Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Beauty of Slice

About a year ago I wrote a post here titled The Trouble with Slice. Yesterday I rediscovered the beauties of slice so today I'd like to chronicle them here in the interest of fair play.

It's true that top players hit predominantly with topspin. As I said in my post last year, topspin allows players to hit the ball harder and still get it in. Powerful shots are indispensable in top-level tennis. Well here's a news flash: most of us don't play top-level tennis. I'm a pretty good tennis player, having played DI college tennis several decades ago. I can hit pretty powerful, topspin shots. To a casual observer I look pretty good. But when I go big, even with the aid of topspin, I miss within a handful of shots. That makes me a loser on most days against competent opposition. That's mostly fine by me since I play tennis for the fun and the exercise, not for the wins. My interest in competition waned a long time ago.

But what if I were to play to win now? After yesterday's discovery I would seriously consider slicing every darn shot. Here's what happened...

I was participating in an elite junior clinic which in our area means hitting with some of the best juniors in the state, juniors who are sectionally ranked in a mediocre section and who have national rankings in the low to mid triple figures. So they are good, but not great, players. Like me. Maybe a half hour into the session we were playing a team singles game and my partner and I came up against a new team after a rotation. I played the first point against a kid who sliced the first two shots he hit to me. Just for fun (remember, that's why I'm out there) I got in a very low crouch and chopped my shots back to him even lower than his shots had come to me. I won the point, stayed in and played his partner. Not wanting to change a winning hand, I played the next point the same way. Same result.

I kept this up for the next half hour or so with amazing results. Rather than being "one of the kids" winning and losing roughly half of my points, my winning percentage gapped up and stayed there. This is tennis, of course, so I didn't win every point. I did miss some shots and my opponents were able to win some points against me. For the most part, though, I was far more difficult to beat than I had been early in the session when I was playing like they were (modern, topspin, baseline tennis).

So why was I so much tougher to beat playing Benihana tennis? Here are my guesses.

First, I quit missing so often. I knew I couldn't hit the ball hard with slice and get it in, so I didn't try to hit it hard. My goal was mostly to keep the ball in and low forcing my opponents to play shots and to play shots from below the net. I sometimes tried to move them around and would miss wide on occasion. I also clipped the net in an effort to keep the ball low now and then. And sometimes my slices would float long. But for the most part, my error rate plummeted. That alone probably accounts for most of my success.

Second, I was not easy to attack. My shots mostly stayed low. It's tough to hit big shots from below the level of the net. Occasionally an opponent would come to net on me, but my feel for defensive lobs was good since I'd just been chipping and chopping the ball with a continental grip. My defensive lobs, the best part of my game thirty years ago (which is why I was never that good -- nobody conquers the tennis world with defensive lobs as their weapon!!!), were once again good. Playing with semi-western grips, hitting topspin, etc, made a transition to a defensive lob hard for me. Instead I would hit passing shots. Hitting passing shots is a lot tougher, for me, than simply clearing an attacker out of the finishing zone with a defensive lob.

Third, I was able to use the full width and especially the length of the court. I did not grow up playing much on clay, so hitting rolling topspin angle shots isn't a strength of mine. So when I play modern tennis, I'm stuck hitting hard and deep. That means my opponent may have to run across the baseline a bit, and occasionally have to deal with some sharp angles, but they don't have to move forward in the court very often. And when they do, it's after a fairly obvious grip and swing change. A chip or drop shot looks nothing like my standard topspin forehand or backhand. So my dropshot, once my second most effective shot (see, that's not gonna win me Wimbledon!!), once again was a potent weapon. Using all slice, until my racquet struck the ball my opponent had no clue to the depth of my shot. This kept them off balance and unsure of where to go to position themselves to retrieve my ball.

Fourth, these kids had not seen anyone decent play this style. Like I said in my post last year, really only crappy players use all slice nowadays. I was the first player any of them had probably seen who could cover the court and consistently hit sliced shots. I had all the shots, too, being able to hit it deep, short, high, low, crosscourt, down the line, or even with some side spin when I wanted. I had done this before thirty years ago. So I knew what I was doing. This was new and irritating for them. They see occasional slice shots, but a steady diet, fed to them by a guy who knew how do make them uncomfortable, was more than they could handle.

So those are my guesses as to why my slicing and dicing was so effective. I have to admit that for players of sub-awesome skill levels, slice has many, many advantages. If you recognize that you can't go big with slice, I think you can use it to drive the vast majority of your opponents nuts. If winning is your goal, you might want to experiment with chipping, chopping and slicing.

If you do, I suggest you invest in earplugs. You won't like what other tennis players say about you.

UPDATE: After doing some more slicing and dicing today, I realized I'd left out some physical benefits of slice. The impact between ball and racquet is much more gentle. With the amount of wrist injuries in tennis now adding to the always prevalent tennis elbow a more gentle collision between ball and racquet has a lot of appeal.

Another benefit of slice is that under pressure you don't have to make much of a swing to execute the shot. To hit topspin under pressure you must trust yourself to swing fast enough to reverse the spin on the ball. Swing a little too slow and you don't get the spin you want and the ball sails out. One consequence is that you can get tight, costing you racquet speed and spin. More errors. It's just simpler to bunt the ball back with the spin it already has coming off the court. A game style that doesn't degrade too much under pressure counts for a lot.

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