Percentage Tennis: The Cross Court Ball
Why is the cross court ball so important and such an effective strategic play in tennis?
Let us start with a very simple premise – All things being equal the player best able to win the cross-court rallies with probably win the match.
This is based on the following assumptions:
1. Your Opponents backhand and forehand are about equal strength
2. Your backhand and forehand are about equal strength
Hitting the ball cross court gives you more margin for error, which makes it less likely to make a mistake, thus it is often referred to as a high percentage play. This is for two reasons:
1. The net is lower over the middle of the court than near the net posts (by 6inches!)
2. As you are going diagonally across the court you have an extra 4.5 feet of distance to cover (more court to work with)
Finally, hitting cross court is crucially important because it puts you in a geometrically superior court position from which to move to the NEXT ball. If you hit down the line, you open up the court for your opponent – now they can hit a “high percentage” cross court shot that will be moving away from you as you attempt to recover. This puts you at an obvious disadvantage in the rally which makes being selective with when you hit down the line very important. Should you be pulled out wide, the best play is usually to hit back deep cross court. Your opponent will be left with taking on a very difficult down the line half volley shot to hit a winner (very risky).
Generally speaking, you want to hit your shots deep cross court until your opponent offers up an opportunity to attack, for example a short ball or approach shot. Then hitting down the line becomes the strategically optimal play. Hitting down the line means the ball has less distance to cover, which means it will get there faster, giving your opponent less time to react. Additionally should you choose to approach on this shot, you will be following your ball into the net, cutting down on you opponents passing angles. In this way, down the line shots should be reserved for times when you can attack. In other words, when taking on the additional risk of attempting a DTL shot is mitigated by the damage you can inflict on you opponent with such a shot.
Of course, this is a basic strategy, good for going into matches where you know little about the opponent. There are many factors to add to the equation that could alter this strategy. I shall list a couple here:
1. Perhaps (like Stanislas Wawrinka) you have a particularly strong down the line backhand which is just as consistent as a cross court shot.
This can be used to great effect to change up the pattern and put your opponent in trouble
2. Your opponent might have a weak backhand, thus you may decide to target that side of the court no matter your court position
3. You may wish to avoid a weakness in your own game. For example running around your backhand to hit an inside out forehand.
It is important to go into a match with a basic strategy. You can then adjust this game-plan based on new information you learn about your opponent. Tennis is a game of risk and reward, and with this cross-court approach, you can be sure you are giving yourself the highest percentage opportunities and forcing your opponent to take on the highest risks.