Be Neutral (It Did Wonders for Switzerland!)
There are three different general types of shots in platform tennis (no different than in tennis):
Incidentally, each point has three different stages:
- Beginning (starting the point)
- Middle (staying in the point)
- End (finishing the point)
Let’s explore the dynamic between the different types of shots and the stages of a point:
Neutral Shots>>>Staying in the Point, Starting the Point
60-80% of all shots that tournament players hit are neutral. A neutral shot is a shot that protects you. It is a shot that you are not incurring much risk when hitting it and with which you are not getting your opponents in trouble but off of which your opponents cannot hurt you.
Examples: a very high lob that is not necessarily very deep, a solid (yet unspectacular) volley to the middle of the court, a deep push overhead, a side back screen, etc. In tournament play, the two players who in my opinion excel at hitting neutral shots are Peter Berka and Drew Broderick.
When starting off the point, the serving team’s responsibility is to get the serve in AND to successfully put the incoming return of serve in play. This is not the same thing as saying that we have to successfully hit a first volley. Most players and teaching pros think and teach that the point does not get start until we hit the first volley in. I disagree. I like to say that the point does not start until WE SUCCESSFULLY DEFEND AGAINST THE RETURN OF SERVE. This means that we do not have to hit a first volley if we do not want to. When serving, it does not matter how we get in the point as long as we do so. It makes absolutely no difference whether we serve and volley off the regular formation, if we do an “I” formation, or if we choose to stay back (the server or both the server and his partner) – WHATEVER IT TAKES TO START OFF THE POINT AND SUCCESSFULLY DEFEND AGAINST THE RETURN OF SERVE!
Conversely, the returner needs to put the return of serve in play and make a statement with it. The return of serve is the easiest shot in the game (most serves are a liability and we are guaranteed to hit a short and high-bouncing ball off the serve) so we should look to hit an aggressive yet controlled return of serve DRIVE where we can make at least eight out of ten shots. Chances are that the serve coming our way will be the weakest shot we will see throughout the point. Therefore, we should look to punish it with an aggressive return as long as our aggression does not affect our control – let’s keep in mind that power and control move in opposite directions. We should ALWAYS choose control over power!
Regardless of our position on the court (serving or receiving), it is imperative that we are able to start as many points as possible. In league play, realistic percentages we should strive for are 50-60% of all points whereas tournament players should look to start 80-90% of the points due to their ability to make adjustments.
Defensive Shots>>>Starting the Point, Staying in the Point
Defensive shots are the shots that we hit off of our opponents’ offensive shots. Our primary goal when hitting a defensive shot is to get the point back to neutral as quickly as possible. If that is not possible, just getting the ball back in play should be the next goal. In the words of the great John Wayne, “a man’s gotta know his limits” so please understand that there are very few players who can turn a defensive shot into an offensive one – that might not be an option for most of us.
Examples of defensive shots: any shot that we are happy to just get the ball back in play when we are in a tough position anywhere on the court. A reflex volley off a tough drive, any ball that we barely get to, any ball that we make contact with it behind our body, anytime we hit a ball when we are off balance, etc.
Great defensive players are Chris Gambino and Brad Easterbrook (volleys), Drew Broderick (adjustments), Junior Estes (placed overheads), Mark Parsons (shitty looking yet very effective two handed backhand bunt volleys), and Peter Berka (patience and shot selection). Every single one of these players however can bring offense at any given time if given the opportunity to do so.
When starting off the point (the beginning of a point) or when we are looking to stay in the point (the middle of a point), we should look to hit mostly neutral shots. Our opponents will force us to hit defensive shots so we do not really have to worry too much about those. If we are the serving team we will start off the point by (hopefully) hitting a neutral shot (the serve) followed most likely by a defensive shot (the very next shot) and if we are the returning team we should look to start the point by hitting an offensive shot (the return of serve).
Offensive Shots>>>Ending the Point, Beginning of the Point
Offensive shots are those shots with which we are looking to put our opponents in trouble and finish the point (the end stage of a point although a lot if not most points will end off the return of serve without ever making it to the middle stage of the point) by either forcing an error from our opponents or by hitting an outright winner. I am hoping that by now everyone reading this is aware that winners are extremely difficult to hit in platform tennis due to the small size of the court – over 95% of all points end with the last player touching the ball missing the shot. Winners are very hard to come by and very few players look for them and have the ability to hit them – chances are we are not one of those players. Winning shots in platform tennis are the FYM, a volley/overhead off the blitz, crease ball, letcord, a great dropshot, a great drive that hits your opponent on the fly, and a spin/slash overhead – that’s pretty much it. All these shots are great but they usually come at the expense of too many errors when attempting them. My recommendation is to look to hit instead high percentage offensive shots such as a lob that pushes our opponents to or slightly past their service line followed by a controlled high to low drive that forces our opponents to volley up on the ball (from below the level of the net), a roll volley aiming at either opponent on the baseline, etc.
Some examples of great signature offensive shots by tournament players are Brian Uihlein’s serve and spin overheads (as well as his slash cut overhead), Johan duRand’s FYMs, David Caldwell, Mark Parsons, Drew Eberly, and Mike Cochrane’s backhand drives (off the deck and off the screens), Mike Stulac’s dropshots, Lennart Jonason’s drives off the deck (off either side), and Juan Arraya’s cut backhand volley.
Upper level tournament players understand this dynamic between shots the stages of a point and manage their risk throughout a match wisely by hitting primarily neutral shots and by patiently awaiting for the opportunity to hit an aggressive shot with the least amount of risk incurred.
The biggest mistake that club players everywhere make is that by and large, they do not hit or are even aware of neutral shots. Their game is comprised exclusively from offensive or defensive shots, leaving out the most important type of shot, the neutral one. Furthermore, the breakdown of those shots does not make any sense: 60-40 or even 70-30 offensive vs. defensive shots. This is the main reason why the typical club player makes a lot more errors than tournament players (racquet skills being the other dominant factor). Since all shots that club players hit are either offensive or defensive instead of offensive, defensive, AND neutral, they incur too much risk when hitting any shot, which accounts for the high unforced error count in 90% of all league matches.