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Strategy and tactics in tennis

Strategy and tactics in tennis
By: Simon Grieve

Strategy and Tactics of Tennis
By Ray Brown and Kathrin Hashemi


One of the most difficult problems a coach faces is the development of an orderly approach to strategy and tactics. The problem is, to have a comprehensive approach that can be adapted to any student, that strategies must be developed around the generic limitations of human performance rather than desired outcomes or simplistic weaknesses. In this way, one can teach strategy and tactics within a broader context that covers all situations and even suggests avenues to analyze to find weaknesses.One approach to tennis singles strategies is to conveniently organized them into six classes determined by the type of rally used. Each rally type is keyed to a specific generic human limitation in performance or training. While any particular rally or match may not fit into one of these six classes, these classes provide a very convenient organization of tennis strategies that can be used make sense of a very complex subject. Among other things, the importance of this organization is that it leads naturally to the construction of appropriate training programs. In turn, the development of training programs is supported by our articles on conditioning, power development, precision movement, technique and endurance.

1. The Consistency Rally

In this rally, the objective is to defeat your opponent with consistency. There is no use of power, change of ball dynamics, or ball direction. Hence this is the lowest risk strategy to implement. It only requires that you always hit the ball cross court and in the back nine consistently with moderate pace, regardless of what your opponent does. If your opponent is able to match your consistency, then it will be necessary to move on to another strategy to decide the match. If not, you are in the next round with minimum effort and risk.

What to look for using this strategy:

A player that cannot hit cross-court with consistency will "bail out" of this rally in some manner. This requires a change of direction, ball dynamics or ball speed. If they go down-the-line they are stating one of two things. Either they fear the consistency rally or they are good enough to begin moving the ball with consistency. You will quickly find out which of these two possibilities is the case since in one case, there will be an accumulation of unforced errors and in the other case, you will have to begin to run frequently. Generally, you can make this determination in the warm up or from 'intelligence data' on your opponent and will know in advance how effective this strategy will be.A second possibility is the drop shot exit from the rally; the third possibility is a short ball due to an off-center hit. You must be alert to these changes in order to win the point by using this strategy. If you should consistently fail to win the point when the opponent bails out of the rally, your strategy will begin to work against you and your confidence will fade. As a result, to use this or any strategy effectively, you must have the ability to react to the typical changes that the strategy forces on your opponent. For example, if your opponent bails out by going down-the-line, you must be able to get to the ball and hit the cross-court shot or down-the-line shot to win the point; or, be able to stay in the point by hitting cross court and re-establishing the cross-court rally.An additional possibility is that your opponent will get frustrated by your approach and try to hit winners. This is exactly what you would like, since frustration degrades skill and can lead to a quick conclusion to the match. It is important that you do not get spooked by an occasional winner and give up on your strategy before your opponent has proven their inability to be consistent better than you. It is equally important that you do not get discouraged by occasionally losing a point because you were not able to take advantage of the bail out action of your opponent.

Who May Use this as One of their Strategies?

This strategy is found among lower ranked professional players and can be used at any level. Aniko Kapros and many female players have used this strategy at various times in their career. At a higher level, Nadia Petrova and Fabrice Santoro can be seen using this strategy. It is possible to reach a ranking of at least 300 on the WTA tour, using this strategy as your only strategy. Also, using this approach, one can obtain NCAA scholarships at many Division I colleges. At the high school level, players with this strategy can be found in any position. When all other strategies have failed, the consistency strategy can be used as a form of the persistence rally discussed below. Venus Williams has often resorted to this strategy in the third set of a very close match.

2. The Forcing Rally

The forcing rally is the consistency rally with forcing speed and depth. A typical speed will be radar readings above 60mph and can reach as high as 68mph (speeds greater than 68mph are a risk). The time of transit of the ball at this radar speed will be about 1.1 seconds from the strike to the bounce. Like the consistency rally, you are hitting cross court. However, unlike the consistency rally, you are challenging your opponent's reaction time and ability to return a high speed ball effectively. This is an in-your-face strategy designed to intimidate with power in the simplest possible manner. In the event that your opponent is equal to you in this strategy, you must move on to another strategy phase of the match.

What to look for using this strategy:

The point of the strategy is intimidation, hence we look for sings of intimidation. The most common sign is that the opponent will cease to move effectively. This arises from the natural effect of fear on the legs. It is not uncommon to see an intimidated player fail to adjust to a ball that is hit right at them. A second characteristic is for the player to be late is striking the ball. This results in unintentional down-the-line shots that can be mistaken for intentional. If you make this mistake, you can lose confidence in your strategy and abandon it prematurely. Miss hits are also a common sign when opponents are unable to cope with speed or get intimidated. You must be ready to react to these patterns, especially the down-the-line late hit. If you are not properly conditioned, you will tire out moving to these balls and hitting with power and will have to abandon the forcing rally.

Who May Use this as One of their Strategies?

Players such as Agassi may implement this strategy when playing much lower ranked opponents. Agassi's ball speed is often sufficient to win a match against a player who is unaccustomed to high speed rallies. Any top player with consistent high speed shots can also be seen using this rally against lower ranked players. Gonzales is an example of a player who can use speed to force errors without resorting to higher risk strategies.

3. Movement Rally

Often a player is consistent and capable of handling power when the rally is cross-court. This is common since many teaching pros feed balls from the net to either the forehand or backhand without making their player move. However, when the player is forced to move, their ball speed, accuracy and consistency break down. Thus, when neither of the first two strategies are decisive, the movement rally may be recommended.Using the movement rally is higher risk and requires greater skill than either of the two previously described strategies. Also, it is higher risk than the persistence strategy described later in this article. In radar studies we have found that satellite and challenger players lose as much as 10mph of ball speed when forced to move. This often translates into a loss of depth, offering the opportunity to begin an attack. To execute this rally you must be in good enough condition to move and maintain your ball speed. Otherwise, you have compromised your own skill with this rally.

What to look for using this strategy:

The most common features are reduced ball speed and balls that are hit higher over the net. The ball could go anywhere on the court: short, down-the-line, or deep in the middle of the court. There is usually a loss of ball control when the strategy works. Typically, for this strategy you must be able to take advantage of the slower speeds or high bounces. Developing a swinging volley will assist in concluding points quickly. Either a flat high speed ball or heavy topspin approach shot will be useful.

Who May Use this as One of their Strategies?

This was a standard approach of Agassi and so we often refer to this strategy as the A-Strategy. It was commonplace top see Agassi take up a position in the middle of the court and run his opponent back and forth until they bailed out of the rally with a desperation shot.
4. Endurance Rally

If your opponent can move and maintain good ball speed and placement, you may be naturally forced into the endurance rally. The most common form of this rally is the well known cross-court-down-the-line rally. It may endure for as many as 40 shots. This strategy requires exceptional skill and endurance but can be devastating to the opponent. If you have this skill level, you are in a position to quickly demoralize any opponent who does not have this skill.

What to look for using this strategy:

The most common features are visible exhaustion of the opponent with an increase in weak shots or unforced errors, especially first ball errors. It may only be necessary to engage in a single long rally to break a weaker opponent's will. If you are able to control the rally, it may be possible for you to stand near the mid point of the baseline and simply run your opponent from side to side until they drop. In using this strategy, one should resist the temptation to end the point. The longer the opponent is forced to run, the more quickly they will wilt and give you the match. Also, be aware that you do not have to move the opponent much to run them to death. The reason is that the energy losses of the opponent are mainly in stopping, hitting and reversing direction with precision. Any tactic that forces the opponent to continually reverse direction and sprint will quickly exhaust the anaerobic energy system of a poorly conditioned player.If your opponent is is great condition and has trained for this strategy, it is time to look to other strategies.

Who May Use this as One of their Strategies?

Nadal is the player who is most capable of using this strategy to break down their opponent physically. To use this strategy as an every day approach you must be the strongest player on the tour.

5. Complexity Rally

This rally consists in continually changing ball speeds, direction and dynamics. Of particular importance is changing ball dynamics between slice, top spin and flat. Obviously, you must command this skill to use this strategy. The objective is to break your opponent's will by denying them a chance to get into a rhythm. This rally does not require that the player using it have the top level conditioning unless your opponent is unaffected by the strategy.

What to look for using this strategy:

The most common sing that this rally is working is frustration. This shows up in impatience of the opponent, anger, self deprecation, slumping posture, and unforced errors, especially first-ball errors. If your opponent is able to hit winners off changes in ball speed or off your slices, or is able to also implement this strategy, then you will have to move on to the strategy of last resort, the persistence rally.

Who May Use this as One of their Strategies?

Federer has used this strategy to rise to the top of the tennis world. During Hingis's first appearance, when used this approach to dominate the WTA tour. This was prior to the emergence of the conditioning factor in tennis.

6. Persistence Rally

This is the strategy of last resort when your opponent has neutralized every other strategy. If you have progressed through strategies 1-5 and have found your opponent equal to you in every phase, you must attempt to break their will with by extending the time of each rally as long as possible. This is a simple concept: outlast your opponent's will to win. The persistence rally takes many forms and some use it at the outset. The most common form is the pusher rally. A variation on the persistence rally is the counter puncher. However, at the highest levels, simply pushing the ball will not work since the ball speed is too low. Some form so spin will be needed, and the best choice is a high top spin rally down the middle of the court. As an alternative, fast topspin that is bounces near the service line is possible.

What to look for using this strategy:

Impatience, fatigue and frustration are the signs that you are breaking your opponent's will.

Who May Use this as One of their Strategies?

The list is long and dates to the earliest period of tennis. Conchita Martinez, Michael Chang, Harold Solomon, Lleyton Hewitt to name a few. However, when the match gets tight, any player may resort to this strategy, and the Williams sisters do not hesitate to use to win when all else fails.

Training follows Strategy and Tactics

Using the above organizational outline, one can develop an appropriate training plan. For example, to use the consistency rally strategy one must clearly be consistent. In addition to good basic technique, to have consistency one must also have stability. This starts with the feet, continues up the legs to the hips and waste, and even the neck. If one does not plan to use the forcing strategy, sufficient stability for most purposes can be developed by training the feet and strengthening the feet and legs. In addition to these obvious measures, you must go further to address the patterns of the bail out. For example, a training pattern to cope with the down-the-line bail out is to feed several forehands to the player, then throw in a surprise backhand that they must reach and hit cross court to continue the strategy. Clearly this implies that the player must have sufficient strength to move with precision to the ball, stop, hit, and recover to continue the rally. It also demonstrates the need for choreography drills, footwork agility drills, and focused strength training as explained in our earlier articles.We will present a more detailed training plan in a future article.

In this article we have outlined six basic strategies for match play. No single match follows each strategy completely but is rather a blend of strategies. The organization we have presented is designed to allow for a coherent and orderly training plan to be developed to bring the student's thought process and game approach to a high and organized level.The organization also allows us to see clearly the "WHY" of a training program and the importance of such things as anaerobic endurance training, precision movement training, and the acquisition of fundamental stroke skills. We have found that teaching the "WHY" greatly accelerates student development and empowerment and having an organized view of strategy and tactics makes a significant contribution to teaching and to answering the question "WHY?"
We would like to thank Ray Brown and Kathrin Hashemi for this informative article. Visit for more great information from Ray.

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