Tuesday, January 26, 2010


We're always looking for drills and games to help tennis players improve. The drills must represent the match environment to have the most benefit. So what does that mean exactly? It means that the strokes used in the drill must appear with the frequency they appear in matches. The exertion levels and work/rest ratios must be those found in matches. The movement patterns and tactical opportunities must be the same as those in matches. The stress levels must rise and fall like in a match. You get the idea. A drill where a player stands in line, then hits one forehand and one backhand to the same target, and returns to the back of the line fails in all respects, for example.

Enough preamble, on to the new (to me) game that we've been messing around lately. This can either be played with a groundstroke feed or with a serve. Of course, I prefer the serve since all tennis points begin with a serve and, depending upon your level, 85-95% of points include a return. The key to the game is the scoring system. A player wins a point (+1) by hitting either a clean winner or forcing his/her opponent into an error. A player loses a point (-1) by committing an unforced error. Winners are obvious, but the forcing shot vs unforced error distinction is gray. That's a feature, not a bug, in my mind. The players will frequently confer quickly after a point to come to an agreement about how to score a point. "That may have been unforced, but you did have to run pretty far to hit a low passing shot, so let's say I forced your error." There are no correct answers and the coming to judgment is part of the learning process. The game proceeds until either player gets +3 points or -3 points. In other words, either player can "win" the game (+3) or either player can "lose" (-3) the game. If you play with a groundstroke feed, you roughly take turns feeding. If you play with serves, the preferred method, then each player serves one game to +3 /-3 and then the other player serves the next game.

I like to play sets of these games to +3,-3 using the same scoring. So if I serve and "win" a mini game, meaning I get to +3, then I get +1 game. If I "lose" my service game, meaning I got -3 points, then I lose a game, going to -1 game. We alternate serving games until one player loses by getting -3 games or wins by getting +3 games.

One of the first times I played this game, we were tied in the set at +2 to +2. It was my opponent's turn to serve. We decided that he should just serve, rather than doing some tie-breaker or something. That way the pressure was on him to hold and on me to break, just like tennis.

We've experimented with more or less points. Playing to +5 /-5, and to +2/-2. We find that the +3/ -3 lasts about the right amount of time. There is just the right amount of pressure of game ending points.

Obviously you could do this with doubles, too. If you have a team situation, a coach could offer input on the scoring. That way the players and the coach could each learn what the other thinks is an unforced error compared to a forcing shot.

One warning. Low skill level players will simply be in a race to avoid -3. That's a problem, but it also shows them vividly that at their level, tennis points and matches are lost, not won.

I found that my tactical awareness jumped while playing this game. Recently I'd become fond of just pounding balls, not playing tennis, even when I was playing games or sets. It's fun to rip the ball and I don't play competitively any more. Further, when I did play I was mostly a serve and volleyer, or a guy who approached the net a lot. Now, with a modern game, I like to just pound groundstrokes. This game showed me that while it's fun to hit big groundies, I don't get them in often enough to actually win a groundie contest that way. In order to win at this game, and to avoid losing at this game, I need to be aware of when I've hurt my opponent and move forward to end the point. I became much more opportunistic in my court positioning and movement. That was an eye opener for me. Very valuable.

Give this game a try. I think you'll learn a lot and have a lot of fun doing it.

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