Win by defending

Tennis is a great sport because we never know what will happen in the next second. You can dominate the point but one smart neutralizing shot can put you in trouble. Every tennis match consists of 3 possible situations. You can be in offense, neutral situation or  in defense. Every situation has own advantages and disadvantages but all 3 are of utmost importance if you are planning to be a top player. Some of the coaches emphasize offensive skills as the crucial ones to achieve high performance and they base their practices on aggressive schemes. Other coaches like to focus on building the point and the keys of almost every practice are patience and consistency. The last category is coaches who believe that it all starts with defense so their players have to be like a wall. It is hard to say 100 % sure that one of those aspects is more important than the rest but in this article, I would like to focus on practice based on defensive goals.

            “Defense wins matches”. This famous phrase is common between many great coaches around the world. Watching US Open or any other big tournament, we can clearly observe how trained in defensive situations top players are. Variety of shots like deep or angle slice, high shots with tremendous spin and counter-punching possibilities connected with world class level of athletic preparation make offensive game more difficult to execute. Professional players are examples that without decent defensive skills, it is almost impossible to become successful player in modern tennis. Speed of the rally is much faster than it was several years ago. Placement of the ball is precise and it is supported by tremendous consistency what can put huge pressure on any player. Additionally, hitting few great defensive shots can be not enough with offensive approach of the best players in the world. All those factors make us realize that even if we possess strengths to hit ball with hard pace, we have to still work on the defensive skills.

This importance is even more easily seen in national junior tournaments. When you train 12 or 14 years old kids, you know that they don’t have enough power to finish the point from the baseline. That’s why, champions of the youngest categories are mostly players who are able to run after every ball and hit it back over and over again. You can call them “pushers” or “moon ballers” and complain that “this is not tennis” but it is nothing more than just perfect defense. Of course, on the higher levels of performance, you have to direct the ball to the proper zones and still you can’t be sure if this response is enough to stay in the point but with young athletes or recreational players, “hit one more ball than your opponent” is a golden rule to win plenty of matches. Priority while being pushed to defensive zones is to make the ball back because it creates pressure on your opponent and it gives him/her another possibility to miss the ball.

Unfortunately, too many junior athletes give up on many difficult shots because they don’t realize how much value every ball has. Every coach has experienced situation with a player, who after terrible drop shot, doesn’t even try to fight for the point. Players have to be aware that every ball that is hit over the net makes 50% chances for win or lose. It is important to emphasize the idea that they can never be sure what happens in the opponent’s mind. Many times, rival can look confident but this is only his poker face; reality is that they pray inside for the winner or easy mistake from the other side of the net. Every defensive practice should start with realizing what is the role of defense and why players should run after every ball. With awareness of those factors, defense will be perceived as a possibility to “win the point”, not situation when you fight to “not to lose the point”. Here are few areas that players should consider while working against offensive shots.

 

Physical factors

To be successful in defense, you need to sharp your athletic skills. Speed and reaction are priorities to start quickly and get to many difficult and powerful groundstrokes. If we are unable to explode to the fast ball, there is no chance we are going to counter repetitive offensive strokes. Looking at the effective defenders, except for those 2 strengths, they acquired one more weapon. It is endurance. When we watch two decent players, we can observe that when one is in defense, he/she will stay there for at least few shots. It means that working on defensive skills, coaches should create exercises when player is involved in running hardly after several shots because this scenario will happen in the real match.

Positioning

Watching Rafa Nadal playing on clay is the best teaching tool for defensive skills. I know that we all admire his fighting spirit and unbelievable talent but I think that too many times we just overlook his court’s position. He clearly shows that 2 points have to be considered while trying to stay in the point against aggressive opponents. Firstly, taking few steps back and working in the deeper zone is the priority to save many balls. It is not possible to stay close to the baseline and consistently answer back demanding corner or angle shots. Secondly, basic positioning based on the rule “stay on the opposite side of the shot” is the fundamental that even advanced players forget to accomplish. It is necessity to recover to the deuce side after forehand cross court or recover to the ad side after forehand down the line. Keeping these two simple points in mind can change average player into defensive beast.

 

 Buying some time

Defense is all about the time but we can’t buy it with money. Smart decisions and automatic habits are options that coaches should incorporate into practices focused on defense. As we all know, high topspin balls fly longer than flat shots so we should use former one most of the time. Additionally, taking pace of the ball while using backspin shots (slices) can also buy us some time; not to mention that this smart decision can make opponent’s next shot more difficult by keeping the ball low. Being aware that being patient and disciplined are crucial things in defense can help players make better decisions while under pressure.

 

               Defense is of utmost importance in modern tennis because of huge offensive approach to teaching. Everyone wants to hit harder and harder and we shouldn’t be surprised of this decision because of the modern rackets’ possibilities. Defense can be deciding factor of the final result of the match but it has to be trained more than it used to be. Process of creating automatic responses while running from corner to corner takes time so coaches should spend more time every week on sharping defensive skills.