The Four Styles of Tennis Play and Strategies to Beat Them
There are four primary styles of singles play in tennis: aggressive baseliner, serve-and-volleyer, counterpuncher, and all-court player. Knowing the preferred style of play of your opponents is key to determining the right strategy and tactics to use against them. In this article, I describe the four styles of play, describe the key strategies that you can employ to beat them and provide examples of touring professionals for each so that you know who to watch to see each style consistently in action.
Style 1: The Aggressive Baseliner
The aggressive baseliner likes to be in control and dictate play. They rely on the strength of their groundstrokes to move opponents around the court and will aggressively go for winners from the back of the court. These players typically have a weapon in their forehand and, oftentimes, their backhand. At more advanced levels of play (4.5+ NTRP rating), they use the geometry of the court to hit angled shots that open the court for winners. Because these players like to be aggressive, they will attack short balls in the court, and they will take the chance at making a few unforced errors in order to hit winners.
These players typically do not like to come to the net, and often their volley is a weakness (at least, compared to their groundstrokes).
ATP and WTA Pros Who Are Aggressive Baseliners
Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina)
Victoria Azarenka (Belarus)
Novak Djokovic (Serbia)
Maria Sharapova (Russia)
Rafael Nadal (Spain)
Kim Clijsters (Belgium)
Key Strategies to Beat the Aggressive Baseliner
- Hit deep into the court. You need to keep your shots deep into the back third or quarter of the court. If you give these players balls near the service line, they will hit winners almost every time.
- Vary the height and spin of your balls. Every aggressive baselined has a "wheelhouse": a height of ball bounce that is their power zone. You need to vary the height at which they receive your balls—mix in high bouncing shots with low, slicing shots. Also vary the spin: topspin, flat, and slice. Aggressive baseliners rely on getting a rhythm, and introducing variety to your shots prevents them from getting their rhythm.
- Bring them to the net. Force them to come up to the net and beat you with their volleys by mixing in drop shots. Make sure you have a good drop, though. They will punish you for a high sitter or a drop shot that lands too close to the service line.
- Be careful when you approach the net. Aggressive baseliners usually have fantastic passing shots, and they love a target. Although it's great to mix in coming to the net as part of your strategy to disrupt their rhythm, do make sure you are coming to the net when you have them on defense.
Style 2: The Serve-and-Volleyer
The serve-and-volley player will attack the net coming in behind their serve. They come to the net after nearly every first serve, and often times after a second serve. They may or may not come aggressively to net after their return of serve. On the times they do not come to net right away, they are looking to come to net as soon as possible, usually within the first several balls in a rally. Their typical point construction is to serve, hit a well-placed first volley that opens the court, and hit a finishing volley to end the point. That's it. Bam, bam, over. Bam, bam, over. Point after point after point.
The technology behind modern racquets and, to a much larger extent, modern strings have—for the time being—made the serve and volleyer more of a rarity than in the days of old when the game was played on grass with wooden racquets. However, should you face one, you will find yourself under constant pressure.
ATP and WTA Pros Who Are Serve-and-Volleyers
Radek Stepanek (Czech Republic)
Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez (Spain)
Michael Llodra (France)
Carla Suarez-Navarro (Spain)
Pete Sampras (USA) (retired)
Martina Navratilova (USA) (retired)
Key Strategies to Beat the Serve-and-Volleyer
- Focus on your return of serve. Yes, their serve is a weapon. However, you need to be proactive with where you try to return their serve. You need to change your return location and use down the line returns more often than you should against other playing styles. It's the hardest return from which to hit a first volley because they have to cover the entire width of the court. Also mix in short, heavy topspin returns at their feet, and use off-paced returns to force them to generate their own power from the first volley—not an easy thing to do.
- Use sharply angled, topspin shots. Both as a return of serve and as a rally ball, using a lot of heavy topspin will give you the margin of error to hit angled, cross-court shots. It's also effective at making balls drop quickly at their feet, forcing them to have to hit up on their volleys. This gives you a chance to get offensive and have an easier volley for yourself to hit.
- Take their time away by hitting your return on the rise. If you return their serve by getting the ball on the rise, you take precious time away from them. This means they can't as close to the net as they would like for their first volley.
- Keep them pinned to the baseline. Serve-and-volley players do not want to stay back and rally from the baseline. They often do not have consistent enough groundstrokes to sustain long rallies or be aggressive from the baseline. If they do not follow their second serve or return of serve to the net, keep your shots deep in order to keep them at the baseline and rally. Be consistent, and you can win the point from their lack of consistency from the baseline. Another way to pin them to the baseline is to lob after their first volley when they are moving forward to close the net.
Example: Beating the Serve-and-Volleyer
Venus Williams played Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez at Wimbledon in 2011. Martinez-Sanchez served and volleyed wide to Williams' backhand to try to open the court, but Venus hit a backhand return down the line that wins the point. Even if Martinez-Sanchez were able to volley that ball back in the court, it would be short and defensive, allowing Venus to gain the upper hand in the point.
Style 3: The Counterpuncher
The counterpuncher, also known as the pusher, is all about consistent defense. This type of players knows the percentage shots and always hit them. They know that 2/3 of points won in tennis are from errors, so they will never make one. They will never go for too much on shot; they almost never hit winners and will win most of their points because you will eventually make the error. To top it off, they are usually fast and have good court coverage. They wear opponents down, forcing you to go for too much and to make the mistake. The best counterpunchers keep their shots deep, have good lobs, and place balls effectively.
The counterpuncher is a particularly difficult style of play to beat at beginner and intermediate levels of play (NTRP ratings 4.0 and below) as these levels do not have a reliable weapon with which they can consistently hit winners or force errors.
ATP and WTA Pros Who Are Counterpunchers
Andy Murray (Great Britain)
Caroline Wozniacki (Denmarak)
David Ferrer (Spain)
Jelena Jankovic (Serbia)
Gael Monfils (France)
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (Spain) (retired)
Key Strategies to Beat the Counterpuncher
- Attack the net. Counterpunchers do not like to be rushed, and they do not wish to be pressured into trying for too much. Be aggressive at coming in to the net to finish off points.
- Be patient. You are going to have points where you will need to hit more balls than you want. You must patiently construct points to get your opening to the net. Impatience is how the counterpunch will ultimately beat you. However, don't stay in long protracted rallys for too long. Otherwise, you are playing right into their hands.
- Hit behind them. A lot of counterpunchers cover the court well by running to the open court. Hitting balls behind them can effectively wrong-foot them and either draw a ball that you can attack and come into the net behind or if you're really lucky, an error.
- Getting lobbed to death? Embrace your overhead. The lob is a high-percentage shot—especially for the counterpuncher. Do not get into a long lob-counter lob fest with them. Hit an overhead, drive the lob, or, better yet, hit an overhead from the baseline off of those deep lobs.
- Move them forward and backward. Counterpunchers are excellent movers from side to side, but oftentimes they are not good movers from forward to back. Hit drop shots and short cross-court angles to move them forward, then follow it up with a deep lob or deep, penetrating groundstroke to move them back again. It's effective at drawing short balls for you to attack or even errors.
Example: Beating the Counterpuncher
Notice in the highlights below from the 2011 WTA Championships how Petra Kvitova aggressively moves Carline Wozniacki around the court and attacks the net. This match was a superb example of how to play to beat the counterpuncher.
Style 4: The All-Court Player
The all-court player, as the name implies, is the player that is comfortable using a lot of different shots. The all-courter adapts and uses shots that are best matched to exploit their opponent's weaknesses. Against the counterpuncher, they are aggressive attackers of the net. Against the serve and volleyer, they are consistent baseliners. This player uses incredible variety in a very offensive way. As such, they are often a jack-of-all-trades that can hit every shot in the book—consistent groundies, sound volleys, beautiful drop-shots, and dependable lobs. However, because they have learned to hit such a wide array of shots, they often times do not have a huge weapon in one of them. When they do, it is also oftentimes the first shot that can break down under pressure.
ATP and WTA Pros Who Are All-Court Players
Roger Federer (Switzerland)
Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic)
Jo Wilifried Tsonga (France)
Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland)
John Isner (USA)
Francesca Schiavone (Italy)
Key Strategies to Beat the All-Court Player
- Stick to your weapon. Know what your weapon is (forehand? consistency?) and focus on using it as much as possible. An all-courter will likely have a difficult time breaking down your much better weapon. This is why Nadal plays his forehand weapon against Federer's slice backhand.
- Hit high looping topspin balls deep into the court. Keeping high topspin balls deep will keep the all-court player pinned deep behind the baseline. It's very difficult to hit variety from 3+ feet behind the baseline—e.g., drop shots are impossible to hit while moving backward this far from the net.
- Be aggressive and dictate the points. You are going to have to take control of the points as much as possible and dictate play. All-courters are very aggressive players—even when they employ a counterpunch strategy, it is because that's what opponents don't like, and they are controlling this rhythm. To stay ahead, you are going to have to be the aggressor and dictate the points that you want to play.