By: Cyril Saulnier from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Program Director
While previously coaching two of the best junior players in the world, Naomi Osaka and Sonia Kenin, at the time ranked 190 WTA and 11 ITF, respectively, and traveling with them to many junior tournaments, I noticed that young players tend to forget the fundamentals of tennis: strategy and tactics. Even more alarming, many players don’t know the difference between the two. The terms strategy and tactics are used interchangeable, leading to a critical lapse in developing a competitively smart tennis player.
Strategy is the overall plan to win a match against a specific opponent and is based of a player’s personal game style. This game style is developed around what a player is physically capable of, strengths and weaknesses in his or her shot-making, movement, and temperament. Tactics are the shot combinations a player with a specific game style uses to implement their strategy.
Technique, athleticism, and mental toughness are important, but understanding the game of tennis is much more essential. The best players not only possess excellent technique and mental fortitude, but they successfully combine tennis strategy with tactical solutions. Before the match, they know exactly how to build the game—using their strength against an opponent’s weakness. Experienced players have deep knowledge of their own game style. They are as intimately familiar with their own strengths and weaknesses, and how to make the best of both, as they are about their opponent’s game. You may have great technique and tremendous ball-striking ability, but if you do not execute them properly at the right time, it will not allow you to win points.
Some players, juniors especially, hit hard and exert an inefficient amount of energy until they are worn out physically. Others will run their opponents into the ground using sound tactics and mental acumen until their opponent’s game breaks down. The latter player is executing a well-define plan—they are using their strategy. In order to be an elite player and world class strategist, you need to be aware of what works, when it works, and why it is working. Very few players ask themselves these questions, and even fewer truly understand it—blind to, or refusing to recognize, its importance.
You often hear that “timing is everything,’ and in a competitive match, timing can make the difference between winning and losing, grand slam triumph, and heartbreak and regret. The key is to know the best time to implement, adapt, and adjust your strategy. Even if you decide on a strategy before the match and realize at some point that it’s not working, don’t stubbornly keep trying it. Many players fall victim to their own ego and one-dimensional styles to make the change necessary to turn the momentum of the match in their favor. On the other end of the spectrum is the player that immediately switches tactical gears after the first sign of trouble, even if its just bad luck, a tough passing shot from an opponent, or a loose service game on their part. Often times, the decision to change requires critical observation from the player. Is the game plan not working because of the opponent’s superior play, or lack of execution? Asking yourself this simple question can make life much easier for you. If the answer is that your own execution is faltering, you need to restore technical order in your game. If the answer is your opponent’s superior player, then you need to restore tactical order by improving your patterns, creating and seizing opportunities, and disrupting your opponents flow.
Tennis is not only a game of hitting the ball, but a game of brains…at a certain level, every player is talented and can hit the ball well. So what separates the elite best from most other players? Strategy and tactics—plus the mental alertness to adapt them during the heat of battle.