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Court Position and Shot Select when Moving Forward

Jim McLennan

Here in San Jose at the SAP Open, John McEnroe has returned to the ATP tour. He is making a statement about the importance of doubles, which seems to have become overlooked both from the promoters and the fans standpoint, and equally he is making a statement about court position, shot selection and creativity.

Click photo: Mac approaches from just inside the baseline, but note how quickly he moves thru the hit. He plays the approach crosscourt and follows the line of the approach to cover the up the line pass - he finishes easily with a forehand volley - overhead combination.

It has been many years since Mac ruled the tour with blocked volleys, dashes to the net, under spin approaches, cunning topspin passes, and more. He once played with an unimaginable array of shots, and constantly challenged his foes who were more accustomed to opponents who played with a predictable strategy and generally similar topspin strokes. But through it all, and truly we may have forgotten, Mac was more about how and where to use the court than how to hit the ball. Unusual strokes, predominant court positioning - were it not for elegant strokes, one might note the same thing about Federer. That is, his predominant court positioning makes all the other players appear almost hum drum in their behind the baseline monotony.

What is it that makes John McEnroe such a great (doubles) player? According to former pro, Trey Waltke, a McEnroe peer, "He just has such understanding of court management. You'd play him and he'd just so smartly station himself in the right part of the court and dare you to try the hardest shot. Then he'd make some shots you'd never seen - taking the ball early, striking volleys, getting the ball down on you. It was remarkable."

Jim McLennan talks about court positioning

Well, the key to moving forward, other than the obvious court management issue, is that when positioned at the net you are "daring the opponent to try hit the hardest shot." That is, they must thread a passing shot low to the net, and often when on the run or stooping for a skidding approach (see Tom Stow - The All Court Forcing Game in the library) and this situation creates pressure on an opponent. If an opponent craves sameness, you change the rhythm, if an opponent craves long rallies, you shorten the points, if an opponent craves baseline exchanges you dink, chip, and cut. All in the service of moving forward.

Finally, before going into the nuts and bolts of the decisions and shots used when moving forward, a word about recreational play. In my mind power tennis has overtaken intelligent tennis throughout the market place. Marketing materials by racquet manufacturers are all about the power and control of the new racquets, no chance really to discuss court positioning, and it might even be irrelevant to their needs.

Watch most matches on television or in person, and one is treated to a slugfest from behind the baseline, volleying seems a lost art. Even the educational materials directed to the tennis coaches from the USTA Player Development Department tend to focus on technique. Loading, open stance, full follow through well over the shoulder all refer to the predominance of technique over court management. Well I believe that you and I, normal recreational players, may actually gain more enjoyment, if not competitive success, by focusing less on how hard we hit the ball and by focusing more on how, when, and where we move forward.

Click photo: Santoro moves well forward to meet the approach - note a mid-air readiness split at the back of the service box followed by a left legged landing and gravity turn propeling him to the forehand volley - he is truly quick as a cat.

Moving forward is about where one is positioned when hitting, and where one is positioned for an opponents reply. Let's look at it in reverse order. An approach shot implies an opponent will reply, as opposed to a winner that we assume will not be returned. So Mac, or you and I, when moving forward, must be positioned to dare the opponent to try the hardest shot. Too close to the net and the opponent can easily lob. Too deep from the net, the opponent has a better chance of playing at our feet. Race forward at top speed to find the optimum spot on the court, and an opponent can more easily wrong foot us. Ideally, your split step, your readiness move when you read the opponents pass is two thirds the distance from the net to the service line. Or more specifically, fourteen feet from the net. Further, the volleyer must cover the line, forcing the opponent into a cross court pass, but more on this later.

So to reach this optimal position, the real secret is to take the approach shot from well inside the baseline, and to control the speed of your coming in shot so you have time to get to the net. In the approaching sequences of McEnroe and Santoro or even Dent, they are placing rather than bashing the approach, eschewing placement over power (Roddick sadly is the opposite) and working for subsequent volleying position rather than approach shot winners.


Roddick seems most comfortable when playing from well behind the baseline and striking the ball after it drops.

Now to the decision. In a backcourt exchange, the first route to the net is to move forward quickly, when the opponent is short. Too often, whether recreational or professional, the slightest hesitation in this scenario and the ball will descend after the bounce, and the backcourt player loses the opportunity. If you are quick and actually looking for any and all opportunities to move forward, then this will be you most obvious and easiest route.

Now it gets a little harder. In a backcourt exchange you play the ball perhaps deeper than you expected and or closer to the corner than you expected. Is the opponent now more likely to play the ball short, or even better, have you likely caused the opponent to hit the reply short? Absolutely. In this case, one steps inside the baseline and awaits a short reply, then moves forward yet more quickly to pounce, approaching to the opposite corner and positioning quickly for the volley. A good shot to the corner, anticipating the short reply, then quickness to this ball.

Or yet another scenario. In a backcourt exchange your opponent floats the ball to gain recovery time. If they are cornered or behind the baseline when floating the defensive ball, you can actually move inside the baseline for a backcourt volley so to speak, playing the floater in the air from inside the baseline to once again improve your court positioning.

Jim McLennan talks about moving forward and the approach shot.

In each of the above examples, the key is to meet the ball at least eight feet inside the baseline. But in many instances this is far more difficult than it sounds, as Roddick and many others have found.

The art of the approach is about maintaining court position as close as possible to the baseline. When giving ground and backing up in baseline rallies, this defensive positioning makes it less likely that you can move forward if and when subsequent opportunities arise.  And now, if indeed positioned close to the baseline, much like McEnroe, you must be able to play the ball on the rise. You must be able to control a defensive half volley to stay in the point without retreat. And truly, you must work on a variety of grips and spins to accommodate each of these situations. Holding ground, maintaining court position, playing basically neutral shots with a variety of spin, waiting, waiting, and then pouncing at the first opportunity when the opponent plays short.  Court position and shot selection on the approach shot – it is about taking your game to the opponent.

Finally the art of the approach relates the shot selected to the subsequent volleying position. In all cases, after hitting the approach one intends to move slightly inside the service line as the opponent makes contact. If the opponent rarely lobs, then this positioning can be closer to the net. If the opponent always lobs then this positioning can be closer to the service line.  

As to the angle of play, when approaching down the line one can easily move to the center of the opponents angle of play, and more easily cover the line, often inducing the more difficult cross court pass. When approaching crosscourt (as Roddick often does somewhat inexplicably), the opponent has a more open lane to pass down the line. Further, in this case the volleyer is often moving so quickly following the line of the approach that the opponent can more easily play behind them. 

Click photo: Rusedski uses a gravity turn toward the backhand, but loses his balance ever so slightly after contact. He approaches heavily up the line and closes easily with a forehand volley into the open court.

Carefully studying McEnroe or Santoro, they appear to glide rather than charge into volleying position, and this more deliberate movement enables them to more easily change direction to cover any and all passes. And in the instance when the opponent has played the ball short and low to the center of your court, it is entirely appropriate to approach right back along this line, low and to the center of the opponent’s court. For in this instance, approaching to either corner will again expose the line for the opponents pass. Truly these are tricky issues and will be covered in much more depth in later articles which will discuss the exact volleying position that ensues from a range of approaches as well as from a range of opponent tendencies.

But let me close with a (perhaps typical) singles match I observed the other day between S and L (names obscured to protect the innocent - though I would be delighted if they were both reading the article and recognized one another). Both are easy going, genial, and love to play tennis. L plays with a plan, often hits hard and is willing to aim for the corners. S is much more cautious, plays deliberate strokes from well behind the baseline. But, and this is the key, somehow S moves more quickly than his shots. That is, no matter where he is positioned, he is quick enough to recover before his ball arrives at the opposite baseline. L, trying to play to the corners or with pace, became increasingly frustrated, for he never really moved forward to take any shots early, and nearly all offensive opportunities were wasted. But what finally caught my eye was when the normally even tempered L actually threw his racquet and yelled something or other, and I have never seen him do this. Well, it was and will be about this simple concept, playing inside the baseline when opportunities arise. Would this work just as well for that Roddick guy? Hmmm.

Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about Jim McLennan's article by emailing us here at TennisOne.

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