10 Point Beginner’s Guide to Tennis Tactics – #8 Spin/Conditions
New to tennis tactics? Curious how you can analyze a match? Wondering why your favourite player tends to win or lose against a specific style of opponent? You’ve come to the right place. The following is part 8 of the 10 Point Beginners Guide to Tennis Tactics. The explanation of the segment can be found above, as well as all other 10 parts as they are completed and archived.
In all honesty, this aspect may be the least significant of all 10, but should not be ignored in extreme cases. It is also something that is almost entirely a mechanical issue that may limit or help a player and is not necessarily a strategical decision. In other words, it is something we should keep an eye on, but should not expect to see a player largely tamper with.
It doesn’t take even the most amateur of tennis player to realize there are many ways to hit a tennis ball. How one holds a racquet, how one approaches the ball, where the intended target is all effect how and where the ball go. While almost all of the previous segments to this were a question of “where” the ball was hit, this section is purely a “how”.
Let’s take a look at this:
If you’ve never played tennis, had a tennis coach, or seen a video like this, it may come as a bit of a revelation. That’s okay! In full motion, shots look almost like a baseball swing – the ball comes into the zone, the hitter makes contact, and what happens after is largely unimportant.
Baseball players, however, hit the ball when it is level with their body at a perpendicular angle. This is how tennis used to be played. A quick look around on outdoor courts on a Sunday afternoon will show you that many people still hit the ball this way (perhaps without realizing it). There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, it’s just not the most effective and creates very little spin (the face of the racquet is flat).
In the video above, you will notice Federer’s stance is quite open. He is at more of a 45 degree angle to the ball than a 90 degree angle. And of course, the most important aspect of the shot is his wrist. His stance means that he makes contact with the ball in front of him, and his wrist is already moving before the ball comes to him. It allows him to almost “sweep” over the ball. This is where topspin comes from – the angle at which the racquet is when it hits the ball, and the movement of the wrist. Of course, Federer is probably the best in the history of humanity at making this shot look incredibly simple.
Of course, players are rarely thinking that they need to be putting more or less spin on the ball, they’re simply thinking about where they want to hit it and attempting to execute the best action to make that happen. The instance where this is likely to be a conscious decision is in difficult weather.
Likely the funniest thing I have ever seen in a press conference was in Toronto in 2011. Serena Williams had just defeated Julia Goerges in a pretty tight match out on a windy centre court. A reporter asked if Serena had to try to hit the ball with less spin in order to keep the wind from effecting it. “Oh honey, you don’t watch much tennis, do you?” was her response. She then went on to explain on why this isn’t the case. In the wind, more spin (rotations of the ball) help it cut through the elements and keep the ball’s intended path true. With less spin, the wind can force the ball into spinning in different ways and effect its path. In this case, players will make a conscious decision to add more spin to their shots (and serves). To see how this might be a disadvantage to a player, simply see the other 9 sections.
To a lesser extent, the humidity and feel of a place might effect a player’s effectiveness depending on how they hit the ball. Andrea Petkovic on the always excellent No Challenges Remaining podcast talked about how she preferred Miami to Indian Wells. She hits the ball particularly flat. In Miami there is much more humidity, which will slow the ball down in the air. She felt this allowed her to really hit through the ball and not have to worry about it sailing long. Conversely, she might make the conscious decision to add more spin to the ball in Indian Wells, where the air is much drier.
Rafael Nadal will likely never change his approach and his incredibly top spin heavy forehand. Nadal likes the ball to fly through the air unaltered by the elements so it can spin and then bounce to its maximum ability once reaching his opponents side. In theory, Nadal would be the opposite to Petkovic in that he would prefer the desert air of Indian Wells to the humidity of Miami, and his results in both tournaments would confirm that theory to be true. Likewise, Nadal’s heavy amounts of spin would allow him to survive any windy conditions, but may also take away his spin as a weapon.
Lastly, one of the most interesting parts of Patrick McEnroe’s book “Hardcourt Confidential” was a small note that has stuck with me. He argued that the largest difference between the men’s and women’s game was not down to physical strength or speed, but wrist strength. The wrist strength needed to snap the wrist through the ball to create immense top spin (nevermind Nadal or Federer levels) is incredible. Anyone who has played tennis for a solid hour and tried to put a good amount of spin on a ball will tell you that their hand felt like it might fall off by the end of it. When we see Nadal “muscle” in a defensive, spinning forehand it is not down entirely to his arm strength, it’s own to what his wrist can handle. This is in no way intended to be sexist, and as a smaller guy, I can confidently say there are simply some people built stronger (of course training can help). It also might explain why some bigger hitting WTA players struggle to spin balls in while running and on the defensive – it might not be a plausible option that they can repeat over and over without becoming tired or in pain (I know I can’t). Food for thought.