, coupled with Western and semi-Western grips and strokes, further encouraged recreational and tournament players to apply Tilden’s predilection for spin.

Today, spin is “in.” Never before in the 146-year history of tennis have players at every level conjured spin with such velocity and variety. As Tilden presciently advocated, every stroke in tennis can benefit from spin of one kind or another. Topspin and underspin have always set the pace in the spin game, but side spin, when used judiciously, can enhance these more well-known and respected spins.

Let’s take a look at the many ways side spin can improve both your attack and defence.

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Slice serves — This serve features the most common and obvious form of side spin. Even intermediate players can master slice serves simply by tossing the ball slightly more to the right. Think of a clock face, and toss the ball at 1:30, rather than 1:00, the location for a flat serve toss. If done correctly, the slice serve is most effective when right-handed players serve wide in the deuce court. The ball swerves toward the alley and, much like a slider in baseball, also has a downward trajectory. Even if a righty returner connects solidly, which is no easy feat, he finds himself in a bad position, either in the alley or outside of it.

Lefties often boast wicked slice serves in the ad court. The best exponents, past and present, have been John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Rafael Nadal, Denis Shapovalov and Petra Kvitova. Righties can also excel in the deuce court. Roger Federer, John Isner, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Serena Williams devastate opponents with disguised motions and clever variety.

Slice serves should also occasionally target your opponent’s right hip. These swerving “body serves” — much like an inside pitch in baseball — can handcuff him and ruin even the most skilful and experienced player’s returns. And they nicely complement your other serves to surprise and befuddle opponents.

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Approach shots — Nearly every two-handed backhand player on the ATP Tour and many on the WTA Tour also possess a one-handed backhand and use it chiefly to slice shots. A notable exception, Novak Djokovic pounds two-handed approach shots flat and hard. But most two-handers, and nearly all one-handers, except occasionally Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka, approach the net with slice backhands. These cleanly hit slices bounce very low and make passing shots difficult.

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Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios are especially adept at adding side spin to further confound opponents. These magicians drop the racquet head so the shaft is no longer parallel to the court and swing from left to right. The resulting backhand side spin makes the bouncing ball veer away from the opponent and toward the alley. This double dose of underspin and side spin can bedevil even players with excellent passing shots.

The only caveat is to avoid adding side spin on down-the-line approach shots stroked from within a yard of the sideline. From this position, you risk hitting your curving approach shots into the alley for unforced errors.

Lefties often boast wicked slice serves in the ad court. The best exponents, past and present, have been Martina Navratilova (in pic) John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal, Denis Shapovalov and Petra Kvitova.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Drop shots — Three attributes, especially on clay and grass, make drop shots a valuable weapon: placement, backspin and disguise. Side spin complements and enhances all these attributes.

The best drop shots land very close to the net and the sideline. If you hit a backhand down-the-line drop shot, side spin propels the ball sideways, jerking your opponent farther out of position and sometimes off-balance. Side spin works so well with underspin that it could be called its “evil twin.”

Just when you think you’ve figured out how a foe’s drop shot bounces, the diabolical addition of side spin confounds you. If drop shots fool you, watch the tilt of the racquet face and the swing path to determine the amount and kind of spins.

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Low volleys — It’s counter-productive to use side spin on volleys above waist height because you’ll lose both power and control, wasting a good attacking advantage.

Low volleys, however, especially on the backhand side, present an opportunity to use side spin. Even if you’ve bent your knees to get low, you likely have lowered your racquet head so it’s not parallel to the ground. If you add a slight left-to-right motion to your compact forward punch, you’ll produce side spin. That side spin will curve your down-the-line volley away from your opponent to make passing shots more difficult. You haven’t escaped from your defensive position, but you’ve increased, however slightly, your chances of winning the point.

Righties can also excel in the deuce court. Serena Williams (in pic), Roger Federer, John Isner and Stefanos Tsitsipas devastate opponents with disguised motions and clever variety.   -  AP

 

Drop volleys — As the most difficult touch shot, drop volleys require excellent hand-eye coordination and soft hands. Passing shots struck with great power or spin make drop volleys even more challenging.

But, if you have athletic talent, racquet skill and confidence, then you can experiment with adding side spin. Remember that heavy backspin is the key to the success of the drop volley, so add only a modest amount of side spin, else you’ll spoil the recipe.

If you can pull it off, as Federer and Nadal do, you’ll find it exhilarating while your opponent may find it deflating.

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Underhand serves — If you like side spin, you’ll love these trick serves. Underspin is essential, but side spin is even more crucial. This supplementary serve works best for right-handers when they serve in the ad court against the wind. By slashing the ball below waist height from right to left, you can produce a diabolical serve that lands near the net and sideline and takes a sharp right turn parallel to the net and towards the alley.

When executed well, an underhanded side-spin serve will go about 30 miles an hour and ace your bewildered opponent. There’s nothing more fun for you and amusing for spectators than that!

Nearly every two-handed backhand player on the ATP Tour and many on the WTA Tour, also possess a one-handed backhand and use it chiefly to slice shots. A notable exception, Novak Djokovic pounds two-handed approach shots flat and hard.   -  Getty Images

 

Overheads — When you’re not set up enough to put away a lob with a powerful overhead, consider adding moderate slice to increase the distance your opponent must run to reach your shot. Also, because the smash curves away from him, it makes it harder for him to hit the ball cleanly and solidly. Slice is most effective when you smash the ball from the right half of the court because the diagonal angle is much greater.

The same concept holds true for bounce overheads sliced from the right half of the court. Your angle increases the closer you are to the net and to the right sideline. So, be sure to include slice overheads when you practise overhead and bounce overhead drills from various points on the court. And when your overhead forces your opponent clearly on the defensive, sprint to the net. There you can more easily put away his weak returns.

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Exploiting a sideways wind — This is a high-risk, but high-reward tactic. That’s because you can’t easily predict the intensity, duration and direction of wind that blows sideways.

First, you’ll have enough problems hitting your own shot cleanly when the wind is yanking the ball left to right, or vice versa. Second, calculating where and how hard and with how much side spin you should hit the ball can make your head spin.

Before you reject this challenge outright, consider this reasonable scenario. During a rally, your opponent hits a nondescript, medium-speed shot down the middle and you’re standing on the baseline. The wind is blowing sideways from your right-handed opponent’s forehand to his backhand. So you take a quick step to your left and slash a nasty side spin forehand so that it curves sharply rightward in the air and lands about 5ft rom his backhand sideline. Aided by the side winds, the ball careens laterally away from your scrambling, hapless victim.

If you aim any closer than 5ft to his sideline, you risk erring. So pick an unimportant point and give it a try. If you have an experimental, sadistic bent, this shot is for you.

The 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu uses her vast repertoire of shots to disrupt an opponent’s game. During rallies, a flat shot is followed by a topspin shot which is followed by a sliced shot.   -  AP

 

Scrambling for and digging up short balls — As a certain American president likes to say, “What do you have to lose?” Here, of course, we’re just talking about a tennis point.

In this scenario, a great drop shot or a mishit shot lands less than 5ft from the net. You’re sprinting like Usain Bolt and you barely arrive on time. But the ball is only inches above the court as you lunge desperately to scrape it up and over the net before it bounces a second time.

Whether it’s a forehand or backhand, almost certainly your racquet face is tilted backward to get under the ball and you have to hit with underspin. Your opponent has made your life difficult, so now make his as difficult as you can by adding side spin. What do you have to lose?

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Squash shots — When retrieving a forehand on the dead run, tournament players are increasingly improvising with a “squash shot” rather than throwing up a high lob. With a snap of the wrist, you can generate surprising pace and sometimes keep the point alive.

The downside is the squash shot’s very low trajectory, which can hit the net. The upside is the low, skidding bounce your opponent must deal with. If you add side spin, he has yet another variable to worry about.

By hitting the outside of the ball — a form of side spin — Rafael Nadfal uses physics to make the ball curve left to right to “hook” into the court. Nadal’s signature shot often elicits a “Did you see that!” from awed spectators and TV commentators.   -  AP

 

Change of pace and spin — Watch how 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu uses her vast repertoire of shots to disrupt an opponent’s game. During rallies, a flat shot is followed by a topspin shot which is followed by a sliced shot. The 19-year-old Canadian also mixes up the speed, trajectory, depth and placement of her shots. Drop shots, moon balls, angles and net rushes further keep opponents guessing. And yes, Andreescu also manages to squeeze in occasional side-spin shots to discombobulate her prey.

The side spin of the versatile Andreescu, the artful Agnieszka Radwanska and the crafty Hsieh Su-wei is enough to drive even the most poised and solid-stroking foes crazy. And woe to players with flawed strokes. Side spin will ruthlessly exploit their weaknesses.

Tilden would have relished watching these clever touch artists and tacticians.

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Passing shots — It’s a bit counterintuitive, even surprising, to think that passing shots can benefit from side spin for two reasons. First, conventional wisdom dictates that you should hit “through the ball” without any lateral swing motion for passing shots so your forehand or backhand swing will produce maximum power, control and precision. Second, side spin has always been associated with and complementary to underspin, which is seldom used for passing shots. But there is a situation where passing shots benefit from side spin. Here side spin enhances topspin, not underspin.

And no one does it better than Rafael Nadal, the ultimate topspin maestro. Rafa’s most jaw-dropping shot-making features a baseline sprint from behind his backhand alley to beyond his forehand alley to whack a down-the-line passing shot winner. The sheer distance of his sprint is spectacular enough in itself. But the coup de grace is the extraordinary power and accuracy of his left-handed topspin forehand as it travels over the alley and then, seemingly miraculously, lands just inside the sideline and baseline at the last split second.

This glorious shot, which sometimes goes around the net post, seems to defy the laws of physics. Actually, by hitting the outside of the ball — a form of side spin — he uses physics to make the ball curve left to right to “hook” into the court. Nadal’s signature shot often elicits a “Did you see that!” from awed spectators and TV commentators.

Former world No. 4 Gene Mayer cautions, “Side spin can become predictable. It also can retard ball movement through the court when you are trying to rush an opponent. So, side spin is most effective as spice rather than a diet mainstay. The right or wrong time to deploy side spin depends mainly on an opponent’s position and their relative ability to deal with powerful shots versus spinning shots.”   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Negatives of side spin — In the case of side spin, too much of a good thing can turn bad fast. So former world No. 4 Gene Mayer cautions, “Side spin can become predictable. It also can retard ball movement through the court when you are trying to rush an opponent.

“So, side spin is most effective as spice rather than a diet mainstay. The right or wrong time to deploy side spin depends mainly on an opponent’s position and their relative ability to deal with powerful shots versus spinning shots.”

If you’ve overlooked, or even dismissed, side spin, it’s time to reconsider. Experiment with these 12 ways to use side spin in practice. And as you master its technique and tactics, you’ll have more success and fun with side spin than you ever imagined.

With a newfound stroke in your repertoire, you will exemplify yet another Tilden maxim: “Variety, or versatility, is the spice, essence and cardinal principle of tennis success.”

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