Under Appreciated, Under Employed,
But Oh What Damage it Can Cause
2005 French Open, semifinal, Nadal and Federer. We all know the result, but I found set point in the fourth set particularly telling. Long rally, Nadal on defense, corner to corner. Nadal lofts a high defensive lob, Federer backpedals and smashes, but, he smashes cautiously - not going for a winner but simply to stay in the point, and this guy may be the best player we have ever seen. Nevertheless, a tentative overhead and Nadal whips a passing shot winner to capture the fourth set.
Click photo to hear Jim McLennan talk about the lob and how it can disrupt your opponent's confidence.
Similarly, many years ago, the famous highlight of Jimmy Connors and Paul Harhuis, US Open, Connors lofts repeated defensive lobs, Harhuis smashes but never convincingly, finally Connors swoops to cover an angled overhead and whips a backhand winner down the line to capture the point, the crowd (which he truly already had), and turn the match in his favor. Lobs come in many styles, can be used in many situations, but are an essential tool (weapon?) in your tennis tool box.
You are in the corner way out of position, your opponent is (or opponents are) at the net. Here, a high defensive lob provides a number of solutions. If your lob is in the air two seconds or more there is ample time to recover. Additionally, as Federer and Harhuis discovered, it is not all that easy to play a confident overhead against such a high shot. The intent here is not a winner, not even a placement into the corner of the opponent's backcourt, simply a high lob that lands more or less midcourt.
These shots are aimed lower, the intent is to get the ball over the opponents head, but in such a way that the ball carries and they have less time to run it down. Bill Rapp, in an initial foray into published tennis instruction, has written about the joys of the lob volley – where in a doubles sequence with all four players are at the net, this finessed lob often turns into a winner. Another scenario is the return of the second serve in the deuce court. When lobbing down the line the server if right handed is now retrieving on his backhand side.
Click photo to see Jim McLennan demonstrate hitting offensive and defensive lobs.
Lobs into the sun
At certain times of the day when the sun is at your back, the direction of your shadow illuminates a particularly effective direction for your lob. If your lob flies along the exact line of the shadow, your opponent will be virtually blinded.
Happened to me in a tournament in Sarasota many years ago on a crucial point in the third set. I couldn't really see the ball, chose to volley somewhat safely instead of risking an error, got passed, lost the match, and thought it had been bad luck. On the long drive home, it occurred to me the opponent may have contrived just this, and lesson learned, I am now always aware of the sun, my shadow, and those perfect opportunities to lob the ball exactly into the sun.
Lobs and the art of winning
If the opponent has a good forehand, then we play the ball to the weaker backhand side. In nearly all recreational instances, the overhead is the least practiced shot, least confidently struck, and most likely to unravel the opponent.
If the opponent is at the net, and I pass cleanly, I win just one point. If the opponent is at the net and my pass goes into the net, I lose just one point. But if the opponent is at the net, I lob and they miss the overhead, perhaps I have won two points – the point I just won and the mental point acquired to see weakness in the overhead. If I lob in the next sequence, he misses again, screams “Man I stink at this,” I have now won three points if not more. I know how to play him, especially in the big points, and perhaps he knows what I know.
Andre Agassi executes this well disguised topspin lob, but on the club level, a simpler, open-faced lob can be just as effective.
Lobs come in a number of varieties, underspin, relatively flat, and topspin. We see many examples of the topspin lob winner in professional tennis, hit with disguise and spin to surprise the opponent, and generally a winner when struck just right. In my opinion the simpler underspin or flat lob generally does the trick. You and I are not lobbing Pete Sampras, and in that light, I favor a lob more prone to enable the opponent to miss, than a “winner” lob. To that end, the materials on construction are more about finessing the lob.
Construction of the lob
Simple preparation, not much of a backswing, the stroke is all about tempo. Recreational errors occur when too much racquet speed is used, or just the opposite, not really hitting through the ball. When inside the baseline on the return of serve, the stroke is firm but slow, intended to get the ball just over the net players head. When behind the baseline, the defensive lob is hit higher, with somewhat of a faster stroke, but in both instances we are hitting up.
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