Connors and Sharapova: The Attacking Game
Sharapova was likened to Jimmy Connors the other night (in her losing effort to Myskina) - and I think the comparison is apt. Connors played on or inside the baseline, drove the ball to the corners, played relentless offense, and finished many a point at the net.
Sharapova on the attack.
As I remember, Jimbo didn't exactly approach the net, but rather having played the ball perfectly into the corner and sensing a defensive reply, he would swoop forward volleying from inside the baseline. Not a midcourt approach with a finishing volley at the net, but rather a backcourt drive with a midcourt volley winner.
This signature play (though I don't remember Bud Collins coming up with something as colorful as the "Bellville Backfire") combined Connors punishing accuracy and power with sudden net rushing finality.
In the classic approach shot sequence, you wait for a short ball, take that short ball on the rise, contact the ball inside the baseline, stroke the ball with underspin and aim it down the line and into the corner. After contact, in this approaching scenario, you quickly move inside the service line looking for a volley put away into the open court.
Note, in most instances the opponent can retrieve and often return this approach shot. So the skill from the approacher's point of view is to place the ball deep and to the corner, and finish at the net.
On the other hand, if the opponent is way out of position, and plays the ball short, you can move forward and take this ball on the rise and into the open corner. Because the opponent was out of position, cornered and behind the baseline, generally this ball will not be returned, so this tends to be more of a winner than an approach shot as no finishing volley is required.
Click photo to see Jim McLennan talk about Maria Sharapova's aggressive attacking game.
So what to do if the opponent is moved way out of position, behind the baseline and well into the corner, but they return the ball with depth, with pace or both? Your options are to stay behind the baseline, let the ball bounce and restart the rally, and wait for another opportunity. Or you can take their return in the air from the midcourt and drive the ball into the open corner. Risky? Yes. Does it apply additional pressure? Absolutely. Who does it? You guessed it. All the truly offensive baseliners who are trained to move forward at the slightest hint of defense from a cornered opponent.
Robert Lansdorp describes just such a drill he uses to train Maria Sharapova. He is positioned behind the baseline, and off to one corner, as he drops the ball Maria must charge forward, "attacking blindly," and play an offensive midcourt volley off of any shot Robert delivers. And in match play, when Maria drives the ball deep to the corner, she expects a defensive reply, but she cannot know whether she will be fielding a crosscourt or down the line, a floater or a drive, hence a "blind attack."
Risky? Certainly. Does it create pressure? Absolutely. Remember, winners make it happen and losers hope it happens, and in this case having driven the ball perfectly to the corner, the floating defensive reply is just waiting to be attacked.
Now a word on court positioning. Consider the simple terms, centered and
cornered. When rallying down the middle of the court, both players are
essentially centered, positioned close to the center of the baseline (though
the same applies at the net). If during this rally a shot is played deep
and to the corner, the player retrieving this shot will become (at the
moment of contact if not a few moments afterward) essentially cornered.
Were this cat and mouse, the mouse would prefer not to be in the corner, and
the same goes for tennis.
So in order to succeed at the blind attack, the
attacker prefers to be centered at the moment the opponent becomes cornered.
Looking at it this way, it is easy to see how and when Maria moves forward
to pick off the midcourt sitter, just as Jimbo did it some 30 years before.
As to the differences between an approach shot, and the midcourt "blind attack," it has to do with the opponents positioning and their ability to
return your shot. With the midcourt "blind attack" volley the opponent
is way out of court, so the sudden advance and volley deny the opponent
recovery time and generally lead to a volley winner to the open court.
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