By Ken Woodfin

Center Court and Coverage Purpose and Tactics, with Player Insights, Perspectives and Match Scenarios

Racquetball Strategy and Techniques

Intro

Court coverage on both sides of the ball is a huge part of the game. It’s defense and offense. One player is the cover player or defender who ideally gets in position in the central part of the court to defend against the ball they just hit, while the player looking to hit the ball is tracking down the ball to try to hit it offensively. After tracking it down, the player hitting the ball or hitter approaches the ball to set up and strike it. Once the hitter sets up to take a shot the cover player, who ideally has moved into center court ready to defense can’t move into the path the hitter’s ball on its way to its offensive target.

Here’s a sample situation where the cover player “moves in such a direction that it prevents an opponent from taking either of these shots”: the straight to front wall or cross-court to far, rear corner. That’s under Rule 3.15 penalty hinder, Failure to Move. Here’s the sample. The opposing doubles partner who plays on your side moves to the wall and that is where it appears they’ll be as you’re set up and taking your shot. The ball is 6′ off the sidewall. A straight shot is possible without hitting that opposing player, but it could be too near them as it rebounds off the wall and they might be able to hit it away from you. So a cross-court has been chosen and is underway as the player on the sidewall suddenly steps off the wall into the other failure to move rule by preventing the shot to “the rear corner farthest from the player hitting the ball”.

Tactically the player hitting the ball can have the upper hand. As they are setting up to hit, their HUGE tactical advantage they carry in their hip pocket is that they can see and use with their peripheral vision tells them both about where the opposing cover player is located in coverage and they can infer where the cover player could move from their initial spot in coverage. The hitter factors in that potential movement while deciding where to place their shot. If the cover player is located well usually in the center of the court, the hitter has the challenge of avoiding hitting the ball to that cover player, AND the hitter also quickly examines their crystal ball to see where the cover player *will* move to cover the hitter’s shot. Of course, if the cover player is out of position well off to one side of the court or in a shady spot in the backcourt, the hitter’s shot options expand dramatically. Also, by paying attention and keeping track, it’s great news to note a cover player who moves dutifully with such discipline to center court but then rivets themselves to that spot only to make their cover run AFTER they clearly see where you, the hitter hits the ball, as perhaps they hope against hope the ball will somehow come right to them in the center. Or they’re waiting to hear the ball contact and then to see where the ball is headed before they move.

The cover player who is ready to move where they read the hitter is shooting (and they often guess and guess right) is tough to play. They move as the hitting player commits by swinging their arm forward and by far that presents the biggest challenge for the player hitting the ball. The hitter has to play keep away from that hustling cover player. On the other hand, the cover player who moves too early or is moving while the hitting player’s still has their racquet lifted up can be wrong footed by the hitter. Moving before the swing forward starts means the ball can be hit behind them. Worse case by moving too early the cover player may block the hitter’s shot, as the shot the hitter was already set up for and is hitting is blocked by the cover player who moves in front of the shot, which is a rule breaking premature move which results in a loss of rally penalty hinder call in matches and may result in circular leg bruise, to boot.

The topics of this lesson are: court movement; court positioning; and the essential importance of the center court starting block to running down balls your opponent hits so you are able to shoot aggressively or keep the rally alive. We’ll also discuss the long diagonal shot and its great tactical significance defensively and also offensively. As the cover player, when the ball is behind you and off to one side in deep court or in the *back 10* (feet), you can simply and fairly *take away the diagonal* shot into the opposite, front corner, which still allows the opponent to hit both the compulsory straight in and also the cross-court shot that’s aimed into the far, rear corner. When the ball is further up in the court, still get into center court or *center up*. On the other side of the ball, as the player hitting the ball, try to get to the ball first or before the cover player can get in that good center court coverage positioning. When the ball is in the back 1/4 of the court, the hitting player should be trying to get to the ball before the cover player spots up on the diagonal line between the ball and the opposite front corner.

Yes, it’s an all out race to see who gets to their spot first. It is a competition after all, a battle for court positioning and center court domination!

Huge Court Movement Strategic Tactic

Off the ball hustle makes your racquetball game hum and it turns it into an elite one. That hustle does two huge tactical and technical things.

  1. One, it makes the player hitting the ball think. When you move quickly after you serve, return, or hit your rally shot, it pressures the opponent who *sees* your effort and positioning to legally block some of their shot angles and pressure the other (apparently open) shot angles. Also, the hitting player takes special note when, as the cover player, you demonstrate the readiness to make the follow on run from center to track down and attack the ball they’re just about to hit.
  2. Two, when done right, good foot work movement into coverage position prepares you to move on from there to track down most any shot hit by the hitting player. Going from defense to offense, the objective is to quickly move from center to run down, move with the ball and skillfully set your feet to attack the ball with your stroke. Everyone knows it’s fun to be the shooter. It’s much less fun to be a last second shot getter. It’s nigh on depressing watching helplessly when you’re caught out of center court, as a weak shot passes you by. That’s especially true when you don’t hustle to get into center or when you don’t move into the correct position there. When positioned well, you should be able to move from center to cover a ball that are even is close as within an arm’s reach away, but it may be irretrievable when you’re caught back on your heels and flat-footed. To start that defense that ideally turns into a vaunted offense, what’s the first thing that makes your defense flow?

What Should You Consistently Do After Hitting Every Ball? … Take Center Court!

After shooting any shot (or serve), Goal #1 is to move and *get into center court*. At the same time as you *center up*, be looking back over your shoulder and watching the ball you just hit and the opponent tracking it down to pick up any clues as to where they might hit their shot.

Center court is a floating zone in the middle of court. Center court extends as far back as 28′, which is one stride behind the dashed receiving line. Its width side to side is about 8′ or 4′ side on either side of the court’s center. The zone stretches forward up to as close as a stride inside the dashed line at 22′ from the front wall, which is just in back of the short line that is 20′ back from the front wall. The floating zone is that close for 2 reasons.

  1. After you hit your hardest drive serves, that’s about as far back as you actually get before the receiver can make contact with your serve. You finish your serve at the front of the service box and then you ideally, quickly retreat. 
  2. Two, that forward most part of the floating zone is very often the depth of coverage for the defending doubles partner on the far side from the player hitting the ball, as the defender’s front foot or both feet may be set at 22′, which is especially the tactic when the opposing, far side offensive partner is known to possess a formidable sidewall game.  Also, note that sometimes you may tactically position yourself to take away or dissuade your competitor from taking a shot. Just due to your presence in the center your opponent may change their shot plan.Your positioning can get in the head of your opponent. For example, when you set up the competitor with an obvious kill-shot opening, move up to cover closer to the front of the floating zone to be seen and discourage their kill-shot attempt. Hopefully that’ll tempt them to hit a pass, which is a shot you can drop back and cover. For example, as they set up to hit and it now looks like a pass is their plan, be dropping back as you pick their shot angle and cover that angle with a diagonal run outside the follow-through radius of the shooter.

Center Court’s Tactical Significance

The main reason to get into center court is because it’s home base for your best court coverage. That goes for best case situations when the opponent either shoots into the near corner or when they under angle their cross-court pass and the ball veers right to you in the center. More importantly home base is your starting block to run and track down the hitting player’s shots when they could be placed all over the court. From the center, moving to any of the 4 corners of the court to get to the opponent’s shot is possible. However, when you start from outside of center court, your chances go way, way down of tracking down and being offensive when hitting the next ball.


Know Where, When, How and Why do you move to center up, while allowing the mandated straight and cross-court shots?  And how do you get ready and then move to cover most any shot by the player hitting the ball? How do you position yourself tactically and fairly to take away certain shots? And, as a bonus, when you get into center and you’re prepared to make your track down run from there, how do you react when you’re gifted a chance to attack a ball right in the middle of the court near to your center court starting block?

Where?

Where do you move to cover shots, give up the 2 angles you must (the straight in and cross-court) and, at the same time, take away the key long diagonal angle and also the very challenging to cover wide angle pass (WAP) cross-court shot? Note that a WAP is usually shot from off to one side of the court a little further up in the backcourt (the front of the back 10) and all the way up to middle which is 20-28′ back. The WAP you want to avoid being passed by most is when the opponent is in the backcourt hitting the ball and you are miss positioned too far off to other side of the court so that they can find a greater than 45 degree angle, hit the front wall more than halfway over from where they make ball contact and then angle the ball off the front wall to strike the sidewall beside you to get the ball to bounce twice behind you. That angle would make you have to spin completely around and run back hard to hopefully save the ball to the back wall. They key is to not set your center court coverage <that> far over from the ball. Where then, you ask?

Where is the *Best* Spot in Center Court?

– The best spot available is all around the dashed receiving line that’s 25′ back and in the center part of the court. To cover, sometimes you’ll be a step behind the dashed line. Other times you may be a full step in front of it. Sometimes you’ll straddle the dashed line. Other times one foot will be forward of the broken line, when, for instance, you’re tending toward covering forward and pressuring the hitting player’s low targeted shooting. Other times one foot is behind the line, as you ready to cover, for instance, an expected passing shot angle or a ceiling ball by the opponent.

The best spot is in the center 8′ of the court, while you *adjust* your spot to where you place your shot (or serve). So, again, the center is a floating zone around the broken line in the central part of the court. As you play this particular competitor, adjust your depth in the court to both their shot pace and also their shooting tendencies. So the key is to adapt. Against bigger hitters and players who pass and often hit ceilings, you may drop even as far back as one full step back behind the dashed line.

Against pinchers and players who hit with more touch than torch it’s good tactics to play further forward, even starting your cover runs forward from in front of the dashed line. In doubles, the far side cover player may spot up with one foot on the broken line or both feet in the safety zone between the dashed and short lines, as they tend toward making covering runs into the front court to track down pinches and splats by the opposite side opponent, especially when that player has frequently (or early on) demonstrated they can hit those types of shots. Know that even when the ball is also in the center and slightly off to one side of the court, Plan B is for you to share the wide side of center with the player hitting the ball. As that player addresses the ball and they’re facing away from you toward the far sidewall, start your coverage behind them in their blindspot. Because they can’t see you you’re able to make the shooter have to guess where you are (and where you could be *after* you move). After all *you will move*. Ideally that’ll promote indecision and affect confidence in their shot. It may even affect their shot selection judgment which may make them pick the wrong angle, causing the shot they pick to feed toward you in the center, as your positioning pressure causes a quasi-forced error.

You could (and should) move when the hitting player commits to swing forward toward their target. Move where you *see* them hitting the ball. Once you show the shooter your tendency is to move to track down their shot a seed is planted in their mind. When you hustle and leave on time, you’re able to make up ground to cover almost any shot angle. Of course, avoiding leaving the ball in the center is always Plan A. Next time, right?

Where? … Assume the Diagonal

– Now where do you spot up in center court in relationship to the ball the hitting player is addressing? If you consistently leave open the diagonal shot angle into the far front court, you’re simply gonna take a beating. The diagonal shot alone is nearly irretrievable, but being too far off to the other side of the court also leaves open (at least) 2 other key shot angles. One, a Mack truck-sized passing lane is left open for a very basic straight to the front wall shot. For example, this is why it’s so chancy to serve from way over on one side of the box and hit the ball cross-court to the far, rear corner because you have so much court to make up to get into center court to cover, as the receiver is moving to return your serve early hoping to catch you out (of position). When they get to your serve before you can recover to center, their return can exploit that initially wide open down the line (DTL) angle or they could hit behind you cross-court and wrong foot you. Two, if you are too far over during rallies, you leave open sidewall shots that could bounce twice even as far back as the short line. It’d very tough for you to get the ball when you start from so far over in coverage. Note that legit kill-shots bounce twice in front of the 1st line which is the service line (not the middle short line). The service line is 15′ back from the front wall. As cover player, when the ball is behind you in the backcourt along either sidewall or off the sidewall in toward the center part of the court, make a key, concerted effort to adjust your movement to place yourself *in-between* the ball and the diagonally opposite front corner. Make special note to self, “I must occupy the diagonal BEFORE the player hitting the ball arrives to hit the ball”. So THE key is for you to get there FIRST before the hitting player can establish position and begin winding up to hit their shot. If you’re late or not in-between and taking away the diagonal corner when the opponent gets to the ball in the back 1/4 of the court, know that you’re potentially giving up an almost ungetatable or at least very hard to reach diagonal shot. The back 1/4 court ball contact includes is from about 31-39′ back and off to one side of the commonplace central back wall court door all the way over to that far, rear corner. When the ball is going back there, be watching and hustling to get between ball and corner. Also, be studying the hitter’s movements to see where they’re going make contact and where they’re going to shoot the ball so you can track it down and be prepared to hit a good response shot.

Where Does a Reverse Pinch Angle After Front Wall Contact? …a Court Physics Anomaly

A diagonal shot that hits the sidewall then front wall, while being hit with the off stroke, like a backhand shot into your forehand front corner, is a reverse pinch. The physics combo of corner court walls and your racquet flow action cause the reverse pinch to hit sidewall then front wall, and take its first bounce very close to the front wall, while angling across the court more toward the other sidewall than to angle out more into the center, like how a near corner pinch reacts.

For example, a backhand shot into your backhand corner comes out angling more into the center. Near corner pinches like that go in to the sidewall at about a 45 degree angle and they come out off the front wall at a 45, too. Diagonal reverse pinch shots go in to the sidewall at about a 45 degree angle and, due to the swing motion and walls, the pinch comes out at about a 20 degree angle, which causes the ball to stay much closer to the front wall making it much harder to get for the covering opponent. Add to that shot placement that an out of position, too far off to the other side of the court cover player is unable to run down a well struck, well-placed reverse pinch.

So, again, defensively assume the diagonal and block the far front corner so the dangerous reverse pinch from the back 1/4 of the court is not possible.

Where Do You Face? …Angle Off, For Every Ball

From your perspective as cover player, you know you want to be between a deep corner ball and the dangerous diagonal shot, which would be a very vulnerable shot you’d experience great difficulty covering were you to start too far off to the other side of the court or too deep in the backcourt. As you stand there in-between the ball and the far corner (or wherever you judge you should be in center court when the ball may be further up in the court than the back 10), which way is the best way to face? Try this: picture yourself toeing an imaginary diagonal line between the deep court ball and the far, front corner. Routinely *angle off* like that to *face the front corner* up ahead of ball and opponent. Even when the ball is further up in the court and you can’t (or shouldn’t) block the diagonal (while risking being caught too far forward), still face the corner in front of the ball. That about 45 degree feet and body angle is the best position to cover the best case ball coming straight up the middle to you from the ball side and it’s also the best body aspect to move from there to get to straight in or cross-court angled shots. A left up shot which angles out of the near corner or results from a miss-angled cross-court will angle to you in the center. When angled off, you have both a good view of the opponent hitting the ball and lots of options for shots away from the opponent and you when you cover by angling off. From your angled off position, you also have the best chance to blanket the line covering their straight in or down the line (DTL) shot. Also, while angling off, you are also able to turn and cut off the cross-court angle you read, when it’s a V pass at 45 degrees (or less), as that shot is intended to strike the far, rear corner. Know that a wide angle pass can leave you stranded in center court. The WAP, along with the diagonal angle and the DTL you would give up if you spot up in tactically poor coverage too far off to the other side of the court when the ball is being hit in the back 1/4 of the court on the other side. There are two less productive options for positioning your feet than angling off to face the front court sidewall ball side. One, full on facing the front wall does not allow you to move easily and effectively side to side to cover straight in or cross-court angles, and you’re left using a sideways baseball shortstop type of lunge out to the sidewall with the near foot to produce a defensive response. Unlike when you serve from the center there’s just not enough time to pivot and cross step with the far foot and bolt to cover those passing angles. There’ll be much more on feetwork when we talk about how to move *to* and *from* center court to cover the hitting player’s shot. The second option for setting your feet is also facing the front wall with one foot decidedly extended forward pointing at the front wall. That position makes that foot’s side of the court on over to the sidewall dead to your coverage unless you were to be able to do a 360 and turn completely around to run down the ball deep in the backcourt behind you. Good luck with that. Get up and try it and you’ll quickly see why that one foot extended forward is how a defensive basketball player gets easily crossed over by an attentive, driving ball handler who sees the overcommitted foot as their green light to cross the defender over <that> way. Instead, in coverage, always angle off ball side.

  Where Do You Move to Adjust to Your Shot’s Placement?

– Were the ball you hit to be placed and played by the player hitting the ball further off the sidewall, but still in deep court in the *back 10* move your diagonal over according to your ball’s placement, while you consciously adjust your spot to block that vulnerable far, front corner. Also, always place yourself slightly deeper and more ball side to cover the line and be more of a presence in the peripheral vision and psyche of the hitter. That closer positioning gives off the impression you’re camped on and ready to blanket their down the line. Now, while you ideally angle off with your feet to that side, also key on looking back over your back shoulder watching the opponent set up to hit the ball. Check out: … their apparent contact height based on keys, like

knee bend and body posture; their revealing stance angle; their picked contact point in relationship to their body (out front, beside, behind); their stroke size or racquet lift height; and fierceness of their backswing, including eye size (wide eyed means great intensity). All of that visual data tells you everything you need to know to anticipate where and how they’ll hit and their shot’s projected angle, height, pace and ultimately its placement in the court. It gives you what need to see where you will move next and what to prepare for, as you take off right as the hitter’s racquet flattens out and their hand (and racquet) begin swinging forward.

  How and Where Do You Move From Center To Cover?

– From there in the center, for example, it’s much easier to take the 2-step, back foot step to sidewall and then front foot diagonal step out into the straight in passing lane to blanket shots along that sidewall to gobble up your priority cover, the DTL pass or kill-shot. The DTL is your priority cover because it is the shortest possible shot that can be taken by your hitting opponent; so it takes less time for a DTL pass to fly by you when you’re not prepared to move into the passing lane to cover it. If you were to read (or see) the ball is not a DTL, just adjust your cover run with your feetwork to move to cover the cross-court angle (with a front foot drop step and back foot crossover) or crossover with the back foot and dash into the front court when you recognize the need to cover a low shot angle. Now since we’ve already started talking about moving *from center* it’s time to digress and talk about … when do you first move into center court to position yourself to cover the shot by the player hitting the ball? Then, from there, you’ll make cover runs to hit the next ball.

  When?

– After you serve, return serve or shoot each rally shot (as soon as you complete your follow-through), the very next thing to do is to make your move to get into center court. Basically make it a habit. Hit and move. That hustle gets you in your best coverage spot also prepared to move from there when the opponent commits to shoot. You’ll be looking to hustle and track down the shot you expect based on studying the player hitting the ball. These feetwork maneuvers you’ll repeat every time you recover to center up, with minor tweaks. To make your first move to center, the initial thing to do is to recenter yourself. That means rebalance your feet and body weight and get ready to move. After hitting, push from the commonly more weighted front foot back to the back foot of your stance. Do that with conscientious regularity, even when you may hit from an open, front wall facing stance. Most recenter without considering it, but, by practicing it, you’ll actually do it even better. It’s very valuable practice time spent perfecting your shift back action so that it’s on auto drive for you. It speeds up your balance recovery and, by adding in the transition to follow on movement to get into coverage, you do that your quickest, too. After centering up your body and feet, move from where you are to center court, as fast as you possibly can. There are several ways to move. You’ll be changing directions from any of the 4 parts or quadrants of the court where you make rally shot contact, return serve, serve in the box (or from where you are when your doubles partner is making ball contact).

  Feetwork From Hitting to Get Into Center Court and From There to Hit Again

– Sometimes just a walk or a slow trot might be all you need to do. But that is not going to very often be the case, unless, say, you loft up a time buying nick lob serve. And backpedaling when you’re forward in the court usually isn’t going to support the quick retreat you’ll need to get rapidly back into center court to cover most efficiently. Also, it’s best to avoid using the backpedal for a ceiling ball because it often leaves you facing forward for an awkward stroke or a tempted, ill-planned overhead. Turn and face. One option is sideways shuffling or side stepping, although shuffling should only be used when you hit from very close to where you read you need to be in center (or when you’re very close to where you read you can move to hit the next ball). To do the shuffle, you simply move the foot that’s closer to where you’re headed, like to center court (or toward the ball to hit). Push off the far foot and extend your lead foot in that direction and then, as it is landing, be pushing off and pulling ing along the trail foot. Land the lead foot then trailing foot and repeat, while avoiding clicking your heels together. Side stepping is obviously slower than running, but the reasoning for shuffling’s use being mandated by some instructors is that shuffling doesn’t involve crossing one foot over the other. The theory may be you’ll get caught going the wrong way and you won’t be able to recover when crossing over or worse case you might trip yourself up. Shuffling’s major drawback is that it’s slower and you can only move a short distance when shuffling or flicking your feet to move sideways. Also, if you shuffle, when you get there to hit the ball, time may be shorter for you to make your final, important adjustments to the bounce of the ball and to set your feet best to stroke effectively. As a result, planting in a stiff legged stance and an arm-only swing may be all that’s left for you when you shuffle and must quickly hack away. When you move to hit the ball, you still need to make your final approach adjustments to the bounce of the ball so the ball will be placed at your preferred contact point when you move into the ball and so that you attack the ball getting your legs into your stroke. You’d have to hit from very, very close to center court if you were only one or two shuffles away from where you read you need to be in center court (or similarly you’d have to be very close to move by shuffling to set up and hit the ball forcefully and accurately with a good stroke from a moving stroking stance). The main objective is to move from center as quickly as you possibly can to get behind (and beside) the ball. Turn and run and power down by taking smaller steps as you approach and read the ball Vs shufflin along until you set yourself right in front of the ball, which is a way too often used footwork failing. That shuffle and plop down in front of the ball prevents your legs from getting into your hit. Also, after you serve, you’re not THAT close where you can shuffle to center court and get there in time to cover the receiver’s return. Read on to get several ideas for quicker movement techniques to get to center, arrive on balance and move quickly from there to track down the ball, adjust to its bounce, plan your optimal contact point and get your legs ready to launch yourself forward into your stroke so you may shoot the ball hard or optionally soft and accurately based on a balanced, moving stroking stance.

  How Do You Move Efficiently From Hitting the Ball Into Coverage and Then Transition To Tracking Down and Approaching the Ball to Hit?

  How? … Well Choreographed Cross Steps Help Your Court Movement Immensely

– When you push from front to back and you recognize you’re more than a simple sideways shuffle away from center court (or you’re in center and you recognize you’re farther away from contacting the ball than a shuffle or two), it’s time to get creative. As you shift back, also begin to turn and work both feet, as you pull and *cross* the front foot past the back foot. There are two ways to cross step. One, you may crossover step with the front foot in front and past the back foot. Two, you may crisscross step with the front foot crossing behind the back foot (but maybe not quite all the way past). Get in the court, hold the ball and try the crossover and crisscross to see which ones works best for you when moving from point A to B from all over the court. Yeah, this is your homework assignment to drill your feetwork. You’re getting serious about your court movement. Starting from where you serve, cross as you move from that spot to move to the right or left to hustle into your center court spot that you read is the best defensive position to be in to get ready to move to cover the court and then track down and hit the ball your imaginary and future real opponent will hit. Include in that routine cross move spinning your upper body in the direction of your serve (or where you’re hitting the ball from all over court), with the spin ensuring your balance is optimized, as it helps with the *cross* move, and so the ball (and opponent) is in view over your trail shoulder. Also, practice the cross step from where you hit on both sides of the court or from the spots where you routinely return serve to train your recovery into center court. Also, from where you spot up in center court, drill the possible first step cross to get your motor running super fast to track down and hit the ball outside of center. After the first step cross, work on your follow on movement feetwork into center court (or to approach and hit a ball). Figure out how *you* cross best and go on to move from there to cover the court to control the center (or to track down and shoot the ball). You will often follow a first step cross with a second step cross. For example, when you crossover and want to make it a longer run, you will first drive and crossover with far foot and then also cross the initially crossed over foot to churn both legs to run to center (or to run down the ball when you start from center -or even from out of center- to move and hit). For a shorter run and when uncrushed by time, a final shuffle can help balance you as you arrive in center court (or as you power down to hit by starting to set your feet to launch your body forward to hit the ball). The crossover step literally gobbles up court when it’s used as your first step. And using the cross step promotes efficient movement and very solid body balance. Develop it to really raise your game.

• How Do You Do The Little Known It’s Even Done Crisscross Step

– Unbeknownst probably to almost every 2-step drive server the back foot first step is actually a crisscross step that makes the follow on front foot crossover step really count, as the front foot cross steps forward to the front of the box powering the leg drive. As both feet toe the back line of the box, you’re setting up for the service motion starting with the back foot step up and beside the front foot. The back foot lands just inside or forward of the front foot, supporting the front foot crossover and contributing to annihilating your ball contact for your drive serve. It’s like a small explosion goes off when your arm speed is boosted by your leg drive. When you move to cover the return after serving (or after rally hitting), when using the crisscross as your first step, you’ll follow up immediately with a crossover step that balances your movement into center court. Spurring on the crisscross move, turn and look over your trail shoulder in the direction where you (and the ball) are heading anywhere in the court and keep your eyes on the prize, the ball, as you defensively study the opponent and plan your track down run to either decimate the ball or effectively keep it in play. For example, when you serve to the right, turn and look over your right shoulder to help you track the ball, read the opponent’s movements to strive to predict their shot intentions and cover what you read.

  How Do You Best Arrive in Center or Best Prep Your Feet to Return Serve? … To move into center court or to return serve, step in and use the versatile split step …

– As you arrive at your intended coverage destination in center court (or as you ready your feet to return serve), initially you’ll step in with one foot. For example, as you arrive near that diagonal line in between ball and far, front corner, you may optionally take a little hop off that first step and right as you land with your feet spread slightly you’ll pick the direction where you’ll dart to track down the shot the hitting player appears to be hitting. As another option, take step 1 and ALSO take step 2 and then hop off both feet. After the second foot joins the first lifting off toward a side by side landing with the first foot, the dual foot low hop supports spreading your feet apart to land them wider than shoulder’s width. One foot steps in right after the other. Step in with the second foot into a pretty narrow 2-foot position and then do the two-footed push off into a low hop lifting your feet just a short ways off the court. In midair read ball/hitter to see where to go to track down the ball. A key is to focus on the landing. Importantly bend your knees as you land, while allowing your weight to go more forward encouraging moving after landing. Many players step in 1-2 and initiate the jump off both feet in part because they’re confident they will land on both feet having first jumped off both feet. The two foot liftoff is not the only way to jump and slightly spread the feet into a two-footed landing, nor is it necessarily the best one. As option 2, land step 1, post (or readying to move) the trailing second foot, lift both heels, flex your knees slightly and push off the floor predominately using the foot that stepped in first. Lift both feet off the court into a very low hop supporting swinging or drawing the 2nd foot forward, as both feet spread slightly and land together on a line. Move the feet in midair until they land adjacent to one another even with where the first foot touched down initially. Land a little wider than shoulder’s width apart for balance and leg coil. Land in a knee bend onto a very springy ready-to-move base. To fuel the hop, as the trailing foot rocks forward from heel to toe, it adds adds some lift momentum to the hop. Push off the floor with the readied, helped 1st foot into barely more than a credit card leap into a bent knee, soft, 2-foot touch down. This one step and hop is just like the technique many players use right before they return serve (which is our next topic). The one foot push off is quicker than getting both feet together and ready before pushing off both. Which works best for you to get to center readiest, the one foot or two-foot push off the court into a low jump and landing on both feet with bent knees which puts springs in *your* legs? Experiment with both types of pushing off into a feet spreading low jump to see which one feels best for you and makes your legs feel their liveliest as you land. Timing, in either case, is essential. The step 1 and jump or step 1 and also step 2 and then jump which both include spreading the feet is best timed to begin a split second before the opponent makes contact with the ball. By doing it before the opponent hits the ball, you decide which way you’ll go mid hop and the landing and hustle begins. As you land, you move and run down to attack the ball. If you were to wait until right when the player hitting the ball makes contact to time your jump, you may get to the ball, but it may often be just a tick too late to shoot and instead you’ll have to react defensively. As you hop up (off a one foot or two push off), again, focus on your landing. When your feet spread into a pillow soft landing, you’ll often see that exactly when you land you fully realize where your opponent’s ball is going and where you’re going, too. You’ll actually move or adjust in midair how you land your feet which supports moving off aggressively in the direction of the ball. Your far foot and lead foot closest to the ball actually turn in point in the direction you’ll head to track down the ball. The key action resulting from either jumping off one foot or two is that the landing spring-loads the legs so you’re ready to blast off in any direction. You land ready to either push off with the far leg to power a jab step with the foot closest to the ball or the far foot adjusts to take a first step crossover to start a longer run or even a long lunge to make a get or low to the floor sweeping swing. The key is to land on both feet and bolt off in the direction where you decided the ball and you are going. For a more controlled, quick option 3 without a hop, step in 1-2 and right when step 2 steps like in pop up off your heels and up onto your toes. With the dual options for the little hop off 1 foot or 2 into the foot spread landing or the 2 step in and pop up to get on your toes, either way livens up your feet as you get on toes and bend your knees. From there, as you’ve read your route to the ball by watching the ball being hit, stride off in that direction to cover and track down the hitting player’s ball. The maneuver hopping after step 1 or step 2 and splitting your feet to then land, which gets you very ready to move, is called a split step. The split step in center court gets you ready to move off quickly, as you read their shot’s placement and you make your decision basically as you’re landing which way you’ll cut to cover the shot you anticipate based on having watched the opponent move to the ball and how they prep to hit it. Next next we discuss how the split step is a very useful return of serve technique.

  How to Split Step to Return Serve and Other Return Feetwork Options

– The split step is a great way to lighten up your feet right before you are about to return serve. Here are 4 ways to use your feet to return serve:

1.  One, step up (forward) with one foot. As that step in is touching down, prep it bending the knee slightly and hop up, spread your feet just a little as you lift off, and pull the other foot forward into a side by side 2-footed landing. That hop and landing gets you both up on your toes and it makes your bent legs very springy as they land;

2.  Two, step in place on one foot, raise the heel of the other foot, and, as the second foot’s heel lowers but doesn’t quite touch down, rock back and forth or pump your legs side to side finishing pumping rising up on the pads of both feet livening up the arches of your feet and building up the energy, as if you were about to charge after the ball, like you are some kind of Sumo wrestler. One trick to this technique is to finish rocking back and forth by rocking away, pressing down into and loading up the foot farthest away from where the ball is headed. From there, you’ll be moving to return serve with your charged up bent legs. Here is how you’ll move from there: (a) push off the far foot and move off first with a near foot lunge (quickest, but shortest move); (b) adjust trail to lead balance and crossover with that trail foot out to the sidewall (farther, but not wall touching far); (c) for a two step move, from the rocking motion, move in the direction toward the ball first with a jab step with the freed up foot ball side. Then crossover the trail foot to step diagonally intercepting the ball as it angles into the back corner for what could’ve been a crack out; 3.  Step in 1-2 and, as the second foot softly lands, pop up on your toes. As the feet are set and you’re up on your toes and you bend your legs so they’re spring loaded, move where you read the serve is angling to attack the ball with a swinging return. That 2-step way takes a little more time and you’ll want to start at the beginning of their service motion so you get up on your toes (pads) right before they strike the ball;

4.  For the classic split step return, one foot is forward at the spot or court depth where you plan to be (stand) to return. To start, the other foot initially trails behind the frontmost foot. Then, with the trail foot, step up. As that foot lands, either: (a) raise both heels up and bend the knees coiling your lower body into a springy return of serve position; or (b) take a credit card clearing hop, barely split your feet and land into very springy legs in your launch pad ROS position.

o  Options Galore

– That there are 4 options shows there’s lots of ways to get your legs charged up and ready to move from your return of serve spot to attack the served ball or keep the ball in play when the serve is a particularly tough one to track down.

o- Multi-step Return Move Blankets Corner

– One more bonus move is to use a hop sideways with a sidestep (or two to move further) toward the sidewall. Then either a ball side jab step (to move a little farther over) or a double pivot on both feet followed up by a key crossover step with the trail foot into about a 45 degree, ball contact out front, attacking return of serve stance covers the whole distance and all angles into that corner. So much for the server’s ball darting by you into that corner NOW! Your crossover interruptess negates that direct angle into the rear corner. The server will have to either serve crosscourt to keep you guessing or serve even wider looking to bounce and deflect the ball off the sidewall out from the corner looking for a second bounce right at the back wall, while chancing donating you what you really desire, a sidewall-back wall juicy setup.

  Why Center Up?

– Why be all about getting into center court in between your offensive assaults on the ball? To start with, you want to be best positioned to cover more shots and you want to be closest to where the ball you wanna hit will be placed by the player hitting the ball. Let’s first look at returning serve. After you serve, you want to escape the service box quickly because you want get back behind the short line to defend any returns the receiver could literally spray all over the court due in part to your ideally well-placed or unexpected serve and because the receiver is looking to make you have to move to cover either a basic straight in or cross-court shot angle or cause you to dash up front when your serve donates them a potentially low shot opportunity. When they shoot low, you have to reverse your field and go back the other way by dashing into the front court to track down and ideally get their low shot. To handle all coverage challenges you want to do 3 basic things (and, as it turns out, you want to do these same 3 things after you return serve or after you hit a rally shot, too). Here are the 3 tactical things:

1.  One, you don’t want to be passed by staying (or positioning) too far forward in front of the dashed receiving line. Get back. When serving, *get out of the box*.

2.  Two, you want to start your cover run from far enough back that you’ll have plenty of time to retreat to cover missed returns by your opponent that either pop off the back wall as setups or can be run down and fielded by moving back quickly. When the ball is slow enough or you’re fast enough, from center you can retreat and get behind and shoot a ball you can let drop low in the backcourt. Also know you will see lots of return ceilings and passes because they’re trying to move you out of center court to dominate it themselves. Yeah, I know it’s pernicious; after all, it’s YOUR center court! Remedy: serve better or win the ensuing rally with really good court coverage, expeditious ball tracking movements, great shot picks and reliable shotmaking.  Get back and adjust to your serve (or shot) and then respond to their return.

3.  Three, you want to assume the diagonal for balls in the back 1/4 of the court which extends from the door on over to the corner and up to just short of 5′ behind the dashed line. Get on the diagonal and on your horse.

o  The Diagonal and its Tactical Meaning

– Here’s more on what that diagonal means. The rule in coverage is you must give up 2 shot angles at all times. And, when timed right, you also have the ability and right to block certain other shots. The two shots you must give up at all times are the straight in and cross-court. To do that you need only get on a diagonal line between the ball behind you and the opposite front corner. To clarify, when the ball is behind you in the backcourt, as the cover player, you must have moved and definitely be in center position blocking the far, front corner BEFORE the hitting player arrives where they choose to hit the ball, with height of contact hitter’s choice. When the player hitting the ball beats the cover player and gets to the ball before the cover player is in-between ball and far, front corner, that danger zone opposite front corner is fair game for the hitting player to hit attacking shots, like a tight reverse pinch into the corner or even a baby overhead. And, again, that situation includes wherever in the court the hitting player moves and chooses to make contact. So the cover player must get to their diagonal blocking spot *before* the hitting player can get a whiff of that diagonal angle and begin setting up to hit the ball there. As an example, picture a ball in the deep right corner. The tactical plan is that neither a reverse pinch, like a righty forehand into the left front corner (which usually hits sidewall first very close to the corner), nor a long near corner pinch, like a lefty backhand pinch shot from the left, back 1/4 court into the right front corner, should be given up by being late to your center cover spot or by being caught out of the tactically preferred in-between coverage position. When the cover player is there early, that opposite front corner just isn’t available to the hitting player. As another example, consider a wide angle pass that ends up popping off the back wall in the back court off to one side. As the player moving to return the WAP runs around with and tracks down the ball as it pops off the back wall, the position of the player who hit the WAP and is now the cover player counts. If the cover player isn’t in between the ball and the far, front corner, then the diagonal angle and all shots into the far, front corner are open to the player hitting the back wall setup. If the cover player has moved, too, and that corner is blocked, the diagonal shouldn’t be hit through the cover player. Angles straight in or cross-court to the far, rear corner can’t be taken away by the cover player. This is why the player hitting the ball must watch the opponent and the ball Vs picking a shot they like and ignoring the opponent’s positioning. When you are the player hitting the ball, peripherally (out of the corner of your eye) look and, if you see the cover player is absolutely already between you and the diagonally opposite front corner, as you move in to hit the ball, you can’t tattoo the cover player with the ball just because you happen to favor that diagonal shot. Instead take advantage of what you’re *always* given. Due to the cover player’s positioning, both the straight in and a cross-court will be wide open and some sidewall shots are there for the player hitting the ball to pick from to select the best angle to win Vs extend the rally. Based on the cover player’s positioning when the ball is in deep court, the near sidewall (which is the wall closer to ball) is available to pinch or splat the ball. And because the cover player is usually deep enough blocking that far, front corner, when that sidewall shot bounces twice before the first line, it could be an outright winner or force a very, very tough get by the cover player. As the cover player, you needn’t jump over a ball being shot diagonally, when you were there first. As the cover player, tactically that diagonally opposite front corner nor a wide angle pass (WAP) should be given up when you hustle and place yourself in proper coverage in center court. Don’t position yourself either too far back in the backcourt nor too far off to the far side of the court. Note that when the cross-court shot is available and you are also a little farther over toward the far sidewall you’re giving up 4 kinds of shots: the DTL; the diagonal; the low sidewall; and the very difficult to cover wide angle pass (WAP). That means you’ve set up in coverage on the other side of the court, further than you need to be. Your diagonal points at the sidewall much farther back from the front corner, leaving open diagonal shots and more. You are allowing the angle for a WAP shot that is hit cross-court intending to catch the sidewall next to you and angle into deep court to bounce once behind you in mid or backcourt and, when hit low enough, bounce the second time right up against the back wall. Adjust your diagonal to block that far front corner, as the ball is more central. Also never be more than one step in back of the dashed line nor more than one full step in front of it when the ball is in the deep court and off to one side or pretty much anywhere in the court being player by the hitting player.

  For Great Emphasis, Always Beat *Them* To The Spot … it’s tactics, tactics, tactics

– As the cover player or as the player hitting the ball, it’s a race to 15 points in amateur play or 11 in the Pros, and to win that scoring race, first win the race to get to your spot. The cover player covers the hitter’s shot from center court and by vacating center to track down the hitter’s ball. The hitter is quickly spotting up to hit the ball the cover player just hit, while taking advantage of the angles given them by how the cover player positions themselves in the court (and notice I didn’t say center court because many times the cover player jells and doesn’t hustle to center and the hitter should see that). It’s a major point of emphasis when you’re the cover player to be there in your selected center court coverage spot early, cagily, and consistently. When the ball is anywhere in the back 10 and off to one side of the court, the opposite front corner must be obstructed or taken away from the hitting player. Should the ball be closer to the center of the court and as close as 6′ behind the broken line it still must be a concerted effort on your part, as defender cover player, to take away the diagonally opposite front corner. When the ball is right in the center of the court deep in back, as cover player, you have to either pick a side to potentially block that side’s diagonal angle into that corner or, as the ball is directly behind you in the back 10, you could stay in the center (or move to center) and time your jump to be over the hitting player’s shot so that the ball passes under you and on to virtually any front or sidewall target. The drawback with jumping is it’s so hard to move when you’re still up in midair right as the ball may be scooting away from the center. Often the cover player, when picking a side, tends toward positioning themselves on their backhand side to cover shots directed to their backhand. Of course Plan A is to NOT leave the ball in the center behind you. Now, when the ball is up say at 2/3 court just behind the dashed line and off to one side, you, as cover player, should still conscientiously get in center court to pressure the player hitting the ball, even when the hitter may be setting up to take that dreaded diagonal shot. As cover player, you wouldn’t want to be way too far forward intent on exclusively blocking that one diagonal angle. If you were to be too far forward near the short line blocking only that diagonal angle, you’d be badly out of position. Even an average DTL or cross-court pass could easily pass you by. As cover player, get up to the dashed line and be seen. Yes, the diagonal shot is very tough to cover when it’s accurate. But it’s also hard to take and make the diagonal shot and reliably place the ball so that it bounces twice way up in the front court every single time a diagonal shot is taken. Many diagonal shots hit the sidewall, angle to the front wall, carom off, bounce and carry on the fly all the way to pop off the second sidewall as a setup for the cover player turned hitter. That left up ball is available for the cover player to re-kill. Granted, from center court coverage, you’d much rather see a V 45 degree angled cross-court shot where you could drop step away with your forward foot and then pivot and crossover with your trail foot to cut off and gobble up the cross-court angle. Oddly enough an open body and stance angle (front wall facing) and more out front contact are often norms when the hitting player is tracking down your moving ball and they’re looking to hit a shot on the dead run. Due to its challenging angle the chance of beating the odds and being accurate are small with a running diagonal shot. Therefore the diagonal shot is not always attempted, even when the angle is available. When the diagonal is fairly taken away by your being seen D’ing up further up in center court, then the cross-court pass is the more likely hitting angle than even the DTL. Note that in the best circumstances a shot DTL takes very timely feetwork to close your stance to face the sidewall and get ready to control the heavy action on the ball to shoot accurately from mid court along the same sidewall to either bounce the ball twice in front of you or to place the ball by you so that it takes its second bounce deep in the backcourt before it can pop off the back wall. Also critically the angle must be solid so your DTL doesn’t catch the sidewall on its way back, as running DTL’s frequently do. Also, importantly after swinging to hit a DTL, it’s required that the shooter clear to allow the cover player to cover the ball when it’s either left up near where the ball is contacted in mid court or when it’s able to be intercepted as a passing shot in the back half of the court behind where contact is made. Also, the cover player must be able to hit any DTL ball after it bounces and pops off the back wall. If the DTL shooter doesn’t clear, it’s potentially a penalty hinder situation. When the cover player is returning the ball and after they’ve run it down, both the rule imposed straight in and cross-court angles must be observed and not blocked by the hitting player who should be transitioning to cover player vs turning into a passing cone or stature. The hitter/now cover player can’t take away those shot angles from the cover player/now hitting player. So the DTL hitter must hit and clear, which unfortunately is a less than routine compulsory act of sportsmanship by many DTL hitters. As the player hitting the ball, hit and move as part of your routine recovery to retake center court.

  Why, When and How Do Diagonal Shots Occur?

– One example of when the dreaded diagonal situation occurs is off of a more softly hit drive Z serve which gives the receiver an early cutoff opportunity to move up early to shoot a reverse pinch return. Although note that a really quick, well-timed retreating move by the Z server turned cover player can block that diagonal. That retreat out of the box is begun with a quick crisscross step out of the box, as the server strives to get in-between ball and corner before the receiver gets to the ball. One shot that isn’t blocked by being on the diagonal is a front wall first pinch. Tactically, if you’re either the player who has a tendency to go for diagonal shots or when you’re a player with a desire to learn how to hit diagonal shots, practice both the front wall first and sidewall first diagonal pinch shots from the back 1/4 of the court and up along the sidewall from both sides of the court to develop and add those shots to your shot arsenal. Use both other side strokes (e.g. forehand stroke to backhand corner) for reverse pinches and near corner pinches (e.g. forehand to forehand corner). Of course, as the drive Z server, you should disguise your serve so that it’s not the only serve the receiver expects to see. Vary its angle to make it harder for it to be camped on by the receiver. Your designed to be fast Z serve should be driven crisply. What are other causes for why diagonals are given up? If you’re giving up either rally shot reverses or long near corner pinches taken from the deep corners up to 3/4’s court along the far sidewall and also in toward the center, perhaps you’re covering from too far off to the other side of the court or you’re positioning yourself too deep in the backcourt. That’s obvious. The reason though may be less clear. It may be that you’re not watching the ball and the player hitting the ball to make sure you’re proactively moving with the ball to get into your best cover spot and blocking the diagonal front corner when the ball is behind you. While in center court, get ready to cover either the open down along the wall or cross-court angles. You must be ready to cover their return when it’s either a high shot (pass) or a low targeted shot (kill-shot) by where you start in coverage and how you move from there to track down the shot you *see*. If you’re too late getting into position or you’re missing your cover spot or you’re off balance when you do get in position, 1/2 your coverage needs work. First, move more quickly into your center, diagonally blocking spot. Be aware and observant as you hit and then hustle so that where you move and spot up in center court obscures the far, front corner fairly taking away the diagonal angle whenever you’ve beaten the player hitting the ball to their spot in backcourt setting up to hit the ball. Get there quickly and on balance, with live feet, ready to run down their shot, as soon as you recognize where it and you are next headed, the 2nd 1/2 of court coverage.

  Be Off the Ball Ready Via Extra Effort

– Just as hard as you work offensively to spot up to shoot, as the player moving into coverage, hustle and dance into the coverage that gives you the best chance to get in position to cover a majority of the hitter’s shots and blocks that diagonal and WAP when the ball is behind you. Being where you should in center court allows you to start from your home base to move efficiently and very aggressively when it’s your turn to track down and hit the very next ball. As you practice putting forward this type of effort to hit, then move and D-up, you’ll notice it gets easier to get into good position in center to touch home base and then run down, prep for and hit attacking, effective shots. It becomes a habit you won’t wanna break.

  The Tendency To Hit Diagonal Shots is Good Tactics

– When it’s your turn and you’re the player hitting the ball from deep court on one side or from anywhere on in toward the center on that whole side of the court, it’s good tactics to look for that diagonal opening into the opposite front corner. When the diagonal angle is uncovered and you recognize that opening as you get to the ball and you also sense you can take and make that diagonal angle shot, exploit the cover player’s positional error with your practiced, deliberate diagonal shotmaking. However, just laying on that one angle (or any one shot angle, like, for instance, overusing the DTL) isn’t a tactically high percentage play. In this case, looking to produce the diagonal reverse pinch or the long inside out near corner pinch are not shots you’ll find you can take and make every time on every single ball. It’s not an angle you can expect to realistically get to see in doubles Vs a pair of defenders nor against strong singles players who know how to position themselves early to get in-between ball and far, front corner. If you often find yourself consistently in an open body angle pointing your feet at the opposite front corner, it may mean more than you’re laying in wait for that one diagonal angle. You may not be moving your feet well to get in position to have many more shot options before you choose your best open one. Instead initially look to routinely establish a more unreadable, sidewall-facing, not picking a side, Switzerland stance. That means the first thing to do is *turn and face* the sidewall and also make sure the ball is between you and the sidewall and a little ahead of you. This initially sets you up to step into a partially closed stance, with your front foot landing half a tennis shoe out closer to the sidewall in a stance that, again, doesn’t pick a side or indicate where you’re hitting, which hides your intentions and adds great deception to your shotmaking. It also opens up a wide, wide variety of angles for your shot selections. The trick is to *turn and face* the sidewall every time you have time. And, even when rushed, it may mean you have just enough time to turn your chest to face the sidewall and to load up your back foot. As you are arriving at the ball, when you see that the cover player is not there blocking the opposite front corner, THEN angle off to point your feet at the sidewall just short of the front wall to strike the ball into the open diagonal angle. Go for a sidewall shot spot just feet from the front wall or go directly for the corner to crack out the ball in the corner front wall-sidewall crotch. Start by simply turning and angling your feet to point them diagonally at the opposite front corner. This is the one time when whether the cover player knows where you’re hitting the ball is not really gonna matter much. A good diagonal shot just won’t be tracked down. And angling your feet helps immensely to ensure that your stroke is sound and your shot is accurate. Practice this angle shot to work on your shot accuracy and to learn when it’s easiest to make the diagonal work for you in certain positional game situations. Drill when taking the ball from different contact heights. Also work on all of the angles to learn how to respond with your feetwork and racquet work to how and where the ball is headed in the court so you can mash the ball accurately diagonally when the ball is angling: (a) diagonally toward you from out of that corner (easy); (b) already angling toward that corner (easiest); (c) away from you toward the sidewall you face (tough); (d) in toward you from off the sidewall you face (challenging); or (e) flowing right down along the sidewall on the side of the court furthest away from the cross corner target (doable, with practice reps).

  What Should Be Your Response Shot When You Get The Opportunity To Hit a Ball In the Middle?

– The middle is a band of court from one full step behind the dashed line up to the 20′ short line and from the right wall all the way over to the left wall. While in coverage in the center, for balls that are in play near you in the middle which result from among an opponent’s possible shots, like a DTL, a cross-court or a left up sidewall shot, ideally you’re already on the move covering the shot you read by observing the hitting player. That’s instead of just staring at the front wall and not watching the player moving to and hitting your ball, while you’re just hanging out in center court hoping a bad miss funnels your way. As you move, a key shot selection gambit is to reserve your shot pick until you are on your final approach to the ball so that you may factor in reading the bounce of the ball and the whole situation Vs picking earlier and before you have had a chance to take in the big picture. As you track the ball, note the ball’s location in the court and its direction or incoming angle, spin, pace, (the opponent’s location) and also answer this question, *where does the ball want to go*? Often helping the ball along on its way toward where it’s going or alternatively answering an incoming cross-court ball back cross-court are two natural shot options and angles easy to find. Forcing a ball off into direction it doesn’t want to go is a risky proposition. As an example, from one side of the court when fielding a ball tailing away from you to the other side of the court is very difficult to inside to in or along your side, while the crosscourt is an angle you can easily create. As you move and cover the hitter’s shot, you may optionally select and hit a shot directly to the front wall at either straight in or cross-court angle or you may optionally select a low sidewall target spot for a splat or pinch by shooting into the near sidewall or, of course, you may look to shoot diagonally into the opposite front corner. Practice gives you the ability to pick from that variety of shots. When rushed, covering say a DTL or even a crosscourt pass, Plan B is to intersect the ball as it moves toward the back corner where it’s headed and go for a 3-wall shot aiming for a sidewall target just out in front of your hitting shoulder, while picking a spot which is neither too high nor too low out ahead of you on the sidewall. The plan for the 3-wall is to blast the ball into the sidewall to compress the ball and make it spring diagonally across the court to barely make it to that same danger spot, the opposite front corner by either hitting sidewall first or taking dead aim for the corner. The goal is for the ball to bounce twice before the cover player, who starts from behind you in the backcourt is able to move forward to cover it. Plan C includes improvised shots like a lunging lifted ceiling, a running high Z or an impromptu shot, like, for example, either a low around the wall ball (ATWB) hit a little up into the sidewall out in front of you or there’s even a last second, spinning whack-attack, back wall save. Now those are just a sampling of the shots you can take from right up the middle of the court or off to one side in the middle of the court or along the sidewalls. This situation often happens when you serve and move back quickly into coverage. It could occur when you return serve or hit your rally shot and you move very quickly into center court. When your shot placement is up to snuff, it may cause the opponent to hit a weak shot and leave you a ball in the middle to attack. Most shots (or serves) you hit are meant to avoid going through the center or to avoid being left up in the middle when they’re taking their second bounce, but is does happen. Alternatively you may tactically, intentionally plan to smoke a ball right up through the center intending to jam the opponent’s body when other angles seem well covered or when you quickly assess it’d to be too hard to produce those other shot angles (straight or cross-court) that avoid the center when responding to this particular ball or situation.

  Attacking From the Middle, a Training Primer

– Due to your solid center court positioning, you’re going to get your chances to shoot from the middle and you need to know how. To learn to hit from the middle, it’s great practice to stand right in the center of the court behind or right on the dashed line and feed yourself balls for you to hit. First, from there, shoot these playable balls right back at yourself. Also, optionally pinch into either front corner. In either case, re-kill or pass left up balls and defend with an improvised shot when they’re tougher to shoot. Too much time is spent drilling (or warming up) while shooting from way deep in the back corners or up along the sidewalls at about 30′ feet back. More time would be well spent positioning yourself in the middle at about 25′ back and feeding yourself balls directly in the center. Also station yourself along one side of the court and feed the ball straight, out of the far corner, or as a low ATWB (sidewall-front wall-other sidewall to you) and react with shots that return the ball straight, cross-court, into the near sidewall or diagonally into the opposite front corner. By practicing from the middle, you will become quite proficient at playing keep away from the opponent in live rallies, while your shots deposit the ball in the best corner for you and that’ll pressure the opponent’s coverage. One thing to factor in is that in match play things happen a tad bit faster in the middle than say they do in the backcourt. So a more compact stroke, with a shorter take back, while still sporting right on time (ROT) prep (not too early or not until you can play catch) and focused, deep stance ball contact (Vs reaching out front or poking at the ball) are your swing keys. Start by having the racquet strings facing forward in front of you while you shield your body at waist height and hold the handle in your backhand grip. Stay ever-ready in center court. As the ball comes toward you, press to your back foot and wind back. Then push forward, when the ball comes into range, to swing. Shooting in the middle, an open stance is routine, but do try to *turn and face* the sidewall (even with just your chest), when you must prep quickly, so you’ll have many more shot options and you’ll be better prepped. Be alert, ready, adaptive and aggressive, as your hitter’s mentality. Having options is valuable. Deciding on one reply, in advance or before the ball is coming to you, is unwise. There’s just too many things that can happen at the very last second as the ball and you are about to intersect. Both higher contact, even hitting the ball as a swing volley right out of midair, or short hopping a ball that bounces at your feet are skills required of a player reacting from the middle. The benefits are great because hitting from the middle places great pressure on the opponent, as the ball you hit gets to your shot placement targets faster, which steals reaction time from the opponent. It also allows you to be much closer to center after you hit. That means, when the shot you hit is accurate and placed out of center court, you get to retain center court by recovering directly after you hit to center up. Do factor in clearing after hitting when given time, as it’s necessary to allow the opponent to run to the ball you just hit. The rule states, “Stroke Interference. This occurs when a player moves, or fails to move, so that the opponent returning the ball does not have a free, unimpeded swing. This includes unintentionally moving in a direction that prevents the opponent from making a shot”. Therefore, finish your swing (and follow-through) and then move. If your shot were to be low and headed your way, circle back and away from the angle the ball is taking and the run the opponent appears to be taking and make your influential move into center court. If your shot were to be a DTL pass, initially semicircle slightly forward. Then curl back into good center court coverage. Again, consistently position yourself to routinely block that damaging diagonal shot angle when your pass placed the ball in a back corner.

  Covering In the Middle Just Let the High Ones Go

– One caveat, when playing from the middle, is to let balls above your shoulders go. Move back with the ball to take it as a back wall setup Vs trying to hit a baby overhead or ever elevating to attempt a full overhead from there or anywhere. Especially avoid reaching back over your off shoulder to try a stab high backhand volley. (It’s entertaining when I hear players say they couldn’t lay off the high one, like they’re a sub .200 baseball hitter). Preprogram yourself to let the high ones go when you’re defending in the middle. You’ll see that the ball will feed right back to you in the middle. You won’t have to give up your valuable center court position. The hitter, who is now the cover player will have time to move up, but the shot you hit should render their defense moot. Do honor the bounce of the ball by moving back briefly with the ball on its way back to the back wall and then move (out) forward with it, as it ricochets out, to place the ball at your favored off shoulder contact point where you’ll have the best chance to shoot a low to low winner, while picking a shot angle you sense will work best for this setup and not feed toward the opponent. When you get a back wall setup, kill it!

  2 Angles You Must Allow, in Accordance with the USA Racquetball Rules

– Know that you must give up 2 shot angles from wherever the opposing player is making contact with the ball. Those are a shot straight in to the front wall and a V cross-court shot to the farthest rear corner. This goes for when you’re serving, too, meaning you must clear after your serve crosses the short line. As an example, if you were to miss-angle your serve and it was to pop off the sidewall toward the center part of the court, the V cross-court angle still must be open for the receiver to hit into with their return. You must move over to allow the V pass or you may time a leap over their return or you may raise your leg ball side right as they’re shooting their shot underneath. The rule is the “cross-court must be allowed to be hit directly to the front wall at an angle that would cause the ball to rebound directly to the rear corner farthest from the player hitting the ball”. That’s a direct quote from the USA Racquetball rulebook under “Failure to move”. To give up both of those angles, tactically you need only get between the ball behind you and the opposite front corner. Again, that goes for moving there after serving or returning serve or in between your rally shots, too. Get there, block the far, front corner and watch the opponent get to the ball and set up to hit. Then read and time their mechanics, and, when they commit to swing forward (by the elbow flying forward), move toward where you anticipate their ball is heading. Track the ball down. Then ATTACK!

  Get There Early in Center vs Late … Then Don’t Leave Tooooo Early

– If you are obviously blocking either the straight in or cross-court, as the offensive player gets to the ball they’re setting up to hit, you may get a last second reprieve and not get popped because the player hitting the ball sees you and they may stop play and request a hinder. Although that is obviously your bad, learn from it. Similarly, after you get in cover position, if you move too early and get struck by their DTL, cross-court, or, when you were not there first, that well described diagonal or another offensive shot that the player hitting the ball was already set up to hit, like, for example, a near corner pinch, know that you may get lit up because you either may not be seen by the hitter or they may not expect you to move and get in the way as they’re swinging. When you move early and block their shot, you’re basically taking it on the leg. The rule reads: “(d) Moving into the Ball. Moves in the way and is struck by the ball just played by the opponent.” If you set up in coverage and your positioning blocks the DTL or the cross-court or if you move early and you are struck by one of those or any offensive shot they’ve already set up to hit, like the diagonally angled shot, it’s simply a penalty hinder Vs a replay hinder and a loss of rally for you, as the cover player. When you’re late getting into position or you move too early, it’s sportsmanship to call a penalty hinder on yourself rather than replay a rally karma tells you that you already lost. It’s like being struck by the opponent’s backswing, you’ll get called for a penalty hinder for that or for moving early to block an offensive shot that’s already being taken or blocking straight in and cross-court shots at any time when competing in tournaments. Players who do it too often and they don’t make the call on themselves or they appear to do block intentionally will get a reputation as a hinder player. That means some players just won’t want to play them. Don’t be that player. Sometimes you guess wrong or you don’t look back and you misread your shot’s angle or you just move a little too early. That’s all okay. It happens. Compete with the player code that says, *I play fair* and be a good example for others. On the other side of the ball, when it happens to you, point out the situation, but don’t argue when the opponent won’t make the call on themselves. It’s just one thing you have to factor in to how you play and at what level of play you want to compete. Although do be aware that even topflight players hate to have penalty hinders called on them by the ref in a hotly contested match. To give you a competitive perspective, some players call self-recognized two bounce gets or skips on themselves. Others do not. I’d like to see sportsmanlike players call penalties on themselves in ref-free play. It’s an extremely fast game and you can’t clear every time or always perfectly time your ball tracking runs. Be an overtly fair, obviously hustling player and raise your level of play and the image you portray as a sportsmanlike player. Be an ambassador for our great sport, which is an inherently challenging one, as we share the field of battle together in the tight confines of a 20′ by 40′ by 20′ box, as ideally fair-minded fair playing competitors.

One on One Lessons
Ken offers one-on-one lessons to true students of racquetball. Based in the Houston area, Ken can assist you with your game and strategy.

713-557-3176

KenRB54@Gmail.com

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