Tennis Singles Strategy

Tennis Singles Strategy: 8 Tactics to Help You Win!

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Why Singles Strategy Matters in Tennis

Taking off in a random direction is seldom the best way to get to your desired destination.  You may get there if you are lucky but most likely you will need to call for help when you find yourself lost.

Although obvious, most tennis players seem to play that way, randomly!

They get on the court and start hitting balls, reacting to the opponent’s shots and hoping their shot combinations will be enough to win the point. In reality unless you have a clear goal for each point, also known as a strategy, you will not be able to play up to your potential. You may win some days but you will certainly not play at the level you are capable of.

A good strategic plan on the court is like having a GPS in your car. It keeps you on the right track.  So, if you want to win more matches here is your singles match play GPS.

The good news is that there are only a limited number of viable strategic options during singles play.  In other words, there are only a few different ways to win points.

  • Out-Rally your opponent
  • Play aggressively
  • Play your strengths
  • Hit the ball to your opponent’s weakness
  • Attack the net
  • Bring your opponent to the net
  • Use variety to create mistakes or a short balls
  • Open the court

Let’s take a closer look at these strategies and give you some ideas on how to practice them.  Here is the list with some ideas on how to practice them.

Strategy #1: Out-rally the opponent

The goal here is to win the point by keeping the ball in play until the opponent misses, so consistency and depth are essential. 

Your task is to avoid any unforced errors by playing safely and retrieving all of your opponent’s shots, while at the same time hitting the ball deep enough to prevent the opponent from being aggressive.

For this strategy to work you need to:

  • Hit the ball at a pace that you can control.
  • Pick large targets on the court.
  • Hit high over the net and away from the lines.
  • Be ready to run down ball

In addition, you will hit mostly cross court since cross court shots allow you to hit over the low part of the net and into a longer hitting area. In other words you become a human ball machine, outlasting your opponent.

Here are a few drills to help you hone this skill.

Drills to improve your consistency

1. Rally with a partner.

One of you hits crosscourt and the other down the line. Try to see how many balls you can hit without mistakes, then, change roles.

2. Play “no winner” points.

Play points against your partner with the rule that no player is allowed to hit an outright winner. If a player happens to hit a winner through a series of placed shots it counts, but at no time should any player try to blast the ball past the opponent.

3. No Net Mistakes.

In order to practice hitting with more net clearance, play point in which a net mistake counts double or triple.

4. Keep it deep.

To practice hitting with depth play points in which the ball is not allowed to bounce in the service boxes. If it does, the player loses the point.

Tennis singles strategy drill - hit deep

Sometimes we will set up a mini net in front of the service line to help a player improve their height and depth in singles.

Strategy #2: Play Aggressively

This strategy is the opposite of the last one and involves being aggressive from the start of the point, hitting the ball hard, and trying to catch balls early.

The goal here is to force the opponent to play defensively from the start of the point. That is, you need to start the point with an aggressive serve or return and then continue to attack by stepping into the court, catching the ball on the rise, and driving it back with force. You will continue pushing the opponent backwards until you force a mistake or hit a winner.

Of course, if the opponent hits a good defensive shot you may not be able to continue to attack that shot but you will certainly continue looking for the next opportunity.

Let’s practice!

Drills to improve your aggressiveness

1. 3 serves

The server has 3 serves (2 first serves) but has to win the point in three shots including the serve. If the returner manages to hit the ball into the court after the server’s 3rd shot, the returner wins the point.

2. 1 serve

The server has one serve and the returner has to finish the point in 3 shots including the return.  If the server manages to hit the returner’s third shot into the court, he/she wins the point.

Strategy #3: Play your strengths

The easiest way to improve your performance without changing much is by hitting your best shots more often.

In this strategy, if your forehand is better than your backhand you will have to run around your backhand as much as possible and hit your forehand. Similarly, if your net game is better than your baseline game, you have to try to get to the net as soon and as often as possible.

Drill to improve your strengths

1. Only your best

Play half court, including the doubles alley (if needed), or mark the court so that the playing area measures about 2/3 the normal size of the court. Play points using only your best shot. That is, run around your weaker shot. If the opponent gets the ball to your weaker side, you lose the point. Normally your best shot will be your forehand, but it may not be.

Strategy #4: attack the Opponent's Weakness

Making the opponent hit their weaker shot as much as possible will definitely give you an advantage.

Play relentlessly to the opponent’s weakness trying to break it down. Do not be fooled by an open court. In many cases when a player has a real weakness, they would much rather run towards their strength than hit their weakness from a standing position.

Drill to practice attacking someone's weakness

1. Play points where one of the players has to hit everything to one side of the court while the other one can hit into the whole court. This includes the serve. Start the point to a specific target. A good way to do this is to have the returner play every shot back to the side where the serve came from.

Strategy #5: attack the net

Putting pressure on the opponent by charging the net is a very useful strategy when playing consistent opponents, or opponents that have a weak side. It’s also a great way to take time away from the opponent.

In many cases just charging the net will be enough to force an opponent’s mistake. You don’t even have to hit a volley.

When you follow this strategy it is important that you attack the net to the opponent’s weakness as much as possible, however approaching down the line or through the middle, are good variations. You can use this strategy by serving and volleying, returning and volleying, or by approaching on short balls during the point.

Drill to practice attacking the net

1. Play points where the server has to serve and volley on first serves and the returner has to return and volley on second serves. When returning and volleying, make sure that you start moving towards the net as the server tosses the ball in order to hit the return close to the service line.

Attack the net singles strategy drill

2. Play points crosscourt, where players can only hit down the line if approaching the net. In this drill the player will rally crosscourt until one of them gets a short ball to attack. After the down the line approach shot the point is played out.

Strategy #6: Bring the opponent to the net

Many players do not feel comfortable at the net and forcing them to come in will place them into a vulnerable position.

This strategy is especially useful against very consistent players who do not hit the ball hard but who rarely miss from the baseline.

In this strategy you will play consistently until you receive a short ball that you can counter with a drop shot or a short, low ball. Hitting the short balls with slice will always be more effective.

Drills to practice bringing the Opponent to the net

1. Drop shot winner

Play games where a drop shot winner is worth 3 points and winning the point against a player at the net is worth 2 points.

2. Only slice

Play points from the baseline where both players are only allowed to hit with slice.  In this game, the players are not allowed to hit the ball in the air, forcing them to move up and back during the point.

Strategy #7: use variety to create errors or short balls

Having to continually adjust is much more difficult than returning similar shots over and over. Variety is a great way to force mistakes or short balls that you can attack.

The factors that you can vary are:

  • Spin: topspin, slice and flat
  • Depth: long and short
  • Height: high, medium and low
  • Direction: right, middle, left
  • Speed: fast, medium and slow

Of course you can also combine these variations to make variety an even more effective strategy.

Drill to practice using variety

1. Never the same

Play points where players are not allowed to hit the same type of shot twice. Players have to change the spin, height and depth every shot.

Strategy #8: open the court

In general the player that has to move more will lose. Opening the court with angles is a great way to move the opponent, force mistakes, or create opportunities to hit winners.

For this strategy you will hit deep and consistently until the opponents hits a short and wide ball that you can angle back to pull the opponent wide, off the court. Once you pull the opponent off the court, step forwards into the court and try to hit the next shot early and on the rise to the open court.

Drills to practice opening the court

1. Angle to down the line

Play crosscourt points on half the singles court. The goal of the drill is to wait for an opportunity to angle the opponent off the court. As soon as one of the players succeeds forcing the opponent outside the doubles line, they have to step into the court and play the next shot down the line. The point is played out.

2. Off the court

Play points where players are not allowed to move past the doubles sideline, extended past the baseline. If one player forces the opponent over the line, the point is over. The drill is a great way to work on angles and at the same time on catching the ball early to avoid stretching over the doubles sideline.

Combine all 8 strategies to become an elite singles player

Tennis strategy can seem complicated, but focusing on these 8 strategic concepts will help you stay on track and win more singles matches. After all, there are not many other ways to win points. 

Most players will only use three or four of these strategies over and over in every match and some of the other strategies sporadically to keep the opponent off balance.

Take a look at all strategies and pick the ones you feel most comfortable with. They are probably the ones that fit your game best. Those should serve as your strategic fundamentals.

However, it is important for you to spend time practicing all 8 strategies in order to be able to use them when needed. Each one of them will be needed in specific situations and against specific types of singles players.

Make sure you are absolutely clear what strategy you will you use before you start each point. After a while, your fundamental strategies will become habitual, but it is always good to review during a match and make sure you are playing with an optimal strategy.