ProTip: When Should I Attack or Defend?

Question: I hit the ball fairly well but often am unsure of whether to ‘attack’ or ‘defend’ while playing a point.  What’s a basic strategy to make this choice simple?

Ninety percent of players spend their time on court trying to improve their technique, and particularly so when their serve or backhand breaks down under pressure or they commit a lot of errors. Often the “cure” suggested by their pro is more stroke lessons to either improve the suspect stroke or cut down on errors.  The next 9% or so figure out what the strengths of their game are: strong serve, volley, forehand weapon, speed around court, and try to play their strength(s) as much as possible against their opponent’s weakness. In case you have been doing the maths, the last 1% have actually figured out how to play/adjust against their opponent’s game.

Regardless of your strengths, your basic game starts with a clear understanding of when to ‘attack’ or ‘defend’ since ultimately success in tennis goes to the player who hits the ball over the net and into the court the last time! The so-called ‘pusher’ understands this very well and wins when his/her opponent overplays the ball — and their errors and frustration increase exponentially .

Many years ago, Billie Jean King wrote about a simple ‘traffic light strategy’ of dividing the court into green (safe), yellow (caution) and red (danger) zones. The strategy was based on a player’s ability to get close enough to the net to safely hit down on the ball. 

Here’s a simple figure I prepared some time ago to illustrate the basic principle:

It’s fairly obvious that a taller player has an obvious advantage by being able to see ‘over the net’ from deeper in the court. It also follows why the pusher wins if you are trying to constantly attack from the baseline — the odds are stacked against you! 

You’ll have noticed that in the modern game, the top players use more topspin to drive the ball up and over the net when closer to the baseline to overcome the disadvantage of being deeper in the court.

To be certain you understand the principle here’s a side view:

Hence, the simplest game plan of all then, is to figure out where your red, yellow, and green zones are and play accordingly.

When you are in the red zonedefend and keep the ball in play; in the yellow zone, hit approach shots to take control of the net by moving into your green zone. When in the green zone with a ball bouncing higher than the net, attack!  

This game plan also goes by another name — percentage tennis!  It may not be spectacular as ‘first strike tennis’, but success has a nice warm feel to it!

And even if you are trying to play ‘first strike tennis’, there are many times — and particularly on big points, when ‘first strike tennis’ is NOT your best option! Just watch how Roger and Rafa play the big points in tie breakers or when down set point or behind on serve.

Become THE ‘smarter player’. It’s always nice to come off with a win regardless of how poorly/well you hit the ball. In fact Brad Gilbert wrote a book about playing smart when you are outgunned. He called it –“Winning Ugly”.

Rob Muir, USPTA
MTC Tennis Whisperer

Contact Rob Muir

Ask the Pro: Dubs 101

Here’s a quick guide to the art of doubles play:

  1. Manage the ‘real estate’ by understanding the 80% Rule.  80% of shots are in a 2-metre circle around the centre serve box!  Given a choice to defend always move to protect the centre of the court.  You might not make the shot even so you’ll have a play most times!
  2. Doubles is a Team Sport because one player gets to stand in a winning position without hitting a ball! The server’s, and the receiver’s job is to get the ball to their partner at the net. So much easier to win points at the net!
  3. Be a  ‘Threat” by your court presence.  Impose yourself when you’re at the net to intimidate the opposition.  For example Thomas  (“blitzkrieg” big guy dominating the net) or Netto (fast guy moving around on the net) can cause opponents to make more errors!
  4. 80% First Serves.  Take a little off your first serve to start the point. Statswise, you’re more likely to win the point, you have more time to reach your volley position AND your partner has a greater chance of hitting a winning volley — a threefer! Besides your opposition is much more apprehensive about returning the first serve.

Great to see a slow and steady improvement in our players in our Ladies Clinics practicing these tips.

The Tennis Whisperer


Finding a way to win! Inside The Joker’s Head @AO

Djokovic won his 17th Grand Slam at the Australian Open. And while I’m not a fan, there are some key lessons for us tragics!

Conventional wisdom tells us that on big points, we should play to our strengths. Djokovic admitted that when the big points came in the AO final, he did the opposite. Both times this baseliner rushed the net, and both times he came up trumps with the backhand volley he needed. [Coach Goran believes stats can sometimes be overrated particularly on big points and has caused Federer to lose two Slams.]

What does that tell us? That Djokovic has a strategic sixth sense? That fortune favors the brave? I would say it shows that in tennis, execution is underrated. By making those crucial volleys, Djokovic turned a tactic that was at best counterintuitive, and at worst reckless, into a winning one. And he turned what easily could have been his third straight loss to Thiem into his 17th Grand Slam title.

Champions execute, and, yes, while it may not be as simple as it sounds, they do rise to the occasion. In his own complicated way, Djokovic proved it again last night.

Paraphrasing Tennis Magazine, here’s how the match unfolded…..

In the first set, he tried for an early knockout punch. He took the ball early, peppered Thiem’s backhand, and broke the Austrian in his first service game. Thiem got off the mat and broke back, but Djokovic won the set anyway with a brilliant stab return, and a Thiem double-fault, at 4-5.

At that point, you might have expected a player of Djokovic’s stature and experience to relax and run away with a straight-set victory. That’s essentially what he did against Roger Federer in the semis. Instead, he spent the next two sets running out of gas. Thiem was the guy who had worked harder and longer to get here, but it was Djokovic who was suddenly dazed, slump-shouldered, and staggering, and who needed a refrigerator’s worth of food and drinks to revive him.

“Turbulent, I would say,” is how Djokovic described his evening.

“It started off really well; I broke his serve right away. I felt the experience on my side playing many Australian Open finals. For him, it was his first.”

“After I lost the second set, I started to feel really bad on the court. My energy dropped significantly. To be honest, I still don’t understand the reason why that has happened, because I’ve been doing the things I’ve been doing before all may matches. I was hydrated well and everything. Apparently doctor said I wasn’t hydrated enough.”

Like Nadal in New York, though, Djokovic found a way to right himself just in time. The fluids kicked in during the fourth set, and his body language and stamina immediately improved. From that point on, Djokovic went back to doing what he does best: digging in and forcing his opponent to hit a perfect shot, and then another, and then another. Thiem, whether it was because he finally grew tired or finally tensed up, began to misfire on his biggest weapon, his forehand. He made Djokovic work to the bitter end, but he could never get his nose in front again.

“He was a better player,” Djokovic said of Thiem. “Probably one point and one shot separated us tonight. Could have gone a different way.”

Djokovic then alluded to the two most important moments in the match: The break points that he saved early in each of the last two sets, and that kept the momentum on his side of the net. Djokovic saved them both in the same, completely unexpected way: with a surprise run to the net.

“I served and volleyed when I was facing break point in the fourth and in the fifth,” Djokovic said. “It worked both of the times. It could also have been differently. Serve and volley is not something I’m accustomed to. I’m not really doing that that often.”

“I kind of recognized that as an important tactic in those circumstances, and I’m really happy it worked.”



MTC announces its Tennis Whisperer Ladies clinics.

For Term 1, we have two Ladies Clinics:

  1) Monday Ladies Clinic 9:00 – 10:30 am

  2) Wednesday Ladies Clinic 9:00 – 10:30 am

Numbers are limited and players must meet a minimum playing standard.   Other Whisperer clinics may be held upon request.

MTC charges $30 for our Tennis Whisperer clinics.

Click here to learn more about, and sign up for, our Tennis Whisperer program.