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Everything You Need To Know About Defense
“Tennis is a game where you give other people a chance to lose to you. We all hate the dinker, but he understands the definition best; at every level right up to Harold Solomon, the dinker will win because he has a higher intellectual principle, a higher frustration-tolerance threshold, and a longer concentration span.” —All-time great Jack Kramer, from the 1997 book, Frank Keating’s Sporting Century
“Defense! Defense!” Spectators chant it to fire up their favorite basketball and football teams at crucial stages of close games. These fans know smart, tough defense can exhaust, confound and thwart the opposition. If tennis fans were allowed to cheer during points and not just whisper “wow” and “ooh” and “aah,” they’d go wild over defense, too.
Back in the day, when wooden racquets and much-shorter shorts roamed the courts, defensive specialists like the 5' 5" Harold Solomon could reach as high as No. 5 in the world. Times have changed.
In the past 30 years the balance has tilted heavily in favor of offense in pro tennis, but superb defense can still spell the difference between victory and defeat. Past stars Bjorn Borg, Michael Chang, Steffi Graf and Justine Henin made amazing gets. Today Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters turn defense into offense better than ever with “Did you see that!” shotmaking.
What athletic abilities, technical skills and tactical thinking are required to play defense well?
Harold Solomon, a former world No. 5 and 1976 French Open finalist, provides authoritative answers from his unique perspective. A diminutive, rock-solid baseliner, Solomon also reveals how his brilliant, tenacious defense “broke the spirit” of opponents and produced stunning comebacks. Solomon later coached elite players Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Jim Courier, Mary Joe Fernandez, Elena Dementieva, and Anna Kournikova. He now imparts his expertise and experience to students at The Harold Solomon Tennis Institute (www.solomontennis.com) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
When then-No. 11 Ni La gradually overpowered then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 at the 2011 Australian Open, Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova asserted, “Defense doesn’t win matches; offense wins matches, especially Grand Slams at this level.” Do you agree?
I agree for the most part. At the elite level, defense doesn’t hold up like it used to. The game has changed tremendously from my era. Players are bigger and stronger. Technology is advancing all the time. Rackets move through the air much faster than they used to, especially compared to wooden rackets. Maybe more than anything else, the new strings have changed the sport. Players are able to impart a lot more spin on the ball. Now players can swing faster because of the added topspin, and that allows them to hit harder and more consistently. So being a counterpuncher, even in women’s tennis, has changed. A purely counterpunching style is becoming obsolete.
On the men’s side, was Lleyton Hewitt the last superb counterpuncher
Hewitt was probably the last guy. Today, I wouldn’t consider even a small guy like [David] Ferrer a counterpuncher. He goes for his shots and uses his forehand effectively. As these guys developed their games … even [Michael] Chang had to become more offensive when he tried to become No. 1 in the world. When Lleyton first came on the pro tour, he was a total counterpuncher. Then he recognized he needed to become more proficient at the net and attacking, and I don’t think he would have become No. 1 in the world unless he had taken on some offensive capabilities he didn’t have when he first came up.
Click photo: Andy Murray may be the best big man defensive player in history, but if he wants to crack the top three, he's going to have to turn that defense into offense more often.
When you take a look at Nadal, he isn’t a classical, aggressive baseliner who hits winners. He wears down guys. That’s because of the excessive spin on his shots. He’s definitely not a defensive player, but he has great defensive skills.
Ferrer and Hewitt would be the last of the guys who relied more on their defensive skills. Although Andy Murray is now under a lot of pressure to become more offensive, he also has some great defensive skills. It’s not in his nature to be as offense-oriented as some of the other guys, but he’s learning that. Murray, at 6’3”, is one of the best big man defensive players in history, if not the best. He has great passing shots, the ability to hit excellent shots on the run. He’s able to turn an opponent’s offense into defense, and he can become offensive off those shots.
Who were the greatest defensive male players in history, and what made each so effective?
It would be difficult for me to go back to the 1920s and 1930s because I never saw those guys play. I heard stories that Bitsy Grant was a small guy like me and could get a million balls back and counterpunch great, and he upset [all-time greats Don] Budge and [Ellsworth] Vines on occasion. You had [1966 French Open finalist István] Gulyás, a Hungarian I heard was really great defensively. He played with his rackets strung at 40 pounds, was able to run balls down and slid great and got a million balls back.
In my era, Orantes was amazing defensively. He had a great ability to slide, hit really good slices, hit great drop shots, had great balance, he neutralized opponents’ big serves with great slice returns, he could take pace off the ball and neutralize guys who had big shots.
Borg was amazing. He had this arc of six or eight feet behind the baseline where he was almost impenetrable. He was very fast and anticipated well. For our era, Borg’s shots felt like Nadal’s balls to us—the heavy topspin that bounced high. He was able to neutralize opponents’ power. He also could slide amazingly well, stay balanced, slice balls when he was pulled wide and get himself back in the point.
Borg had great speed. Speed and anticipation are the No. 1 and No. 2 areas that make great defensive players. Of course, you have to be able to do something [with your shot] once you get there. But, if you’re really fast—and Vitas Gerulaitis was also really fast in our era—some of the best players like Borg and Gerulaitis were able to take other players’ power and really negate it.
What were the keys to your defensive success?
I think I understood my era of the game. Growing up short [5’5”], being a smaller guy and playing against much taller guys, I always had to figure out: What was the appropriate shot to play at the appropriate time? How could I use depth? How could I use height on the ball? How could I use angles?
Back in the day—and that is coming back a bit now—it was more like a chess match. You were always trying to think one shot ahead. What are the consequences of the shot my opponent just hit? What are the consequences of the shot I’m going to play now to be able to put myself in an advantageous position? How could I get myself off the defensive and neutralize the rally or even become offensive?
I used a lot of topspin that bounced high. When I first started, a lot of guys were playing with one-handed backhands, and they were slicing their backhands. A few players like Laver and Vilas could come over the ball, but even they didn’t like balls that bounced high to their backhands. People would describe those shots as “moonballs,” but they were more like high offensive shots and opponents had a lot of difficulty doing anything with that shot.
Specifically, how have the sport and defense changed?
Today, the top four men are all superb defensive players. More accurately, they are not defensive players, but they have great defensive skills. Defensively, what has changed so much recently … we went through a period when serves started to dominate the game. Then the game started to get a lot slower, because we slowed the courts down, and we slowed the balls down. The serve began to dominate the sport. Instead of trying to nail returns, players started chipping returns a lot more. Federer became the most proficient at doing that. That started to negate the serve to some degree.
The guys don’t volley anywhere nearly as well as they used to; they’re not skilled at serving and volleying these days. I think that’s going to change, because players are going to recognize that if they can improve their serve-and-volley game, they are going to become more effective.
So working on chip returns and just getting balls back were necessitated by big serving. Now you see way fewer aces. Of course, Isner and Karlovic and a few other guys will hit an amazing number of aces because the angle they serve from is amazing. But, on the other hand, Rafa stands 10 or 12 feet behind the baseline to just slice serves back in the court. Federer has an amazing ability to absorb pace and get shots back into the court, as does Rafa. Djokovic, with his speed and strength, although not a great slicer, is able to do the same thing. And Murray is a natural counterpuncher. He defends amazingly well.
Who were the greatest defensive women players in history? And what made them great?
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who won three French Opens and ranked No. 1, was short, had a really good backhand and an average forehand and a great drop shot. She had a great ability to hit high balls and slide around the court. Arantxa was one of the best defensive players. Hingis was similar to Arantxa. She was an excellent mover, she understood the court well, and she was able to absorb power, using her legs well to do that.
Wozniacki also has great defensive skills. She runs really well, she understands the court well and knows where to place her shots. Part of being a great defensive player is to take a ball that someone hits well and then absorb the power with your legs and then hit the ball in a place where you’re not going to get hurt by your opponent’s shot. Caroline understands that and does a great job with that.
Click photo: Kim Clijsters has a huge forehand and you wouldn't categorize her as a defensive player. She's always trying to be offensive, but she has great defensive skills.
Chrissie Evert was another player great at doing that. Opponents would try to rush net and attack—then a lot of the women were serving and volleying—and Chrissie was able to take the pace off the ball and direct the ball well. She had a great lob and a great drop shot, and she had amazing depth on her shots.
I will include Andrea Jaeger because she was one of the first women to put a lot of topspin on her groundstrokes and she ran like crazy. Jaeger arrived in a crossover era where you had the end of the careers of Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Betty Stove, Virginia Wade and Evonne Goolagong, who was also a great defensive player, who could slide and play great slice shots. Then you had the next generation—Chrissie, Andrea and Tracy Austin, who could defend against strong serves and pace really well and had pinpoint accuracy on their shots.
Steffi Graf, with her slice backhand, was able to get herself out of trouble a lot. She was not a defensive player, per se, but she was able to go from defense to offense really well. Kim Clijsters has a huge forehand and you wouldn’t categorize her as a defensive player. She’s always trying to be offensive, but she has great defensive skills. She uses her speed, her ability to slide on all surfaces, even hard courts, to get a million balls back, negating the power of the Williams sisters, for instance, which was difficult to do. Hingis was able to do that for a while until the players got bigger and stronger. Negating the power of the top players will become even more difficult in the future.
Is it a coincidence that today’s top four men — Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray — are all terrific defensively?
It’s not a coincidence. I don’t think there’s ever been a champion who also didn’t have some great defensive skills. The reason they have great defensive skills is they are four of the best movers on the tour. They move amazingly well. One reason why Djokovic ascended to No. 1 is that his movement has improved so much. They all have the ability to turn defense into offense from seemingly impossible positions on the court. That is a rare skill. It involves their ability as a shotmaker but also their speed. It’s almost like they have a fifth gear.
When I played Borg, that’s how it felt. I would hit an unbelievable shot that I felt would either be a winner or put him in an impossible situation, but he would not only get to it but do something with the ball that put me in a defensive situation. Today the top four guys can do that better than anyone else in the game.
Which pro players position themselves the best and the worst? And why is “the center of possible returns” so important to understand and use both in the backcourt and at net?
Federer’s court positioning is constantly good. He gets into the Ideal Recovery Position, the IRP, better than anyone. The IRP includes more than “the center of possible returns” which refers only to lateral positioning. The IRP is really important because it puts the player in the center of the potential extreme angles the opponent can hit.
Because of the speed of the shots today, it’s more important than ever to understand the court geometry and where you should recover to after each particular shot. That means moving laterally somewhat to the same side as your approach shot when you play net and somewhat, usually a foot or two, to the opposite side laterally of where your shot lands when you’re around the baseline. It also means moving slightly forward to on the baseline, or even inside it, when you hit an extremely deep shot, especially one that is likely to elicit a short return.
Andy Roddick is a case in point of a player who, tragically, never understood or followed these tenets of correct positioning throughout his career.
Andy has had a great career. He was basically a 1-2 guy—he had a big serve and a big forehand. When he was playing his best, I think he was hitting almost every ball as hard as he could—looking to move around to hit forehands. He was never the most proficient guy at the net, he never had the greatest hands.
Click photo: Andy Roddick often drifts too far back behind the baseline during points.
At his best, he was holding serve pretty easily, trying to hit forehands all the time. Now Andy Roddick is a shadow of Andy Roddick in the past. He’s become almost like a counterpuncher; he seldom tries to be offensive anymore. His forehand doesn’t have the power it used to have.
Ever since his epic  final at Wimbledon to Federer, he’s never been as effective. He’s never felt really comfortable at the net. So his court positioning has been too far back behind the baseline, never up in the court enough. Andy doesn’t have a really good backhand return of serve or the best backhand passing shot. He’s learned to chip backhands better than he did in the past, but that’s never been his game because you can’t compare Andy’s foot speed to a lot of the other guys’ foot speed. So, if he’s not in control of the point, then he gets himself into a little bit of trouble.
His playing way behind the baseline is completely the wrong way for him to play tennis. Andy is a big, strong guy, and for him to be 6 or 8 feet behind the baseline is not going to work.
Even though you want to be as aggressive as possible when you volley, how do you play smart and good defense at net when you have to?
Pat Cash and Pat Rafter and Stefan Edberg did a great job positioning themselves at the net and volleying effectively. Positioning yourself at the net is one of the keys. Split-stepping correctly—more quickly than you do in the backcourt—is another key. A third key is following your serve or approach shot correctly into the net to give your opponent the least available angle to be able to pass you. In women’s tennis, it’s important to be able to split step and look for the lob because women lob a lot more.
What type of volley you play is crucial. Any time you volley from below the top of the net, you want to keep the volley in front of you and as deep as possible. If you direct your low volley into the open court, you open up so many possibilities for passing shots.
In the women’s game, the shot you play ends up helping you not have to be defensive. In women’s tennis, the angle volley and the drop volley are much more effective than trying to volley through the court. That’s because women and men do such a great job of running down balls. If you give them the chance to hit on the run off a deep volley, it’s a much easier passing shot than if you play angle volleys or drop volleys. It’s much tougher to hit passing shots when you’re running up and have to hit an angle shot off those balls. That’s also because it’s much tougher for the two-handed backhand and Western forehand to handle low balls. On the other hand, today’s strings allow you to hit a low ball with such racket acceleration and to brush up on the ball so much that you’re still able to hit a passing shot.
What footwork drills do you recommend to improve explosiveness, flexibility, agility, balance, and recovery?
In the U.S., we haven’t done as good as job teaching footwork as European countries and some South American countries. Because shots travel so fast today, explosiveness is very important. Players have to learn to reduce foot contact time on the court. Plyometric exercises are best for this. I also recommend the jump rope , hexagon drills, jumping over barriers, side to side shuffles, and lateral cone hops. There are hundreds of good drills that really good trainers know and understand. Working on the agility ladder is one of the best.
In France and Spain, you have to go through and pass such a highly rigorous training process to become a top-rated, accredited coach. It’s almost like an apprenticeship. In the U.S., it’s much easier to get a USPTA or PTR certificate to become a coach. In France, the process can take as much as seven years to become a top-rated coach.
Here it’s better than it used to be, but much less rigorous. At the lower level of coaching here, it’s much more difficult to find accomplished coaches to work with juniors and help teach them the basic skills necessary to develop a sound foundation for their games.
American tennis has paid a huge price for this at all levels. We have so many kids who come to our tennis institute who don’t even have the basic foundation from the right grip structure to footwork structure to stroke technique to understanding what we’re talking about today.
Not many coaches are teaching really good defense, and sliding is such an important part of learning how to play well on clay. So many juniors don’t learn how to slide. That’s not only because so little tennis is played on clay in the United States compared to other countries, but a lot of the coaches working with kids don’t know how to slide themselves. They don’t understand even the principles of sliding.
How does playing defense well depend on analyzing correctly the strengths, weaknesses, and favorite shots of your opponent?
You first have to determine which areas your opponent doesn’t like to hit balls. Most people still don’t like balls that bounce high, especially in women’s tennis. When you’re on defense, you can play a ball that is high and deep to negate the shot that just came to you.
When you’re way off the court, you have an option. You can go for a winner and try to hit the 1 in 10 shot. Or you can play a high, heavy forehand ball that lands either in the middle of the court or to the backhand for the most part. Your shot will then either force them to go for a shot they maybe shouldn’t go for or will push them back. That’s what I want to do. So I’m always thinking about how much height and spin and depth I want on my shot. And I’m always looking to see if my opponent is going to sneak in on me [and volley my high shot].
On the backhand side, I’m looking at slice as an option. You can play all sorts of different slices. You can play a slice that bounces low. You can play an angled slice. Or you can play more of a floating slice to give you more time to recover your position back in the court. It all has to do with where your opponent is positioned on the court, what his strengths and weaknesses are, and where you are on the court. The floating slice wouldn’t work against John McEnroe, but it would work against guys who stay back almost all the time. You have to know your opponent.
Most players today aren’t comfortable coming in, and most women use swing volleys. But girls often hit five or six offensive shots and not follow it into the net. That gives you, as a defensive player, the option not to do as much with this ball as I would if my opponent is going to come in [to net] on me. Wozniacki and [Jelena] Jankovic get opponents in trouble a lot, but they can’t deliver the knockout punch and finish off points as well as they should.
Making the right decision isn’t easy when you’re scrambling on defense. You have only a split-second and you’re on the dead run. Do you try for a difficult passing shot or lob? Do you change strategy if you’re getting overpowered? Is there even anything different you can try? What do you suggest?
It really involves understanding your game and your opponent’s game and understanding the [surface and geometry of the] court. But the most important thing in playing defensive shots is first getting to the ball.
Second, you have to understand it’s always better to return a ball back into the court than go for a low-percentage shot. My theory has always been to make my opponent hit one more shot.
Third, you have to understand where to put the ball when you find yourself in a defensive position. Sometimes, obviously you’re scrambling and you’re just happy to just get the ball back in play. But in other situations, say when you’re pulled off the court, you know that 80 percent of the time I’m going to give myself a chance to get back in the court by playing either a defensive lob or an offensive, high, heavy ball back in the court. Most of the time, you just want to neutralize your opponent’s offense.
At the club level, when players are in trouble, they go for shots they might see on TV; they try crazy shots instead of just trying to make their opponent play another shot.
Their frame of mind should be based on knowing that the more balls your opponent has to hit, the better off you are. You can experiment in practice matches and throw up a high defensive lob and see what that does to this particular opponent. You can experiment with a heavy, topspin ball or a slice and see what happens. You learn both from experience and from analyzing your opponent.
What mental characteristics do excellent defensive players have?
Determination, perseverance, patience to stay in long points and get one more ball back to make the difference and not think you have to go for a shot before it’s the right time to go for it. Sheer fighting spirit and competitiveness are key characteristics of a top defensive player. If you are going to be a defensive player, you have to be willing to stay out there a long time.
I can remember matches where I knew I was over-matched and being overpowered. I’d say to myself: I know I’m in better physical condition than my opponent, and if I have to stay out here for three hours or four hours, and if I have to hit 50 balls over the net in a point, then I’m going to do whatever I have to do. I’m going to frustrate people. Especially at the club level, the more balls they have to hit, the better for me. An offensive-minded player hates the idea of having to hit six or seven or more balls in a row.
I tried to be calm out there when I competed. You want to use your head, not lose your head. You want to figure things out. You want to be the problem-solver, not the problem. So many people end up becoming the problem by losing their composure. You want to have fire in your belly. You want to use that fire and intensity in the right way. So many players today, especially at the junior level, think their job is to be their biggest critic when they miss a shot. Your job is to be thinking all the time and not let your emotions cloud your judgment.
One of the most important parts of being a defensive player is to constantly evaluate the game and think through situations. I’m always asking myself: What’s working and what’s not working? And if it’s not working, what do I need to change? Tennis is a very fluid sport; it’s not stagnant. It’s always changing. You have to make sure you’re in charge of the change and reacting well to the changes to stay effective all the time.
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