Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Where Should I Have Been That Time?

Maximization in Tennis

After a point ends poorly for one of my students, I'm frequently asked, "Where should I have been that time?" Sometimes the inquiring player was out of position, but frequently the player was in what I would consider good position. Unfortunately the ball still got past the player resulting in a winner for the opposition. So why did I judge the position to have been good?

Let's say I'm playing a doubles match and I get beat by a shot down my alley. It's not rocket science to say that to defend that particular shot I should have been closer to the alley than I was. If I get beat with a short angle, I should have been closer to the net to cut off the sharply angled shot. But before my opponent's shot has been hit I can say no such thing. If I position myself in the alley I will have prevented my opponent from passing me in that direction, but I am almost certainly out of position. Similarly if I play one foot from the net, nobody will beat me with a sharp angle to my side of the court, but by positioning myself so close to the net I make a lob over my head very easy to hit and nearly impossible for me to defend. Again, this is not a wise tradeoff most of the time.

So with those examples in mind, how do I define good court position? Simple. Good court position is the place on the court where I maximize my chances of getting to a ball and hitting an effective reply. There is no "good court position" that guarantees I'll get to all balls. If I'm playing the net and I position myself a few steps inside the service line, I am in a position where I am able to cut off most of the left/right angle and contact most volleys above the net. This allows me to hit effective volleys off most, though by no means all, shots. This position also allows me to back up and make a reasonable play on most, though by no means all, lobs.

The best way to assure good court positioning is to first learn why you take certain positions to begin with. These positions generally reflect the geometry of the court and the offensive or defensive position of your team. From these basic starting positions it is necessary to make adjustments based upon how the point evolves and based upon what you learn about the skills and tendencies of your opponents.

Remember, the goal of proper court position is not that you will be in position to return every ball. Instead proper court position puts you in position to return the most likely balls, and it forces your opponents to beat you with more difficult shots (sharp angles and balls near the sidelines) rather than easier shots (in doubles those down the middle).

So get familiar with proper court positioning, accept that you won't be able to get to every shot, and maximize your chances of winning your next big match.

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