What you need to know about shot depth

Depth is one of the four criteria for evaluating the quality of groundstrokes and serves. The other criteria are power, spin and accuracy. The less-glamorous criterion of depth has only this decade started receiving the attention and credit it deserves in the form of graphics showing where shots land and where players return shots from.

Angelique Kerber... plenty of depth in her shots.   -  Getty Images

Players such as Victoria Azarenka return serves, especially second serves, with both power and depth.   -  Getty Images

Novak Djokovic has been almost unbeatable this year partly because of his tremendously deep groundstrokes and serve returns.   -  Getty Images

The main goal in good tennis is simple: don’t hit the first ball short ball. Keep all of your shots deep and in play, and you will be famous by Friday.

— Renowned coach Vic Braden, in ‘Tennis 2000: Strokes, Strategy, and Psychology for a Lifetime’.

“You can see the difference with Kerber. She’s getting more depth,” pointed out ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez in the third set of Angelique Kerber’s stunning 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 upset over Serena Williams in the Australian Open final. And after Kei Nishikori fought off five set points to defeat Nick Kyrgios 7-5, 6-3 in the Miami Open semifinals, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill praised Nishikori: “His depth of shots was incredible.”

Depth is one of the four criteria for evaluating the quality of groundstrokes and serves. The other criteria are power, spin and accuracy. Television commentators tell us the miles per hour of serves, groundstrokes and even overheads, as well as the rotations per minute of topspin shots. But the less-glamorous criterion of depth has only this decade started receiving the attention and credit it deserves in the form of graphics showing where shots land and where players return shots from.

Depth is essential in almost every major sport played with a moving ball or puck. It’s obviously more difficult to score, or even to threaten to score, in soccer, hockey football and basketball the farther away you are from the goal or the basket. In tennis, the same principle holds true for every stroke, with a few important shot exceptions.

What is the ideal depth for each shot?

Beginners and intermediates should try to make their groundstrokes and volleys land 8-10 feet inside the baseline, equivalent to halfway between the service line and the baseline. Advanced and tournament players should aim for 3-5 feet inside the baseline. For serves, beginners and intermediates should strive for the area five feet inside the service line, while advanced and tournament players should have enough control to target two feet inside the service line.

Why, specifically, is shot depth so crucial in tennis?

• Offensively, the deeper your groundstrokes are — all other variables being equal — the greater the likelihood your opponent’s return shot will be shorter.

• Second, deep groundstrokes reduce the odds of your opponent being able to hit a consistently powerful shot that can force you to hit a weak return or make an error.

• Third, deep groundstrokes can elicit weak returns or errors from your opponent.

• Fourth, very deep approach shots give you more time to move closer to net to volley and make it tougher for your opponent to hit passing shots, especially crosscourt.

• Fifth, deep shots, especially with topspin, can bewilder and bedevil opponents who cannot hit balls on the rise and must retreat far behind the baseline.

• Sixth, sustained depth, just like sustained power or accuracy, can demoralise opponents because opponents, like a football team that can’t advance past the 50-yard line, see their chances of winning points decrease as the match goes on.

• Seventh, deep shots wear out your opponent while you expend much less energy. “You’ll seldom have to run more than three steps laterally to retrieve your opponent’s shot if you can force him to hit from behind his baseline,” pointed out Braden in ‘Tennis 2000’. “If you hit short shots and allow your opponent to hit from midcourt, you have to run laterally as many as five to seven steps.”

Shot depth is just as essential defensively as it is offensively. Deep groundstroke returns often neutralise opponents’ offence and keep you in the point. When you are forced five feet or more behind the baseline and/or outside the alley, a medium-speed, deep shot will help you avoid an error and will give you time to return to the “centre of possible returns” behind the baseline.

The Big Four of men’s tennis this decade — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray — are great defensive players in part because of their smart shot selection. They often use medium-speed, deep shots when they are in a bad court position. They are also not too proud to lob when they have to, and the deeper the better.

 

Falling in the grey area between offence and defence for depth are serve returns. While huge first serves, particularly in the men’s game, make returning serve more challenging than ever, serve returns have improved so markedly that serving and volleying is rare now. Both trends make deep serve returns increasingly important.

Study how Djokovic, the best returner in tennis history, and past and present women stars, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova, return serves, especially second serves, with both power and depth. They often nullify what should be a big advantage for servers. As a result, they enjoy a huge advantage by starting off points in both their serving and receiving games with an aggressive, deep shot.

Which shots are the exceptions to the aforementioned principles?

Most important, depth is irrelevant for passing shots. In fact, this variable is replaced by lowness. Besides striving for power, accuracy, and topspin, you want passing shots to arrive, if possible, at the feet of volleyers. Other exceptions include drop volleys and drop shots, which should land very close to the net, along with sharply angled groundstrokes, severely sliced serves, and angled overheads, when they are smashed from inside the service line.

Which variables should you take into account to hit shots with the desired depth?

Here are nine variables that experienced, expert players instinctively factor into their shots.

Net clearance: All other things being equal, medium-speed groundstrokes hit from two feet behind the baseline should clear the net by about three feet. The more powerful your shot is above that medium-speed guideline, the lower your net clearance should be — and vice versa. Use the warm-up to fine-tune those two variables.

Court position: The farther you are positioned behind the baseline or wide of the alley (unless you are inside an extension of the service line), the more you need to increase your net clearance and/or power — and vice versa.

Geometry matters: The diagonal distance from the intersection of the baseline and sideline on one side of the court to the same intersection on the other side of the court is 4.5 feet longer than the length of each sideline. That means the more crosscourt your shot is, the more you need to increase your net clearance and/or power to take into account the greater distance. This adjustment is especially important because a short crosscourt shot landing in the middle of the court is very attackable. Study how hyper-alert and quick Federer anticipates and pounces on his opponents’ short crosscourt shots.

 

Wind factor: This can be the toughest variable to adjust to because the wind’s strength and direction can vary so much from point to point and even after you strike the ball. But generally you should hit the ball harder, higher, and/or flatter when playing against the wind to achieve optimum depth. Since sufficient depth is seldom the issue when a significant wind is at your back, hit with less power, lower net clearance, and/or more topspin to avoid errors beyond the baseline.

Opponent’s power: All other things being equal, the greater your opponent’s power, the more powerful your shot will be. So be careful not to over-hit powerful shots coming at you. Instead, try to absorb some of the oncoming power and add some topspin to control your shot. Finally, adjust your net clearance. If you manage to do all that, you’ll avoid either hitting short or erring by hitting beyond the baseline.

Spin control: The prevalence of Semi-Western and Western grips and strokes today makes topspin more important and easier to produce than ever in controlling the ball to hit deep shots. Watch how Nadal adjusts the amount of topspin he creates with his Western forehand. The more he is on the defensive — in terms of position or lack of time — the more topspin he applies. Generally, topspin is better than underspin (viz., slice) because topspin clears the net by a much safer margin. Topspin shots also work better with gravity by dropping fast, rather than sailing deep. Both attributes result in fewer unforced and forced errors. Don’t dismiss or neglect the backhand slice, though. It can also defuse powerful shots and produce deep groundstrokes. And slice backhands create deep, low-bouncing approach shots that are highly effective.

Ball speed: Different brands of balls have different speeds, and some balls wear out faster than others. The latter factor is why some tournament players try to use the fastest balls when they serve. That five percent, or even occasionally 10 percent, difference in ball speed is a subtle but significant factor that experienced players monitor and take into account in order to achieve the depth they want. Ball speed can also be slowed by moist courts and moist balls.

Sweet spot: This is another subtle factor relating to ball speed. Even world-class players occasionally contact the ball away from the “sweet spot” or centre of their strings. Sometimes that happens when they’re stretched on the dead run or reaching high for a terrific kick serve. Other times mis-hits happen when players are off-balance. Savvy players recognise these difficult situations and intentionally try to compensate by hitting the ball higher and/or harder to maintain the depth they want.

High altitude: In ‘The Physics and Technology of Tennis’, Howard Brody explained, “At high altitude, the outside, atmospheric pressure is reduced. This results in an increase in the pressure difference between the internal pressure of a normal tennis ball and atmospheric pressure. The larger this difference in pressure, the greater will be the coefficient of restitution, or how lively the ball is when hit or when it bounces.” Therefore, unless you play with pressure-less balls, you will have to counteract this increased liveliness with less power, lower net clearance, and/or more topspin to ensure the desired depth without making errors. Higher racket string tension will also decrease power and increase control.

In summary, of the four criteria for evaluating the quality of groundstrokes — power, spin, depth, and accuracy — depth is arguably the most important. Djokovic, ranked No. 1 for four of the past five years, has been almost unbeatable this year partly because of his tremendously deep groundstrokes and serve returns.

Conversely, Nadal’s decline since winning the 2014 French Open is partly because of groundstrokes so short they often land near the service line. Nadal corrected that shortcoming when he captured his ninth Monte-Carlo Masters and ninth Barcelona Open, both records, in April. Hitting deeper, he won the battle of court position during his 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 Monte Carlo semifinal victory over Andy Murray by standing inside the baseline for an impressive 29 percent of his groundstrokes in the last two sets compared to 16 percent in the opening set.

You can hone your shot depth with advanced technology. Clubs, colleges, academies, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows have installed PlaySight Smart Courts (www.playsight.com). Among its many real-time and insightful statistics, PlaySight technology reveals how high and fast your shots travel and where they land. A live streaming feature allows anyone to watch practices in real time or review matches afterward, from anywhere with an Internet connection.

If you prefer old-school methods, you can place targets five feet inside the baseline for groundstrokes and volleys and two feet inside the service line for serves. With these drills, you will learn which shots from which court spots fall short of the mark. Then ask a friend or coach to mark where your shots land in practice and tournament matches. As you become more adept at hitting deeper shots from various spots, your tactical options will improve, and so will your results.

“The object of all tennis strategy is to gain the offensive and keep it,” noted the distinguished teaching pro Bob Harman in ‘Tennis Strokes & Strategies’. Hitting deep shots is one of the most effective ways to achieve that objective.