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The Evolution of Tennis Strategies
by Dave Smith



Players like Agassi have shown the return can be an “equalizer” to today’s powerful serves.

Like it or not, the game of tennis has changed over its historical course. Some say for the better, others are not so sure. Certainly the game’s general popularity has seen several highs and lows over time. Some rationalize that the game’s shifting popularity is based on these evolutionary changes…namely, changes in power and, consequently, changes in strategy.

There seems to be a split among tennis enthusiasts on whether or not these changes are good for the game: On one side are those who favor the “old school” cat and mouse strategies predominately centered on slices, finesse shots, and approach and volleys. On the other side are those who favor the modern game of powerful serves and groundstrokes interlaced with volleys, drops and angles.

I have received passionate pleas from individuals favoring a return to “traditional” strategies of chip-and-charge offensive game plans or serve-and-volley strategies. The greatest complaint expressed, is the lack of interesting points, especially in men’s tennis.

Certainly, over the course of the last ten or fifteen years, men’s tennis has evolved into a serve-fest, with many points being determined quickly, usually with a potent serve and an occasional volley or groundstroke winner or forced error. However, the last couple years have ushered in yet another subtle shift. It appears that the effectiveness of the return-of-serve has caught up to that of the serve, allowing the game to evolve back into points that include rallies, exciting ones at that!

Even on fast surfaces such as the grass at Wimbledon, rallies once again are in many cases becoming the norm as opposed to the exception. Despite the plethora of big servers like Sampras, Roddick, Safin, and Ivanisevic, rallies at Wimbledon and other Grand Slam events have become longer and more exciting.

Players up to, and including, the McEnroe era relied heavily on the slice to set up points. Today it's used as a defensive tactic or as a change of pace.


Players up to, and including, the McEnroe era relied heavily on the slice to set up points. Today it's used as a defensive tactic or as a change of pace.

However, the game today is played differently then it was when wooden racquets ruled the court and grass was the predominate surface. The longer rallies described include a barrage of incredibly powerful groundstrokes and serves, spectacular topspin angles and displays of incredible athleticism and conditioning unimaginable even a few years ago. Subsequently, the strategy of the game has changed from the days of ‘chip and charge’ to a more resolute game of cat and mouse played between players who posses weapons of mass destruction!

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the evolution of tennis strokes and the development of the topspin groundstroke as being the root of tennis evolution. Players who wanted more power needed a technique to help keep more powerful shots in play. Of course, the answer to that problem was topspin. Understanding the physics of spin can help us understand the how and why of changes in tennis strategies.

The advent and propagation of greater topspin on groundstrokes has had a significant impact on how the game is played at the pro level. On the other hand, the “traditional” shot-of-choice, the slice, has seen virtually no change in its presentation for perhaps one hundred years. The simple physics of the slice makes it almost impervious to the kind of changes we have seen associated with topspin shots.

One of the contributing factors for the slice becoming less a weapon and more a situational stroke is the change in court surfaces. Prior to 1975, three of the four Grand Slams (U.S. Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon) were played on grass. Since the fast surface of grass arguably favored net-attacking strategies, most top players adopted this style of play. (I say arguably since Bjorn Borg, a baseline player extraordinaire, ruled the grass at Wimbledon in winning 5 of his 11 major titles there!) However, today, the only Grand Slam event still played on grass is Wimbledon.

With a variety of court surfaces, from hard courts to grass, from synthetic surfaces to clay, players today must be able to adapt and devise game plans that not only work for them, but work for the playing surface as well.

How has this consequential shift in groundstroke preference led specifically to the changes in tennis strategy? Before we can address this question, we must clearly identify what those strategies are.


Attacking players of past eras; Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver,


and John McEnroe all featured game strategies that centered around getting to the net.


Attacking players of past eras; Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and John McEnroe all featured game strategies that centered around getting to the net.

Strategies of Tennis

For simplification, tennis can be reduced to two basic strategies, attacking and retrieving. Attacking strategies include two distinct tactics:

It really wasn’t until the late 1960’s that Billie Jean King demonstrated women too could be aggressive net players

  • Serve and Volley
  • Chip and Charge


It really wasn’t until the late 1960’s that Billie Jean King demonstrated women too could be aggressive net players

Most players of the past executed game plans that revolved around these two strategies including Fred Perry, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Don Budge, Ken Rosewall, and Rod Laver.

Traditionally, women did not attack the net as often nor with as much aggressive style as men. It really wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 70’s that Billie Jean King and compatriot Rosie Casals demonstrated that women too, could be aggressive net players. King, Casals, the Brit, Virgina Wade, Australian Evonne Goolagong and especially Martina Navratilova, set the stage for other women to play a more aggressive, all-court style of play.

Certainly, a host of champions have utilized this attacking strategy within the past three decades. Perhaps beginning with Stan Smith, players like John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe and Stefan Edberg led the way for the likes of Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Patrick Rafter and Tim Henman to make their marks as aggressive net-seeking attackers.


The more defensive “retrieving” style of play can be characterized by players camping out at the baseline, typically waiting for their opponents to make a mistake. Notable players who have successfully utilized this game plan include Bjorn Borg, Michael Chang, Chris Evert, and Tracy Austin. Even a young Andre Agassi played this decisively baseline game.


Players like Chris Evert (left) and Tracy Austin preferred a more defensive, retrieving style of play.

Strategies Today


Players like Chris Evert (top) and Tracy Austin preferred a more defensive, retrieving style of play.

Top players of today possess such massive topspin groundstrokes that they often make playing the baseline an aggressive “attacking” game in itself!

Never has there been so much power addressed to balls from behind the baseline. In my opinion, this power from the backcourt has brought about the greatest change in player strategies.

Topspin Versus Slice

As I have mentioned, topspin mechanics have taken on new levels of offensiveness making it much less certain that a player can stroll up to the net and effectively put away a volley. And, far less often today do we see the slice utilized strictly as an approach shot. The slice is still used by most players—including two-handed backhanders (using one hand in most cases)—as both a defensive stroke as well as a change-of-pace ploy. However, as the power of groundstrokes and passing shots continue to intensify, the specific net-attacking only strategies of the past are becoming more of a liability for those who attempt them.

For this reason, the evolution of tennis has gradually moved away from the dominant net-attacking strategies of the past into a more methodical dissection of opponents through the weaponry of imposing groundstrokes. Only then, when players get their opponents in trouble through a course of spin-related power mixed with geometric placements, will they venture to the net for the anticipated volley winner they so richly deserve.

Simply playing a retrieving singles strategy, where players camp out at the baseline and engage in a slugfest of groundstrokes, has proven to be somewhat limiting among many of the top up-and-coming players. Much like playing a strategy that consists predominately of serve-and-volley or chip and charge points, hanging back and hitting groundstrokes almost exclusively has become less successful in today’s professional arena.


Bjorn Borg maintained a steel-like patience opponents found tough to crack.

I remember watching how uncomfortable past baseline players became anytime they approached the net. Not so long ago, Michael Chang looked like a fish out of water when forced to come up and volley. Ivan Lendl liked to stay back with patience and topspin as his main weaponry. He too did not look comfortable during times he would approach the net until later in his career. Ironically, even as Chang developed a respectable net game as his career proceeded, he never gained the kind of success he enjoyed when he was strictly a baseline retriever.

Notwithstanding, the vast majority of men and women tour professionals today play a more identifiable “all-court” game. Their volley winners often occur after a chess-like series of powerful, precision groundstrokes open up the court. Few champions of today’s modern game have been able to win consistently without some mastery of all the weapons available.


Even extreme groundstrokers like Andy Roddick have to adapt to an all-court style if they are to advance up the rankings.


Even extreme groundstrokers like Andy Roddick have to adapt to an all-court style if they are to advance up the rankings.

In many cases, these heavy-handed topspin groundstrokes force a point to end even before a weak shot is parlayed into a winning volley. Thus, many people might consider this strategy as a “baseline-only” contest when in fact, it is a constant battle of respect and confidence between very skilled performers who can play the whole court with expertise.

Players who could be arguably labeled as “All-Court” players include Taylor Dent, Tommy Haas, and Roger Federer. Andy Roddick appears to be making a move to become a more offensive net-attacking player in recent months.

On the women’s side, we see very few true net-attacking strategists. However, with the possible exception of Monica Seles, most all the top WTA players can and do play the net when presented with the opportunity. Top ranked players such as the Williams sisters, Henin and Clijsters, and even the slumping Capriati and the vanishing Hingis possess excellent net skills and strategies to go along with their topspin power from the baseline.

Racquet Technology

One last contributing factor to the evolution of tennis strategies (and certainly not the least!) is the revolution of modern racquet technology. The influx of ultra light, powerful tennis frames seems to have ushered in a new physical component to the modern game. The self-limiting speed of shots due to the seemingly restrictive power of wooden racquets has given way to a nearly freewheeling sense of power through racquets constructed of space age materials. These lighter, stiffer racquets allow players (particularly in the women's game) to generate much faster racquethead speed which leads to an increase in the amount of topspin pro players can create. More topspin can equate into substantially more power in the topspin groundstroke game.

Even as these advanced racquets have helped create serve speeds unimaginable a few short decades ago, current players are reluctant to try to advance themselves to the net following such potent initial shots. This says a lot for the respect for the return of serve and groundstrokes in general. It makes sense: The same racquethead speed generated on serves due to racquet construction is also available for use in returning such shots.

Conclusion
So, is the serve and volley game gone the way of the dinosaur and the eight track tape? Perhaps not. Tennis is a dynamic game and strategies as well as players will continue to evolve. As players discover new ways to combat present tactics, popular strategies of today may become historic strategies tomorrow. And strategies of the past may indeed come full circle and become strategies for the future!

Next Up
In Part 3 of this series on the Evolution of Tennis, I will discuss the evolution of the backhand, specifically addressing the change from one hand to two and the different types of two-handed backhands that we have seen among top players.


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David W. Smith is the Director of Tennis for the St. George Tennis Academy in St. George Utah. He has been a featured writer in USPTA’s magazine ADDvantage in addition to having over 50 published articles in various publications. David has taught over 3000 players including many top national and world ranked players. He can be reached at ACRpres1@msn.com