By Ken Woodfin

Repeating Phantasms, er, Patterns

How and why recognizing repeating patterns can elevate your strategic game

Identifying this pattern is THE foundation for in-the-now selecting of your owned racquetball tactic, which allows you to bring to bear your well-prepped, efficiency actions when playing each and every rally strategically.

Tactics = Skills; Strategy = Game Aim

Your racquetball strategies and your tactics that support them involve all of the ways you own that are in your game style, skill-set, game plan development and execution, and mental acumen at reading the game as you take quick mental snapshots and then call upon your perceptions and abilities to outplay your competitor based on what you know and perform best.

Tactical Play

Strategies include ways to play tactically either offensively, when you play in attack mode as server or aggressor receiver, or they’re the ways you play defensively, when taking familiar efficiency actions to neutralize the competitor’s offensive tactics with your own countering defensive or keep away tactics. An example of an offensive shot tactic is to take a setup off the back wall and shoot your well-practiced long near corner pinch into the corner up along that sidewall. A defensive shot tactic would be to pursue a ball up in the court that’s moving away from you toward a sidewall, and you field it by taking a running swing to lift the ball up into the opposite front corner as a high Z shot intending to pull the opponent way back deep in the backcourt to reverse the situation, as you get to move into center court to go in attack mode.

Practicing Patterns of Play

Often players practice their shots (or at least their straight in kill-shots…). Sometimes they practice a series of shots or movements designed where they position themselves to cover the court and play an imaginary opponent’s shots. Sometimes to practice situational shots they feed themselves a ball and then they track it down, approach it, set their stance and prep to play the ball and shoot a shot that’s within their shot arsenal based on their drilling and similar ball feed situations, as well as match play game patterns like this one.

They don’t, in an organized way, often practice pattern of play recognition or practice their tactics while designing them to respond to patterns they see in routine play by conscientiously looking to recognize and act upon the patterns in match play, with their tactical response actions. When players do practice patterns, due to that specificity training, they learn to make good judgments and quick decisions in response to identified patterns, as they select from among a wide range of trained responses.

Also ideally they add in post play and after practice reps review (including video analysis for both) which helps determine their best owned or trained responses they feel confident they can trust and call upon in play, as well as areas for improvement they can address in future practices.

Practice Makes Perfect

By reviewing your play on video, with your coach or by soon after taking notes of your own, you see what works best. Reviewing it soon makes a very strong self impression. Then you drill them and own them to them have tactics at the ready to move and make shots that work offensively or that can turn the tide on your opponent’s attacking racquetball patterns by making the opponent have to D-up or take big chances shooting tough shots you want them to take from high contact or on the run and when going for wishful targets to end the rally in desperation. The training ground is where you develop more responses to those patterns to have more and better options for match play at every level of play up to world class level competition.

What is pattern of play recognition?

Pattern of Play (POP) Recognition

Recognizing a pattern is the ability to see order in what may at first appear to be sheer and total chaos. Play may often appear to be totally random. Really it turns out to be many, many repeated activities and situations. That is namely the game of racquetball: repetition. It’s the repeating of many identifiable, attack-able and defend-able situations that can be accommodated with your tactical efficiency actions that may turn the pattern wholly or in part in your favor and ideally redirect the pressure right back upon your opponent. POP’s are situations that routinely repeat themselves in games with a particular opponent. Or patterns may repeat themselves when competing with many players or most of the players you face in match play. When a new, unrecognizable pattern emerges, take a mental picture of it in your mind and make a mental note to spend time simulating or reproducing the new pattern. Practice it in your training, as well as look at variations on the pattern that you see put into effect in live play by others or in videos you analyze, while looking to develop responses that you judge will turn the pattern decidedly your way.

Read the Exchanges

While shot exchanges between 2 players (or in doubles 4 players) may seem random, a detailed look reveals that patterns keep repeating themselves over and over in every match. Look for the repeating patterns because they reveal strategic aims and tactics intended to attain those aims.

POP Examples

Here are a couple examples of patterns of play:

1. Where to direct 2nd serves…tactically, consistently servers attack their receiver’s backhand with their second serve;

2. With what stroke do you hit um high to low?…Players characteristically play controlled passes and ceilings with their backhand stroke while they use their forehand as a constant power stroke, overhead attacking tool and as a discernible, imposing shotmaking weapon;

3. Don’t preload your return–>Despite players nearly always trying to shoot down the line returns of serve as their Plan A, it’s important to reserve that return decision until you actually see the ball first. Use the DTL when you can execute your return before the serve reaches the rear corner by cutting it off with aggressive feetwork and out front ball contact. Although reconsider the DTL plan when the served ball has already popped off the back wall. Make note that often the opponent’s post serve move is to reposition themselves to guard the line.

POP Tactical Prep

Often a real problem for players is that they know what tactic to use against certain plays by the competitor, but they fail to recognize ALL of the many patterns being played on them or how to orchestrate or turn the pattern into one of their familiar, successful ones with their tactical choices. So they don’t have a full set of tactical responses to a wide range of POP’s that actually come at them in a game or match. They may not be looking to play out a rally they get in charge of starting with their serve, return of serve or momentum changing rally shot by playing the point into their game style with their learned movements, shotmaking skills and off the ball movements vs. those of their opponent’s. The object is first to see the POP. For instance, see where the ball is headed, where the opponent will be after they’ve played the ball, while factoring in the opponent’s potential further movements, and quickly determine whether you have offensive options or you need to be defensive and pick a response option to redirect the stress back upon the opponent by…

(1) pulling them deep; 

(2) making them hit on the run; or 

(3) less often test their quick reactions by hitting a scorching ball right at them.

—> Second, solve the pattern by going through your owned tactics and quickly to determine your best response in the moment. As you execute your tactics, also take note of that response and how it panned out as the pattern played out. In the course of play, when you see a response wasn’t effective, go to your Plan B response to the next pattern that’s similar. Or go further on down your depth chart of tactics, while continuing to evaluate the situation to see if there’s a better option or just a slight wrinkle in your moving or shooting. A minor change in shooting could include making a minor change in shot angle, spin, ball speed or a combination of two or more of those. ALWAYS explore ways to move better into coverage in or around center court. Also find ways how to move from that coverage to hustle down and most efficiently and effectively, play the ball, while ideally playing aggressively, even with your defensive shots. For instance, look to primarily pinpoint deeper targeted ceiling balls to pull the opponent back more quickly and disallow their being able to step up and short-hop a softer hit sliced ceilings right after that touch ceiling ball drops off the ceiling and bounces up.

Constantly Observe and Analytically Look at POP’s (with your racquetball logic and reason)

Like Tennis Coach and ex-player Brad Gilbert said in his book Winning Ugly, “You have to figure out who is doing what to whom”. That is integral to pattern of play recognition. Constantly observe what pattern your opponent is using against you. Then you will anticipate your best response sooner and you’ll quickly pick out your correct countering tactical answer from among responses you own at both a faster decision rate and with better implementation success. Should your Plan A be foiled ideally have an adaptive Plan B tactic in your hip pocket, or a Plan C, and so on. Of course, impose your patterns upon the opponent starting with your serve choices and your follow on movements into coverage. Then from your spot in coverage, be ready and champing at the bit to move to track down the ball the opponent hits and take routine shots you take and regularly make. Likewise pick your returns of serve matched to their serves AFTER YOU SEE their serve vs. dictating a specific return ahead of time. Include and mentally picture post contact movement after every serve, like the habit to turn ball side and look back over your shoulder to study the receiver’s ball approach, stance setting and stroke mechanics. Also subconsciously factor in moving post rally ball striking and make that part of your practice drilling so you train yourself to hit and move. Make it a priority to move into coverage, while including moving around the opponent when required. For example, in tight conditions look to dash along the side where they’re swinging through and making contact and follow their racquet head on forward vs. running around on the other side into the teeth of their follow-through. Key on apropos spotting up in coverage, as the opponent moves and plays your shot, you spot up to D-up and get ready to track down the next ball to shoot.

Factor in the spirit of this USRA rule into your tactics, movement and patterned play…

“(c) Responsibility. While making an attempt to return the ball, a player is entitled to a fair chance to see and return the ball. It is the responsibility of the side that has just hit the ball to move so the receiving side may go straight to the ball and have an unobstructed view of and swing at the ball. However, the receiver is responsible for making a reasonable effort to move towards the ball and must have a reasonable chance to return the ball for any type of hinder to be called. (That’s the last paragraph  under Replay Hinders before the section on Penalty Hinder rules that covers, among others, the must allow shot angles straight in and cross-court to the far, rear corner).

A Tactical Example…the one-armed bandit

Imagine a player looking to dominate the rallies with their big forehand–>as they begin a pattern by shooting a shot at their competitor’s backhand. When their competitor’s return is attackable, they attack again with their forehand (while even running around their backhand to hit their favored forehand, even though they may glue themselves right up against their backhand sidewall). After moving their opponent to their backhand side, the forehand-only player looks to shoot the ball into the expected open court on their competitor’s forehand side either with a pass or by shooting a sidewall shot into their opponent’s backhand sidewall as a reverse pinch. So, after moving the opponent over to protect their backhand side, the objective is to then either place the ball across the court deep in the backcourt or short in the front court on the opposite side from their backhand, while using their forehand to dictate play. How do you respond to this one-armed bandit? First, if you’re covering the ball and your best response is a backhand, move quickly to hit the best backhand you can. Look to neutralize their forehand-only shot placement. After hitting quickly move into center court to negate their run you or trap you plans. If you can do it with your shot placement, look to make the one-armed bandit have to hit a running backhand. Allow them to position themselves up against their backhand sidewall while they hit a more difficult forehand and you’re in position to cover primarily a shot down along that wall. When you cover their shot and hit a good forcing shot, you put them out of position with lots more court to cover, as you cover say their shot to your forehand. Then start to run them!When you take away their ability to dictate the rally with their forehand, even their forehand technique may break down and their tactics will also break down. Then you can dictate play and move them until you get a chance to end the rally with a kill-shot or by placing an unretrievable pass out of their reach, while having your fallback plan to pound on their backhand or lift a lob or ceiling high and deep and tight into their backhand corner.

Reason Through Each Pattern at Play

At times it is very difficult to spot a pattern because players may use many, many patterns. For example, using your play as an example many times you pretty much must play the ball cross-court. The reason you must go with a cross-court may be because…

(1) Centering up–>Hitting cross-court buys you extra time it clears space for you into recover center court, while you run them over->there…;

(2) DTL’s blanketed–>The covering player may be crowding your down the line (DTL) shot option; so shooting cross-court to the less covered side is Plan A; or

(3) Ball out front–>Due to your positioning or the angle the ball is taking, your ball contact may have to be out in front of your body or, on the fly, perhaps your feet are pointing cross-court. Those situations lead you in to hit the ball where it wants to go, this time cross-court.

<—Go cross-court with impunity–>Those times the cross-court becomes your default, smart shot. Yet, even then, look to go with a wide angle pass (WAP). A WAP is intended to go all the way around the opponent and contact the far sidewall next to them in the air, while ideally making the ball bounce twice before the back wall. You may even go with a ceiling when you sense a WAP isn’t possible or when you read a 45 degree “V” angle shot will go right through their position. If those situations, the WAP, ceiling and V don’t appear to be there for you, another option is to go right at your opponent with a power shot directly at them from off the front wall. That is better than a soft, straight in feathered, push shot from your position when that shot is going to be left out to dry and open to being smoked by the opponent. A ball at them also beats hitting a V pass that feeds their turn and face the sidewall stroking strength. Also, another option or Plan E is to hit a ball that you angle off the far sidewall just up in front of the opponent causing the ball to deflect off and fly into their body looking to jam up their swing.

Constantly Look for a Wrinkle

Look for the slightly unusual and also very common shots that your competitor consistently plays. When they’re successful with one of those shots, first, try to not put them there in that position again. As an example, if they like to shoot long diagonal pinches from deep in both rear corners, first hustle to be in center court before the opponent can set their feet to shoot. Then you will NOT have to give up that angle. If your shot places them in their spot and you can’t get there in time to block the diagonal, camp on their pet shot and try to pressure their shot by both positioning closer up to the front wall and also pressure them with your effort to move up as they commit to swing forward to cover their cross front corner low shot. As a result of your coverage positioning or initiative to track down their shot attempt, maybe next time they’ll think twice and miss or leave up their shot. Or maybe they’ll choose another, weaker shot option you can more easily cover. An example would be leaving a ball off the back wall that angles out along a sidewall when your opponent consistently moves with that ball along the sidewall to shoot their splat into that wall in response. One time, as they turn their focus on the ball and they’re in the midst of taking their pet shot just as you catch a glimpse of their racquet butt cap pointing forward (=commitment to forward swing) dash forward with impunity and cover the splat from way up in the front court. If you get to the ball, that’s bad news for them and doubly good news for you. First, you may win the battle with your rekill and two, you win even when you almost get to their shot. You are taking the steps to win the war because they may rethink hitting the splat next time factoring in your tendency to make assertive movements. Next time maybe either they’ll force a down the line or a cross-court shot that pops off the back wall. Then you can HIT YOUR OWN SPLAT WINNER!

Hit to Their Backhand Until…

It’s tactically sound shooting to keep pounding on an opponent’s backhand, when…maintain that assault or focused attack on that backhand wing until their backhand proves less vulnerable. Note that a shot or serve that produces a ball jamming ANY opponent’s backhand, as the ball angles toward them off their backhand sidewall, is always a good tactic as a serve or as a wide angle or even “near angle pass” (NAP) shot option. Note that a “NAP” is a pass hit from along a sidewall intending to catch the sidewall deep in back court either on the fly or after the ball takes its 1st bounce to deflect off the sidewall on its way to its 2nd bounce, by design, before the back wall. That assault on their frisbee throwing wing is not only because backhands are generally weaker due to reasons among…

(a) poor backhand grips;

(b) poor stroke mechanics;

(c) poor belief systems in their backhand swing; or

(d) many players are overly dependent on their forehand which causes them to hedge over to more cover their backhand line.

–> Small backhand contact zone–>Even for very effective backhands or any backhand, due to the way we’re built the backhand stroke has a much, much smaller contact zone than the massive contact zone from back to front of the forehand stroke. Therefore a backhand is very jammable. Controlling the return when jammed is very tough. Sometimes it’s not even possible to defensively return the ball with a shot that will turn the tables to pressure the opponent defensively. As an example, that’s why in doubles, when serving, the opposite side partner sometimes serves going for the crack behind their own partner to jam up the receiver on that side when the ball will ricochet off that sidewall into that receiver’s backhand side hip.

How to Defend with Your Backhand Shield

For you best racquet positioning in center court or when returning serve, shield your body with your body. You can reflex back many body jammers in center court or when returning serve when you shield your body. To shield hold your racquet a little above waist level in your backhand grip with the strings facing forward with the racquet head your shield. You can still thrust your elbow back ultra fast from there for a forehand. Or, for a bigger backhand, throw your racquet handle holding fist quickly back…

Mix It Up, But Then Cover Up

Play to say a righty forehand when they leave that side of the court wide open. However, also follow up by following the ball over so you cover their forehand line just in case they move over, cover your shot and go with a running DTL answering shot. Your cover move is because the opponent may cover their open side with their movement. Then they may counter by keeping the ball on that side when thinking either you won’t follow them over or one of their tendencies may be to primarily hit DTL’s from along the sidewalls or, in this case, they may hit DTL’s specifically along their forehand sidewall. As another pattern, they may return your cross-court shots with their own cross-courts. So then you must recognize and be ready to cover those V angled shots. But, as a result of your good, legal positioning, don’t give up wide angle passes (WAPs) when they’re being hit from deep in the rear corners. You restrict their options to the USRA rules required DTL and V cross-court by assuming the diagonal. That means locate on the diagonal, as you position yourself between ball in deep court and opposite front corner. There you give up the V cross-court to the far, rear corner and the straight in shot DTL from where they contact the ball. If you’re too far over on the far side of the court, you give up the WAP angle that you don’t have to allow. Again, as an example, pattern reading-wise take note to see if the opponent primarily uses down the wall or straight in shots all of the time, as they reply to your DTL’s with their own DTL’s and they counter your V’s still with DTL’s. Also throughout a game watch each time and keep a running track and design your responses after you strike the ball to move into your coverage spots, along with moving from there with your ball tracking feetwork and shot options intent on countering the opponent’s common shot patterns and their positions. If they, for instance, return your cross-courts with their cross-courts, move to intercept their cross-court. To do that, drop step with your frontmost foot and then crossover with was the trailing foot, but will now be the front of your striking stance. One optional response is to attempt to go DTL. When successful with your change of direction shot, you cross them up AND their cross-court exchange tactic.

Even Sporadically Used POP’s Reoccur

It’s much easier to recognize a pattern of play when it happens over and over in a match. However, when a pattern doesn’t happen as often, that pattern may be much more difficult for you to spot. For example, look for where the competitor likes to serve in certain key game situations. Players very often serve down the backhand side of the receiver with their drive serve, drive Z serve, or a nick lob when they look to close out a game when serving at game point or even the lead up points when looking to run out a game. You know that so you can be pretty sure your competitor is also aware of that routine serving pattern, too. As a countering tactic, should you get a chance to serve out a game yourself, consider a plan of attack on the receiver’s forehand with your disguised, very well-practiced (so it’s effective) serve which directly attacks their forehand. That tactic could pay big dividends because of the element of surprise. By optionally going with that unexpected pattern…

(a) the receiver may go the wrong way and then they may be either unable to recover in time to return your serve to their forehand;

(b) the receiver may recover poorly and hit a weak return you can immediately attack;

(c) when the receiver does catch up to the ball on the run, they may overcompensate and overhit their forehand donating you a setup;

(d) the receiver may be caught in a backhand grip and that may cause them to mishit their forehand return; or

(e) the receiver may lift to the ceiling giving you a chance to boss the rally by going for an aggressive shot, like an overhead passing attack on their just vacated backhand side.

POP’s Define Cover Positioning

Shots which signal a player’s pattern of play are like noting every shot of theirs goes down the line (DTL). So then your counter tactic is to hedge over and blanket the line with your positioning, while still giving up the required V cross-court pass to the far, rear corner. As another option, instead of DTL most of their shots may be directed into the near sidewall as pinches and splats. Then your coverage would be to start in center court close to the dashed line and be ready to crossover with the trail, deeper foot and take off to sprint forward into the front court when you read a sidewall shot. Take off right as the opponent commits with their racquet arm driving forward. Those patterns also define your court depth decisions in your coverage positioning. For passers, hang back behind the dashed line and also be ready to take 2 steps out to intercept their DTL along the sidewall; with rear foot jab step out and then front foot crossover forward. For pinchers and splatters, straddle the dashed line and be ready to dash forward into the front court to cover the ball after its first bounce before it reaches the 2nd sidewall. Or, when their sidewall shot is overhit and higher, after it bounces and stays up to catch the 3rd wall, be ready to step back with your rear foot and then move back in with your front foot in to shoot the left up sidewall pinch or splat with your best response shot, while factoring in ball angle and spin.

How can you improve your pattern of play recognition?

Be Live Play and Video POP Analyst

First, watch in person live racquetball matches or watch live events on the internet. Also watch archived matches on YouTube or other racquetball websites. Try to figure out what it is that each player is trying to accomplish by playing certain shots or certain series of shots and why they move as they do and position as the opponent moves and takes their cuts. Watch their serve and return of serve and their follow on movements and their next shot and so on. At first you may only see shots and moves and you may not see the connection between the two. For example, you may see a ball hit to the left and then their next shot is to the right of the court, as the shooter centers up each time. Then then they hit a pinch shot followed up by a passing shot to a back corner. Is there a pattern there? It may seem random, but it’s definitely possible that there is a pattern. The pattern may well be to keep their opponent running as much as possible, while giving them a nice tour of the court. First they move their opponent side to side. Then, when they can they hit a low shot, that pushes the getter forward. And then, with next shot being a pass, they pull them way back into the backcourt, while the tour guide moves up to shoot any possible left up return…and then they serve and do it all over again, with slight variations.

What Are Your Patterns?

The evolution of your game is the development of your own winning patterns, as well as your other patterns that neutralize the best of patterns of the opponent. For example, do you ever play wrong footing shots where you hit behind the opponent as they hit from one side and as they’re recovering back to the middle? If the opponent shoots from well off to one side and they clearly hustle to the center after contact, as they leave open the place where they just shot the ball, as you track down their shot watch them, too, and, if you can, play their ball assertively and look to hit shots behind them catching them basically going the wrong way and on the wrong foot. Also, are your shots always playing the ball into a clearly open court when a player is well off to one side? Do your neutral shots attack your opponent’s backhand? Do you shoot angled shots off the sidewall into the opponent? Do you shoot your shot into the sidewall as a pinch or splat when you have the opponent trapped up against that very same sidewall in a position behind you? Do you take calculated risks to move and take a chance returning serves when the server you face is Robin Hooding either back corner where, if you wait until you see the angle, you may just manage fledgling, stabbing get. Then it’s okay to guess and pick a side sometimes. It’s a 50/50 chance you may be right. Better yet study their form and look for tells that will reveal their serve angle or patterns where they serve a certain location after a long rally or to close out a game.

Read POP’s Being Played on YOU!

Constantly look for the patterns and tactics being played on you.

Play as a Constant, Rapt POP Observer

Take your pattern recognition onto the court in match play and observe the patterns your competitor is playing on you. Your competitor may play some patterns consciously, while others they may play subconsciously. For example, due to their low contact only backhand grip, all balls above waist level they may routinely lift up to the ceiling. One pattern counter play by you is to serve your off speed lob and deliver it at chest high down to as low as waist high intentionally tempting the opponent to hit high to low with their return when using that weaker grip, while you position yourself to cover their hopefully weak reply. Of course, avoid overhitting your off speed lob serve so that your serve might pop off the back wall where the receiver can use that low contact grip to swing at a setup which would turn the tables and give them a jolt of confidence. A backup plan to serve a “Jason Mannino lob” is your off speed Z serve that you can pretty easily ensure it won’t bounce and carry to pop the back wall, as it angles into its designated corner to involve the sidewall deep in the corner.

Play POP Aware

When you become really good at noticing “who is doing what to whom”, then you know very quickly what counter-pattern or contra-tactic or counter-tactic or whatever you want to call what you use in response. Realize you do a lot of stuff to your competitor. They may have no idea that you’re playing a smart tactical game instead of just randomly hitting balls all over the court or where you just feel like hitting it. Make sure you are recognizing patterns and then responding with your best tactical options that are the ones with which you’re both most familiar and those that have proven to be most reliable in similar patterns in this and past matches which you can look back upon for insights and confidence. When you make those tactical decisions, your odds of success will skyrocket. On the hand, when you wing it, you leave yourself open to counter-tactics by the opponent. Then you may be unable to recognize an unexpected pattern or you may be unable to respond quickly and effectively enough. Then you’re not figuring what’s being done to you because you’re not doing something to them that you have agency over, understanding of and control over because you’re not playing when consciously using YOUR tactics.

A POP Example Contra-Tactic

Here’s an example of a pattern of play and a contra tactical response that diverts the pressure from you back onto your competitor. When you serve a drive Z and you see it’s not a great one, you don’t have to just suck it up and watch them smoke the setup. You see your Z is going to bounce, strike the far sidewall, and you further recognize that, due to being overhit, your Z serve is going to carom off the sidewall to carry and pop off the back wall for your receiver to shoot a setup. Here’s what you do: first, quickly read that it’s a non-ideal pattern. Very often their Plan A return will be a near corner pinch into the front corner on that same side of the court where you’ve hit your Z because the ball spin sets up so nicely for that low, long near corner pinch. As you see and know your serve is popping off and you see the receiver is setting up to shoot, get ready. Right as they commit with their racquet flying forward (when you can see the butt cap of their racquet pointing at you), take off and dash forward into the front court to cover that pinch. Know that forward movement tactic can work for you in a few ways. If you get to the ball, that’s great; rekill their kill-shot. However, even if you don’t cover the pinch that time, part 2 of your tactical effort is you make a strong impression upon the opponent’s future shot options and psyche. First, you let the opponent know that you take chances in coverage by moving from center court to cover shots you anticipate (or see) are coming. You firmly plant that thought in their head for the next time they think about going for a near corner pinch (or another shot in a completely different pattern where you just look ready to bolt). Next time they might press and miss. Or they might try another shot that, for them (and you), is far less effective. That same tactic might go on to affect many other shots they take when they may be thinking about you instead of their own patterns, moves, stroking form and the ball. They may even take their eye off the ball and mishit their shot because they’re too busy looking around for you! Then you’ve got um.

Racquetball Planning

Systematically dissect your competitor’s game…

Strategize

Strategizing is your overall planning and developing of a tailored game plan for this opponent and for your capabilities contra-them. Strategizing is developing your tactical actions how you are going to play this particular match. It’s what you decide to do going in or what you design strategically and tactically in advance of play. That preplanning is not exactly what you’ll do realtime. Then you’ll play with the mindset going in to adapt with your strategy in this game or series of games. In the moment in match play is when you take tactical, efficiency actions in support of your established strategic aims that are in your pre-play game plan. An example would be how you play against your opponent’s lob serve game. At first you may choose to stay back and lift good ceiling ball returns intent on pulling the server back so you can reverse your positions where you get to move up into center court, as they field your ceiling way deep in the backcourt. Say though that when waiting deep and trying to lift the ceilings, it’s less successful than you would like because their lob is so high and tough to lift and get to go back deep in the backcourt or  you can’t respond with a good and non attackable ceiling ball. Optionally, just when the opponent already commits to their lofted lob service motion, quickly step up to just behind the dashed line; not too close now, as even a half step behind the broken line is initially good. From there one option is to take the ball on the rise right after it bounces and lift it earlier from there up to ceiling. Or, from there, another option is to go for a high Z shot high into the cross front corner to run the server back, while you adhere to your strategy of pulling the server back while you’re moving up and occupying valuable center court position where you look to attack and keep your opponent steadily on the run. Of course, an even more aggressive option is to short hop the lob, when you can. Then either look to hit a pass by them DTL or cross-court away from them. If doable, you could shoot a low kill-shot, like a pinch shot, to push them forward ideally after they’ve begun to retreat to cover your initially established ceiling return or your expected passing shot as the server sees you short hopping the ball.

3 Main Strategies

Basically there are 3 main rally strategies of play you could choose from. They include…

1. OVERPOWER –

One strategy is to play to overpower the competitor. Here you attack from the backcourt with powerful passing shots and overheads, while you also follow up by moving into center court to pressure the opponent’s next possible shot, as they ideally field the ball from behind you while they’re on the dead run.

2. OUTLAST –

Another strategy is to outlast the competitor. Here you out-rally them by being more consistent with your responses to their shots, with deep passes, ceiling balls that fall just short of the back wall or ceilings that make contact very low on the back wall, along with selective low shots when you catch the opponent hanging too deep. You try to sap their energy with your efforts to win by attrition or by wearing them to a frazzle, with lots of running to cover your well-placed passes, ceilings, high Z’s and even your back wall saves. For an example of when to use back wall saves as a weapon, watch any archived match in which Paola Longoria plays. She uses them when a ball gets by her or when she senses a less than penetrating or less than perfect low passing shot or risky kill-shot would potentially feed her opponent an easy shot. Honestly players hate to move. Fielding back wall saves require feetwork and stroking technique when they have to move and play the ball aggressively on the move at first and setting their feet so it doesn’t reveal their choice. Also note that although your running them with well placed shots it doesn’t mean you’re sapping your own energy. You hit and move to cover what you expect they’ll do in response, while keeping them moving from corner to corner running down your keep away placements while you’re diligently centering up so you move from that best position to play the next ball while you’re playing keep away from them.

3. OUTTHINK –

Another strategy is to outthink the competitor. Here you vary your game and produce versatile shot selections and coverage moves, while you constantly change your sideways shot angles and placement depth in the court by exercising height control when targeting the front wall or sidewall. For example, intentionally look to catch the sidewall with your deep court passes by bouncing the ball just a little wider so the ball bounces and deflects off the sidewall within just a few feet of the back wall or so the ball goes wide enough to be a WAP angling all the way around them. Those slightly wider angles get the ball just out of reach of even the most in pursuit, hard working opponent. Also go for low sidewall pinches or splats as kill-shots when you see the opponent is too deep in coverage or they’ve set you up and the sidewall shot you’re using is one of your well-drilled, reliably effective favorites. Sometimes go for vanilla straight in or cross-court kill-shots, when the opponent is out of position to cover that particular chosen angle. Basically avoid shooting the ball right to them unless you predict, for them, a very disappointing rollout.

4. MIX IT UP –

Us a variety of power to overpower, placements that run or move the opponent with smart, aware shot choices and court movements to out play the opponent by using tactics borrowed from all of the basic strategies and tactics you see and assimilate so you make them your very own.

Strategy Factors

Strategy is based on the following factors:

a) Game Style –

Strategy is based on your own personal game style. Also your strategy is often affected by how you respond to your competitor’s game style, as well. It’s all about the match up between you and your opponent. Your primary challenge is to find ways to impose your own style of play upon the opponent’s, as well as having tactics that support your style to respond to their serves, returns of serve, rally shooting tendencies, court positioning and movements. If you’re a drive server and passing shot specialist, you look to shoot serves and passes going for placements in either rear corner. And, as well as moving the opponent with your rear corner attack, you use your coverage movements to position yourself well in center court, while using your feetwork skills first to get into center court, as well as to move from there to cover their shots and shoot your shots. The opponent then must be concerned with your movement you effectuate as you track down and play the ball. They must factor in your movement into their own shot placement and court movement. If you’re a lobber, you’re a rallyer who wants to start and boss a rally where ceilings, overheads and forays into the front court are commonplace to adjust to the shot selections of the opponent that either mirror your own or they may be an overhead and passing shot cranker who wants to make your ceilings less accurate and your game style not quite so effective by making you stretch. Ideally you morph yourself into a combo player who has the best qualities of several styles, and, as such, you can deal with whatever you face and skew the rallies your way or play to your court strengths while the opponent must keep up with your versatile, unpredictable, chameleon-like, hybrid game that has the best of all worlds in its serving, returning, covering and a vast array of shots so that you’re a feared “shotmaker” and tough server.

b) The Kind of Opponent –

Adjust your strategy to the perceived (or apparent) level of your competitor that day. That includes their shotmaking versatility, court coverage and serve+return skill-set. For example, if you see them as a great shooter, look to move them so they must hit on the run. If they appear to be great on the run, perhaps make them more of a stationary shooter fielding balls from way back deep in the backcourt. Back there make them return nick lobs, deep ceilings and WAP’s designed to leave the ball deep in the backcourt.

c) Who are you TODAY? –

Match your strategy to your personality AND your mindset that very day. Some days you may feel particularly aggressive. Then you’re a killer, a died in the wool killer kill-shot shooter and cutoff specialist. Other days your mindset may be to rally and look to run um till they drop, while you capitalize on their overzealous shooting. Another facet to consider is getting yourself up for the event; and know that every day IS an event. You want to play at your optimum level. It’s important you find the mindset that works best for you and that you attain that just right arousal level. That can mean being calm and collected and a smooth swinger. Or you may need to get really charged up to play highly aggressive ball. Find out how you play at your very best and how to reach your peak level with mental and emotional stimuli, self talk, warm up methods, as well as by using your developed relaxation responses from your on-court routines between rallies (and even as you make your final approach on the ball to shoot) to calm yourself and play collected and composed, even when you’re playing balls to the wall!!!! which means HARD!

d) IAW COMPETITOR –

Set your strategy in accordance with (IAW)……”Who is today’s competitor?” Go through a personal questionnaire…Have you played this player before? Is this the very first time? Did you get a chance to scout this opponent prior to playing them? Even when you’ve played this player before, it’s good to revisit their stroke timing, serve arsenal, movement tendencies, and shot choices. Also, against this foe you’ve faced before, what were their serves and returns, as well as what were your prior serves, returns, rally shots, positioning, post  returning and serving moves and then moves in and out of coverage to get-that-ball? Be aware players change and evolve AND so do you! …In case scouting wasn’t possible, use the pregame warmup period to watch the challenger’s timing, stance angles, shot pace and drilled shot selections. That last grouping of shots drilled often defines they’re favorite shot placements. Although few do take time in the warmup to: (a) hit a few serves; or feed themselves a ball; or run and hit; or hit even one overhead –> although you know they should because as soon as the first ball is dropped you know your intent is to make them have to do one or even all of those things, under competitive duress…I digress. Also start the match as an extension of your scouting time of the player you’ve played before or the new player you’re taking on for the very first time. Feel them out as you trade punches, er, shots, like a boxer starts out round 1 exchanging punches. Find where this opponent is strong, where they’re weak or unsure, and where you sense you can be most effective with your serve and shot placements, as well as pay particular attention where they reposition themselves after serving or shooting especially when making contact from deep court. Also, find where you’re less effective against this particular opponent. Then, in the now, mask those weak areas or find either a Plan B option or rediscover your own technical superiority, with better movement, more accurate serves, smarter, sharper returns of serve, while enhancing your stroking form when using your tempo, as opposed to theirs. Routinely adjust within your own strategy when you see openings and also to keep being deceptive or hard to read. Do what you do well without forcing or overthinking it. Use variations in angle, pace, spin and even modify where in the court you look to shoot. For example, oftentimes wait for ankle bone low contact, which often means drop back to allow the ball to drop very low and then sweep through with your low ball forward swing. Other times, for instance, in a high paced rally when you’re in mid court, be more assertive and move up to go for short-hops, swing volleys when making midair contact, and baby overheads (with head high and slightly lower than head-high contact, as placement rules, even for overheads). Also, optionally go with rally-aggression-shooting. Mindset: you can’t be passed…go for 3-wall shots when you make passing shot cutoffs. When you’re forced to move and hit on the move in the front court or in between the lines, fold in your on-the-run high Z’s when you sense that’s THE play to pull the opponent way deep while you get to move into center court to watch them struggle and see if you get to shoot from center orvmove out of center and shoot a winner!!!

Play to Your Strengths, vs. the Opponent’s

Set your strategy to accommodate your shooting, serving, returning, moving into center court, positioning, moving to track down the ball, approaching the ball, and perform ALL those skills in accord with your playing and stroking cadence, tempo and rhythms. There’s 2 things your opponents cannot control. One, you control  mind or what you’re thinking and, two, your spirit or the heart you play with and depend on to play with passion and belief that is all your own. Some may influence your thinking and your spirit, but you have the final say on what you dwell on and your emotions and character.

Play Up

Your strategy or overall aims are set according to your level of confidence each and every day. Feed that self confidence by tapping into your mental strength.  Repeat centering pre-point routines when you serve and before return their serve. Also have a routine approach as you play every single ball when time is your ally in a rally to go for aggressive passes or they’re not gonna touch this kill-shots. Depend upon knowledge you know you gain as you train. Review and rely on your past playing experiences and even how you’re playing that very day. Keep up your belief in your game plan while you compete as a thinking player who plays with singled minded purpose, while keeping to your plan. Know that your past efforts in training and playing gives you powerful reference points into how you play at your level best in key patterns. Look to raise your level of play as each game and match progresses by studying the opponent’s patterns in the now. With that insight, conjure up your best responses that you know work, as well as impose your own patterns upon the opponent’s game that you have confidence in and sense will give them fits, while you keep track of their success, as you maintain a readiness to adjust when needed with tactical movements, stroke control, versatile serves and shots and the ability to produce variations in angle, pace, spin and moves that significantly change the momentum or timing of a match.

Have a Code You Play By or Your Own Court Rules

Play hard and smart and use the time between points or the time you make as you set up to shoot to make good, routinely used, effective shot selections and produce repeatable trustworthy form. Own rules that define your level of play, like…

(a) “I let the ball drop low to shoot my lowest”;

(b) “I move off the ball when the opponent is moving to shoot and as they approach the ball my movement up until right before they swing pressures their shot planning”;

(c) “I freeze as the opponent is just about to make contact so that as I “land” after taking a little jump or after a split step or after I get up

on my “toes” I move to cover the shot I read vs. staying glued in center court playing wishful spectator”;

(d) “I move my eyes to my contact point early after reading the incoming ball as it’s coming from a distance, while depending on my early pickup of the ball’s closing angle and calling upon my muscle memories to increase my racquet face control efficacy”;

(e) “I play at my own stroke and game tempo vs. theirs”; and

(f) “I s–l–o–o–o–w–it–way–down between rallies when I figure out what’s going on and how to exploit the patterns being played to turn them into mine by relying on an array of options I own to respond”. Mentality: “I never lose…I just run out of rallies to play”…bottom line: I say to myself, “Figure it out!”

STRATEGIZE ON THE FLY –

Strategy success is how well prepared you are for this particular match. If you are well prepared, stick to script. If you aren’t as well prepared as hoped for this competitor, go with your routine best. Again, like a boxer, feel them out in the first few rallies. Then settle on the tactics for the strategy you’ve selected that you see being spot on for this competitor which you feel strongly are the best  options you sense will work best. However be ready to be flexible and then adjust as play unfolds. It’s key to not be stubborn nor non adaptive. Be alert and comprehend the patterns and then quickly problem solve. Constantly search for winning options as you explore pattern solutions. If one serve is eating your lunch, serve it the opponent and see what they do, in the classic monkey see, monkey do ideally you’ll fall into success. Also, search through your memory banks for your known winning patterns you sense could produce winners this time against this particular opponent. If you run into something completely new, pick a counter move you sense will work, but don’t go for too much by trying to win the point too early or by playing with desperation. Although do play with a sense of urgency, while making calculated choices. If it’s a shot with angle or spin that’s giving you fits, look to pass or lift to the ceiling or stroke a high Z to neutralize that tough challenging shot vs. panicking and going for broke with a shot from an off balance stance (or when leaping up off the ground at contact). That’s like when using an oversized prep that’s inappropriate for the time you’ve made tracking down and approaching the ball. When it gets tough, make it look simple. When it’s easy, instead of making it look like a walking the park, be clinical, complete, fluid, and rhythmic, while leaving nothing out. Make it look hard demonstrating all the care you take to move to perfectly confront this ball with a matching careful stance, a full backswing, a flowing, hiccup free downswing and shot shaping of the best form you can muster. An example of a choice that demonstrates your variation or improv skills is spinning and hitting an in to in pass back along the wall you set your back to with your forehand, along, for example, your backhand wall. Or mirror image with an in to in backhand going for your rear forehand corner when turning quickly and hitting that off stroke from along your forehand wall intending to place the ball so it hugs that sidewall.

WHAT ARE TACTICS? –

Tactics are the efficiency actions you take and their success is measured by how well they implement your strategy. Tactical efficiency actions are based on the following factors…

a) KNOW THYSELF –

You be must constantly aware of your capabilities and liabilities or your strong and weak moves when positioning yourself in coverage and when moving from center court to track down and approach this ball to shoot. After shooting, it’s important how you rebalance and recover to move into center court again. Likewise monitor your shot picking, shot visualizing, shot shaping, and maintain consciousness of your shot versatility or array of options. All those relate directly to the the moment at hand you have to play this specific ball. Additionally track your service arsenal of both first and second serves. Pay attention to post serve, to after returning and to post rally shot recovery moves into defensive coverage tailoring them toward your trained reading of the opponent’s shooting and your assertive, committed ball tracking when moving out of center court. Emphasize your movement from out of your serve location. With the mindset to follow your shot in, do your routine moves from where you return to flow into coverage, as part of your return actions. Pay particular attention to your approaching moves to address each and every ball to shoot with high aggression and play effective keep away with your shot placements, including, for example, those pinches that are there for the taking but require key grip changes, angling off to the target, feel for your sidewall target spotting, and fluid, smooth, repeatable stroking technique form. As examples of tactical shooting, go with…(a) deeper target ceiling ball; (b) more direct high Z; or, (c) go for broke with a crack out on the sidewall on your serve or with your passing shot, including shooting passes when aiming for the back corners. The cracks are there for a purpose. Use them!

b) KNOW YOUR PREFERENCES –

Know your preferences or when to execute certain positional or ball tracking moves and certain shots when responding to a recognized pattern of play that you see and solve on the fly. That’s invaluable self knowledge. Practice develops that knowledge, as does the mindset in your practice games, in your patterned drills, in your studious watching film of your own games (or drilling) or others’ competitive games, as you watch to assess and learn and say to yourself, for instance, “I would’ve done X”. Spend time game planning and determining your weaknesses or areas for improvement where you see practicing certain facets of your game can fill those gaps with improving skills. Always constantly evolve your skills for movement, court positioning, ball tracking, ball approaching, swing tempo maintenance for your back and then down, out and thru swings to control your ball striking, with racquet face aiming (or angling) and swing trajectory or racquet flow path “art”, which racquet path and swing path combining to define effective shot shaping and shot placement.

c) YOUR IMPROV SKILLS –

Know your ability to create shots through improvisation. However that doesn’t meant invent new shots on the fly. Everything you do is renditions of your best or a version of your ultimate stroking technique. And that means often slightly smaller or compact versions of your full, French Open flowing stroking form you’d use for that beach ball sized setup off the back wall when the ball is flowing into a front corner corner for the shot-that-comes-with-its-own-set-of-directions corner sidewall shot. Do what you do well with on the fly adjustments and changes in shot placements based on making minor stroking changes to produce variations in ball spin, pace and by how you control your racquet face angle at contact and your swing path thru the back of the ball and on to target to shape your shot angle and define the action and even swerve you place on a ball.

d) YOUR STRATEGY’s TACTICS –

Know that all previous preparation of tactics you’ve done for this specific strategy has built both well-seated confidence and autopilot execution, as well as self belief that your tactics are effective, adaptable and very versatile. Yet you’ve many backup tactics and even a Plan B (or more) strategy in case you run into something (or someone) you didn’t anticipate.

PATTERNS OF PLAY TACTICS

Your responses to a pattern include the specific combination of actions you take to move to D-up and then move from there to assertively play the ball. They’re the court position you take up to serve, return and D-up from central spots in the middle of the court. That

also goes for where you pick your rally contact positions based on your defensive coverage, your committing to go, as you transition to ball tracking, your ball approaching, your setting your striking stance from a wide variety of stances, and your using measured prep, swing tempo (both backswing and downswing), and post stroke (or serve) recovery moves that foster consistent, MASSIVELY important off-the-ball movement. All together those comprise the tactics that are meant to achieve your game strategy. Also, tactics are a specific response to a given shot (or serve or movement) by the opponent. But even that single response is not done in a bubble. After following through when completing your stroke, flow with your feetwork to clear (but not too far away) to where you spot up in coverage according to your shot placement. Players often either clear too far from being able to cover a DTL or they don’t clear far enough away from blocking the straight in angle, and, even more often, they occlude the V cross-court angled shot. Also play while keying on your tendency to move from your cover spot to track down and crank on the ball. Part of that tactic that is characteristic with all of your tactics: follow up and repair activity. You miss a shot or drop a rally, you let it go, but you fix what happened. You have short term memory loss. You miss one shot or lose a point due to an opponent’s phenomenal shot, you let that go and you reload for the very next rally. You still make sure to repair grievous errors in shot selections, like eliminating high to low wish and a prayer on the run shots from way deep in the backcourt. You correct stroking form technique poor endings, like looping the racquet in an upwards motion at the end of your swing which encourages a lifted shot trajectory. You know a back to front low racquet flow path produces a low shot path for passing shots. Or a slightly angled down path produces a kill-shot angle straight in or into the sidewall for a tight target for a near corner pinch or a sidewall target chosen in relationship to the ball’s distance from the sidewall and the height of your contact for a splat. For sidewall shooting, you’re conscious of producing inside out shots into the right hand wall with right turn ball spin or into the left wall with left turn spin.

Backup Tactics

Each tactic has its twin or backup plan tactic or a set of optional tactics that make this Plan A strategy adaptive and unpredictable. There’s lots of sub-tactics that make up your efficiency actions which cause your game to be unreadable or unpredictable and a highly adaptive and effective one. One example of a technique tactic is the tendency to consistently look to close your stance as you approach each and every ball. But you don’t over close your stance by overstepping to the sidewall with your front foot. From a partial closed stance with half of the front  foot beyond the back foot out to the sidewall (or even a partially open stance with front foot half a foot behind back foot) your striking stances are optimal. From there, you shoot with optimum balance, while producing great potential force, and the ability to execute shot versatility, which contributes to being a deceptive and hard to read attacking player. You own the ability to hit and move (another boxer technique). Recover after hitting each time to both get out of the way and to move into your best coverage position. Then, from there in coverage, you are ready to move best to track down and attack the ball to stroke with your form this very next ball to take advantage of the very next shooting opportunity.

BE TACTICALLY ADAPTIVE – Here Are Sample Tactics and Action Solutions…

Should All Serve Returns Go DTL?

It’s overly simplistic to mandate that all of your returns of serve should go DTL for all returns all the time. You must be ready to adapt for each and every serve you field, while also factoring into the return equation the opponent’s position, as well as your own, and the ball’s location vs. pigeonholing yourself into going for only the one return. For example, DTL would maybe be way too tough when you get jammed by a serve ricocheting at you off one sidewall. Or a DTL may be too tough to control when you’re running down a wrap around (or jam fly serve or shot). A jam fly is a cross-court ball that angles over, contacts one side wall, bounces, and caroms off the back wall. Then, while on the run, you track down the ball as it’s popping off the back wall and veering and spinning hard toward the opposite sidewall. Note that heavy generated spin may be hard to remove to shoot an effective straight in return. Covering any ball angling off the back wall and flying out along a sidewall a splat may be your good response. As another example, in the case when a ball is already moving away from you and heading cross-court it’s natural to look to hit the ball where it wants to go vs. trying to force the ball where you can’t control its angle which might cause you to skip or push your shot instead of making solid ball contact. Although that doesn’t mean just go for a V pass. That 45 degree angle pass may just feed the expectant, well positioned opponent (as they see your out front contact–just as you would if you were in coverage). Instead consider a bigger angle to produce a wide angle pass (WAP). Curl the ball all the way around the opponent by looking to contact the front wall a little over halfway between ball contact and the far sidewall, while feeling for contact on the far sidewall right next to the opponent, with the intent to pass them by or pull them way deep in the backcourt having to deal with a ball popping off the sidewall and zipping back to bounce twice before the back wall. Or, when the WAP shot is hit low enough, it may crack out low on that far sidewall making them have to deal with that crack bounce.

From Deep Court, with the Opponent in the Front Court or Further Up in Center Court, Do You Only Go for a Pass or a Ceiling?

It’s shortsighted to dictate all returns from deep court must be hit as passes or as ceilings. When you get a back wall setup in deep court, a near corner pinch or shot direct to the front wall as a DTL or cross-court kill-shot may be in your shotmaking wheelhouse or drilled skill-set. Those back wall setups are prime opportunities to go for a winner to capture the rally outright vs. hoping or waiting until you have that perfect setup from close up in the court. Now, when your opponent is basket hanging or camped out way, way up in the front court, it’s worth noting that then, if you go for a kill-shot, only a rollout will work. Then, for your first choice, reconsider low board shooting and play keep away with a passing shot. Also, with your passing shot angle, look to avoid the opponent all together. Don’t even give them a whiff at making a stabbing get by reaching our for your pass as it passes by them worse case just a little too close for comfort; nor blast a pass directly at them unless you can’t avoid them based on the angle or spin action on the ball you’re playing. If a pass is hard to control, consider hitting a ceiling ball. Although note that even a softly hit ceiling could be taken on the rise by an opponent locates far up in the court by playing the ball as it drops off the front wall and bounces up vulnerably. So go for a deeper target ceiling to make the ball drop faster and bounce up much, much quicker. Even then look to angle that (or any) ceiling ball away from your front court (and say on the line) hanging opponent. In that example, hit a cross-court ceiling when the opponent is positioned closer to your down the line ceiling ball angle. They’re probably going to be expecting a straight ceiling; get them used to disappointment by having to deal with your cross-court angles ceiling.

When is Shooting DTL Tactically at Risk?

A misunderstood use of tactics is the penchant to hit a DTL when making contact from very deep in the backcourt in the midst of an extended rally. That’s especially the case when the opponent is already camped out on the line expecting exactly that very shot (AND the ball you’re playing isn’t a super low contact setup). Unless your passing shot ball perfectly wallpapers the sidewall your DTL will be very vulnerable and prone to being cutoff by a well positioned opponent who is ready to step out into your passing lane. Then doom-may-loom. First, when the opponent can move over and cut off your down the wall shot, they will be making contact from in front of you. At that point you’re either pinned behind them in deep court or you’ve moved you’re behind them in the middle of the court. You’re there at their back honestly hoping they’ll leave up the ball. Where their next shot will be placed could be totally obscured from you by how they position themselves as they make contact. Also they might, and they often they do, hit the ball right back at themselves. Then the tendency is to NOT clear and hustle out of your way (voluntarily). Therefore, when you read you’re about to place a softly struck or weakly hit DTL that isn’t going to be glued to the sidewall on its way back or you sense you can’t rocket the DTL ball by them or when you judge it isn’t a ball you can control and keep right along that sidewall, reconsider the DTL. Consider a cross-court pass, a near sidewall shot, or a deep corner ceiling struck into either corner. As one backup plan, you may choose a tactical rally shot, like a hard struck low around the wall ball (ATWB). For the low ATWB your sidewall target is just up ahead of you when lifting the ball up at a slight angle a little higher than contact with a forwards and upwards trajectory for a low shot that catches that sidewall, the front wall, the far sidewall and it circles right back around to where you were. Also tactically know that even going once for a cross-court pass could make your next DTL more successful, as well as throughout the balance of the match in situations like this one. The opponent’s coverage may be altered to play you more straight up where they may attempt to cover both the down the line and cross-court angles simultaneously from their neutral spot in center court, which will then reopen your DTL angle for you to exploit.

Should You Repinch a Pinch?

A misunderstood tactical shot selection concept is the belief that you shouldn’t or can’t repinch a pinch. And there the idea is, “sidewall bad!”. In reality often the very shot to shape is a deeper sidewall targeted shot when making sidewall contact closer to where you catch up to their left up far sidewall shot when looking to shoot now into the other sidewall which you now face. From there in the front court or middle court that’s a splat shot, as you’re responding to the opponent’s left up sidewall pinch or splat shot that was hit into the far sidewall. The splat can be a very solid tactical response shot. A splat takes advantage of the heavy incoming sidespin and shot angle, as their shot is breaking away from you toward the sidewall you’re closing in on, as you track down the ball and prepare to swing. To respond with a splat, one way is to catch up to that far sidewall shot after the ball has struck that sidewall, angled to the front wall and then caromed out to bounce for YOU track it down and contact it before it reaches the 2nd sidewall. Right there is ideal spot to close in on the left up ball as it almost reaches that 2nd sidewall that you’re nearing and facing. Also, a different pattern and sidewall ball is one that is overhit and is usually higher which you cover after it hits the far sidewall, the front wall, and then bounces to carry on the fly to contact that 2nd sidewall you face. There the ball pops off more our into the middle of the court toward you. There feetwork-wise back off the left up ball by stepping back with your rear foot first as you quickly get ready to shoot. Pick your best shot from there in your final approach, stance setting and stroke prepping. In both of those situations (a) right after the bounce; or (b) after bouncing and popping off the 2nd sidewall –> that splat option can be a very solid choice which takes advantage of the opponent’s left up sidewall pinch or left up splat. Both a pinch and splat produce heavy sidespin. Instead of a splat when going for a running DTL it would require removing a massive amount of spin, while hitting on the move or not exactly when you’re stationary or when given a plumb setup. And, in the bounce and catch up to hit case, with the shot angle, the ball is moving continuously away from you, as you and the ball close in on that sidewall you’re nearing and facing. Then helping the ball along into the sidewall makes a lot of sense. There the splat response works to counter both the angle of the ball tending out toward the sidewall and the spin retained on the ball. A ball coming off what is the 3rd wall that first hits the far sidewall, the front wall, and then bounces to carry and pop off that 2nd sidewall to come back out at you requires that you back up off the ball and reload while reading the bounce and parsing through your choices to pick your best response shot. Step back with your rear foot and be ready to quickly step right back in with your front foot to set and shoot. Pick your very best shot. A splat may be the right one. A cross-court pass often is easiest to control; but out of the corner of your eye check and…”Did that pesky sidewall shooter move?”, as sometimes they remain glued watching you. Then a WAP crosses up a closing in, moving to center opponent or even one who just stands there spectating. A reverse pinch into the cross front corner might be better on some of those 3rd wall balls that pop off and jam you up where you can turn and aim into the cross front corner sidewall first, with the ball angle and spin working in your favor. Granted going for a tight near corner pinch (instead of a splat) off either cover move (after the bounce or after the ball pops off the 2nd sidewall) would be a more difficult angle to feel and make. Also even a barely left up repinch could be covered by a hustling forward opposing sidewall shooter because a pinch comes back more into the center of the court, which does further the don’t repinch a pinch mandate. Note that splats stay up further in the court due to the action they pick up from the deeper sidewall contact and spin from the splat shot swing. Sometimes though the pinch is THE shot. For a pinch, do go tight and smoke it. Drill and consider a splat off their left up sidewall shot or pick another shot based on your read of the action on the ball. Again, consider from among…

(a) go for a cross-court shot that wrong foots the opponent when you sense them closing in on the center behind you, including a wide angle pass that hits the sidewall about at the dashed line next to them;

(b) for a ball coming more into your body, turn and angle off your feet to point and shoot a reverse pinch in to the cross front corner, sidewall first; or

(c) remove the heavy spin on the ball by drawing the ball in on your strings and hit DTL to keep the ball on the side where you make contact. For the DTL, focus on solid stroke mechanics. Look to avoid either contacting the sidewall on your DTL shot’s way in to the front wall or on its way coming back out off the front wall or you could be in the way. Then you’d have to move to take yourself out of position or you could be creating a penalty hinder situation should you just freeze in place. Play fair. Call penalty hinders (or avoidables) on yourself. Next time hit a better DTL or, instead, go for the splat!

Should All Ceilings Be Aimed Deep to Place The Ball Tight in the Back Corners?

With the sidewall creating such an impediment where…(1) when you catch that sidewall early after the ceiling bounces, it generates a big setup for the opponent and bad or very challenging initial coverage positioning for you…or, when you leave the ceiling ball too close to the sidewall AND…(2) the ceiling either falls far short of the back wall or (3) the ceiling pops off the back wall…consider that in all 3 of those situations it opens up an opportunity for the opponent to go for a deep sidewall target to shoot a splat in response to that very routine attacking pattern often seen in ceiling ball exchanges. Instead or in response, look to leave your ceiling ball slightly off the sidewall about 7-8′ from the back corner. First that takes away the chance of your ceiling ball grazing the sidewall should your ceiling be hit slightly off angle. Also it avoids your leaving the ball not quite deep enough and close to the sidewall for a splat shot opening for the opponent. Of course, it also moves the ball off the sidewall when your ceiling is unfortunately overhit and it pops off the back wall as perhaps THE most vulnerable setup, a back wall setup. However, when the ball is far enough off the sidewall and the ceiling either is long and it pops off the back wall or if it drops short, a splat shot answer is taken completely out of the opponent’s shooting equation. From off the sidewall, any sidewall shot attempt by the opponent will be a “near corner pinch”. And any even slightly left up pinch feeds right back into center court toward you. That is toward you in what is a very offensive pattern, with lots of winning options to pick from based on the action on the ball, your moves, and the opponent’s follow on positioning. As always, when covering a left up pinch look to shoot the best shot available, which includes; a cross-court pass; a DTL cursive “i” angled ball hitting the front wall and going right along that near sidewall; a smoothly hit near corner pinch; a reverse pinch into the cross front corner; a 3-wall shot into the cross front corner; or splat if the ball makes it almost to the other sidewall. Finally, leave your ceilings a little off the sidewall and you make the job tougher for the opponent and control your depth by using good touch.

What If Your Off Sidewall Ceiling Turns Into Their DTL Passing Shot OPP?

Now, when you leave the ceiling ball off the back wall as a setup or when it is well short of the back wall, as the opponent is making contact 7-8′ from the sidewall, you’re leaving yourself wide open to being passed along a passing lane that’s about as wide as a Cadillac sedan. Of course Plan A is hit consistently deep, but not too deep ceiling balls. Plan B is you’ve trained the moves and you’re ready to cover the line and take away their passing shot. Here’s how to cover the down the wall pass. For a pass getting by you…from center court when covering a pass that’s getting by you…first take a crossover step with the foot closest to the front wall to diagonally drop back, as you hustle back your quickest, which allows you to…

(a) have more time to see the ball and pattern;

(b) prep for your on-the-move, makeshift stroke; and

(c) be back deeper where you hopefully will be playing a slower moving pass.

—>There your best defensive options include:

(1) a reverse-your-fortune 3-wall, cross front corner kill-shot by hitting into the sidewall just slightly up ahead of where you make contact with the ball;

(2) a lifted, deeper targeted ceiling ball;

(3) a hard hit, low around the wall ball targeting the sidewall up ahead ahead of you by about a yard and a little above head level; or

(4) even a hard hit back wall save to buy you time to, again, get back into good coverage position in center court.

—> Left up down the wall–>When the down the wall pass you’re covering is easier to play due to the pass having caught the sidewall on the way back off the front wall or if it’s under hit which means it’s more softly hit, your aggressive options include…

(a) if it pops out further, go for a near corner pinch looking to end the rally;

(b) if it stays along the sidewall, hit a deep (near contact) sidewall targeted splat;

(3) go for a down the line kill-shot focusing on missing the sidewall yourself; or

(4) hit a low, 3-wall intended for it to be rollout kill-shot to end the rally spectacularly.

—> A feetwork option to move directly out to the sidewall is a very low percentage movement option. If you must step right out to the sidewall, then a 3-wall shot or flick, lifted lob are your best bets, but they’re not even easy to practice. When you move straight out, your right on the wall quickly and your perception of the ball is skewed by picking it up as you’re moving sideways; tough row to how.

—> Being ready to step out to the sidewall is part 1 of your pattern response tactical movements to cover down the wall passes when moving to the wall from more than a couple feet off the sidewall. The tactical thinking is D-up with a buck up mindset that you’re gonna keep the ball in play, no matter what. Practice covering passes hit down the wall from your spot in center court initially blocking the reverse pinch. It’s a tough cover, but a doable and a very necessary defensive movement skill.

—> You can move diagonally forward for a ball you sense you can attack or you can drop back diagonally for a tougher cover and still extend the rally or redirect the pressure back on the opponent’s positioning.

—> To move diagonally forward to attack a lower ball, take jab step slightly forward with your rear front and then crossover with what is the front foot of your hastily set passing shot cutoff stance, while you prep to rip.

Is Center Court Positioning ONLY a Full Step Behind the Dashed Line?

Dictating in singles that you must ALWAYS D-up a full step or 1 yard behind the dashed line is not taking into account very key positioning factors: (a) player; (b) position; and (c) time. Those are the factors you should always consider whenever positioning yourself in coverage in your “floating zone” center court. For example, when your opponent is a power player who, even when they miss a kill-shot the ball still feeds way back deep into center court or even into the middle of the court, then that deeper spot in coverage makes sense. Against a touch player who feathers their low pinches and kill-shots playing so deep leaves too much room to make up. That’s even the case when trying to make a 2 bounce get near the short line which would be very a long 8′ or what’s more than a long lunge and stretch away from that deeper court coverage positioning, again, especially when it’s apparent the touch player is shooting a corner pinch or direct, low kill-shot away from your position. Instead, when the low touch shooter appears to be going low board, straddle the broken line to be more adaptive in where you spot up in tactical coverage. Also, when you see that the opponent has a set up in the backcourt, by taking up a position closer to the front wall it actually places extra shot accuracy pressure on the opponent’s shotmaking. And it allows you to have a shorter tracking run into even the “real” kill-shot depth. A kill-shot should bounce twice in front of the first line and not just beyond the service line which is 15′ back from the front wall. (The subliminal message here is look to make your kill-shots bounce twice before the first line in the court). What helps keep kill-shots down low…letting the ball drop low and using a smooth, flowing, long, sweeping stroke emphasizing topspin for straight in and cross-court kill-shots and additionally imparting sidespin for sidewall shots which helps keeps those low shots down better and helps ensure the ball will bounce twice before the service line.

POP Tactical Positioning

Another facet of court positioning is where you are in relationship to where the opponent is positioned when they shoot or serve. When the opponent is closer up in the court along a sidewall setting themselves to hit the ball, look to get in their blindspot behind them where they can’t see you behind them. Neither be too far forward nor far enough back in the court where they could pick you up in their rear view mirror. That makes them have to guess, “Where are they?”. And, even more importantly, they must guess where could you be after you move from in their blindspot to cover whatever shot you read they appear to be choosing. Include in that anticipation move your own, “What what would I do?” thinking. By being unseen and ready to move it makes it tougher for them to pick their shot and shoot their set up. On the other hand, when the opponent is back further in the backcourt, by moving up to where you are intentionally seen by them, as they clearly see you closer up to the front court, you place extra pressure on the opponent even when they have a clear setup to shoot. Then, instead of going for a kill-shot, perhaps they’ll choose Plan B and go for a passing shot that you can cover from what, for them, is clearly a kill-shot shooting opportunity. Just due to your looming coverage a little closer to the front wall than you’re being (“safe” for them) a step behind the dashed line you make them blink. For passes, take your chances covering them. You can get to most of them that are hit from the back about 8′ of the backcourt, even when they’re hit by a gorilla. Also, time of shot in the pattern bears on your decision making in your coverage positioning. If the opponent is the server in this pattern, their high to low shooting, including more sidewall targeting should be anticipated so more forward positioning by you and a tendency to be ready to move forward into the front court should be factored into your covering tactics and readiness to exhibit your practiced forward movement skills. Finally it’s just not physically possible to retreat all the way back beyond the broken line after you serve your very hardest drive serves before the receiver will be able to contact your hard serve when making their return. There’s just not enough time before the opponent can play their return off your drive serve before you can retreat completely past the encroachment line, if that were to be your lofty going in goal. However, both getting out of the box and tending toward the side where you serve the ball should be your 2 primary tactical movement goals when you looking to move and control the receiver’s return. For example, move to the side where you serve and blanket that line when you read theirs is going to be a DTL return. A dual step, back foot then front foot crossover out to the sidewall works when you take off and move when the butt of their racquet is first driving forward. You can get to and intercept their DTL and respond by shooting low yourself, when doable, or pass when it’s not. Likewise a drop step with the frontmost foot toward the far side followed up by a crossover step with the trail foot allows you to gobble up angles all that way out to V cross-court passes, when you move as you read the angle by seeing out front contact, feet pointing cross-court or the racquet head flying in that direction. The drop and cross and get ready to reflex the ball ideally DTL.

Return Serve Like You’re a World-Class Soccer (futbol) Goalie

When they serve, you want your positioning to return the serve to be very versatile so you are able to cover a wide array of their serves, like…

(a) be able to cover the deep corners to ideally intercept drive serves before the ball can reach its intended back corner target;

(b) be able to step and lunge forward to cover a sidewall crack out that hits just past the short line;

(c) be able to step up moving diagonally to cutoff a drive Z serve after it bounces and before it can reach the sidewall; or

(d) be able to use your best feetwork to spin with a wrap around serve and move out to the sidewall to take the ball as it angles out off the back wall and veers out along the 2nd sidewall where you may shoot a splat or other shot you choose is apropos to accommodate the bounce of the ball and the heavy action on it, including significant spin.

—> Standing too far from the back wall as you return you literally get passed by well-placed direct serves to the back corners. Too close to the back wall and a crack out even well past the short line in the middle of the court just is still out of range of your movement.

—> Standing too close to the back wall and a serve often wins the race to the back corner. Then, due to your positioning, there’s no ability to drop back just a little further when needed.

—> Also, when returning from very deep, it’s tougher to cover balls that bounce, contact the sidewall and then angle toward the back wall where you need to have the space to get behind the ball to shoot. Or, if necessary, at times you need space to save the ball into the back wall when the ball gets behind you to just save the ball back to the front wall.

—> And, when you’re too deep, an overhead or higher contact drive serve that bounces very close to the back wall in a corner can catch that corner and then spring out way along the sidewall where it’d be out of range of your move with the ball, hustling return of that back wall “flyer”.

—> The just right spot to return serve is when you stand with your feet pointing at the front wall and when you reach back you almost can touch the back wall, but you’re still about a racquet head away. From there you can get to crackout just past the line, step up and intercept drive Z, and you can jab and cross (step) to get to the drive serves before they Robin Hood the back corners WHEN you either get your eyes low enough to see the serve hitting the front wall or you pick up a tell like a revealing toss or you catch a glimpse of the ball as it’s coming back from the front wall just before it passes the receiver. It’s really a prevarication to say you can see a hard drive serve pass by a receiver and have a chance to step out to either sidewall and effectively return that drive so you turn the tables on the server; there’s just not enough time to see the ball and even one step crossover out to cutoff the serve. That’s why you get low, with a straight back, why you watch the server like a hawk looking for a revealing direction clue and why sometimes you guess and when your guess right you get in their head, while even if you guess wrong they’ve got to wonder what way you’re gonna go next.

What’s THE Fastest Tactical 1st Step You Can Take?…also, what are other tactical movement bests?

Obviously facing the direction you want to head and going straight ahead you’re able to take off when starting by stepping off with either foot first. However, you may be surprised to hear that you are either right footed or left footed just like you’re right handed or left handed, and actually you’re either right eyed or left eyed, too. For that latter example first, one eye is your dominant eye. That dominant eye is your visual triangle starter. What that means is you move your dominant eye and it starts out by picking out a point in the distance, like when you pick out the ball as it’s coming back toward you from off the front wall. Then your other eye just completes the visual triangle of ball and both eyes. Take that dominant eye off the ball and you miss the ball by, well, about a ball. To test for your dominant eye, face front and look up at the left front upper corner. Point with one index finger up at that top left corner while you look out over the finger with both eyes trained on the corner at the very same time. Then take turns closing or covering each eye. You will see that when you have your dominant eye open you see corner and finger together. However your finger appears to magically move (or in game situations) you are off by a couple fingers or about the size of a ball when your dominant eye is not on the corner and you’re looking with just your non dominant eye. Note that you pick up the ball at a distance and your body moves based on that ball acquisition. Then ideally you move your eyes to contact. If you’re off at distance your muscle memory stroke will be off, too, by about a ball. And you’ll miss putting the part of the sweet spot of the racquet head on the ball that you want to make the shot you visualize…now back to moving your feet…when running straight ahead, one of your feet may want to take off first. In response, it’s valuable to train yourself to move by starting off by stepping off with either foot first so that you may move off equally well with either for those times when one or the other foot would be best one to start off with first. To train and learn how to be ambi-footress, place both heels up against the back wall. From there alternate stepping off with either foot. Teach yourself to take off equally well while starting out by taking off with either foot. Note that, if I’d left you start from off the back wall, you might take a step back with one foot and then step forward with the foot you were supposed to move off with first. That backwards step is a dead step or negative step and it sloooows you way down…going on, that either foot first includes the situation when stepping to the side when going either to your right or to your left. Now that going to either side is because you know you won’t always be able to take off from full on facing the direction in which you need to head. You’ll need to run or move to the side instead when…

(a) starting out from center court;

(b) running out of the service box;

(c) after returning the serve and moving from where you return to get into coverage in center court.

—> In fact you probably won’t have many straight ahead sprints in your court coverage at all. More often than not you’ll take off by going to the side or by moving diagonally at first. There’s a fast way and there’s a slow way to move to the side. First, for when you have just a very, very short distance to cover, like at most a couple yards and you have a little time to do it, your goal is to cover that controlled distance on balance and under control. To do that less pressured movement, take a sidestep or shuffle step sideways. To shuffle, first take a sideways step with the lead foot that’s closest to the direction in which you’re headed. Then, as that foot is just about to land, draw along and land the trailing foot close to the just landed lead foot. That’s 1 shuffle step or sidestep. However, if you have very little time and you’re in a hurry or you must travel in excess of 6′ or MORE, the best way is to turn-and-run. Although it turns out taking off with the lead or the near foot or closest foot to where you’re headed is the V-e-e-e-e-r-y S-l-o-o-o-o-w way. That’d be a slow lunging start. And it would spread you way out. Instead you want to coil up and spring into a very short sprint to cover that distance so you move quickly to set up to aggressively shoot or to get to the ball that’s a little farther away than a long lunge or even a crouch and springing dive along the floorboards. To start and move quickest, first, pivot both feet or turn on your toes in the direction that you’re heading. Then take off first with the TRAIL foot or foot furthest from the direction that you’re headed. Do that by taking a crossover step over just past the lead foot. That is THE most efficient way to start and gobble up court THE fastest way possible. As you crossover, pivot your body and stay very low. Follow up the crossover step by driving off the court with the now trail leg that was initially the lead leg. Additionally, as you’re taking off, use your arms, including your racquet wielding hand and arm, to pump the arms like a sprinter and you go even faster and you’re much better balanced. Situationally use the crossover step to…

(a) get out of the service box after serving by crossing over with the front foot as your first step toward the back of the box to move quickly back into coverage in center court…

(b) return serve by moving into a rear corner with a very short jab step with the near or lead foot out at a slight diagonal and then take a big crossover diagonal step with the trail foot passing the lead foot to close your stance and intercept the corner bound serve after the foot lands. You may even make contact as you’re still in midair with that crossing over trail foot because…but trust and know you land)…

(c) after you have centered up in coverage, from center court crossover as your first step to track down the ball by either running forward into the front court to cover a low shot by the opponent, or crossover to retreat into the backcourt to cover, as speed required examples, a low contact stroke deep passing shot, an overhead pass or a high Z shot.

—> In rally play, train yourself to crossover by starting with the foot furthest from the direction you intend to head.

—> Once you get to where you need to be to get ready to strike the ball power down or slow down by putting on the “brakes”. By brakes I mean bend your knees that help you brake.

—> When you shuffle sideways, to slow down smoothly, first flex the lead leg and then bend the trail leg to brake and adjust your feet to hit. Or you may brake and then change direction to bolt off in the complete other direction by starting off with a crossover step off that lead leg.

—> To make a longer run up court or toward the backcourt, crossover first and stay low as you drive your legs and arms to run to track down and play the ball, as you read the bounce of the ball. As you close in on a ball that you read you can time to shoot, first bend both of your knees to slow yourself down. Then take the invaluable little adjustment steps to set your optimum striking stance a little behind the ball to hit at your best, especially when time is on your side to set the back of your stance behind and a reach away from the ball. Then step forward with your front foot, as you complete your prep, and then crank your shot. Do that landing a little behind the ball

—> Initially set yourself about a 1/2 step behind the ball vs. hopping and stopping directly in front of the ball hoping against hope you’ll be on balance and able to use your legs, hips and core to stroke. Doing a jump stop directly in front of the ball doesn’t encourage winding back to load your hips nor does it support a deep, high racquet lift. It does promote an arm only muscling of your shot.

—> All those are examples of tactical movements that enhance your court coverage, your ball getting, your stroking technique, and your moving both of your eyes together to better see the ball and the pattern of play, with your visual triangle. These moves buy you time to cover shots and position yourself quickly and optimally to accurately shoot the ball. These efficiency movement actions allow you to significantly raise your level of play because moving at your best on court makes you able to have more shot options, swing on better balance from more routine striking stances, with better prep, while employing repeatable, unrushed, productive swings, as well as using enhanced movement into coverage. From coverage ideally in center court, mastery over these moves provide efficient, familiar movements for you to track down and approach the ball to prep and shoot at your best. The post contact movement is big because you own the ability to effectively recover after a stroking a rally ball, a serve (or after a lunging, reaching, and flicking, in an effort described by the opponent as, “Good get!”, even if they only say that inwardly to themselves!). When you recover well, you cover their next shot better. When you cover better, you get to shoot with more time to set your feet, prep, and logically pick and then make better forcing and put away shots vs. shots where you’re just barely able to  keep the ball in play. Instead, when you can move with fluidity and play tactical keep away, you’re often gifted a juicy setup you can put away strategically.

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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