Learn how and when to effectively hit with the three kinds of spin.
© Garrett Ellwood
By Allen Fox
The great Bill Tilden was a master at breaking down his opponents mentally. Arrogance and a dominant personality were two of his weapons, but using various spins was another.
He felt that his opponents were more damaged mentally when they made errors than when he hit winners. He described his process for taking advantage of this as "playing defensively with an offensive mentality."
Tilden would change the spin and speed of his shots, forcing his opponents to constantly adjust their strokes. This disrupted their rhythm, inveigled them into errors and, ultimately, broke them down mentally.
To accomplish this, Tilden worked diligently to become an expert at hitting all spins and strokes. He noted that each comes off the court differently, with topspin bouncing high, slice skidding low and flat shots bouncing somewhere in between. He opined that the wise playershould not only learn to hit all spins equally well but also understand the situations for which each is best suited.
Each of the three kinds of spin – topspin, backspin (slice) and flat – has advantages and disadvantages, depending upon the situation. Topspin seems to have the most advantages because it allows you to hit the ball higher over the net and hit it harder but still keep it in the court. This makes topspin useful for passing shots, baseline rallies and sharp angles.
But topspin comes at a price. It requires you to swing harder to achieve a given ball velocity. It is also harder to control its depth and easier to mishit (shank) it than a flat stroke. Of course, this is a worthy trade-off for professionals and great athletes, but it is questionable for older players and weekend athletes. (When I was young, strong and on the tour, I used heavy topspin on both my forehand and backhand. Now I hit both flat. It’s easier.)
The slice also has its positives and negatives. On the plus side, it’s easy to hit. You don’t have to swing hard, and the ball tends to float over the net. It’s an excellent defensive choice when you are stretching or in an awkward position and can’t set up properly for your shot. Trying to drive or topspin these balls often leads to errors or short shots. Slices are also useful on low balls and for approach shots, which you hit on the move. And they are helpful when dealing with high ground strokes, high-bouncing spin serves or wide serves, especially if you have a one-handed backhand.
The slice’s negative is that it cannot be hit hard (or it will float long), so it generally makes a poor attacking shot. It’s good for conserving your energy in a long body-punching exchange, but it also gives your opponent time to set up and an opportunity to attack you. And Tilden warned almost a century ago against using slices on passing shots. Instead, he said you should use topspin whenever possible, advice that holds as well today as it did then.
Finally, we come to the flat stroke. Since you can hit it relatively hard with less effort than topspin, it makes quite a good attacking drive. It’s also good on high balls, and you will see most pros using it for their putawayshots. A few pros use topspin in this situation, but this is very difficult and requires tremendous strength and racquet velocity. The flat stroke’s downside on lower balls is that hard-hit shots clear the net by slim margins, so it’s not as safe as topspin. This is particularly true for low balls that are short; slice or topspin is usually the better option.
Most recreational players are content with learning and using only one of the three types of spin (or non-spin). However, as Tilden tells us, it pays to become proficient in all of them. It will take a bit of mental (and physical) effort to set aside practice time to work specifically on each one. But you will be amply rewarded when you see players who had been beating you for years become mentally unhinged after your changes of spin and pace break their rhythm.
Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of "Tennis: Winning the Mental Match."